The Church and Political Leadership in Nigeria

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By Olusegun Adeniyi

Os Hillman is a successful entrepreneur in the field of publishing and internet marketing. But what makes him popular is his daily Christian devotional, TGIF (Today God is First) which centres on the role that faith and ethics play in the marketplace. In one of his many inspirational writings, Hillman told the story of a rider on horseback who, more than two centuries ago, came across a squad of soldiers who were trying to move a heavy piece of timber.

According to Hillman, a Corporal stood by, giving orders to his men to “Heave.” But even with all his shouts and commands, the piece of timber was too heavy for the squad. “Why don’t you help them?” asked the quiet man on the horse, addressing the important officer who instantly replied: “Me? I’m a Corporal, Sir!”

Dismounting, the stranger carefully took his place with the soldiers. “Now, all together boys – heave!” he said. And the big piece of timber slid into place. With the job done, the stranger mounted his horse and addressed the Corporal. “Next time you have a piece of timber for your men to handle, Corporal, send for your Commander-in-Chief.”

Unknown to the Corporal, according to Hillman, the horseman was George Washington, the first American President.

The moral of the story is very simple: leadership is not about barking orders, it is about helping subordinates and others around us with the heavy lifting while respect is not earned by staying on the horse, but rather by getting down, rolling up the sleeves and getting the hands dirty. That lesson, I believe, will serve all of us seated here today.

Although I do not know what qualifies me for this invitation and personally, I frown at democratising the pulpit for people like me who have no pastoral calling, I am nonetheless happy to be here. I therefore thank Pastor Emeka Obiagwu, my own sister, mummy Chi and the entire leadership of the Rose of Sharon Parish of the Redeemed Christian Church of God for inviting me here this morning to speak on political leadership. But I am curious about the invitation. I am not a politician and I am not planning to be one, at least not in the immediate future. That, I must add, is not because I see anything wrong with politics but rather because I believe I already have a calling in journalism. However, as you will find out in the course of this conversation, this is not the time to leave politics to politicians.

Perhaps I should qualify the statement I made earlier about me and politics. My wife and children as well as some of my close friends know that I do have a political ambition but I have given it a timeframe of the next ten years from now, God granting me life. When my children are done with their education and I do not have to worry about school fees, I plan to go and contest for election to run my local government in Kwara State.

I know what the challenges in the area are and I am sure I can make a world of difference at that level. I also believe that when the time comes, I would have built enough local and international contacts as well as the goodwill to leverage on for the needed resources required for the task at hand. For now, let me hustle for my children’s education.

It is true that I have reported and written about politics for a living and I have been around politicians at all levels of government in Nigeria. I have also had the privilege of serving as presidential spokesman in our country. So, I guess that accounts for the invitation. But if anyone expects me to speak about the 2019 general election and what will happen, then I am going to disappoint this morning. Instead of analysing Nigerian politics like we do around newsstands, I prefer we look at leadership as espoused by our Lord Jesus Christ. If at the end of the engagement I am able to fire up at least one person to reassess his or her civic responsibility or provoke somebody to seek elective office with the aim of adopting the leadership model of Jesus, my mission here would be deemed accomplished. Afterall, the principles of leadership are the same for all professions, whether it be journalism, business or politics.

From the story of George Washington with which I opened this presentation, which is actually what our Lord Jesus Christ taught throughout his earthly ministry, as I will explain shortly, Christian leadership is about influencing or serving others. Please listen to this: But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.”

I am sure that is a familiar story for the people seated here but let me remind you of the context to those words of our Lord Jesus Christ taken from the book of Matthew Chapter 20 verse 25 to 28. It was a response to what happened, beginning from verse 20 of the same chapter. The mother of two brothers among the disciples of Jesus visited Him. One would imagine that the woman came to thank Jesus for the good care her children were enjoying plus the attitudinal change she must have noticed since they started following Him. But no! The moment she got to Jesus, the woman knelt down (to demonstrate the importance of the request she was about to make), and then she said: “Oga Jesus, please grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on your right hand and the other on the left, in your kingdom.”

If we use the Nigerian context, this is like asking that one of her sons be appointed the Chief of Staff to the President and the other, the State Chief of Protocol (SCOP). The closest positions in terms of access were what the woman came to Jesus kneeling down to seek for her children. Nepotism, favouritism and preferential treatment. These were what the mother of Zebedee brothers wanted Jesus to do for her sons.

Even before the request could be considered by Jesus, there was already a revolt in the room. The other ten disciples became greatly displeased with the two brothers and rancour ensued. That was when Jesus intervened by giving them the message on leadership: It is about service, he reminded his men, it is about being a slave. If you desire to be great, you must be prepared to be a servant. There we have the model of Jesus which is completely at variance with what we have in Nigeria today.

Why is our country the way it is today?

It is because many of those who seek political offices think like the mother of the Zebedee brothers. It is more about the gain to be made than the service to be rendered; the influence to be peddled rather than the work to be done. Yet our society will not change until we begin to think less of ourselves and more about others. Even when you may not currently occupy any political office, there is so much that each of us can do where we are right now so, I want to recommend a few of the less-talked-about principles that made Jesus stand out as a leader.

Modesty: The Jews expected some pomp around Jesus. They wondered what sort of person he was when they asked “who are you” in John 8:25. His life on earth was about service to humanity. He rode on donkey. He trekked far distances. He washed the feet of his disciples. Today, those who lead cannot even carry their own speeches. And everybody wants to own their private jets and ride in state-of-the-art cars with long convoys that terrorise innocent citizens.

Whether in the political arena or on the pulpit, it is easy to know those that are serving themselves rather than the people. They are barricaded by armed security. Loud noise goes before them when they move. They are unreachable. It is no wonder we still celebrate Christ, more than 2,000 years after his ascension and we forget these so called leaders the moment they leave the scene.

Self-development: This is one of the reasons I admire the leadership of Jesus. He was always found sneaking away to spend time with his father. He practised solitude and silence, fasting, meditation on scripture, and prayer. (Luke 4:1). You cannot fault Jesus on constantly developing himself. The tragedy of political leadership in Nigeria today is that many of those who decide our fate don’t bother to read. They are in fact too big to read. Even the things that have been broken down for some of them by their retinue of aides are too much for them to comprehend. Yet, if you want to be ahead as a leader, you have to commit yourself to studying in solitude, retreating constantly to acquire knowledge.

Recruitment Style: There is something about the recruitment method of Jesus worth copying by today’s political leaders. The emphasis was on intellect, experience and networking. In the account according to Matthew 4: 18-22, Jesus called Peter and Andrew. Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist. And then to networking: Andrew found Simon, Philip found Nathaniel. Jesus obviously allowed these disciples to add to the team. When they come highly recommended, your team members can be allowed to bring men and women who will buy into your vision. We should not forget that most of these disciples were fishermen. People of low estate. Disregarded and looked down upon. Jesus however saw something in them that their world had ignored to the creeks. He picked them up and trained them and they became world changers.

Communication: The communication skills of Jesus will serve our leaders in any capacity. He told stories and parables to captivate his audience and provide context for his messages. He was attentive. He asked questions in ‘how many of you’ series? And he was happy to answer questions. When a leader assumes the position of an emperor who hardly speaks, there will be a disconnect. Constant engagement and discourse between the leader and the people is very important. To establish an authentic connection, the leader has to talk and also be prepared to answer questions. A situation in which body language is the official mode of communication of a leader is antithetical to the development of any nation.

Talking about communication, let me add very quickly that the Christianity that I see in Nigeria today worries me. Matthew 5:1-16 contains the truth that should form our terms of reference. I can challenge you from each of the verses but would rather you read and meditate on them and focus on verse 16: Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

Christians are called to be salt and light. While our light should illuminate the dark alleys of our country and our salt should sweeten where bitterness and rancour exist, the paradox is what we see today where people who profess Christ are actually the ones leading the campaigns of hate and bile in our diverse society.

As citizens of this great country, our responsibilities as Christians should reflect who we are as ambassadors of Christ. The way we talk and the way we respond to issues matter a great deal. As believers, let us be careful in the messages we spread. Christians have to be different, even on the cyber space. We should spread good news not gory tales, pictures or videos. We should not join the bandwagon of those who “forward” everything and anything on WhatsApp.

Cultivating a Sphere of Influence: This is one of the reasons we still talk about Jesus: He impacted his immediate environment. Because we come from different backgrounds, there is the temptation for some of us to believe influence is restricted to certain categories of people. No, that is not true. I do not want anybody here to imagine that he or she has no influence. The fact of the matter is that we all do, though in different degrees. Besides, each of us must remember that while we may not be able compel change in the behaviour of others, we can change our own.  The message here is simple: You can, by the powers of personal example nudge others in positive directions. But you must also know that you cannot give what you don’t have. According to what our Lord, Jesus Christ said in Luke 6:39 “And He also spoke a parable to them: “A blind man cannot guide a blind man, can he? Will they not both fall into a pit?”

Let me pause on these few leadership principles of our Lord Jesus that I found fascinating. There are of course several others. You will notice I did not talk about vision, integrity, character etc. That is because I assume a leader on any platform should have a clear vision if he is serious about a destination and should be of good character. The pertinent questions are: How do we apply these principles to our lives today? How do we bring them to bear on our polity?

If we all agree that these principles are ideal and would love to see them in our leaders, it is possible. It is part of what is called the kingdom of God on earth. But it will be difficult if we all run away from politics. I know this will ruffle some feathers. It is often said most glibly that politics is a dirty game but I disagree. It is not politics that is dirty, it is the practitioners that we should check out and that is not restricted to Nigeria. Therefore, my charge this morning is to arouse our consciousness to the fact that we must all participate in politics at some level if we desire to see meaningful change in our country.

The responsibility to build or restore accountable leadership in Nigeria rests on all of us. This in itself is not a choice but a task we must all aspire to undertake. If you don’t partake in the process, we will just be giving free reign to the unqualified, the unskilled and the unprepared to take charge.

There are several ways to engage the process. For some of us, it is to get our PVC and vote those we believe will advance our course for a better Nigeria. For some, it is to support a candidate financially. For some it is to go to the grass-roots and become a card carrying member of a political party. For some of us, it is to use our pen to assess those who seek offices and help the people to make informed choices.

Yet for some listening to me, it is to be bold, to defy the lions and the jackals in the political space and declare the intention to run for positions in the state house of assembly, the house of representatives, the senate or even as a governor or as the president. If we leave politics to charlatans and certificate forgers who have reduced governance to street dancing, producing home videos and all manners of social media entertainment, insecurity will continue to soar, our teeming youths will continue to be unemployed, embassies will continue to experience the surge for visa seekers while the Mediterranean Sea will continue to drown our young men and women. It is only when good people are in authority that we can establish the lovely leadership principles that our Lord Jesus Christ espoused.

I cannot talk about leadership without briefly saying something about the followership. As citizens, we determine a lot of things. We cannot therefore be passive. We have to respond to our leaders appropriately and engage them squarely for accountability. Having said that, I would like to add that we are all leaders in our own right. In a parish like this, if you are a market woman with a boy or a girl helping you with sales, or you are a small scale entrepreneur selling recharge cards with a couple of boys helping you chase customers, or you are a blue chip company manager, with bright young men and women on your payroll, whatever position you occupy, you are in some measure a leader.

The question is, do you lead like Jesus?

I have not said you should turn your business venue into a church but the leadership models of Christ I have outlined are noble and can be replicated anywhere. It is only fitting that as Christ followers, we show forth these principles in our little corner. That is how I think true change can begin.

As I round off, I want to say that prayers do not win elections. We pray a lot in Nigeria and it is good to pray, but what we need right now in Nigeria is action. Let me also say here that we should also stop believing political prophesies which, as someone once put it, are no more than rational deductions. Incidentally, this is the season when some pastors and prophets usually predict who will win and who will lose elections depending on who they support. Talking about political prophecy, maybe I can also say something here this morning. Let me tell you for free that the 2019 presidential election will be won by a northerner who is a Muslim and also a Fulani man. Anybody who wants more information will have to see me privately and there is a cost to such consultation.

My dear brothers and sister, politics is not evil. We all know very well that it is not the arm but its handler that decides who to punch and who to caress. I have lived under military government and I can attest to the fact that democracy is still far better. But there is so much work to do. The only way is for you and I to seize the moment and make the coming election year our year. At every level, whether in the legislative or executive arm, let us decide with our votes those to lead us and free ourselves from accidental emperors who pretend to be leaders but lack the vision and the comportment to manage our affairs.

As I take my seat let me leave you with something I read in last Friday’s edition of The Word For Today, a daily devotional written by American Pastor, Bob Gass and published around the world by United Christian Broadcasters. It is an important message that all of us can take home. Here it goes:

During recognition day for college graduates, a pastor stood up and said: “You don’t think of it now, but eventually you’re going to die. When they lay you in the grave, are people going to stand around reciting the titles you earned, or talking about what a blessing you were? Will you leave an obituary about how ‘important’ you were, or about people grieving the loss of the best friend they ever had? Titles are good, but if it comes down to a choice between a title and a testimony—go for the testimony. Pharaoh had the title, Moses had the testimony. Nebuchadnezzar had the title, Daniel had the testimony. Jezebel had the title, Elijah had the testimony. Pilate had the title, but Jesus had the testimony. It’s easy to think write-ups in Who’s Who are the most important things but it’s the loving acts you do that will be remembered.

Pastor Emeka, by brothers and sisters, let me thank you once again for inviting me here today. May God grant us the grace such that when our time is done and we go the way of all flesh, there will be testimonies of our good deeds here on earth and eternal rewards for us in heaven.

Text of my presentation at the Rose of Sharon Parish of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Ikeja, Lagos, on Sunday 14th October, 2018