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Monday, April 15, 2024

The Prevailing Culture of Impunity Among Nigerian Clerics Must Stop – By Matthew Ma

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“As leaders of our respective religious communities, we carry a significant responsibility towards our followers. We must understand that our words hold immense power, and we should be mindful of their potential impact on those around us. Our words can have a profound effect on people’s lives, either positively or negatively. Therefore, it is crucial that we carefully consider the language we use, the tone we adopt, and the message we communicate. We must always strive to inspire and uplift others while avoiding language that can hurt or discourage them.”

 

In recent times, there has been a growing concern among Nigerian citizens and human rights advocates about the daunting trend of impunity among religious leaders in influential positions. These leaders have been found to make false prophecies, controversial statements, and unfounded predictions without facing any consequences. Despite the existence of legal systems and institutional frameworks in Nigeria, some religious leaders persist in ignoring the law and using inflammatory language in their sermons. These leaders have also been accused of engaging in unethical behavior, including financial impropriety, sexual abuse, fanaticism, and other forms of misconduct. Additionally, they have been accused of committing white-collar crimes, mischief, and felonies that have harmed their congregants and society at large. These allegations have led to public concern and scrutiny, with many calling for accountability and justice. It has caused widespread consternation and raised questions about the credibility and integrity of these religious leaders. The distressing pattern of behavior observed among religious leaders and institutions has had a detrimental impact on public confidence and trust. This has also had an adverse effect on Nigeria’s justice system, rule of law, and social order. The absence of accountability amongst these leaders has led to a sense of disorder and unpredictability, causing numerous Nigerians to feel vulnerable and marginalized. Examples of religious leaders acting with impunity in Nigeria are widespread. Let’s take a closer look at some of these instances.

 

In Nigeria, impunity is not limited to the country’s elites but is also prevalent among religious leaders. For example, a few days ago, Nigerians, both at home and abroad, watched a viral video of a Muslim cleric who described the First Lady, Oluremi Tinubu, as an infidel. In a video circulating online, the Islamic cleric declared that Nigeria’s First Lady deserves to die for being a pastor. The cleric was heard saying the Muslim/Muslim ticket that brought President Bola Tinubu to power was a scam. The cleric, whose identity could not be ascertained, averred that the wife of the president, being an infidel, should be put to death as provided for in the Quran. Although he did not offer any chapter or verse of the Quran to support his claim, he posits that God’s judgment says such a person must be executed or beheaded. Condemning the actions of the Islamic cleric, Nigerians criticized the alarming culture of impunity among religious leaders in the country. Recall that in October 2023, an Islamic cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, alleged that Muslim military officers don’t perpetrate injustice like their Christian counterparts, even when they dominate security services. The cleric, in a video sermon of over 14 minutes posted on his official Facebook page, also said Christians and southerners could not be trusted with power in Nigeria like northern Muslims. He said during former President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, a Christian cleric complained to him about Buhari’s nepotism and the predominance of Muslims as heads of security agencies. He responded that Muslims would not use this to abuse anyone, whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims. On the contrary, if Christians occupy these positions, they will destroy us. According to him, Muslims are not as evil as Christians when they are in power.

In 2021, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) criticized the Department of State Services (DSS) over its alleged silence and apparent inaction to the unambiguous incitement against Christians made in a viral video allegedly by one Ustaz Abubakar Salihu Zaria. The association described the police inaction as discriminatory, illegal, and improper. HURIWA expressed dismay and shock that such a seditious video was made by a so-called religious leader threatening to carry out reprisals on Christians over the cruel and brutal killing of scores of Muslim travelers in Jos by unknown gunmen. Yet, the DSS overlooked the sensational and violence-prone video. Recall that earlier in the viral video, Ustaz Abubakar Salihu threatened to kill Christians in retaliation for the killing by the militiamen. According to the PUNCH newspaper, the suspected Irigwe militia killed the Fulani travelers in August 2021 around the Gada-Biyu-Rukuba Road area in Jos when the victims were returning from the annual Zikir prayers in Bauchi State. The angry youths killed the Fulanis in retaliation for their relatives who suspected herders had earlier killed. Speaking in Hausa in a sermon, Ustaz Salihu reportedly swears to God that if such a thing ever occurs again, the Muslims will also block the roads, intercept Christian commuters, and destroy them one after another. In the statement, the National Coordinator, Comrade Emmanuel Onwubiko, and the National Media Affairs Director, Miss Zainab Yusuf, wondered why the security forces were waiting for the threats to be fully executed before they could take any lawful measures to bring the religious preacher to justice. HURIWA also asked the DSS to explain to Nigerians why it invited the Edo State-based Christian leader Pastor Johnson Suleiman and the Enugu State-based Catholic Priest Fr. Ejike Mbaka when they individually made innocuous statements which, in the estimation of DSS, were damaging to National Security. HURIWA wondered why the same DSS had gone mute upon hearing a Muslim cleric make threats against Christians. They noted how the President, through his media handlers, attacked Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, for reportedly criticizing President Muhammadu Buhari’s silence on the killings of Christians by armed Islamists in the North of Nigeria. They said the inaction and silence of the DSS in the incitement against the lives of Christians made by Ustaz Abubakar Zaria contravenes some sections of the Nigerian constitution.

 

In October 2023, SaharaReporters published an article stating that Sheikh Gumi had made a controversial statement about the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Nyesom Wike. According to Sheikh Gumi, Mr. Wike is a Satanic person because he had invited the Israeli Ambassador to Abuja and announced plans to collaborate with the Israelis on security matters in the city. The Sheikh expressed concern that such collaboration would turn Abuja into an extension of Tel Aviv, and anyone who looks like them, with a beard, would be mistaken for Bin Laden and killed. Sheikh Gumi went on to criticize the security situation in Abuja, stating that it was the people’s responsibility and that the government was not doing enough to protect them. The statement by Sheikh Gumi sparked a lot of controversy, with many people expressing their displeasure at his choice of words and the implications of his statement. It also led to calls for increased security measures in Abuja and other parts of the country to prevent any terrorist attacks.

Numerous Nigerians condemned the government for not summoning Sheikh Gumi to appear before the authorities. They expressed their outrage that Sheikh Gumi was allowed to walk away without facing any consequences for the statement he made. Many Nigerians label the situation as a clear example of impunity being ignored. The lack of accountability for such actions left many Nigerians feeling frustrated and thinking that justice was never served.

 

One of the primary goals of governance in a modern state is to maintain law and order while safeguarding the lives and property of its citizens. A democratic state operates under the rule of law, as dictated by the constitution, rather than by the ruler’s whims or the influence of a powerful elite. Fundamental to the concept of human rights is the belief in equality and dignity of all, regardless of their circumstances. This means that no one should be subject to torture or inhumane treatment, nor should they be owned or coerced into work. Every individual should be treated fairly and equally by all Nigerians, including the justice system. If arrested and charged, one should be afforded a fair trial without bias or prejudice. This right is crucial to our understanding of personhood and is protected under Section 34 of the 1999 constitution, which guarantees respect for every individual’s dignity. It is imperative that all individuals are treated humanely and with respect. Any form of torture, slavery, servitude, or forced labor is strictly prohibited. According to Section 86 of the Criminal Code Act in Nigeria, engaging in actions with the intent to intimidate or harm individuals is considered a misdemeanor. It can result in one year of imprisonment. If the offense is committed during the nighttime, it is regarded as a felony and can result in three years of imprisonment. Additionally, Section 324 of the Criminal Code Act in Nigeria prohibits any individual from knowingly causing another person to receive a threatening message, which is considered a felony and can result in seven years of imprisonment. Based on these facts, the modern state should be organized in such a public-spirited security apparatus that the citizens are never at the mercy of insignificant criminals, radical clerics, paid thugs, and touts. A modern state should be organized in such a way that citizens will never have to sleep with one eye open for fear of political bandits and paid thugs and touts. A modern state should never allow its citizens to run for their lives at the mention of religious fanatics and ethnic warlords. It should never allow its citizens to stay indoors for fear of secret cultists and area boys. Yes, in organized modern societies where the rule of law is in place, governors and their families do not have to take oats before juju priests in the middle of the night, nor do they have to flee the state house now and again at the instance of hired assassins and godfathers of primitive feudalism. Therefore, a religious leader who incites violence and calls for the murder of a Nigerian must be arrested and made to face the law.

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A year ago, Nigeria lost Deborah Samuel in the most brutal and cruel circumstances. Recall that Deborah Samuel Yakubu, a second-year Christian college student, was stoned to death by a mob of Muslim students in Sokoto, Nigeria, after being accused of blasphemy against Islam. The Muslim suspects arrested were charged with “criminal conspiracy and incitement of public disturbance,” bailable offenses with a maximum of 2 years of jail time. But in a surprising twist, Deborah Samuel’s suspected killers were later acquitted and dismissed. Chief Magistrate Shuaibu Ahmad, Esq, set the suspects free due to the absence of the police prosecution during a series of hearings. From the way things happen in Nigeria, the suspects in this murder and the religious leaders who supported the murder may one day win elections in Nigeria and become our governors, senators, or presidents while still suspects in a capital crime. Even some Muslims have died in such circumstances at the hands of bandits and criminals. Yet, no one has been able to unravel the mystery behind these deaths. The story of Sheikh Gumi serves as a vivid example of the culture of impunity in modern Nigeria. In recent years, the state has failed, and governance has crumbled, leading to a situation in which individuals act without regard for the law. Political bandits, ethnic warlords, and religious fanatics now dominate our society. This has led to a situation in which a religious leader can threaten the life of a citizen and face no consequences. Such behavior is in direct violation of the nation’s constitution, which requires that offenders face punishment for their crimes. Were these crimes committed in a developed country, the perpetrator would likely spend the rest of their life in jail. In Nigeria, however, these individuals are often celebrated and even awarded traditional titles.

 

The lackadaisical approach of our government and security officials towards the unchecked offenses committed by Nigerians is highly alarming. It is disheartening to observe those who have been entrusted with the responsibility to safeguard the lives of Nigerians are instead taking advantage of them. Laws that are meant to protect the nation are being twisted to cater to the desires of a select few. These officials give preference to their interests over the welfare and hopes of Nigerians. As a result, a growing number of individuals are experiencing disillusionment and resorting to violent means. There are allegations of corruption among high-ranking officials in both the executive and legislative branches, leading many Nigerians to feel disillusioned with the political class. Many have found alternative means of expressing their grievances. Unfortunately, these outbursts are often fueled by religious, ethnic, or political differences, with some accusing certain politicians of purposely igniting these conflicts for their own gain. However, we must hold our elected officials accountable for their actions or lack thereof. We must demand that the government create a peaceful and supportive environment for all Nigerians, enforcing legal consequences for those who commit crimes against their fellow citizens. It is time for our leaders to prioritize policies that promote peace, security, and prosperity for all. We need leaders who can work together to find solutions to our problems, leaders who are willing to listen to the concerns of their constituents, and leaders who are committed to building a better Nigeria. It is high time that we held our public officeholders accountable for their actions and demanded transparency and accountability in all their dealings.

 

Achieving peace in Nigeria is a noble aspiration, one that requires more than just a desire. As responsible members of society, we must take concrete steps to make it a reality. This means developing effective conflict management strategies and being willing to make sacrifices to achieve our goals. It is a known fact that Nigeria has been plagued by violence, which has affected the country’s economic growth and social development. Therefore, it is up to level-headed individuals to defend the rule of law in order to prevent the nation from spiraling into lawlessness and chaos. Additionally, we must remain vigilant in our evolving democracy and guard against those who seek to destabilize our nation, including the gang of Islamic extremists and their allies. We cannot allow our country to be manipulated by political crooks, nor can we allow it to become a war zone without borders or reason. Amidst the current turmoil in Nigeria, it is essential that we take decisive actions to prevent religious fanatics from causing further harm. This may involve partnering with law enforcement agencies and religious leaders to promote peace and understanding. Furthermore, we must work to bridge the gaps that exist between different religious and ethnic groups in our country, for only then can we achieve lasting peace and prosperity. It is crucial to recognize that religious and ethnic differences are not the root cause of the violence in Nigeria but rather the result of political manipulation and economic inequality. Therefore, we must address the underlying issues that fuel violence and work towards creating a more equitable society. While the road to peace in Nigeria is challenging, we must remain committed to our shared goal of creating a better future for ourselves and future generations. By working together and taking bold actions against forces of intolerance and instability, we can build a peaceful and prosperous Nigeria for all. It is only through our collective efforts that we can achieve peace and stability in our beloved country.

What steps can we take to ensure that Nigerian are held accountable for their actions and do not evade justice and punishment? How can we ensure that Nigerian religious leaders who have encouraged violence and animosity are held responsible for their actions? As the old adage suggests, every single action that we take has a consequence, whether it be good or bad. It is essential to be mindful of the choices we make and the impact they may have on ourselves and those around us. Each decision we make, no matter how big or small, has the potential to affect not only ourselves but also our loved ones, colleagues, and even strangers. Regardless, it is crucial to consider the potential outcomes before we act so that we can make the best decisions for ourselves and those impacted by our actions. Sometimes, the consequences of our actions become evident and apparent in an instant. For instance, consider a situation where we unintentionally utter something hurtful to someone. In such a case, we may instantly observe the impact of our words on the person’s facial expression and body language. The immediate consequences of our actions help us realize the gravity of our behavior and its potential repercussions, making us more mindful of our words and actions in the future. Other times, the results of our actions are immediately unnoticeable. For instance, we might engage in unhealthy habits like smoking, overeating, or lack of exercise and not see the adverse effects on our health for years to come. However, over time, we may suffer from chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, or cancer, which could have been prevented if we had taken better care of ourselves. As we go about our daily lives, we may not always be aware of the impact that our choice of words can have on our future well-being. It’s essential to be mindful of the language we use, both in our interactions with others and in our internal dialogue, as it can shape our thoughts, emotions, and actions. Our words have the power to create positive or negative energy, and they can influence how we perceive ourselves, others, and the world around us, even if we don’t see the consequences right away. Therefore, it’s crucial to choose our words carefully and make sure they align with our values and intentions so we can cultivate a positive and fulfilling life.

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There is a growing concern about some clerics from the Christian and Muslim faiths who engage in harmful or inflammatory sermons without being held responsible. These individuals often believe that they are above the law and can get away with their actions. They exploit their positions of power and influence, and some even record and share videos of their radical homilies without fear of repercussion. This lack of accountability not only undermines the rule of law but also puts vulnerable individuals at risk of exploitation and abuse. The consequences of these are devastating, as they perpetuate a culture of impunity and erode public trust in religious institutions. There has been a long-standing debate regarding whether or not religious leaders should be exempted from obeying Nigerian laws. While some argue that religious leaders should be granted special privileges due to their status, it is essential to establish that religious leaders, irrespective of their faith, are not above the law and should be held accountable for any actions that violate state laws. Religious leaders are not above the state or its laws. Instead, they are an integral part of the state and, therefore, must abide by the same laws that apply to all citizens. As a result, state laws should take precedence over any religious beliefs or practices that may conflict with them. It is imperative to ensure that the rule of law is upheld and that all members of society are subject to the same legal framework, regardless of their social status, position, or religious affiliation. This will promote a fair and just society where everyone is held accountable for their actions. Moreover, it will ensure that individuals do not use their religious position or influence to perpetrate illegal or unethical activities. To achieve this, the government should ensure that religious leaders are subject to the same legal processes as everyone else. This means that religious leaders who violate state laws should be arrested, prosecuted, and punished according to the law. In addition, the government should provide adequate education and training to religious leaders on the importance of obeying state laws, as well as the consequences of violating them. Therefore, it is crucial to establish that religious leaders are not above the law and should be held accountable for any actions that violate state laws. By doing so, we can promote a fair and just society where the rule of law is upheld and all citizens are subject to the same legal framework.

 

The judicial system in Nigeria has been a subject of criticism for its perceived weakness and ineffectiveness, especially in cases involving religious leaders with higher authority. There have been claims of preferential treatment towards clerics, leading to delayed or inadequate prosecution of cases involving them. For example, there have been several instances where religious leaders have been accused of using their position of influence to instigate violent acts. Such cases were particularly evident when clerics used their pulpit to incite hatred and animosity towards certain groups of people, often leading to communal tension and violence. This shortcoming has led to a perceived lack of accountability for those in power. It has fueled the perception that the laws in Nigeria primarily benefit the wealthy and powerful while leaving the weak and poor at a disadvantage. Such negligence is not only morally reprehensible but also illegal and undermines the fundamental principles of religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence. Despite evidence of misconduct, Nigerians often defend these clerics using the phrase, “Touch not my anointed and do no harm to my prophets.” This phrase has become a common way to shield religious leaders from prosecution and accountability, even when they are suspected of criminal activity. Even when a cleric is brought to court, the judicial system will find ways to protect them. For example, judges may use the exact phrase, “Touch not my anointed and do my prophet no harm,” as a basis for dismissing cases or reducing sentences. This practice undermines the integrity of the judicial system and reinforces the perception that some clerics are above the law. Without a fair and effective system of justice, it is impossible to hold those in power accountable.

 

As leaders of our respective religious communities, we carry a significant responsibility towards our followers. We must understand that our words hold immense power, and we should be mindful of their potential impact on those around us. Our words can have a profound effect on people’s lives, either positively or negatively. Therefore, it is crucial that we carefully consider the language we use, the tone we adopt, and the message we communicate. We must always strive to inspire and uplift others while avoiding language that can hurt or discourage them. Promoting positivity, compassion, and understanding should be central to our interactions with others. We should make a conscious effort to listen to and empathize with others, even if their views differ from ours. By doing so, we can help create a more harmonious and inclusive community where everyone feels valued and respected. We hold a significant responsibility towards shaping the world around us in a positive direction. We have the power to make a difference by using our words wisely and promoting a message of kindness, empathy, and understanding. By instilling these values in our communities, we can contribute to a more peaceful and just world for all. Our role as religious leaders goes beyond merely guiding our followers toward spiritual enlightenment. We must also play an active role in promoting social justice, equality, and human rights. By doing so, we can create a society that is more compassionate, inclusive, and caring towards all its members. Therefore, in as much as we don’t like President Bola Tinubu, to threaten his wife with death is wrong, and we must condemn this in its entirety. The culture of impunity that prevails among religious leaders must stop. Enough is enough!

Rev. Ma, S.J, is a Jesuit Catholic priest and PhD candidate in public and social policy at St. Louis University in the state of Missouri, USA.

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