"When I saw the screaming headline claiming that General Buhari had called on Muslims to vote only for fellow Muslims in the next elections, I could almost tell what the national reaction would be. My brethren within Christianity would react like wounded lions. There would be name calling, bashing, brick bat throwing, Sabre rattling and so on. The nature of the accusations would be predictable. I also knew that politicians from both sides, anxious for capital and advantage, would throw in their lot in any direction that favours them. My suspicion was that General Buhari would not respond. He will remain his typical Self, taciturn and philosophical. He would be hurting and wondering when it would all end. Interestingly, I was not disappointed, as the reactions in the last two weeks have shown. The General has been called all kinds of names. Christian leaders have threatened to call out their followers to vote only Christians, some have given the General a date line for retraction, while others are calling for his removal from the Council of State and seem to regret over having the man as a Head of State. Just like all debates about such sore points in our polity as ethnicity, we have ended up generating so much heat and have absolutely no light to show for it. Typical Nigerians love talking more than thinking. My purpose in this article is two fold. First of all, to clarify if possible, what exactly General Buhari said and secondly, to use the debate as an opportunity to look more closely at the finer points of the role of religion in politics. We must move from talking to thinking in this country.
In dealing with the first point, I have shied away from commenting on the allegation despite prodding from the media because I have learnt that there are always two sides to every story and unless the evidence of both sides are in, all attempts at judgment are not only dangerous, they will always naturally be based on prejudice and bias. They can either only exacerbate the problem, deepen agony, reinforce prejudice and increase tension and misunderstanding. Since the story broke, I have tried to reach the General without success. Now that I have managed to speak with him (Saturday 23rd June), I feel morally in a position to make judgment on the issues base on my nearly twenty Minutes chat with the retired General. This does not in any way mean that all I say will be correct nor do I attempt any iota of self-righteousness. I believe that whatever the world says, every individual is not only entitled to an opinion, he or she is entitled to be heard. We can register our disagreement based on knowledge of the facts. Facts may be sacred as they say, but facts are not truths.
When I finally called the General's Kaduna home, he sounded like he was in a very good mood. After dispensing with pleasantries, I informed him that I had tried to reach him but had not been successful. He apologized to me saying: Well, whenever it rains, my phone normally has to recover from the effect of the rain. It was a good note on which to start our conversation. So Your Excellency, I asked, what exactly did you say? I have read the reactions to the statement credited to you and wanted to find out what exactly it was you said. He seemed and sounded pleased that he had a chance to state his case. He also did sound anxious to explain himself as I listened. He proceeded to speak on about ten minutes and I listened and made some notes. This is his side of the story as he told me. I can only attempt to paraphrase him: Sheikh Sidi Attahiru Ibrahim is a Nigerian Islamic Scholar and he had been in Saudi Arabia for 13 years. He traveled to see me in Daura and informed me that he had written a book, which Dan Fodio University had published, and he now wanted to launch it, would I kindly oblige him by accepting to chair the event? Considering his age and the fact that he traveled all the way to Daura to see me, I obliged. Although a book reviewer had been invited, I had been asked to make my comments, as the chairman of the event, I spoke without a prepared text and in the course of my comments, I drew attention to the fact that the introduction of Sharia had become one of the main issues in this new dispensation. I explained that Sharia, however, has been with us well before the British colonized Nigeria. Now, Sharia has been introduced in many Northern states and Sokoto is one of the states that has already adopted Sharia. It must be pointed out however that Sharia is applicable only to Muslims. Those elements that have taken the law into their hands and use the opportunity to molest other non-Muslims are not helping the cause. What is more, they are like bad policemen or judges who are making the enforcement of justice so difficult in Nigeria. Their shortcoming does not do the police force or the judiciary any good, but these acts do not detract from the imperative of both institutions. Midway through our democracy, we have time now to assess the situation on ground in terms of making our choice in the next elections. Vote for good men whether they are in Borno, Katsina, Sokoto or wherever. Vote for those who will protect your interest. This, Rev. Father, is the summary of every thing I said and the tapes are there.
I did not record our interview because I did not have the General's permission and in any case, it would have been wrong for me to do so. I have only tried to paraphrase what the General said to me base on quick notes I made and I hope I got him right on the essential thrust of what it was that he said. May be I have made my own mistakes in reading him. However, he was categorical that he did not say that Muslims should vote for only Muslims. After all, as he said again, even during the time of the Holy Prophet, there were non-Muslims just as there were unbelievers even in the time of Jesus Christ. He referred me to an Arewa House Lecture delivered by Alhaji Liman Ciroma, which raise the point that justice is more acceptable than a Muslim who governs unjustly! On the whole, it would seem that the General felt hurt by the comments and reactions to what he considered to be an innocent comment. But that is the way the cookie crumbles.
I believe that I can make what I consider to be my own honest comments now that I have spoken to the General and heard his own story. The important thing to my mind is not so much a question of whether the General was telling me the truth or if with hindsight, he was presenting a revised version of his comments in the light predicament. I personally have no reason to believe that the General was reacting like a man trapped and therefore seeking discussions, but the tape recording of what I said is all there for anyone who wishes to watch it. I also imagine that anyone remotely familiar with the General would make two concessions. One that he would not doctor a comment base on what the public might think so as to receive acceptance. Secondly that General Buhari would consider it beneath him to come our defending himself. Anyone remotely familiar with the mind of a Northern Muslim would concede that the General would remain calm and philosophical, believing in the judgment of his conscience on the one had and that of Allah on the other. It might help to pose the question: did the General warrant the attack that was heaped on him by very senior statesmen and women? Why did our tribe of elder statesmen from whichever calling not find it fit to consult with one of their own before going to town? The inability of his critics to seek his own side of the story would seem to have bothered the General, as I understood him. What this issue raises for me is the way Nigerians generally react in the face of the public discourse on very sore but deeply important issues, especially religion. We all retreat into our cocoons of prejudice and from that comfort, we continue to throw stones at the centre, defending our own but also raising the tensions. The result is that we fail to realize the extent of the damage done to our institutions, causes and integrity. I know that many readers who have rather made up their minds and would rather remain in their laagers will accuse me of blindly supporting the General, pandering to the North, or even trivializing what they consider to be a serious issue. It might also be said that the General may have settled me, as is common with us whenever anyone dares to beat a track away from the popular and wide road tarred with prejudice. They will wonder why I have broken ranks with my own tribe when all good Christians ought to have stood on one side. Well, those who may be familiar with me would already know my antecedes, namely, I love a good fight and do not bow to blackmail or intimidation. I bow to truth as I see it until someone, no matter how small, shows me that there is a superior viewpoint. Indeed, as far I am concerned, Buhari issue could offer us another chance to contest and iron out some more serious national issues.
I am familiar with the wider implication of religion and politics in other lands and this has been my area of research and discourse in the last few years. We are not the first to experience these tensions regarding the implications of religion in political choice. What makes these choices turn into weapons of destruction is the hostile environment with its attendant characteristics: poverty, squalor, illiteracy, hunger and want.
A nation with these characteristics sees its population weakened and reduced to servitude and indignity. The citizens gradually fall back on patrons who then use the condition of their so-called constituency to engineer discontentment by raising the volume of the people's condition. The Patron (he is usually male, a chief, a fake appellation of Dr and a fake Sir, all titles he garners to compensate for his semi literate and modest credentials) is not so much concerned about the welfare of his people, for he requires that existing condition as a grazing field to satisfy his personal ambition and hold on to power. He uses this condition to negotiate with the state, which being largely uncaring about the general condition co-opts this patrons as one of its fellow negotiators (s party member, an office-holder in the dispensation or of a member of the ruling council as the case may be). The patron then invents an identity for his people and builds a brick wall to stop them from both realizing their conditions and negotiating with others in the larger society who may share their depressing conditions. The people are told that they are Hausas, Northerners, Muslims, Yorubas, Igbos, Urhobos or whatever. Their imagined ancestry, with no historical or anthropological basis, becomes the fig leaf for covering the nakedness of the patron's greed. When the people begin to experience the pain and it seems that they are likely to listen to the voice of reason (based on the sermon of those who have seen through this deceit), the people are told by their patron that they cannot contaminate the purity of their linage. We, the descendants of so and so must remain united and stand together. If this identity has been hammered on the anvil of religion, the people are told that the new elite challenging the status quo is betraying the cause. The patron charges anyone exposing this hypocrisy with unbelief or at best those who have abandoned the true religion as ordained by God. This has been the philosophy driving the idea of we, the Northerners, we the descendants of Oduduwa, we the Ndigbo and so on. Although these exclusivist identities make national integration impossible, these characters continue to make noise about the need for patriotism, national unity and peace. But they are a danger to both peace and justice. Unknown to those they claim to represent, they only have the interests of both themselves and their children in mind. The people fail to see that they have time now because all their children have been ferried to the best schools. You can see it when a chance presents itself at the center: it is their children that they put forward when these men of little honour sit down to gamble away our commonwealth. Yet there is the tendency of setting one group against the other when the conditions of poverty are explained away on the claims that our conditions are miserable because the North/Muslims have cornered power, the Yorubas have cornered the economy or the Ndigbo have cornered the bureaucracy. The minorities of course are holding the can marked for the militias because there, life is nasty, it is also brutish and short. They constitute the fighting force and they are doing enough of that as we can see from the internal destructions within both the Northern and Southern minorities. The best of them in the militia tribe, sensing the threat of all this to national survival, have tended to take up arms. Historically, these coups, unless they install one who will sustain the tiny interests of the ruling classes across the board, do not succeed. When the coups threaten to take power from the ruling classes in order to address the issues of equity and create a home for all citizens, they are called failed coups and a chance is provided to eliminate the best from the tribe of the militia minorities. Then, the circle returns as the nation is call upon to spit on the grave of the unpatriotic lot. This has been the history of this nation. Even without arms, when the minorities have tired to raise public awareness to injustice, they have been found to be trying to sing outside the choir and their voices have been shut. The Ogonis are classic representation of this cause. The ferment in the Niger Delta is the best expression of these contradictions…
The reaction to the Buhari saga shows in many respects the fact that we are still not out of the woods. Indeed, those who have argued with no supporting evidence that June 12th showed that we have overcome the politics of ethnic differences and regionalism have overstated their case. We still have a long way to go. For those who have resorted to Sharia to buy time and legitimacy, it is not clear yet whether the worst is still to come. But I have it on good authority from at least two highly placed Muslims from Katsina and Funtua that since the introduction of Sharia, the cost of alcohol has gone up by over two hundred per cent, in some places, much higher. I also hear that the price of kettles has gone up because the elite need at least two, one for real ablution and the other for storing alcohol. At the beginning of the 21st century, at a time when there is no nation in the world that is practicing Sharia at the level we crave for, the ruling elite in Northern Nigeria seemed determined to take a road that will lead to a cul-de-sac. This is not a judgment on the application of Sharia per se. I know that any and every honest Muslim knows that the Laws of God are written in our hearts. We do not need promulgations, proclamations or declarations to implement he love of God. The Iranians tried this road under ayatollah Khomeini. Today, many of the solders of the revolution have changed track and are in a quest for modernization. President Khatami is leading Iranians on the road of modernization. It is nonsense to argue that modernization undermines faith. It is the inability of the elite to respond to the challenges of modernization that create the problems. Modernization is not responsible for the greed and selfishness that face us. It is not responsible for the dubious claims that we make to religion while leaving a lie in realizing the ideals of religion, the liberation of the human person as God's creature…"
In the Holy Bible, it is written that "Ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall save thee." Having presented the truth on General Buhari's position on religion and votes, it is hoped that the readers of this pamphlet will help to pass it on.
Finally, I will quote from Proverbs in the Holy Book.
15.1. "A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grevious words stir anger…"
15.4. "A wholesome tongue is a tree of life; but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit…"
15.6. "In the house of the righteous is much treasure; but in the revenue of the wicked is trouble…"
15.33. "The fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom; and before honour is humility."