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The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) – an umbrella body for all major Christian denominations in Nigeria – recently said the next president of the country must be a Christian from the south.
“We have warned all political parties against fielding either Muslim-Muslim or Christian-Christian presidential candidates. Since President Muhammadu Buhari is a Muslim from the north, in the interest of equity, fairness, social justice and cohesion, the next president should be a Christian from the south,” said CAN President, Rev. Samson Ayokunle.
Barely a week later, the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Nigeria’s largest pentecostal church set up a department of politics and governance ahead of the elections with the aim of boosting the candidacy of its members who seek to run for political office.
“The essence of this directorate is to help coordinate the engagement of our people who are willing to be involved in politics as well as mobilise support for them when required,” the internal memo read.
The church would later clarify that the move was not targeted at just Osinbajo but all its members who want to contest.
The pastor politician
Osinbajo, a professor of law and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), was ordained a preacher at RCCG over 20 years ago and rose to the position of senior pastor, then pastor-in-charge of Lagos Province 48.
Province 48, also known as the Olive Tree Parish, is located on the edge of the private Banana Island estate in Ikoyi where some of Africa’s richest men live. Some of the wealthiest Christians in Lagos also attend the church and they played no small part in the election of Osinbajo in 2015.
The Africa Report learnt that some meetings were organised by prominent members of the church in 2015 where the need for support and funding were discussed.
After the victory of the APC at the polls in 2015, prayers were held for Osinbajo at the church where he was admonished to remain a good ambassador of the church while in office. In 2017, Osinbajo would further reveal that his job as vice-president was temporary as he remained in charge of Province 48 of the RCCG and would be returning fully after politics: “We are on loan. I am still the pastor-in-charge of Province 48 in Lagos and my wife remains wife of the pastor-in-charge and wife of the vice president.”
Will other denominations endorse Osinbajo?
One accusation levelled against Osinbajo is his seeming preference for members of his church especially when it comes to appointments. When Osinbajo emerged as vice-president, his assistant pastor at Province 48, Okechukwu Enelamah, was named minister of trade and investment. Babatunde Irukera, a fellow RCCG pastor and Osinbajo’s business partner at law firm Simmons Cooper was appointed the CEO of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission.
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His spokesman, Laolu Akande, a pastor of the RCCG was instrumental in setting up the church’s first parish in Long Island, New York. Several other aides are also said to be members of his church, a development that some Christians of other denominations have expressed reservations over.
“Osinbajo has surrounded himself with a lot of members of his church. This is not out of place since they are the ones that have easy access to him. But we wish he would be fairer in his appointments,” said a Baptist reverend who wished to remain anonymous.
The vice-president’s link with Buhari could also be a liability. Under Buhari’s watch, several northern Christian minority communities came under attack. In most cases, the attackers were Fulani Muslims. The federal government was accused of failing to arrest the perpetrators because they share the same faith and religion as Buhari, an allegation the presidency has always denied. But this ultimately contributed to the US government placing Nigeria on the list of countries violating religious freedom, a move later reversed by President Biden.
The feeling of these minority groups towards Osinbajo became evident at a stakeholders’ meeting in Benue after a series of killings in the state, when the revered Catholic Bishop of Gboko, Most Rev. William Avenya, challenged the vice president to stand against the injustice being meted out to Benue and other minority tribes in the country saying: “So, as a Christian person, exonerate yourself from this situation. I plead with you to be a Christian and a committed Christian.” In his response, Osinbajo said he remained a pastor and cherished his faith more than politics.
One person whose open support could be seen as a game-changer would be the General Overseer of RCCG, Pastor Enoch Adeboye. The revered cleric, who has been named as one of the most influential people in the world by Times Magazine, is the spiritual leader to millions of people and it has become commonplace for Christian political aspirants to seek his endorsements and blessings. However, Adeboye has never publicly endorsed any candidate before.
Osinbajo, who is one of Adeboye’s spiritual sons, will be expecting to get his endorsement before publicly declaring his intention to contest as he did in 2015. The vice-president himself revealed at a book launch in August 2017 that it was Adeboye who gave him the permission to accept Buhari’s offer to be his running mate: “I consulted Daddy [Adeboye] and he gave the go-ahead to accept the VP position; before then I was not a politician.”
Will Muslims vote for a pastor?
Analysts say Osinbajo’s status as a pastor and endorsements from evangelicals could boost his chances in the Christian parts of the north and the south but in the core north where religion and politics are strongly intertwined, it could prove costly.
No fewer than 12 states in Nigeria practise Sharia law. Although Osinbajo has been able to forge alliances with some powerful members of the Muslim northern elite, it remains to be seen if the Muslim masses will vote for him.
Already, the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) is insisting that if the south must produce the next President, then the person must be a Muslim.
The Africa Report was informed that the latest moves by the RCCG to provide political support to Osinbajo and other members was already unsettling some Muslim groups who had already begun making consultations with a view to providing a platform for Muslim candidates as well.
Already, the endorsement from RCCG has been attracting reactions with veteran journalist and presidential hopeful, Dele Momodu, who is also a member of the church, insisting that any open support for Osinbajo by the RCCG would be disastrous.
Momodu argues that Osinbajo became vice-president in 2015 not because of the RCCG but mainly due to the fact that APC stalwart, Bola Tinubu, nominated him as Buhari’s running mate.
A professor of journalism and newspaper columnist, Farooq Kperogi, argues that the RCCG’s moves could force Muslim groups to also endorse Muslim candidates, saying: “With RCCG’s openly political partisanship, expect the same from the Salafists. Let’s see where that leads.”
But a political analyst, Dare Ariyo-Atoye, who is also the convener, Coalition in Defence of Nigerian Democracy and Constitution, tells The Africa Report that churches endorsing candidates is not new, adding that even in advanced democracies like the US, evangelicals, the media and other groups endorse candidates.
However, Ariyo said since Osinbajo was already popular among Christians his focus should be getting the endorsements of Muslim organisations as this would boost his appeal.
“The endorsement of Osinbajo by the church is in order. It is not illegal. And I believe such endorsements should come automatically but this shouldn’t be a signpost of his popularity. His popularity will be when he gets endorsements from Islamic institutions and non-partisan institutions organisations,” he says.
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