The Oscar Romero lessons for Nigeria

By Emmanuel Onwubiko
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Emmanuel Onwubiko

President Muhammadu Buhari last week rebuked religious leaders for in his words, poking their noses into political matters.

He (Muhammadu Buhari) was certainly not abreast with the pride of place that a certain celebrated theologian Archbishop Oscar Romero has occupied in the pantheon of global history due to his profound deployment of the powers of personal examples and his consistent dispositions for speaking truth to power from his pulpits in El Salvador.

If Muhammadu Buhari had had time to read broadly and followed the intellectual trajectories set by this reputable liberation theologian who held much of Latin America spellbound with his oratorical powers and his leadership candour in speaking for the voiceless, then certainly President Muhammadu Buhari would have exercised some levels of restraints and wisdom and would have desisted from pouring undeserved invectives on some religious leaders who were seen attending to a reconciliation meeting organized at the home of the former military and civilian leader of Nigeria Chief Olusegun Obasanjo who left the Army in late 1970's as a full-fledged General.

However, apparently due to lack of proper intellectual consultations and guidance, President Muhammadu Buhari embarked on a misplaced tirades when he went on to assert that religious leaders who become entangled in politics loses respect amongst Nigerians.

These weighty statements immediately sparked off a wild wind of controversies. Not necessarily because he made the comments to coincide with the top level successful fence mending mission in the home of Chief Obasanjo who recently openly rejected Buhari's second term bid but for a variety of factors.

For some who took Buhari’s words with a pinch of salt, his comments lacked empirical support and foundation and is actually hypocritical going by his association for a long time with religious leaders of diverse affiliations.

Even as i write, his deputy Professor Yemi Osinbanjo is a big time pastor in one of Nigeria’s most flambouyant Christian denominations- Redeemed Christian Church. He was the second in command in the Church's hierarchy before Buhari chose him as his running mate in the Presidential poll of 2015.

From the benefit of hindsight too, the current president is known to have received high profile visitors from the two Nigeria’s dominant religious faith groups of Christianity and Islam.

Frequently featured on pages of newspapers and televisions mingling with top notch religious leaders, president Buhari it would be recalled is known to always consult top Islamic preachers from time to time. His selective appointments of only Moslems into top flight national security offices is blamed on the pedestrian influences of those Islamic preachers that frequently thronged the Presidential mansion known as Aso Rock Presidential Villa in Abuja, Nigeria's political capital.

His repudiation of the religious leaders and his call on them to distance themselves from politics does not hold water.

Buhari is known to have made those scathing remarks against religious leaders against the backdrops of the media stories that trended in which two most respected religious leaders of both the Christian and Islamic faiths were seen negotiating truce between the erstwhile president chief Olusegun Obasanjo and his then erstwhile vice President Alhaji Abubakar Atiku.

Alhaji Atiku and Obasanjo have had running political bottles since the days of their presidency during which time the then president almost dethroned his vice but for his resilience and his determined deployment of good team of lawyers who successfully secured a Supreme Court’s reprieve stopping his then estranged boss from sacking him from office when the then vice president defected to another party.

But as run up to the 2019 presidential poll hots up, the former Vice President who just picked up the presidential flag of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) scored a significant milestone when his former boss who had parted ways with him was talked into reconciling with him (Atiku). This feat was occasioned by the interventions of Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah and Sheikh Abubakar Gumi.

Lest I forget, Nigeria’s most powerful and influential Pentecostal clergy Bishop David Oyedipo of the living faith church was indeed the third of the high powered religious celebrities that negotiated a successful truce between the two big political masquerades – Chief Obasanjo and Alhaji Atiku. Bishop Oyedepo is ranked by Forbes as one of the very few billionaire religious entrepreneurs in the World. He is extensively respected by millions of people all over the World.

The deal ended up with a public endorsement of Atiku by Obasanjo even as the religious leaders smiled in approval.

This move understandably caused tremendous political earthquake in the corridors of power whereby the current holder of the office of President Muhammadu Buhari, a retired military Major General a little lower in rank to Obasanjo desperately battles to retain his seat for a second and final tenure from 2019.

The media desk of President Buhari went haywire by carpeting all the important personalities that were seen at the venue of the historic political reconciliation which took place in the retirement mansion of the former president in Ota, Abeokuta, Ogun state.

Not satisfied with the tirades released by his media boys, President Buhari went full throttle by criticizing religious leaders for mixing up politics and religion.

But only two days before this incident played out, president Buhari received in audience the head of the Deeper Life Bible Church Pastor Kumuyi even as his media team feasted on the photographs by circulating it in such a fashion as to create reactions from Christians who felt disappointed that one of the key Christian leaders visited Buhari and could not raise the issue of killing of Christians in North Central but was seen smiling from ear to ear. Many Catholic Priests have been killed by armed Fulani herdsmen in Benue state. Two female Christian preachers wete openly hacked to death by Islamists in Abuja and Kano and for three years not one killer is behind bars but these religious leaders trooping into the Presidential villa in Abuja are not pursuing justice for the victims who we were unjustly deprived of their precious lives.

In what appears like a classic case of momentary loss of memory or even deliberate forgetfulness, president Buhari fired his missile at religious leaders who get involved in politics but in a collective amnesia, his supporters forgot that he had only just received the pastor and other high profile Islamic preachers who had gone to the Villa with the Kano state governor Alhaji Abdullahi Ganduje on a goodwill visit.

Buhari stated thus: “Having recognized the role our religious leaders have been playing so far, I appeal to them to eschew partisan politics and appeal to their respective members to read the manifestos of each political party, discuss and pray for God’s guidance before casting their votes.”

He continued his tirades, “Religious leaders should not be seen to involve themselves in partisan politics or political controversies, otherwise they risk losing their status and public respect.”

However, in the year 2015, just before the election, a popular catholic priest in Enugu Reverend Father Ejike Mbaka had praised Buhari and urged Nigerians to vote for him. The then opposition candidate and current president expressed excitement at this endorsement. Mbaka was amongst the first sets of supporters that he hosted in the Presidential mansion in Abuja upon assumption of office.

Away from the conversations around the criticism of religious leaders made by president Muhammadu Buhari, what should worry us as Nigerians is the impacts that the visits to president Muhammadu Buhari makes in the way the nation is administered. Is the nation governed in the fear of God and is equity and equality of all citizens being observed? What about the concentration of all strategic offices in the hands of Moslems and mostly Hausa/Fulani?

Clearly, if those religious leaders such as the vice president and the litany of those who thronged the presidential palace would take their time to speak truth to power directly to the president, then by now the level of killings still going on targeting mostly Christian farmers would have abated. Kaduna is in turmoils now even as many have been slaughtered but the federal government looks on.. Plateau state has been severally attacked and hundreds of Nigeriams murdered because of their religion but the central government had failed to bring the killers to justice.

It is not shocking however that majority of the religious personalities who visit the presidency do go there to chase after what they can grab for themselves. Most Nigerians are known for cashing on to every opportunity and access they can have to the seat of power to maximise personal profits. Religious preachers are also afflicted by this virus of pursuit of selfish gains.

The vice president has recently stated that religious leaders do intervene to stop the government from adopting decisive steps to tackle corruption amongst political office holders. Closely following the Vice President’s disclosure is what Tunde Bakare, a pastor in Lagos said about how religious leaders troop in to see president Buhari just for photo opportunities and to be featured in the media.

The Senior Pastor of the Latter Rain Assembly, Dr. Tunde Bakare, said that Nigerians must speak truth to power and put aside what he called the culture of hypocrisy.

Bakare knocked the religious leaders who he accused of failing to take advantage of their visits to President Muhammadu Buhari to convey the true feelings of the people about the perceived excesses of those in power.

Bakare said this on Sunday at the Thanksgiving service to mark the 16th anniversary of Foursquare Gospel Church, Asokoro Abuja.

He said, “Look at the nation; look at those playing god; look at the godfathers who loom larger than life because of the level of authority they have. They forget that God brought them there and he has a way of removing them.

“When Samuel (in the Bible) entered the city, the king trembled but when some pastors visit Aso Villa, they are the ones shaking. All they want is photo opportunity (with the President),” he said.

Quoting from the Books of Genesis 6:12 and Phil 4:10 – 14 and 18, Bakare noted that the problem of corruption was not peculiar to Nigeria but insisted that the solution to the challenge must be people-driven.

“There is so much corruption in this country. But show me a country in the world which has no corruption. What is the solution? We are the answer to the dilemma of Nigeria but we keep playing church. We are the reason Nigeria is the way it is. You and I are responsible,” he stated.

He observed that the country was experiencing internal hostilities because certain individuals felt superior to the rest of the people.

This is exactly where the teachings and the power of personal examples displayed by Archbishop Oscar Romero should be internalized and externalized by the religious leaders in Nigeria.

This is for the very reason that Nigeria currently is in turmoils and witnessing the type of human rights abuses and killings that took place in El Salvador when Romero who has just been canonized a saint, lived and worked as the voice of the poor.

Julian Filochowski, the chair of Romero Trust captured the heroic lifestyles of Archbishop Oscar Romero in a piece in which he took time to discuss the teachings of the illustrious cleric which can be summed up as “option for the poor.”

Archbishop Romero was the voice of the voiceless poor. A life lived out in El Salvador, a Catholic country named after Christ the Saviour. A marksman’s bullet killed him in the middle of mass on March 24, 1980. No one was ever prosecuted.

There was disbelief and despair across the land but especially in the poor communities amongst the simple rural folk and city dwellers he had loved so dearly, defended so courageously and for whom in the end he gave his life.

In 1977 there was a Gethsemane experience for Romero. As he prayed beside the body of the murdered priest, Rutilio Grande, he realized that if he were to follow this through to its final consequences it would, as he wrote, “put me on the road to Calvary”. And he assented; he made a fundamental option for the poor and it took him to his martyrdom.

Romero was once asked to explain that strange phrase, ‘option for the poor’. He replied: “I offer you this by way of example. A building is on fire and you’re watching it burn, standing and wondering if everyone is safe. Then someone tells you that your mother and your sister are inside that building. Your attitude changes completely. You’re frantic; your mother and sister are burning and you’d do anything to rescue them even at the cost of getting charred. That’s what it means to be truly committed.. If we look at poverty from the outside, as if we’re looking at a fire, that’s not to opt for the poor, no matter how concerned we may be. We should get inside as if our own mother and sister were burning. Indeed it’s Christ who is there, hungry and suffering.”

Oscar Romero is simply demanding that leaders of all schools of thoughts must be ready and willing to resolve the challenges of violence and mass poverty afflicting the poorest of the poor. If you like, what i think Archbishop Oscar Romero is saying to us in Nigeria through his profoundly rich liberation theology is that we must work out the Nigerian option for the poor. We must stop the needless bloodshed. We must implement standards that promotes good governance.

One of those few Pastors in Nigeria who thinks like Oscar Romero is Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah. This refined gentleman who speaks truth to power is of the opinion that religious leaders must never see politics as dirty but must guide the followers to the path that will enthrone justice, fairness, equity and equality of all citizens. By that way Nigeria will become a better place for all and no particular tribe will see themselves as the ones with the birthright to rule Nigeria politically.

Kukah wrote thus: “Whenever the word ‘politics’ is mentioned in relation to faith, many Christians get rather nervous. Our minds go back to the old Biblical injunctions and we tend to recoil as if staying out of politics for Christians is the eleventh commandment. As it was in the time of the Master Himself, the faith has always remained intertwined with the politics of the day. The death of Jesus was an affair of politics and the early Christians lived under the shadow of the severely narrow political choices of their day", (From the book “The Church and The Politics of Social Responsibility” by Matthew Hassan Kukah).

To our religious preachers who are busy chasing after money from politicians and are not courageous enough like Oscar Romero to preach righteousness, justice and equality of all citizens, i say to you, your sins will catch up with you soon. When the eyes of the masses are liberated and opened, they will abandon you and strive to build a peaceful, prosperous and equitable nation.

*Emmanuel Onwubiko heads the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) and blogs @ ; ; [email protected] .

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