Religion, politics and prejudice
by Simon Kolawole
As I was saying, an unliberated mind is instinctively sold to prejudice. It is a form of imprisonment. I had barely shut down my laptop after writing on ‘Yoruba Muslims and the Fifth Columnists’ last week when I received a WhatsApp broadcast that helped make my case even better. It was a post by Saminu Maigoro on the appointment of Prof Tanko Ishaya as the vice chancellor of the University of Jos. Many Muslims, he said, were excited that a fellow Muslim had been appointed VC. Many Plateau Christians started condemning the appointment — on the basis of religion. When the fact came out that Ishaya is a Christian from Kebbi state, the mood and tone in both camps changed.
That, exactly, is how prejudice works — shoot first, think later. Lives might be lost in the process but who cares? That is how prejudice can inflict an irreparable damage on a society. It has become inconceivable that a Muslim would be VC of a federal university located in Plateau state without Christians raising hell. In the same northern Nigeria, Prof Daniel Saror, a Tiv Christian from Benue state, was VC of Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) from 1991 to 1995 years after Nigeria’s membership of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) sparked Muslim/Christian animosity in the country. The truth, as I see it, is that certain things have deteriorated beyond repairs in this society.
In my previous article, I tried to caution the Yoruba against allowing people to sow religious strife in their midst. I alleged that the Muslim Rights Council (MURIC) has been working round the clock to politicise religion in the south-west the same way the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) did at national level in the 1980s and 1990s. I knew that would rile many people — on both sides. Some Christians were triggered because I mentioned CAN. In their understanding, I was just pandering to some interest or trying to “sit on the fence”. What I have observed over time is that when people accuse you of sitting on the fence, it is because you are not helping them amplify their prejudices.
It is possible that some of them were too young to understand what some Christian groups did in the 80s and 90s and why I drew a present-day parallel with the mission of MURIC — which is borrowing extensively from the playbook. Of course, Christians could justify their opposition to Nigeria’s membership of OIC. For one, Gen Ibrahim Babangida went about it suspiciously, maybe out of desperation for the economic benefits because Nigeria was in a terrible state. However, in a country where neither of the two major religions could be treated as a minority, there was always going to be a big backlash. Fear of domination was inevitable. This led to the Islamisation hysteria.
I use the word “hysteria” advisedly. If the Christian groups had stuck to opposing Nigeria’s membership of OIC, that would have been perfect. That was a natural thing to do under the circumstance. However, the wholesale politicisation of religion thereafter did us no good. Every step by Babangida was described as Islamisation. They said the National Assembly looked like a mosque because it has a dome — unaware that the Capitol Hill, which houses the US Congress, also has a dome. Ironically, St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican also has a dome. Is that Islamisation? Some even went as far as saying the bus stops in Abuja were designed like mosques. It was that bad.
In 1990, Babangida appointed new service chiefs and, as it transpired, all of them were Muslims: Gen Sani Abacha, a Kanuri from Kano state, as chief of general staff; Gen Salihu Ibrahim, an Ebirra from Kogi (then Kwara) state, army chief; Vice Admiral Murtala Nyako, a Fulani from Adamawa (then Gongola) state, naval chief; and Air Vice Marshal Nuraini Yussuff, a Yoruba from Lagos, air chief. The inspector-general of police was Alhaji Aliyu Atta, an Ebirra like the army chief. Christian groups went to town, saying “authoritatively” that the appointment of an all-Muslim leadership was one of the “conditionalities” given to Babangida by OIC to conclude the Islamisation process. Plausible, right?
But wait for this. In April 1980, President Shehu Shagari assembled an all-Christian military leadership: Gen Alani Akinrinade, chief of defence staff; Gen Gibson Jalo, army chief; Rear Admiral Alade Adelanwa, naval chief; and Air Vice Marshal Abdullahi Bello, air chief. Mr Sunday Adewusi was the IGP. All of them were Christians. I repeat: ALL of them were Christians. Years before then, when Gen Yakubu Gowon, a Christian, was head of state, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, also a Christian, was effectively his No 2 as minister of finance and vice-chairman of the federal executive council. Muslims did not scream “Christianisation agenda”. Today, the politics of religion has ruined Nigeria.
And talking about Awo, I was also accosted by some Yoruba Muslims who insisted that the sense of religious harmony in Yorubaland is a myth, that Muslims are marginalised and MURIC is doing a great job of amplifying their plight. In fact, one pointedly said Awo foisted Christian leadership on Yorubaland. Someone said the system has been rigged against Yoruba Muslims from the very beginning. I have heard this a thousand times, along with anecdotes of discrimination against Yoruba Muslims by Yoruba Christians, and I honestly have nothing new to say to that. I have already argued my case and presented sizeable evidence. After all, nobody employed me to change anybody’s mind.
I understand Awo was accused of religious insensitivity at some point and he immediately took remedial steps. This aligns with my central argument — that the Yoruba do not deny their religious differences but have never allowed that to get in the way of their political and socio-economic affinity. Till the world comes to an end, there will always be conflicts. It is human nature. But the biggest tragedy that would befall the Yoruba is to allow outsiders and their inside collaborators to take advantage of these occasional frictions to sow religious strife in Yorubaland. It will not end well. They will live to regret it. Kaduna state has never recovered from the seed planted decades ago.
For sure, in the past, Yoruba Muslims were asked to covert to Christianity if they wanted to attend Christian missionary schools. At the time, Christian schools clearly had the upper hand. Even at that, Chief MKO Abiola, Prince Bola Ajibola and Mr Tunji Oseni attended Baptist Boys’ High School, Abeokuta, and never converted to Christianity. More so, Muslims have since caught up and changed the tide. There are now Muslim primary, secondary and tertiary schools in super abundance. In truth, it would be disingenuous to say discrimination is limited to adherents of one religion. Many Yoruba Christians also complain about experiencing discrimination from some Yoruba Muslims.
In fact, Yoruba Christians and Muslims say unflattering things about each other. But these banters and insults have not led to deep-seated enmity or blood-letting as seen so often elsewhere. Something should explain this. I grew up in a multi-religious environment. Muslims freely ate Christmas chicken and Christians devoured Ileya meat with pleasure. It was when I started attending a Pentecostal church that I was told I would go to hell for eating Ileya meat. And because I did not want to go to hell, I decided to change churches. Meanwhile, there are also Muslims who preach a similar message against eating Christmas chicken. No religion has monopoly of discrimination.
Someone said Afenifere is a Christian organisation created to side-line Yoruba Muslims. I was a bit taken aback. The most relevant period of Afenifere’s existence was under Gen Sani Abacha when Abiola was imprisoned for trying to reclaim the June 12 mandate. “Christian Afenifere” leaders such as Chief Michael Ajasin, Chief Abraham Adesanya, Chief Bola Ige and Chief Olu Falae were arrested and detained by Abacha for fighting for Abiola, a Muslim. Religion, for all you care, was the last thing on their minds. I can assure you that Adesanya, who escaped an assassination attempt, knew that “Moshood” was a Muslim name. And you know what? Alhaji AbdulAzeez Arisekola Alao, then Aare Musulumi of Yorubaland (leader of Yoruba Muslims), was busy wining and dining with Abacha.
In fairness, I can understand why some self-appointed messiahs want to “liberate” Yoruba Muslims. Across Nigeria, every ethnic group has a dominant religion. The Hausa, Fulani, Igbo, Efik, Tiv, Urhobo, and Ijaw, among others, are either overwhelmingly Muslims or Christians. But in Yorubaland, you have an overwhelming mix of Muslims and Christians. That is probably why the Yoruba do not front-load religion in their socio-political order. The husband could be a Muslim and the wife a Christian. Outsiders, who deploy religion as an identity marker in their own regions, cannot understand this phenomenon, so they begin to use their prism to analyse it and to impose their own worldview.
Above all, I accept that we all have our biases and prejudices. The only difference is that prejudice is dominant in some people but recessive in others. I can speak for myself: I am implicitly and explicitly biased against those who stoke toxic ethnic and religious agenda anywhere in the world. I can’t stand them. This is obvious in my contributions to national discourse. Apart from the fact that I believe it is very dangerous to be promoting discord and rancour in any society, I know that one day I will stand before my Maker to give an account of how I tried to contribute to peace-building. Therefore, until I draw my last breath, I will keep on promoting my own bias: war against prejudice.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
I am a bit disappointed that an all-important report on the #EndSARS protests in Lagos state was leaked to the public shortly after it was presented to Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu. This has left room for speculation. Someone even said it looked like a report written by the protesters themselves. At least three of those listed as dead are said to be alive and there seems to be no diligence on the part of the panel beyond compiling the testimonies. The credibility is now a subject of public debate. It is very sad that such a critical work on a major landmark in our history has been handled this way, but I am hopeful that something worthwhile will still come out of this. Crucial.
Davido, the Afrobeats artiste, performed a social experiment on Wednesday when he took to social media to solicit donations to raise N100m supposedly to pay customs duties for his Rolls-Royce. He raised an incredible N185m within 24 hours. It has now emerged that he had a different motive: to raise funds for orphanages. He has promised to add N50m to the N200m he has realised for this purpose. I have read loads of comments on the stunt. Someone suggested that this may provide a funding template for 2023 polls: imagine youths endorsing a presidential candidate and crowd-sourcing on social media for the campaign. I don’t know if it will work but why not? Fascinating.
It is fashionable for Nigerian politicians and public officers to splash pictures of their children’s graduation from foreign universities on social media, but a recent one stood out. A photo of Prof Edward Olanipekun, the vice chancellor of Ekiti State University (EKSU), attending his son’s graduation from Oxford sent tongues wagging. A lot was said about how even VCs don’t believe in the Nigerian education system. As it turned out, the son actually studied in Nigeria, bagged a first class and got a scholarship for post-graduate in the UK. Let’s pray social media will not induce premature Armageddon. Still, some things should just not be shared on social media. Wisdom.
ADIEU, SANI DANGOTE
Listening to Alhaji Aliko Dangote narrate how he watched his younger brother, Sani, die in the hospital was really heart-rending. Recounting the experience to Asiwaju Ahmed Bola Tinubu who was on a condolence visit, Dangote said: “The most painful thing is when you are told that your brother will be passing on in about an hour and you stand by watching as the machine is going down until it stops working. He died in front of myself, our mother and all his children.” As someone who has lost a beloved sibling before, I can imagine Dangote’s agony. Sani, who had been ill for a while, was always well spoken of by those who knew him. My condolences to the Dangote family. RIP.