Election Reflections: Nigeria’s Religious Secular Democracy

Nigeria Decides 2015

Democracy, tyranny, secularism… these are among the many words we take for granted often because we think we have an idea of what they mean. Such is the folly that accompanies natural language in contrast to precise languages like mathematics. Most people would find it puzzling for instance that a government can be democratic and tyrannical at the same time, or even secular and religious at the same time. They might be more confused to find that the extent of democracy is not necessarily indirectly proportional to the extent of tyranny; meaning one could have a highly democratic state that is highly tyrannical at the same time. Today, most would also agree that democracy is secular, and might not be able to conceive a democracy that is religious (which enriches the dichotomy in their minds that there is something called secular as opposed to something called religious). At this point I would like to assume that most Nigerians think along this line, that democracy is inherently secular, then go ahead to show the contradiction I find of interest.

Democracy: control of an organization or group by the majority of its members.

Tyranny: cruel and oppressive government or rule.

Let us first begin from Nigeria being recognised globally for being quite religious; if not for our popular evangelical miracle healers, then for the notorious Boko Haram. Political processes are not spared religious “intervention”. It is widely reported that during the 2011 presidential campaign, GEJ (the out going president) succeeded by and large due to Church endorsed votes. The just concluded election has been full of religious interventions as well. Pastor Mbaka called against voting GEJ, while CAN (leadership) clearly supported GEJ, then Gumi called not to vote either of the two major contestants. These were religious intervention with a lot of human element.

Within Mosques and Churches, a lot of prayers, supplications, praises have been offered to guide the outcome of the election in a certain direction; for some it is victory to their party, and for others it is avoidance of post-election violence. Without investigating how it is that prayers actually work, which is stepping into theology, let us accept that prayers are “answered” in the way most people believe it is. Then we can conclude that religion/prayer is a tool used prevalently in Nigeria to determine political outcome; the outcome which is itself democratic. Religion/Prayer is thus a democratic tool; in practice even if not consciously acknowledged.

Now religion as democratic stands in contradiction to the popular belief that democracy is secular, unless one considers the process of getting to power as outside the scope of democracy. But that would be absurd, as it continues to be in the cause of the leadership tenure. For instance, religion/prayer is used to get a person into office, but it is not used to get a person work properly in office. We rarely pray for our leaders to do the right thing, nor put our faith in prayer to get them to do this and that, we employ more direct approaches like letters (nothing like open letters!), protests, commentaries, and other civil engagements etc.

Noted that some of us pray that leaders be guided by God in their leadership. The difference between those who pray for guidance of leaders and those who don’t is not simply that of the religious and the non religious, it is a difference of different theological schools simply. Among the Abrahamic religions, we can classify beliefs about God’s relationship to creation into two broad categories: where God created creation along with the mechanism to keep it going (e.g. natural forces) then let the world to work according to His design; second category is where God created creation, equipped it with mechanism to sustain it, but is also “in touch” with creation as to guide (or intervene in) it. We can see where the two groups belong.So the contradiction between religion as a democratic tool and democracy as secular remains whether we pray for elected leaders to be guided by God, or engage them through the mechanisms of democracy.


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I came across two amusing accounts on the use of religion during the concluded campaigns. Unfortunately Christian readers may not get the amusement being grounded in Islam’s texts. The anecdotes would be digressing if in the main argument above but fit within the use of religion as tool for democracy.

The first story is to do with Ibrahim Shema (the outgoing governor of Katsina state) who is supporting a candidate with first name Musa. It is reported that rallies at villages, Ibrahim quoted a verse of the Qur’an from Surah al A’la (Q87:19) to prove to the crowd that his candidate (Musa) should be voted AFTER him (Ibrahim): “… Suhfi Ibrahima wa Musa”. He performed an exegesis saying the order of “Ibrahim” then “Musa” is basically a divine order! Actually the translation is simply “The scriptures of Abraham and Moses”.

In the second case, some Nigerians were very hopeful that perhaps 2015 would emerge the first female governor (who has been declared to have lost). This was the candidate for Taraba State, which was one of the few states that election had to be conducted a week later due to the controversial occurrence. While the candidate has accused the declared winner as employing severe malpractice, the public has wondered what really happened in a state like Taraba where leadership has been strongly along religious lines. We may have the answer! The explanation is the that Muslim votes were swung away from her (being Muslim herself) by the use of the controversial ayah of the Qur’an in Surah al Nisa’ (Q5:34) which says: “Ar rijalu qawwamuna alan Nisa…” (translated “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women…” or “Men are in charge of women…”). This was the tie breaker it seems. Even in religiously charged space, patriarchy champions!

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