If priests can’t vie, who can?

MAHMUD JEGA BY VIEW FROM THE GALLERY

This crucial week when we are about to see our legislative, governorship and presidential aspirants pruned down from several thousands in 18 political parties to a very manageable four thousand, I thought we should cast our nets wide to find the best material from every available sector of national life that holds the key to the solution to our national problems.

Imagine my disappointment, therefore, when the Roman Catholic Church’s Gboko Diocese in Benue State indefinitely suspended Rev. Father Hyacinth Alia for declaring his intention to run for governor in next year’s elections. Rev. Alia paid N50 million and picked up the nomination form of All Progressives Congress, APC. He passed the screening process and was cleared to participate in the party’s primary this week, alongside 11 other aspirants. But the church was of the view that he erred in going into politics as an ordained priest.

Bishop of the Gboko Diocese, Bishop William Avenya then sent Alia a letter, dated May 20, suspending him from public ministry “after a series of admonitions to him” were ignored. Avenya wrote that “The Mother Church does not allow her clerics to get involved in partisan politics on their own.” Alia was therefore suspended because of “the spiritual and pastoral needs of the Church…This canonical suspension takes effect from the moment it is communicated to him and lasts until he ceases from contumacy.”

I was not totally surprised to read about the Gboko Bishop’s action because some years ago, at a public event in Abuja, I heard the then Archbishop of Abuja Diocese, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, say the same thing, flatly, that “other churches may have different rules but in my own church, we don’t permit priests to dabble into politics.” He was referring to the then notorious case of Reverend Father Ejike Mbaka of Adoration Ministry, Enugu, who became known nationally for taking sides in political contests through both prophesies and activism. That this latest clerical suspension took place in Benue State was a bit of a surprise because there was historical precedent in that state. In late 1991, the [now late] Reverend Father Moses Adasu was elected Governor of Benue State on the platform of SDP, and he went on to govern the state for two years until General Sani Abacha sacked the Third Republic in November 1993.

What is it that the church is afraid of? Is it that Father Alia paid N50 million for expression of interest and nomination forms, when the salary of a priest is just enough to prevent him from starvation? Priests have no labour union recognized by NLC. Even though they minister to ASUU members, they have never embarked on a warning, limited or indefinite strike to press for earned clerical allowances, supervision fees, hazard or other allowances. Is the church saying that Father Alia cannot combine his spiritual duties with election campaign when in Nigeria, people with much wider public duties have been combining that with campaigning, to the detriment of the latter?

Or maybe the church is afraid of scandal. Not long after Father Adasu became Governor of Benue, he fell out with Godwin Daboh, now late too. Daboh shot into national reckoning in 1974 when he filed an affidavit alleging corruption against the then Federal Commissioner for Communications, his fellow Tivman Joseph Tarka. According to a newspaper story in 1992, Daboh, who was President of the Nigeria-Israel Friendship Association, told Governor Adasu not to dissolve the board of the Benue State Agricultural Development Authority, of which Daboh was chairman, because the Israelis made his stay a condition for their continued support for the program. Adasu refused, insisted on dissolving the boards of all government agencies, but said he will “consider” what Daboh said when reconstituting the boards. Days later, The Broom newspaper published by Daboh went to town with serious allegations against Adasu, which I do not want to repeat here. I understand that the church does not want that to happen to Father Alia in case he wins the election.

I do not begrudge the Catholic Church its desire to protect its priests and itself from the ravages of politics. If priests contest and win elections, it is not impossible that one day, EFCC will “invite” some of them to answer to allegations of money laundering and economic sabotage. If you are a governor in Nigeria, many things will be done in your name, with or without your knowledge, that will one day invite the attention of criminal investigators. EFCC agents can be sacrilegious; they hauled the Accountant General of the Federation away from an airport, so they may think nothing of pulling a priest from the altar. Hence  the church has to be careful.

My only worry is, too many sectors of our national life are being closed to recruitment of future leaders, hence the space is severely constricted when NGOs are calling for the “widening of political space” in this country. If priests, who are the most cocksure of people, are not available to be elected as leaders, who else is? Priests deliver their message to congregations with the utmost certainty. They are the only ones who rule, definitively, on who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. Many people are confused because there are so many religions and so many sects within the religions but each one is cocksure of its message. Look, people who are so sure about who is going to heaven and who is going to hell, sure they should know who is a terrorist, who is a bandit, who is a kidnapper, who is a Yahoo boy and who is going to loot the treasury when he becomes governor. Clerics’ message includes more certainty than those merely promising change and progress. We should consider them for election, please.

You want to exclude priests when so many other sectors have already been excluded from elections? The Constitution says civil servants, millions of them, must resign at least 180 days before the elections. The Constitution was being clever by half because any civil servant who waits until 180 days to the election is already out. This is because the parties would have concluded their primaries and the same Constitution says one can only contest the general elections if he is sponsored by a political party.

Not satisfied with this upper cut, the National Assembly inserted a section into the Electoral Act that excluded ministers, commissioners, ambassadors, advisers and assistants from seeking election unless they resign from their posts, thus further shrinking the space. Up to ten ministers pretended not to know about that provision and ran around campaigning while still in office, but President Buhari waded in with a directive that they must resign. His [extra-constitutional] concern was probably that his Administration’s work was suffering because ministers were off campaigning.

National Assembly was so busy trying to throw ministers out of the election process that it scored an own goal, i.e. forgot to include statutory delegates in party congresses and conventions. That includes the MPs themselves. They hastily passed an amendment last week to include statutory delegates but despite the urgency, the president left for Abu Dhabi without signing it. Then when he came back, he referred it to INEC and the Attorney General for advice. How can the Attorney General, who was forced out of a governorship race by a National Assembly manoeuvre, ever recommend anything that MPs ever pass for assent?

Soldiers and policemen are not available to be chosen as our next leaders. Some people are even complaining that a former Chief of Air Staff should not be in the race for Governor of Bauchi, because he still smells of Airforce uniform and Ambassador’s diplomatic garments. ASUU members cannot seek election because they are the reservoir from which INEC appoints returning officers. In order to do their extra-academic election duties unhindered, ASUU will probably prolong its strike until after the election, since its members will be paid for earned election allowances not through IPPIS.

NYSC members cannot vie for election either because INEC draws its presiding officers from that pool. It is now known that anyone who drops out of NYSC and becomes a legislator or a minister will face legal, media and NGO music. Ask the eaglet Finance Minister Mrs. Kemi Adeosun and Alhaji Adebayo Shittu.

Clerics can’t run. Ministers can’t run. Ambassadors can’t run. Civil servants can’t run. Soldiers and policemen can’t run. Academics are out. Statutory delegates are out. NYSC members are out. Millions of Nigerians without secondary school education are out. Many more millions with the education but under 35 years of age are out too. Every Nigerian who does not have N100million to buy a form is also out. Who then is left to run for President of Nigeria?

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