I was too young to have noticed the rigged elections in the defunct Western Region in 1964. I witnessed as an adult the charade of the 1983 elections that made Fela Anikulapo Kuti to sing “Teacher don’t teach me nonsense”. I witnessed the disgraceful 2007 election that brought in President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. It was so bad that even the “victor” had to openly admit it at his inauguration. By my estimation, the last election was worse than 1983 and 2007 put together.
The last election offers us clear and strong indications that the current generation of Nigerian politicians lack the political and moral will to let democracy flourish. Rather than make it flourish, they would prefer feudalism to democracy. They would prefer a Nigeria run as their personal empire. They would rather have a Nigeria that pretends to practice democracy than a Nigeria where democracy is truly the norm. The clearest indication came from the build-up to the last election and from the manner in which the election was conducted.
The conduct of the 2023 Presidential election in Nigeria brutally reminds us that this country is many miles distant from the democratic ideal. In a true democracy, voters are not intimidated. But Nigerians witnessed voter intimidation on the way to and at polling stations, in the presence of the police. The police as a security agency has the duty of protecting the electoral process and those who participate in it. But we saw video clips of voter intimidation, with people being told of dire consequences that would be visited on them if they failed to vote for a particular candidate, while the police looked the other way. “The police is your friend,” so says a slogan. But with friends like the police no one needs an enemy.
To muddy the waters, our strange religiosity is brought in. And so, Nigerians got some comic relief during the campaigns, courtesy of false prophets and fake pastors. The frequency and content of their “prophecies”, their unfounded claims to know the mind of God regarding the outcome of the elections exposed the underbelly of a deformed Christianity in Nigeria. Many of the so-called men of God who were speaking as if God sent them sms during the night have been reduced to silence. They were calling the name of God in vain. They were telling lies in the name of God.
Part of the comic relief was the apparition one fine afternoon of ill-trained comedians dressed in cassocks and calling themselves Bishops. They emerged from God-knows-where to endorse a leading candidate. This can only happen in a land where Christianity without memory has supplanted the real Christianity. Christianity without memory is one which is preached and practiced as if there were no history behind Christian practices. For anyone who has the faintest idea of history of Christianity, of how bishops are chosen and ordained in the Christian tradition, the apparition of these strange episcopal beings was one comedy gone too far. It was simply blasphemous. It would not have been tolerated if it had been directed at another religion. There would have been calls to lapidate unto death those who staged it.
In the build up to the election, I had advised that people ignore anyone who said God had revealed to him who would be President. I had also warned then that such a person would be a liar, a scammer and a charlatan dressed in the stolen robe of a prophet. We have had and heard them in the past. Remember 2015? But prophecy in the Bible is not divination.
Instead of relying on prophecy, it was time for Nigerians to critically assess each of the candidates, think of the interest of Nigeria, and vote with the interest of Nigeria in mind. It was time to refrain from vote fraud, intolerance and violence.
A fellow responded to what I said by telling me I was speaking out of jealousy of those who have the gift of prophecy. By prophecy, he meant the ability to predict the future. But there was nothing to be jealous about. There was, instead, something to worry about: fake prophets and pseudo-evangelizers have done more harm to Christianity than any terrorist. They have acted in ways that bring and Christianity to ridicule. A true prophet speaks for God. But these men do not speak for God. They are politically rented prophets speaking for the politicians who rented them.
Religion – Islam and Christianity – was weaponized and instrumentalized in the course for victory at the polls. Churches and other religious gatherings became campaign grounds where candidates went to display their piety. Religion, like ethnicity, was also exploited to accentuate our differences to the point where the oppressor divides the oppressed, and the oppressed, instead of uniting to challenge their oppressor, turn against one another. What else does one make of the contrived Yoruba-Igbo altercation over Lagos?
Nigerians hero worship their politicians, and the politicians love it. We witnessed an election season in which each of the leading presidential candidates underwent a sudden apotheosis thanks to their fanatical supporters. And, once a politician is dressed in the stolen robes of divinity, any attempt to scrutinize his antecedents met with attacks from his worshippers. After all, gods are not to be questioned. Plato’s Socrates asked the gods questions and answered for it. He was arraigned in the courts for impiety and paid with his dear life.
At the risk of being accused of impiety, we too ought to ask these gods and their worshippers some questions: are we living in a truly democratic polity when we cannot hold dissenting opinions about presidential candidates? Is it democracy when touts and thugs bearing guns are deployed to harass voters on election day? Can we sincerely call it democracy when gunmen snatch ballot boxes and destroy ballot papers in polling units perceived as stronghold of the prior? Are we really practicing democracy if, more than two weeks after we saw persons in video clips threatening other voters, there has been no prosecution? Are we even allowed to ask questions in this democracy? And if we ask, is anybody listening?
© Rev. Fr. Professor Anthony A. Akinwale, O.P. is a Professor of Systematic Theology and Thomistic Studies and Pioneer Vice-Chancellor, Dominican University, Ibadan, NIGERIA