Gov Wike’s style and candour stoke controversy

September 6, 2019
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Religion and a poor economy, acting as misshapen anvil and hammer, have become the unlikely forces between which Nigeria is being beaten into submission. No event fittingly illustrates this point more than the brouhaha over the supposed demolition of a mosque in the Trans-Amadi Area of Rivers State by the Nyesom Wike government on August 20, 2019. Former Kano State governor, Ibrahim Shekarau, was among the first to take umbrage on behalf of Muslims everywhere by condemning the alleged demolition. A little later, Abdulahi Ganduje, governor of Kano State, one of the 12 northern states practicing Sharia Law, also followed suit by denouncing Mr Wike for the audacious demolition. Despite reassurances and refutations, the controversy over the alleged demolition is yet to die down. The Rivers governor is being painted as intolerant and anti-Islam.

The context for this controversy was probably set by the often spontaneous Mr Wike himself when he declared during a religious crusade organised by the Lord’s Chosen Charismatic Church on June 23, 2019 that Rivers State saw itself as a Christian state. Said Mr Wike during the crusade, prologuing his statement on the last governorship elections: “We saw forces, but the greater force, God Almighty, came. With this crusade, Rivers State will be abundantly blessed. I repeat once again without apologies, Rivers State is a Christian State. That is why nobody can touch us. When it mattered most, the Christian community prayed and God heard your prayers. I will continue to support the activities of all churches. This Government will always partner with the churches , whatever the programme they are engaged in. I urge the church to continue to pray. Each time you pray, put us in your prayers…On March 9 2019 light prevailed over darkness. God showed himself and he is in charge. But for God, I wouldn’t have been here addressing the Christian faithful. The enemies came to Rivers State to take over the state and stop the will of the people. But God said no and the will of the people prevailed.“

It is not clear how popular Mr Wike’s view on the Christian identity of Rivers is. But writing shortly after the governor’s statement had begun to generate controversy and abuse from a number of quarters, including from a few Muslim communities, Annkio Briggs, a human rights activist based in Port Harcourt, declared that Rivers could not be blackmailed into repudiating its Christian identity at a time when some northern states had become unapologetic about their open embrace of Islam. The activist declared: “Why are Christians expected to be politically correct when it concerns their choice of religion? Gov Wike is a Christian, yet it has not stopped him from having Muslim friends amongst politicians, and it has not stopped him from according the highest regard and respect to Emirs and Muslim religious leaders. Gov. Wike is a Christian and Rivers state is a Christian state, yet these facts have not stopped him from inviting his Muslim friends to Rivers state on state functions or for other reasons. Rivers state is one highly influential state amongst the 36 states in Nigeria and we will not apologise to anyone, religion, political party or socio-cultural groups for our choice of religion, our love, respect and commitment to our religion. We will not tolerate anyone to blackmail, threaten and terrorise Rivers state indigenous peoples, government or governor for our choice of faith or upholding our laws in our state.”

If Annkio Briggs’ statement was prompted by the controversy over the alleged Mosque demolition, she did not indicate it in her article from which the above quotation was taken. Indeed, she seems more concerned about Rivers State’s Christian identity than anything else, and angered by what she hinted was a clumsy attempt by some politicians and states to advance the impression that one religion was superior to another and deserving of open support regardless of whatever anyone thinks or felt. If thinking politicians led the country sensibly, they would regard the controversy over the alleged demolition as an indication of a portentous future, a future that should demand the most logical and acceptable definition of secularity. But as is usual, few leaders are paying the kind of solemn and responsible attention to the brewing crisis as urgently demanded by the occasion.

Stung by allegations of intolerance over the alleged August 20 Mosque demolition, to which a number of northern critics and serving and former governors had reacted peevishly and threatened fire and litigation, Mr Wike denounced the blackmail and refuted the allegations. What was demolished, as proved by photographs, he said during a tour of the site with journalists, was a foundation laid by some errant builders on government land. A building foundation, the governor deadpanned, could not amount to a Mosque, even if it was meant to be one. It also turned out that the land in question had been unsuccessfully litigated by some landowners who lost the case to the state government. It was, therefore, not a question of Mosque demolition, government supporters said, seeing that only a foundation was erected on the plot, but only the demolition of an unapproved building that showed no indication it belonged to any religious organisation.

The problem, however, is not just whether a misunderstanding arose from the said demolition, or the characteristic sourness with which the controversy was conducted, or even the self-righteousness displayed by both Mallam Shekarau and Dr Ganduje whose implementation of their state laws had deeply injured the concept of federalism and secularism, but the obvious indication of a troubled Nigerian unity and uncertain future, a future so deeply troubled that it has become tentative. Twelve northern states had by their imposition of Sharia Law questioned the reliability of the constitutional principle of secularism; it was thus only a question of time, as more incidents challenged the unity of the country and underscored the absence of a national identity, before some southern states conversely began to declare and categorise themselves in terms that were clearly dissonant with the constitution. As Annkio Briggs asserted, and as Mr Wike indicated during the Charismatic Church crusade of June 23, it was important for Rivers to openly declare its affiliations just as some states in the North had done.

The country lost the opportunity to affirm its secularity in the opening years of the Fourth Republic when Zamfara under the sybaritic former governor Ahmed Sani veered constitutionally off course in the obtuse name of federalism. Now the Zamfara declaration has become the new normal, a situation that is destined with time to course through some other states and foul the trust and amity that had gingerly existed among Nigerians for decades. That amity will be sorely tested in the coming years; and the reason will be because Nigeria’s political leaders lack the courage and common sense to do what is right, to recognise the virtue and usefulness of secularism, and to put religion in its place.

It must agitate Nigerians that Kano State, which for instance denounces alcoholic drinks as unacceptable, and has taken extra steps to forcefully banish such beverages from the state, can in the same breath and in a perverted interpretation of the laws of the land, share in the VAT proceeds that come from alcoholic drinks. If federalism sanctions the demolition of secularism or enthrones its narrow definition, it ought sensibly to sanction the full retention of VAT proceeds by states that generate it, in this instance by states that sanction the production and sales of alcoholic beverages. Instead, many states have taken the appalling and lazy culture of centrally sharing revenue in Abuja on a monthly basis as a licence for making bad laws and promoting and excusing poor governance. Should Nigeria wake up sometime in the future from its deep sleep, as indeed it will do sooner than later, and compel states to be fully accountable to their people and to generate their own revenue, those states will become less impulsive and irrational in promoting anti-developmental causes, making useless laws, advocating and embracing costly political structures, and enunciating dismal and counterproductive policies.

Despite all this, Mr Wike was characteristically impulsive and unwise to openly declare Rivers State a Christian state. The Sharia states, which he contradistinctively tried to emulate, made no such open declarations. They simply made laws that showed their sectarian predilections, and ruled with uncanny disdain for the principle of secularism. Mr Wike was at liberty, together with the state legislature, to tilt government programmes and policies anywhere they wish without necessarily making open declarations. Had they done these and given and withheld approvals in line with the philosophical and religious principles by which they wish to govern their state, it is unlikely he would have drawn the flak that now seems greatly discomfiting to him.

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