“A society of beggars, parasites, and bandits cannot develop, it cannot know peace or stability, and it cannot be democratic. It can only gravitate endlessly as we are doing, in material poverty and moral regression. That is the bad news. The good news is that the hardworking and honest people among us, and there are many of them are in revolt…bracing for a monumental struggle.”— Claude Ake, speaking about Nigeria in 1996.
The forthcoming presidential election in the U.S. is generating some lively debates in Nigeria. In some recent social media conversations with fellow Catholics, I realized that many of them, are as fervent in their support for Trump as his diehard American fans here in the U.S. I have also seen similar trends among some African Christians and clerics from other parts of Africa.
It was not surprising then that the BBC recently did a story with the bold title, “The African Evangelicals Praying for Trump to Win.”
It worried me that at a time when our people are drowning in the double burdens of pandemic and poverty, at a time when our young people are standing up to police dictatorship, lawlessness, and the impunities of the Nigerian state apparatus against her people, we spent precious time fighting
over a U.S election which in the bigger context of history has only a tangential bearing on what happens in Nigeria.
President Trump and Nigeria’s President Buhari: SomeStriking Similarities
As I think of Trump’s popularity among Nigerian Christians, I contrast it with Buhari’s popularity among Muslims and the way both presidents came to power in their respective countries. Trump and Buhari share a striking similarity in the pattern of their ascendency to the presidency in their
respective countries—they both rode to power on the crest waves of populism. Trump landed on the American political tarmac, hoisting the flag of American exceptionalism, buoyed by White Catholics and evangelicals.
Buhari, on the other hand, rode into the presidential mansion of Nigeria, called Aso Rock, with a broom in hand riding the wave of a massive support from Muslims of Northern Nigeria. Trump claimed that he will make America great; Buhari claimed that he will make Nigeria better by fighting corruption in Nigeria. Trump’s popularity is still solid today among White Christians in America who believe that he is upholding traditional Christian values, even though America is
convulsing in the fire of social unrest, anti-racist protests and the anguish of the nation over the shocking number of Americans who have died from Covid-19.
The same pattern can be seen in the case of Buhari, who still remains popular among Muslim northerners even though his Islamist agenda and failed leadership have brought so much deaths, violence, terrorism, poverty, and suffering to the masses of our people. The Nigerian Northern Muslim youths have not been involved in the current anti-police and anti-government protests convulsing Nigeria.
While Trump is accused by his opponents as a White supremacist, Buhari on the other hand, is accused by his opponents as a Muslim supremacist.
The truth is that populist regimes offer people empty hopes through what Ernesto Laclau calls ‘empty signifiers.’ They make grandiose promises like ‘fighting corruption’, ‘making America great’ and many other slogans which have a magical hold on people’s imagination, but which represent no policy, program, actionable and measurable alternatives or a praxis of reform or reversal. At the end of populist regimes, people are left with sour tastes, frustrations, bitterness, and anger, which boil over as citizens turn against one another in the us vs them binaries. At the end of the day, when the people’s energies have been exhausted and their hopes shattered, they begin another futile search for a new savior or hero.
In the case of Buhari, most Nigerians are just hoping that this dark night in our nation’s history will soon come to an end. The popular Buhari, has become the polar opposite of what anyone, including his Islamic acolytes, would want in any national leader. Like Trump whose former defense chief, General Mattis, accused of not trying to unite America, but one who is actively dividing the country, Buhari makes no effort to unite Nigerians. Buhari has become the most divisive and polarizing president to ever occupy the presidency in Nigeria, just like Trump in the views of his opponents.
Just like Trump did during the anti-racism protests in the U.S. when he threatened to deploy the military; so also, Buhari is doing now in the current anti-police and anti-government protests in Nigeria.
Buhari has unleashed the military and the police against innocent and peaceful Nigerian protesters. As at the time of writing this essay, the Nigerian SBM Intelligence reports that 81 young Nigerians have been killed so far by security operatives during these protests. Buhari like Trump during the
anti-racism protests in America, has failed to admit his role in bringing about or enabling the kinds of social policies that have led to this social convulsion among frustrated Nigerian youths.
Should Politicians Promote Christian Morality in Office: A Moral Dilemma
Many Catholics in America have a burden of conscience as they face a moral dilemma in this presidential election. I have heard some American Catholics wonder: How could a faithful Catholic vote for Biden who supports abortion, same-sex marriage, and the use of tax payers’ money to fund anti-life groups like Planned Parenthood? A White American nun who spoke to me over the phone recently said to me: “I have a burden of conscience in this election. I like Trump’s pro-life
policies, but how could I ever support Trump who only became pro-life when he started to run for office? How could I vote for someone who does not embrace Catholic social teaching and supports the death penalty, gun-ownership, war, and defunds the WHO, the world body fighting COVID in
poor countries, and whose anti-immigration enforcement separates children from their parents at the borders; and whose moral conduct, utterances, and personal ethic are revolting to me?
This burden of conscience is also worsened in America for many Catholics because American Catholic bishops, nuns and priests have also taken sides with either candidates. Cardinal Doran of New York led the opening prayer at the Republican Presidential Convention, which was in the opinion of the public a tacit endorsement of Trump. On the other side of the political divide, the popular Jesuit priest and writer, James Martin, led the prayers at the Democratic Presidential
Convention; Sr Dede Byrne of the Little Sisters of the Poor spoke at the Republican Convention in support of Trump; while Sister Simone Campbell like Fr Martin, led a prayer at the Democratic convention. Catholic newspapers, radio and television stations are divided in their allegiance. All these contribute to the moral dilemma of American Catholics, making it even more complex in America to affirm any distinctive Catholic position on most issues on the ballot. It depends on which side of the moral arguments you stand.
Like their American counterparts, the Nigerian Christian supporters of Trump praise him for standing up for traditional Christian values and praise him for speaking up against the persecution of Christians. However, to see the bigger implications of this stand particularly in pluralistic societies one can look at the policies and programs of Turkish President, Recep Erdogan, who interestingly is also offering a public visibility to his religion, this time Islam. Like Trump, he
appeals to Turkish nationalism; he claims that Turkey is an Islamic state and is reclaiming churches like the Church of Hagia Sophia for Islam as part of his campaign to restore the Islamic culture of Turkey. He is also fighting against the Islamic version of secularism, just as Trump, in the view of
Nigerian Christians, is fighting the secularization of the West through what his ardent supporters might call a restorationist Christian agenda.
Many years ago, French historian of religion, Gilles Kepel in his book, The Revenge of God warned of a dangerous resurgence of religion in many parts of the world in reaction to the perceived secularization of the faith. In the light of Kepel’s work, I will argue that the return of the sacred in many parts of the world has not seen the emergence of the best ideals of religions in the world. Rather, what I see are new forms of radical religious moralism, religious fundamentalism,
reactionary religious intolerance and persecution of minorities, structural violence, narrow identity politics and nationalism cloaked in false religious narratives. We see examples of this violent and intolerant religious resurgence of Islamic nationalism in Turkey and Iran, and in Hindu nationalism in Modi’s India among other places.
Discerning Christians may see also some variants of this worldview in Trump’s unhealthy exploitation of his limited version of the Christian pro-life moral standpoints for political gains in the U.S. Catholicism, as the late Chicago’s Archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Bernadine emphasized preaches ‘the consistent ethic of life’—the defense and protection of all lives from conception to natural death. This means the protection of the life of the unborn, of criminals from death penalty,
immigrants, the elderly, of the poor and hungry, the sick and the forgotten.
It is, therefore, contrary to the pro-life teaching of the consistent ethic of life for someone to defend life, but then wages wars; for someone to defend marriage, but then separates children from their families in America’s borders, and for someone to defend the unborn, but does not defend and protect the lives of senior citizens who are the ones dying in large numbers in the U.S as a result of this pandemic. Indeed, any abuse or attack on human life, human dignity and rights should be considered anti-life because it is an onslaught on the image and likeness of the human person which is the basis of a theistic and integral Christian humanism.
The greatest challenge facing Christianity today is not how to forge alliances with politicians to defend Christian teaching, but rather how to change the lives of her members in such a way that they can change the world through their credible life and witnessing. Christians in majority Christian nations must learn to embrace diversity and negotiate their co-existence with those who don’t believe what we believe or who don’t live as we live; just as we wish that other religions in countries where Christians are a minority in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, in Northern Nigeria and other parts of the world should not impose their own religious beliefs and morality on
Indeed, the West’s experiment with Caesaropapism which gave birth to Western Christendom has taught Christians the lesson that Christendom or Christian theocracy is not good for Christianity. Christendom which is often represented in the three G’s of God, Gold and Glory is a political, economic, nationalistic, and imperialistic project of spreading Western civilization to the rest of the world through slavery, cultural erasures, racism, cultural imperialism, land grab, and wars all
in the name of Christ. Christendom force-feeds people with the sweet food of the Gospel.
Christianity, on the other hand, incarnates the values of Christ in the persons and cultures who embrace it so that their light shines out in the world to illumine the world with love, justice, and peace. Christianity is a way of life and not a system of political, moral or economic domination of any state in our pluralistic world. Christianity for sure impacts politics and the economy, through her ethics, social teaching which can and does infuse politics and the economy with evangelical flavor,
social justice, sound morality, and spirituality. In doing this, Christianity promotes the common good, abundant life for all, and human and cosmic flourishing. Like our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, the Christianity of the future will not be the political Christianity that allies itself with politicians, especially in every election cycle; it will be like Pope Benedict once prophesied, similar to the little flock of the poor man of Galilee—a religion that is changing lives through interior transformation of individuals and cultures particularly in the margins, in parishes, wards, families, and in the public square. It will begin from the margins and not from the center.
Which way Nigeria?
Many years ago, Nigeria’s foremost social theorist, Claude Ake argued that Nigeria needs to embrace the process of democratization to build the national structures, systems and institutions of democracy. According to him, the Nigerian state is maladjusted because it is constructed on the structures of injustice, sustained by tribal politics, and religious fundamentalism. Because of this state of affairs, Nigeria according to him, gravitates endlessly from one pole to another without any sense of history, national identity or of a political culture.
The Nigerian military and particularly the Northern Muslim military men have dominated Nigeria’s politics since Independence, 60 years ago. The current President was also a military general. So, what you see in Nigeria is a nation held in bondage through corruption, forms of intimidation, abuse of power, and the violation of due process, and disregard for the principles of separation of power, the rule of law, human rights; and a rejection of diversity, decentralization, and a culture of democracy, transparency and accountability.
The problem of Nigeria like foremost African novelist, Chinua Achebe, said many years ago is leadership. Nigeria is convulsing today because of a failed leadership, particularly a failed political class and those religious priests, imams, and Christian and Muslim prophets who enable and defend this system by fawning on our political leaders and drown the genuine anger and desire for change of our people with false hope through pietistic preachments, empty devotionalism, and
tranquilizing religious message.
There is so much suffering, violence and deaths in Nigeria. Majority of Nigeria’s young people are out of school and out of job. Poverty is spreading like a wild fire in Nigeria, and nothing seems to be working in the country, while the national life has become a tale of doom and gloom as Nigerians suffocate under the punishing weight of the pandemic and of structural violence built on some systemic and unjust structures, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, and police brutality.
Nigerian young people are pouring onto the streets because they are exhausted from long years of suffering, hunger and starvation, and are being sentenced to a punishing future. They are thus saying that they have had enough. These young people are telling Nigerians that neither Trump nor Biden will save Nigeria nor will any Western leader or system for that matter save Nigeria.
Nigerians must become the architects of our own future. The keys to the future of Nigeria and indeed of Africa lie in Africa and not across the Atlantic. Nigerians and the international
community should stand in solidarity with these young Nigerians who are being massacred by an irresponsible and insensitive national government that has no qualms unleashing her police and military to shoot at innocent young protesters who are our hope for the future.
*Stan Chu Ilo is a Catholic priest of Awgu Diocese in South-East Nigeria, research professor of World Christianity and African Studies at DePaul University, Chicago, USA; Honorary professor of Theology and Religion at Durham University, Durham, England.