TUNJI AJIBADE FROM PUNCH
I imagine the Archbishop of the Abuja Catholic Archdiocese, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, did some calculations of the results of the last election and these informed his recent public comment. The PUNCH (May 4, 2023) reported him as saying it “makes no sense” to swear in the winner of the presidential election before the hearing at the tribunal was concluded. Nigerians have since responded, some expressing dismay that the religious leader spoke in the manner he did, and asking why he didn’t say the same thing when similar situations arose in past presidential elections. Generally, Onaiyekan’s intervention provides me with another opportunity to debate issues surrounding how religious leaders make public comments on the polarising matter of politics.
Now, I believe every Nigerian has the right to comment on national issues. I believe religious leaders have the right to comment too. However, when they do they should be conscious that they open a debate, asking for responses from fellow Nigerians. The situation of religious leaders is somewhat complicated because of their diverse congregants and this ordinarily should serve as their reason for exercising some level of self-censorship. For instance, they preside over congregants all of whom don’t have the same political orientation and certainly don’t belong to the same political party. I believe the public expression of partisan views by religious leaders in such an atmosphere is divisive.
When a religious leader speaks in favour of or against a politician and their political party I suppose they do because they believe all their congregants share their view. This is not true and I think there’s oppression of congregants going on here, perpetrated by religious leaders. Now, congregants generally tend to not openly express views that are contrary to those of their religious leaders. So when religious leaders comment against any politician and his party, congregants who’re followers of the politician are displeased but they don’t talk, silently nursing their wounds instead. That’s oppression number one. Congregants who’re followers of the politician or party that’s disliked by a religious leader also bring in their tithe and offering, sometimes earned from the work they do for the disliked politician and party. So a partisan religious leader receives a salary from the contributions of congregants whose political leaders belong to either Party A or Party B. He also collects contributions for projects. But he openly talks against Party A, even though he doesn’t discriminate when he collects the money Party A members bring in. That’s oppression number two.
I recognise that the standpoint of some religious denominations predisposes their religious leaders with regard to whether they talk or don’t talk where politics is concerned. The Catholic Church has a tradition of taking an active interest in state matters, and in fact, at a stage in its history, it was the government for many parts of Europe following the decline of the Roman Empire. Later, the Catholic Church encouraged active interaction between it and the state, and we see this in the activity of Catholic priests in nations where they sometimes lead protests and marches against governments. Against that backdrop, Onaiyekan, in making his comment, was in line with what his denomination permits. The question though is if everything is beneficial even though they’re permissible, considering the situation of the country.
Onaiyekan is a personality I have respect for. It was Onaiyekan, along with a few other religious leaders, who visited former President Umaru Yar’Ádua when he was sick. Fellow journalists went to ask him what transpired in the course of the visit. Onaiyekan said he went to visit his President and owed no one an explanation for visiting his President. That time, I concluded he exercised tact and wisdom. I like tact. I like wisdom. When anyone exercises either, I learn, I respect. Still, Onaiyekan’s comment on the presidential inauguration leaves me concerned.