The Complicated Role of Religion in Nigeria’s Democratic Transition

Horrendous killing of college sophomore highlights the country’s ethnoreligious fault line, but interdenominational rivalry in the south is of no less momentous.

Ebenezer Obadare

All in all, reactions to the murder of Ms. Deborah Yakubu, a 200-level home economics student of the Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto, have exposed Nigeria’s deepest political fractures and lingering questions over citizenship, national identity, and secularity. On May 12, following disagreement over a WhatsApp voice note deemed to have been blasphemous against Islam and Prophet Muhammad, a mob comprising some of the twenty-two-year-old’s schoolmates brutally clubbed and stoned her to death, after which they proceeded to incinerate her body.   

While the killing has been greeted by horror and almost universal condemnation across the largely Christian South, with many individuals and groups calling for the prosecution of the killers; notably, several commentators across the largely Muslim North have technically defended the killing, suggesting that the victim got what she deserved for “insulting” Prophet Muhammad. Jamil Abubakar, son of former Inspector General of Police Mohammed Dikko Abubakar, who appeared to justify the killing in a now deleted tweet, has not been an isolated case.

The day after the killing, Ibrahim Ahmad Maqari, Islamic cleric and Imam of the National Mosque in Abuja, tweeted: “It should be known to everyone that we the Muslims have some redlines (sic) which MUST NOT be crossed. The dignity of the Prophet (PBUH) is at the forefront of the redlines. If our grievances are not properly addressed, then we should not be criticized for addressing them ourselves.”

For southern Christians and commentators horrified by the brazenness of the killing, if the fact that the Sokoto Police Command only brought a charge of “participation in a public disturbance” against two suspects, Bilyaminu Aliyu and Aminu Hukunci, is an indication that the authorities are reluctant to bring the full weight of the law to bear on Ms. Yakubu’s killers, the fact that the suspects were able to mobilize a legal team of thirty-four senior lawyers led by a law professor at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University within a short period of time shows that their action has broad societal support.  

Conflict over identity and citizenship apart, north-south dichotomy also reflects differences in the character and reflexes of civil society, with the north seemingly more prone to respond to “religious” as opposed to “political” provocation. The #NorthIsBleeding protests that broke out and quickly fizzled out across various northern cities in December 2021 were remarkable for being historically rare.   

Nonetheless, the aftermath of the killing has also shown up cracks in ostensible southern unanimity. For all the denunciation in the legacy media and across social media, major religious and political actors have been conspicuously silent, while the rare dissenters have been extremely careful in their choice words. For instance, the accustomed blood and thunder was noticeably absent from the statement released by Pastor Tunde Bakare, overseer of the Citadel Global Community Church, who made sure to emphasize that “what was done to Deborah Samuel is nowhere justified in the religion of peace that was handed down to me by my grandfather…”

A friend and one-time running mate of President Buhari, Bakare is seeking the ticket of the All Progressives Congress (APC) to contest for the presidency in 2023.

Bakare’s caution is partly dictated by political prudence: Having designs on the highest political office in the country means that he can ill afford to antagonize the electorate across a predominantly Muslim northern region. The power of this constituency can be seen in the reaction of Atiku Abubakar to criticism of his tweet expressing horror at the killing and demanding that those involved be “brought to justice.”

Following attack from northerners who threatened to punish him at the polls, Abubakar quickly deleted his tweet.

Beyond political prudence—and perhaps a genuine wish not to further inflame ethnoregional passions in an extremely delicate moment—the reluctance to antagonize the northern Muslim electorate may also be a function of perennial strains between the mainstream and Pentecostal factions of southern Nigerian Christianity. Flaring up from time to time, these strains have something to do with denominational envy, to be precise the success of Pentecostalism as the most successful Christian movement in the country over the course of the Fourth Republic. At the same time, they have to do with the not unfounded perception that Pentecostals can be all over the place on matters of doctrine.

Tensions between Pentecostals and mainline Christians have resulted in lingering ill-will between the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN).

Not only has the religious marketplace declined to punish Pentecostals for their doctrinal disorganization, they seem to have been rewarded for it, with the result that today, Pentecostalism’s imprint is visible not only in politics and economics, but also in popular culture.

The more successful Pentecostalism has become, the more gentrified, which means that not only is it noticeably more accommodating of the failings of the system, its leading lights have effectively merged with the political elite in a new theo-political elite constellation. Since the inauguration of the Fourth Republic in 1999, Pentecostal power has waxed. Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo (1999- 2007) and Goodluck Jonathan (2010- 2015) were card-carrying members. Tunde Bakare ran with Muhammadu Buhari on the ticket of the Congress for Progressive Change in 2011. The current Vice President Yemi Osinbajo—and APC presidential aspirant—is on sabbatical from the Lagos Province 48 (Olive Tree Provincial Headquarters) of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Nigeria and Africa’s foremost Pentecostal denomination.

This February, in an unprecedented move that was at the same time a tacit admission of its success in the political space, the Redeemed Church announced the establishment of an Office of Directorate of Politics and Governance “to help coordinate the engagement of our people who are willing to be involved in politics as well as mobilise support for them when required.”

Not counting the political ambition of some its members, it would seem that the Pentecostal elite has little to lose and everything to gain from stabilizing the system, hence its unmistakable conservative impulse, and a reluctance to rock the boat, something that an uncompromising denunciation of the Deborah Yakubu killing may well have put in jeopardy.

Except for Bakare (the exonerative tone of whose statement is instructive), the Pentecostal elite has been cryptic. Postponing a crusade previously scheduled for Sokoto, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, general overseer of the Redeemed Church, announced on social media: “Postponed but God turned it around… We Trust in Our God’s Big Picture Plan! When God turned against the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. We serve A God who specializes in using the impossible situation for His glory.”

By contrast, and understandably reflecting their relative marginalization in a Pentecostal saturated ecosystem, mainline Christians under the aegis of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) have adopted a more radical rhetoric. From the beginning, the association has been muscular in its condemnation of Ms. Yakubu’s killing, which it characterized in a strongly worded statement as “ungodly, satanic, foolish, reprehensible, and totally unacceptable.”

Last weekend, CAN organized a series of peaceful protests across the country.  

What all this portends for the stability of the country in the near term remains to be seen, especially if another religiously motivated killing were to occur. Early this week, several houses and shops were set on fire in Katangan Wargi, headquarters of Warji Local Government Area (LGA), Bauchi state, after some Muslim youths apparently took umbrage at forty-year old Rhoda Jatau for posting “a video of someone who renounced Islam on a WhatsApp group.”

Nor is it clear how long the rank and file of the Pentecostal congregation will continue to abide with their leaders’ pacifism. In defiance of an apparent order from above “not to speak,” members of the Abuja RCCG Central Parish symbolically protested “with their lips sealed with sellotape.”

Nigeria’s fate hangs on the interaction of these forces in an increasingly volatile political environment.

This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

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