On the surface, the peace agreement endorsed by bodies representing Christians and Muslims, the two major religions in the country, portends a desire by members of the two faiths to live together harmoniously and peacefully. If that desire can translate into reality, the peace initiative will be commendable, especially in view of the polarisation of the country along religious and other grounds in recent times. But of course, as the signatories to the agreement are well aware, the task of forging religious harmony amidst the prevailing plurality goes beyond a mere endorsement of a written document. The leadership and membership of the faiths must walk the talk; more importantly, the country’s political leaders starting from President Muhammadu Buhari, must sheath their penchant for running the affairs of state in disregard of the constitutional and moral necessity for fairness and equity.
On August 10, 2022, the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) and Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) signed a pact in order to “de-escalate religious tensions and ensure a peaceful and secure atmosphere ahead of the 2023 general election.” The peace accord was signed at the International Religious Freedom Summit 2022 organised by the Global Peace Foundation and 70 international human rights and religious freedom organisations in Washington D.C. The Sultan, who is the President-General of the NSCIA, was represented by Prof. Yusuf Usman; while CAN was represented by its immediate-past President, Rev. Samson Ayokunle.
Ordinarily, the signing of peace pact between NSCIA and CAN should not have arisen in the first place. But the precarious state of religious tolerance in Nigeria would seem to justify the action. This is very regrettable given that Nigeria could have been saved from the path of religious acrimonies if successive leaders had taken the right decisions to stem the tide.
It can and has been argued that religious difference is not the problem of the average Nigerian; but political, religious and other leaders have continually weaponised religion to stay relevant and score cheap points. At leadership levels, there are no religious or ethnic colourations when the spate of looting of national resources is contemplated. At the level of the masses, good neighbourliness, intermarriages and cooperation on many issues belie and transcend religious divides.
At critical junctures in the jostling for the control of political power and national resources, religious issues are raised to the directive principles of political discourse. This situation has been exacerbated in the last seven years of the present administration of President Muhammadu Buhari where the optics projected were that of a tilt towards ethnic and religious biases. These are reflected in appointments, location of projects and reactions to national issues. It is the bounding duty of any administration to reflect the inclusiveness of all shades of the ‘rainbow coalition’ called Nigeria. By privileging one divide over another, the fissiparous tendencies of the nation are nurtured.
Presenting the organisations’ joint statement, Ayokunle said that the leadership of the Muslim and Christian organisations pledged to continue to work together, avoid violence, embrace dialogue and remain committed to building resilient communities that are free from fear. But he also alluded to the remote causes of religious friction: “This is a difficult time in Nigeria, with ever-escalating security crises and an overwhelming loss of trust in government. And unfortunately, so much of the crisis in Nigeria has had a religious context.”
If loss of trust in government is a major cause of religious and other crises, then building trust in government will be a major solution. Governmental and other leaders will need to work on this. Otherwise, thousands of peace pacts and sanctimonious preachments may come to naught. Nigeria will have to interrogate where the rain started beating us.
The joint statement from the religious bodies also pointed to more causes of the crises in Nigeria to include concerns of political representation and the possibility of genuinely democratic governance, the questions of judicial integrity and fairness, the issues of governmental bias, corruption and inaction.
“Others are a grievous lack of security owing to terrorism, militancy, cycles of retaliation, kidnappings for ransom, sexual violence, and organised criminal activities, mass hunger and starvation, poor agricultural policies and a lack of education for sustainable livestock raising, mass displacement of peoples and poor security for them and a hostile business environment as well as lack of jobs and education among others.”
Sadly, these concerns are not dominant in the discourse leading to the elections in 2023. More prominent are the debates on the religious colouration of candidates for the election, especially whether there ought to be a Muslim-Muslim candidate or otherwise. In the process, the scrutiny of candidates’ suitability and programmes are relegated to the backwaters.
We seemed to have crossed this divide before. It is therefore saddening to return to that sorry pass. Those who insist on this religious debate are not to be blamed, really. There are justifiable reasons why they think their interests may not be served at the highest levels of political representation. It is, however, the duty of political leaders to steer the debates away from this apprehension through openness, forthrightness, equity and transparent leadership. Unfortunately, these are rare virtues in governance in Nigeria. Until Nigeria gives priority to these virtues in governance, it will be difficult to make progress or focus on things that bind us together.