The controversy triggered by Mallam Nasir el-Rufai’s comments about Jesus Christ on Twitter is instructive on several levels. Here, I shall limit myself to two immediate implications. In the first instance, it is a sordid demonstration of the deterioration of public debate in Nigeria. Given the quality of most of the arguments (sic) on display, especially from so-called Born Agains, it makes perfect sense that successive governments continue to get away with frequent assaults on our collective intelligence. Second, and more poignantly, it perfectly encapsulates the capacity of religious bigotry to detract from what is important about politics and social life in the country (or any country for that matter), substituting in its place an indulgent moral outrage over a purported injury to the sacred. This is an unfortunate situation, especially when one takes a long-term view of things.
In the short term though, what the Christian Association of Nigeria’s (CAN) attack on the former FCT Minister (for retweeting a sarcastic tweet on how President Jonathan’s aides might have reacted to Jesus’ criticism of the current administration) has accomplished, is to create a farcical diversion from the real issue: former Education Minister Oby Ezekwesili’s comment on the fate of monies said to have been left by the OBJ administration in the country’s Excess Crude Account, and the totally obtuse response by some of President Jonathan’s spokespersons. As a result, and no thanks to the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), what should have been a timely opportunity to discuss the administration’s overall fiscal strategy has been allowed to mutate into a sterile ‘debate’ about the definition of blasphemy.
The role of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in this process of perverse trivialization should worry all Nigerians. As the pre-eminent organization of Christians across the country, CAN wields enormous symbolic power, and it is precisely because of this that its word carries a lot of weight. At least there was a time it did. However, over the past two decades, CAN has all but surrendered its moral right to be taken seriously as an institutional intercessor on behalf of long-suffering Nigerians- Christians and non-. The El-Rufai controversy, specifically the statement released last week on CAN’s behalf by Dr. Musa Asake, its National General Secretary, is proof that the association has totally lost its way.
For a proper appreciation of what is at stake here, let me recapitulate briefly the chain of events that eventuated in the current controversy- and CAN’s statement. Clearly worried by the reported depletion of Nigeria’s foreign reserves under this and the immediate past administration, Oby Ezekwesili, delivering the convocation lecture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, had challenged the Jonathan administration to explain the whereabouts of Nigeria’s oil revenues. The response of President Jonathan spokespersons, mainly Information Minister Labaran Maku and Senior Special Assistant for Public Affairs Doyin Okupe, was classic ad hominem. Both spent more time divining the former minister’s political motives than grappling with the substance of her accusation.
This of course is totally in character with this administration. Its record of ascribing abstruse political motives to the fairest criticism has become legendary, hence Ogunyemi Bukola’s comment on Twitter that “If Jesus criticizes Jonathan’s government, Maku/Abati/Okupe will say he slept with Mary Magdalene…LWKMD.” “LWKMD” here basically translates to “Laugh wan kill me die,” a Nigerian Internet slang indicating that the affected comment is offered- and should be taken- lightheartedly.
Mallam El-Rufai most probably got the message, hence his retweeting of what, essentially, was a joke cracked at the expense of the Jonathan government and its spokespersons. Does the decision by the FCT Minister to retweet (a decision that helped bring the original tweet to a larger audience and the attention of the media) translate into an endorsement? Probably. After all, El-Rufai is a relentless critic of this government, and he has never disguised his contempt (which millions of Nigerians happen to share) for the way President Jonathan goes about the business of governance. In any case, in the hierarchy of jokes out there about the Jonathan administration, Bukola’s certainly does not rank very high. I have come across some deadly ones, and believe me, this one does not even come close. But that is beside the point. The non-funniness of a joke may stain its aesthetic quality. In the digital age, it most certainly will stymie its capacity to go viral; but who cares? A joke is a joke, and, after all is said and done, it is its political import that matters. In the specific case of this joke, the political target is obvious. It is the Jonathan administration and its bumbling ways, and the fact that it went instantly viral must have caused the administration considerable unease.
It was at this point that CAN entered the fray, and its intervention was nothing short of a political gift to the Jonathan administration. At least in terms of sheer diversion, the administration could not have asked for more. Astonishingly, in its statement, CAN did not have anything to say about the initial accusations that prompted the original tweet. It could not be bothered about the serious allegations of financial mismanagement that Oby Ezekwesili had leveled against the government. Nor did it see anything improper or morally repugnant in the fact that, rather than respond to those allegations, sundry official spokespersons had chosen instead to draw attention to Ezekwesili’s assumed political calculations. Instead, CAN was merely enraged that El-Rufai had disparaged the Christian faith, a capital offence, presumably, for which he had remained “unrepentant and unremorseful”. Lest El-Rufai did not appreciate the point, CAN proceeded to remind him that it was barely holding back its horde of peace-loving Christians from a collective assault on the former FCT Minister, and that the righteous horde will certainly be unleashed “next time he makes any other explosive statement that impugns on (sic) the Person of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.” In perhaps the most chilling part of the statement, CAN warned: “We must state that unlike others, Christians do not shed blood, take life, kill or maim others at the slightest provocation. Nevertheless, we must warn El-Rufai not to take Christians for granted and to inform him that it is with great difficulty that we have had to restrain our youths from taking the law into their hands; which by extension means bringing El-Rufai to justice on account of his incitement and insult against the Christian faith.”
And that was that. Actually, no. CAN’s statement in fact contained other things, mostly of the same threatening sort, all apparently geared at intimidating El-Rufai, and making him regret his fine decision to retweet a politically subversive tweet.
CAN’s statement raises more questions than answers, and says a whole lot more about what CAN itself has become, than the character of El-Rufai as a supposed blasphemer. For instance, why did CAN shy away from addressing the issues of fiscal accountability raised by Ms. Ezekwesili? Why is the imagined slander of Jesus more disagreeable than the fate of the Nigerian treasury, and the lives and security of average Nigerians? Surely, if Jesus Christ is all-powerful, he should be able to handle whatever issues he may have with those who hold his name in vain? Why does CAN get so easily outraged over an apparent slight on Jesus Christ, when it will not throw a stone in anger over the killing of innocent Nigerians by Nigerian policemen, pervasive hunger in the land, incessant power outages, decayed infrastructure, a collapsed educational system, rampant corruption, or any of the other things that ail us as a nation? What will it take, for instance, for CAN to show similar anger about the clear perversion of justice seen in the case of the former director in the Police Pension Office?
These are important questions. Fortunately, the answer to them is not far-fetched. The fact of the matter is that the CAN leadership, having sold its soul for a mess of pottage, has become an extension of the Nigerian political class. With a few significant exceptions, its raison detre is, most shamefully, the shielding of the political elite from legitimate criticism. Thus, when its members pray for Nigerian politicians, they are basically praying for themselves and their own material sustenance. That is why, these days, if you read any story about CAN in a Nigerian newspaper, chances are it is a story of unwholesome dissension within its upper echelon, and unbecoming saber-rattling over patronage and political access.
As a de facto extension of the semi-criminal racket that runs the Nigerian state, CAN epitomizes the moral turmoil in the Nigerian society, and the shameful statement it released in condemnation of El-Rufai is a perfect testimony to its ethical surrender. Either it must reinvent itself- or be disbanded.
Obadare teaches Sociology at the University of Kansas in the United States