Thursday 25 September 2014

Oritsejafor And The Politicisation Of CAN - by Bayo Olupohunda

I am going to begin this piece with a chance encounter I had with the leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria in the late 1990s. That experience will provide a background into appreciating the historical role of CAN leadership in the fight for social justice, promotion of good governance and the quest for an egalitarian society in Nigeria. 

It is also illustrative of the leadership degeneration that afflicts the present leaders of the apex Christian body —a tragic lesson in why politics and religion should always form a parallel line. It was in the thick of military dictatorship. Gen. Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s maximum ruler, was at the height of his tyrannical powers. Having toppled the Interim National Government of Ernest Shonekan in a palace coup in 1993, Abacha had become very ruthless and vicious of any opposition to his regime. He had also become paranoid of every criticism and his plan to transmute into a life president. He unleashed his killer squad on dissenting voices.

The media and civil society critical of his devious plan ended up in his gulag. Leading opposition figures were being assassinated. Journalists disappeared with no traces. The Abacha regime was a dark period in Nigeria’s history. As the opposition grew, Abacha became more brutal. Among the fiercest critics of the regime, one voice stood out—Anthony Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie. The Catholic priest became the symbol of the struggle to enthrone democracy in the country. He led other Christian leaders to advise Abacha not to succeed himself. Before this time, he had criticised the draconian policies of the Ibrahim Babangida regime. He never wavered. He was fearless. It was at the point of his fierce opposition to the government of Abacha that I ran into the unassuming priest, arguably a living symbol of true Christian values devoid of the debauchery and ostentations of modern day “men of God.”

I had run into him at the Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos having crossed the road in his white cassock and trekked all the way through the TBS unaccompanied. He exchanged pleasantries, and prayed for some people along the way. At the time, he was the President of CAN. At a time when Nigerians had expressed fear that his criticism of Abacha might constitute a danger to his life, Okogie resisted all attempts to provide him with security. He once addressed a press conference where he condemned Abacha and the entire military. He urged them to begin a transition programme that would return the country to democracy. He was a thorn in the flesh of bad leaders. He condemned corruption and stayed away from politics and politicians. He never mixed his religion with politics. Okogie helped to redefine the role and relevance of the clergy in the quest for an egalitarian society.

At critical moments in our nation’s history, the leadership of CAN has stood against injustice, corruption and bad governance. Under the leadership of Reverend Sunday Mbang, Archbishop Peter Jasper Akinola and Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the organisation became the voice of the masses no matter their faith. During former President Olusegun Obasanjo government, Onaiyekan, who was CAN president, continued the activism of CAN. He stood against Obasanjo’s Third Term agenda. His successor, Akinola once denounced the corruption in Obasanjo government at the National Christian Centre. Obasanjo was right there in the audience. The history of CAN as the moral conscience of our nation has long been established. The ‘80s and ‘90s were the defining periods in Nigerian history. The CAN leadership under Mbang and Okogie stood as leaders who used their moral authorities for the emancipation of Nigerians. Sadly, this is no longer the case today as CAN under the leadership of Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor has become overtly politicised. To many observers, the once united CAN, the bastion of hope, the voice of the voiceless in Nigeria, has become another arm of government. It no longer speaks with one voice against corruption.

If we must call a spade by its name, Oritsejafor has been a polarising, instead of unifying, figure in the body leading an entire block-the Catholics-to pull out from CAN. Is this the CAN we used to know, many are wont to ask? Certainly, this is not the CAN of Okogie and other clerics who laid the foundations of the body as a critical advocate of our collective rights. CAN leadership’s dalliances with politicians in recent years have blunted its powers to speak truth to power at a time the country is in need of prophets.

It is instructive that Oritsejafor, since his assumption of office, has always been in the news for the wrong reasons. First, it was the controversy that surrounded the gift of a private jet to him by a shadowy “church member” that shocked Nigerians. Historically, the leadership of CAN has been a unifying force. In the past, the body had been the bridge between Christians and Muslims promoting inter-faith dialogue necessary for peaceful co-existence. But, the current CAN has stoked more controversies than the promotion of peace. Rather than follow the tradition of his predecessors, CAN President hobnobs with politicians. It is therefore not unexpected that the CAN president’s private jet is now enmeshed in a cash-for-arms deal scandal in South Africa. Truth be told, the cash-for-arms scandal is an embarrassment to the Christian community in Nigeria. It’s even worse that Oritsejafor’s name was mentioned in the first place. Why must it be the CAN president — a man who should be the symbol of Christian values devoid of scandals injurious to his faith and position?

I think that the Christian Association of Nigeria is in great need of the prophets of old who led the organisation on the part of respectability. Those who equate sweating and laughter with anointing leading millions further down the road of deception and delusion. Instead, we need men in Christian leadership who will stand on the side of the masses and speak truth to power.

Our country needs men of vision who are not selling out the church so they can become celebrities in the religious conference tour in the guise of evangelisation. We need men of proven integrity; not the ones who brazenly tell us to pray for our leaders so they can continue to wine and dine them. The current crisis in CAN has further necessitated the imperative of ensuring that the church and the state are separated. At this critical point in our nation’s history, solutions to complex issues like corruption, poverty, health care and growing insecurity will require greater vision than what is currently possessed by those in power and those seeking to replace them. That is why CAN must revert to its traditional role as the nation’s watchdog. The action of its current leadership brings the once revered association into disrepute.

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