For Catholics in Nigeria, today’s Ash Wednesday was one with a difference. The call by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) on the faithful to wear black attire on 26th February 2020 as a sign of mourning in solidarity with all the victims of violence in the country is a strong statement to the government of the day. It would be recalled that sequel to the gruesome killing of nineteen Catholics, including two priests by suspected Islamists during the celebration of Holy Mass at a Catholic Church in Mbalom village of Benue State, North-central Nigeria, on April 24, 2018, the CBCN declared a peaceful protest to demand the security of lives and property and arrest of criminal elements terrorizing the nation. These actions demonstrate that the Church Fathers are concerned about God’s flock in their care.
Regrettably, despite their untiring efforts in stiffing out their necks to mediate peace, contribute to issues of justice, peace and good governance, religious leaders are often greeted with venomous criticisms. Notwithstanding this criticism, Christian leaders have enormous roles to play in ensuring peaceful coexistence in Nigeria. Although the role of religious leaders is not yet Constitutional, the freedom of religion as enshrined in Section 38 subsection 1 of the 1999 Constitution plus the respect Africans give to elders places them in a position of contributing to nation-building. They have a prophetic role to insist on what is right no matter what it would cost them. As principled guides, spiritual counsellors and the conscience of society, the bishops have a great role to play in peace-building.
In most dioceses, special intensions are offered for civil authorities during Sunday Masses. For instance, this noble divine responsibility played out from September 6-14, 2018 when the CBCN mandated every parish across the country to recite the “Prayer for Nigeria in Distress” to ask for God’s intervention in the wake of the killings across the country and challenges confronting Nigeria during their first plenary which held in Sokoto. The bishops have been at the forefront of offering prayers for this country and urging the faithful to do same. The erstwhile “Prayer against Bribery and Corruption in Nigeria” composed by the CBCN for use by the faithful further proves the point.
The Church in Nigeria is not a novice in peace initiatives. This is because the priestly role of reconciliation is a major social function of the Church. For instance, there are various Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) which are dedicated to the maintenance of peaceful coexistence and ensuring social cohesion. The over 50 dioceses in Nigeria have the Justice, Development and Peace Commission (JDPC) dedicated to peace-building. The Kukah Centre (TKC), Cardinal Onaiyekan Foundation for Peace (COFP), the Dialogue, Reconciliation and Peace (DREP) Centre, Lux Terra Foundation, Media Team Network Initiative (MTNI) et al fall in that order. John Cardinal Onaiyekan, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama and Bishop Matthew Kukah have trialled the blaze in this regard. These and other Church leaders in Nigeria continue to employ various peace initiatives towards reminding the citizenry of the importance of living in a pluralistic society. Little wonder, Powers (2017) holds that “for bishops and priests, peace-building is an integral part of their role as priests, teachers and pastors.”
To further demonstrate the crucial role of religious leaders in peace-building and dialogue, members of the CBCN paid a courtesy call on the Sultan of Sokoto on September 7, 2018, during their first plenary which held in Sokoto from September 6-14 that year. Mindful that the Sultan is not only the President General of the Nigeria Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs and leader of the Islamic Ummah in Nigeria but also the Emir of Sokoto, the Bishops who have consistently preached the need for peaceful coexistence and living in a pluralistic society stated that they were in his domain for a solidarity visit. As it were, the Fathers of the Church acted as Christ would.
The CBCN have consistently used their communiqués as effective mechanisms for encouragement, correction and rebuke. During the military juntas of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha, the Bishops served as the voice of the voiceless by speaking against the unlawful distension of some Nigerians. Also, in 2018, the CBCN condemned the disrespect for court orders requiring the release of Sheikh El-Zakzaky; Nnamdi Kanu and Col. Sambo Dasuki and called on the government to seek the path of rectitude by obeying court injunctions. They use their communiqués as formal means of accessing the government to give an honest opinion of the state of affairs in the country. This shows that communiqués are essential Public Relations (PR) mechanisms for the Church in Nigeria to contribute its quarter to nation-building through the CBCN.
Religious leaders in Nigeria have not rested on their oars in reconciliatory and mediatory efforts. You would recall that when many Nigerians believed that General Muhammadu Buhari, then a President Candidate of the All Nigeria Peoples’ Party (ANPP) said Muslims should not vote for Christians, it was Kukah who personally interviewed Buhari and made the facts straight. This served as some form of reconciliation and mediation between the General and Nigerians who had a bad perception of him. Perhaps that singular act contributed to his ascendancy to the presidency. His role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are popularly known as Oputa Panel, Presidential Initiative to Reconcile Ogoni People with Shell Petroleum, Electoral Reform Committee and National Peace Committee amongst others is worth mentioning. In this way, Bishop Kukah distinguishes himself as one who mediates peace and engages with the media and academia.
Because the Church views the involvement of its clergy in the public sphere as a serious venture, priests, deacons and bishops are always encouraged to provide quality leadership which touches the lives of the general public. However, no matter how lofty a human initiative is, it has limits. It is on this note that some limits of what religious leaders can do are worth considering. For instance, Canon 283 paragraph 3 forbids clerics from holding public office especially “sharing in the exercise of civil power” or political positions which involve legislative, executive and judicial power (Caridi, 2007). The Church prohibits priests from engaging in partisan politics, endorsing candidates, using the pulpit for campaigns and holding a secret meeting with politicians.
The Church Fathers in Nigeria must not relent in talking truth to power. They ought to use their position to caution those in authority about the abuse of power through illicit acts like bribery and corruption which stand in the way of adequate provision of social amenities such as roads, schools, healthcare facilities, electricity and water. The most fundamental abuse of power they must not surrender in addressing is the suffocation of basic human rights including the right to religion and access to land for building places of worship.
The argument in some quarters that religion and politics are the same is no longer tenable. This is because we are living in a pluralistic society which is cosmopolitan and dynamic because of differences in social, religious and political persuasions. Besides, Nigeria is a secular state. Section 10 of the constitution prohibits the adoption of any religion as a state religion. This is why interpreters of the law need to make a clear separation between religion and politics so that those who ascend power as either government officials or politicians do not appear to represent their religion. A clear separation between the sacred and the secular is likely to revamp a sense of nationalism which makes people put the interest of the nation first as against religious interests. In conclusion, the onus rests on the government to specify the role of religious leaders in nation-building. Until then, daring clerics who engage with the secular may have to bear with the qualms of social media criticism. May our annual Lenten observances of prayer, fasting and almsgiving heal our broken nation. Amen!
Fr. Justine Dyikuk is a Catholic Priest and Researcher who combines being the Editor of Bauchi Caritas Catholic Newspaper, Communication’s Director of Bauchi Diocese with his job as a Lecturer in the Department of Mass Communication, University of Jos, Nigeria. He can be reached through – email@example.com.