When commentators in the Western media attempt to rationalize the crisis that occur with frequent regularity in Nigeria, it is often viewed in the context of the Christian South and the Muslim North. In reality, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Nigeria is much more complex than that. The reality is that any attempt to dissect or understand why Nigeria badly achieved since its independence using the solitary narrative of religion will ultimately terminate in a bewildering maze or cul-de-sac.
That Nigeria is, and has always been a mosaic of different faiths and beliefs ranging from Christianity to Islam is beyond dispute. Animists and even Scientologists also abound if we know the right places to look. The adherents of these different faiths also reside in almost every nook and corner of the nation without exception including the Northwest, Southwest, Northeast, Southeast, North- Central and South-South parts of the country.
Among Nigerian Christians can be found millions of the Pentecostal hue. Millions also report to the Holy See in Rome. Others owe or trace their allegiance to the Church of England, not to mention the Celestial Church of Christ which is home-grown. Adherents of the Islamic faith in the country are mainly Sunnis and Sufis with different sects spread in between as well as Shiites closely allied to Iran.
Nigeria does not resemble the enigma those who struggle to situate it in their straightjackets believe it is. Its demographic composition is a rich mosaic of different ethnic groups, cultures and religions. Where Nigerians chose to reside is also not exactly a straight line. Its people have traded and intermingled for centuries in a manner that continues to perplexed and confound those deluded to believe they are entitled to play political chess with its destiny like President Jonathan discovered at a painful cost in 2015.
Jonathan’s thinly veiled attempt to exploit religion and our cultural complexity especially in the Southwest was destined to fail from the onset, irrespective of his well-publicised anointing by a posse of Yoruba Oba’s and Chiefs in the run-up to the election. With certified bigots like Femi Fani Kayode effectively running his campaign, he realized too late that the typical Yoruba household is comprised of people from all the different faiths in the country. His attempt to sale the religious card was therefore doomed to fail.
But the greater tragedy, which is also the central theme of my discourse today, is that Nigerian politicians have proved incapable of learning from the bitter truth that politics laced with primordial sentiments is not only a flawed strategy, but equally dangerous for the collective well-being of the nation.
Last week Professor Jerry Gana and other fellow political journeymen from the north who called themselves elders of the Middle Belt Forum, were only the latest group in the nation to indulge in the same folly. The group he meticulously assembled to react to the quit notice issued to Igbos resident in the north by a group of northern youths after the repeated provocation by IPOB and MASSOB in the agitation for Biafra clearly exposed the inherent hypocrisy of their action and even the composition of the group itself. I take the liberty to use the following facts to underscore my suspicion of the motives of the group.
First, like the latter day alarmists who rightly lampooned the northern youths for issuing the quit notice, the so-called Middle Belt Forum was nowhere to be found when Nnamdi Kanu’s IPOB engaged in the sort of provocative hate speech which could only have resulted in the outcome we experienced.
Secondly, why did the Gana group refer to itself as leaders of the Middle Belt when its membership clearly showed that it was anything but? The elementary geography I was taught in secondary school compelled me to believe that the ‘Middle Belt’ of the nation comprised of the states straddled across the midsection of the nation such as Kwara, Kogi, Niger, Nassarawa, Kaduna, Plateau and Benue States.
To remove all previously held ambiguities in his dubious attempt to ‘restructure’ the nation towards achieving his pre-determined political goal, the former Vice President Alex Ekwueme, also referred to the same states among those in the ‘North-Central’ part of Nigeria in the context of his six geopolitical zones.
So, if that is the case, what were people like Jonathan Zwingina and the retired Air Commodore Dan Suleiman – to name only a few- doing at the meeting supposedly convened by elders of the Middle Belt except for the mere fact of their religious qualification? Both men hail from Nigeria’s North East. It was equally instructive that among the so-called representatives of the Middle Belt, only the erstwhile Chairman of the PDP Ahmadu Ali, was a Muslim, among those that dared to show their faces to the press afterwards.
Was it a genuine error? It seems incomprehensible to me that a whole professor of geography could get his map reading so completely wrong. Surely, there must be an element of deliberateness in the error, if at all it could be called one in the same context.
I do hope that readers of the Christian faith do not get me wrong here. I have nothing but maximum respect for Christians and Christianity. But the truth must be told no matter how bitter. Christians in the North have the absolute right to create a separate identity for themselves that is distinct from their Muslim brethren if they desire and no one should begrudge them for it. Still, what I cannot stomach is the deceit that is often employed in the process.
Northern Christians have the right to also flex their muscles and to exhibit their political capital especially when bargaining for a fairer share of the national cake or, as is often the case, reject marginalization whenever it shows its ugly face in their co-existence of their with other Nigerians of different faiths. But in doing so there is a need for transparency and the avoidance of deceit.
It was the lack of transparency of the Gana group that clearly exposed it as a composition of political jobbers and mercenaries. If they had labelled their meeting as that of the Association of Northern Nigerian Christians this discourse would have been unnecessary.
But to claim that they spoke for the entire Middle Belt of Nigeria where I also hail from is misleading. I am from Niger state but Jerry Gana did not represent me at the meeting. Neither did he represent millions of Muslims from his fabled ‘Middle Belt’ who’s permission he did not speak before going public with his views. But I can also visualize the exact reasons for their pretence. Stripped of its “Middle Belt” tag Gana’s group will become a hard sale.
It will not be exactly a “belt”. After all, there are Christians in Kano, just as there are in Borno, Adamawa, Zamfara and Katsina. Looked at from that perspective, their seeming folly assumes the semblance of a marketing strategy. By situating their agitation on the platform of the Middle Belt they provide themselves with a product to sale to the highest political bidders.
His group made the same mistake attributed to the sponsors of IPOB and MASSOB who have included the parts of the Northcentral and South-South states in their imaginary map of Biafra without the consent of the indigenes. It is also not surprising that among other things, the so-called Middle Belt elders have called for the full implementation of the report of Jonathan’s dubious Constitution Conference. The Conference was held under protest from the Muslim community in the country on account of its lopsided composition. The Jonathan administration refused to address their concerns.
With due respect to the Professor, the opinion expressed by his group last week was the product of the Association of Northern Nigerian Christians. It was not the collective decision of the entire Middle Belt of the nation. I respectfully urge him and his group to label themselves as such as there is no shame in doing so. They should call a spade exactly what it is: a spade!
As the proud Christians who only happen to be from the North, they will be entirely within their rights if they do so. This deceit has gone on for too long. It is now time to bring an end to it. With apologies to the late M. K. O. Abiola, we must always ignore the impulse to shave the heads of other people in their absence.