OPINION: Patriotism, religion and the Nigerian nation-state

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Sometimes, I get confused trying to understand the psyche of Nigerians. I analyze certain issues and come to the painful and regrettable conclusion that Nigerians easily plot the path to their own perdition.

The polity is heated again. This time the fire is sprouting from the religious prism. So much attention is justifiably generated by the comments of a certain clergy who goes by the appellation of Apostle Johnson Suleman, the founder and presiding pastor of Omega Fire Ministries.

It emerged recently that Suleman uttered very inciting statements to the effect that Christians should kill any Fulani herdsman at sight. This man of God (or is it a god?) was reacting to the spate of killings in Southern Kaduna. His outbursts sounded more to me like remarks of a demented man, incensed by demons.

And to my amazement, Apostle Suleiman who probably does not preside over a church congregation, not more than the size of a classroom, suddenly became a hero, a living Christian martyr and a doyen of the ever busy Nigerian media.

Some days back, Apostle Suleiman also repeated the same gibberish, when the DSS attempted to arrest him in Ekiti state to interrogate him over the gravely inciting statement. And backed by the executive thug of Ekiti state, Governor Ayo Fayose, the Apostle escaped and feels fortified or justified by his utterances.

But no matter the interests at stake, for a minister of God to ask and persuade other human beings to willfully kill others is bad enough. It mocks religion because the God he claims to serve ascribes the sacredness of life to Him, Who alone has the exclusive power of life and death.

Thus ennobled, the Apostle boasted about the DSS’s attempt to arrest him in these words; “It was the crowd that scared them. But the truth I want to pass out is that if I spend a day in the custody of security operatives, I have churches in 42 countries and I have alerted them.

Every Nigerian Embassy will be thronged. If I spend one day in the custody of the DSS, the damage it will cause will take one year to repair. If I spend one day, the damage that will happen to Nigeria will take one year to repair.”

Nigerians know his initial outbursts are potent enough to cause widespread breach of national peace and security as well as snowball into an unimaginable dimension of religious crisis. It will plunge Nigeria into anarchy. Apostle Suleiman’s second reaction to the chain of events triggered by his irreverent words and actions is even more appalling to me.

But as Nigerians, we have all turned our backs on these obvious infractions by the Apostle and instead, what is shamelessly publicized is defence of the religious faith card laced in weapons of violence.

I am a Christian, but I do not believe in the herd instinct of balance of terror in resolving issues. Matching violence for violence has never solved a problem anywhere in the world. I also know that the Holy Scripture admonishes us against this tendency.

Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour preached the doctrine of meekness for his true followers during His sermon on the mount, when he said, if your enemy slaps you on the right cheek, turn your left cheek also. And we all are aware that vengeance belongs to God and not man. We disobey God when we do the contrary. But Apostle Suleiman stood on the sacred pulpit and negated all these religious creeds.

And what invoked the greatest pity in me about Nigerians is that some persons came out to defend Suleiman. I shuddered to read the reaction of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) to the purported fruitless attempts to arrest the Apostle and propagator of religious violence.

A statement by Pastor Bayo Oladeji, Special Assistant (Media and Communication) to the CAN President, admonished security agencies and the state that it will not tolerate what it termed handling ministers of God and members of CAN as common criminals.

The statement read: “The last time we checked, Sections 38-41 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) states clearly that every Nigerian is ‘entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

It added, “The Constitution states unambiguously that ‘Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.’The actual problem manifests at this level.

At one point, CAN cites an instance of the invocation of the law to resist attempts to “turn Nigeria into a refugee camp for Christians,” which is good enough. But in direct opposition to the same views it espouses, it sides with a breaker of the law which could cause breach of public peace. Would CAN say the attempted arrest of Apostle Suleiman was unlawful to warrant such blind and biased commentary?

Much as the Constitution of Nigeria grants freedom of expression and religion, the same statutes book also prescribes limits of freely expressed speech that could lead to violation of some aspects of the law.

The freedom of expression must have to be applied by citizens patriotically and responsibly. And Apostle Suleiman cannot hide under this clause and irresponsibly incite Nigerians to religious crisis.

I believe resorting to hate speech by the Clergy offends both religion and the state. Every religion preaches peace and love of neighbours. These are sacred doctrines. Anyone who loves his neighbor would neither raise his sword against anybody nor canvass for such savagery.

The nation-state on the other hand has the lawful duty to protect lives and property of the citizenry. So, any patriotic citizen would not instigate violence on any platform of the liberty granted by freedom of expression. When individuals fail to blend state and religion, it becomes an aberration and condemnable. This is the power God the creator of the universe has imbued in human beings and acting outside the prescriptions of these creeds also offends God.

The clergy and the religious who really believe in the dictates of God Almighty do not turn themselves into advocates of blood for blood. Nothing is impossible before God and the duty of a church convinced that it is facing persecution as the likes of Apostle Suleiman and CAN are trying to preach can beseech God in prayers for His intervention. But asking Christians to become warriors of bloodletting of members of opposing faiths is uncharitable and a disservice to Nigeria, the church inclusive.

I still do not believe the latest incidence of Southern Kaduna killings have a religious tinge and until inquiries by government states otherwise, it is wrong for Christians to give it this coloration and prepare for reprisal war. But if CAN and the Apostle are convinced that it is the persecution of Christians at work, they could gather their facts and approach the courts of the land for legal redress.

But calling for outright retaliatory violence is ungodly, unpatriotic, disloyal, irreligious and unchristian. No man has the power to fight God’s battles and the clergy with such mindset should discard it or else, some of us are forced to now believe the notion of “church as business” or the commercialization of some churches in Nigeria, where people anointed by the devil claim to be men of God.

Probably, Apostle Johnson Suleiman’s utterances were not inspired by any genuine concern for lost lives or the persecution of Christians, but the depopulation of his church congregation, which will negatively affect tithes and offerings.

But when the fire of the war he has ignited explodes, he will bundle himself to take refuge in one of the branches of his Omega church anywhere in the 42 countries he claimed presence and leave the rest of us to suffer the consequences. Enough of this “madness” in the guise of religion.