Mbaka and Democracy in Nigeria   

The Verdict by Olusegun Adeniyi

Since the advent of our democratic dispensation in 1999, every election has witnessed some sort of drama from the spiritual director of the Adoration Ministries Enugu (AMEN), Reverend Father Ejike Mbaka, especially in the Southeast. His stock rose even higher in the prelude to the 2015 presidential election when he first predicted that then incumbent Goodluck Jonathan would be re-elected, before recanting to say the main opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, would win. With the latter ‘prophecy’ eventually coming to pass, Mbaka has since trained his spiritual antennae on Abuja and those who seek to be president of Nigeria. But in confronting the presidential candidate of Labour Party, Mr Peter Obi, Mbaka may have bitten more than he could chew.   

In a recent ‘homily’, Mbaka declared that Obi can never be president of Nigeria. Like his previous fall-out with other politicians, it was all about unmet expectation. “A stingy man that cannot give people his money with this hunger ravaging the land and you are saying he is the one you want. You want to die of hunger? Are you people insane? Where is the Holy Spirit?” asked Mbaka who dealt heavy blows on the former Anambra State Governor and running mate to former Vice President Atiku Abukakar in the 2019 presidential election on the platform of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). “It is now that Atiku is seriously contesting for president; now that he is contesting without Peter Obi; it is now that he is serious…Peter Obi is going nowhere as far as God lives.”   

Following the uproar that greeted the ‘sermon’, especially on social media where Obi has a strong support base, the Catholic Bishop of Enugu, Calistus Onaga, announced the suspension of all religious activities by Mbaka and his Adoration Ministry. But this is an issue the Catholic Church must handle with care lest they create a social problem in Enugu and environ. Whatever the misgivings regarding Mbaka’s theology and politics, thousands depend on him, essentially because the reverend father takes from the rich to empower the poor. That means a lot in an impoverished society like ours and explains why there was a protest last weekend about the shutdown of the Adoration Ministry.   

Before I go further, it is important to situate how Mbaka moved from a local champion to national limelight. On 9th December 2014, the then First Lady, Mrs Patience Jonathan’s visit to Enugu included a detour to the ‘Adoration Ground’ for a special prayer. Instructively, Mrs Jonathan was asked to take the scriptural reading from the Biblical Book of Genesis chapter 12; verses 2 and 3: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” With the service over, Mbaka released birds he said would go and fight for the First Family after prophesying that Jonathan would be re-elected.    

Precisely 22 days later, at the Cross-over service on 31st December 2014, Mbaka titled his message ‘From Good Luck to Bad Luck’. After accusing the Jonathan administration of failure in all sectors, Mbaka said: “We need change. NEPA is not working because of corruption. The privatization of public companies has not yielded any fruit because of corruption. Nigerians are sick and tired of wasting innocent lives without government doing enough to stop the destruction.” More tellingly, Mbaka told his congregation that one of the birds released during Mrs Jonathan’s visit three weeks earlier had refused to fly. “All the other birds I released flew away but the healthiest of them which is Jonathan’s bird could not fly. I tried to make it fly but it could not fly,” said the cleric who then added a clincher: “Nigerians are calling for change. We need a change. We don’t want to move from bad luck to bad luck; Nigerians want to move from bad luck to good luck.”   

Mbaka spent the remaining part of the sermon essentially campaigning for the All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential candidate. And when Buhari won, Mbaka was received in Aso Rock with fanfare. In an interview he later granted, Mbaka explained that the problem started because Mrs Jonathan would not oblige him with her direct mobile line. That was a fatal political error. People who know Mbaka liken him to Constantin Demeris, the fictional Greek tycoon in Sidney Sheldon’s bestseller, ‘The Other Side of Midnight’, reputed as never forgetting an insult nor forgiving an injury. And many politicians know that. But the power Mbaka wields is also derived from the mismanagement of our affairs.   

My column 20 years ago on the Mbaka phenomenon (7th March 2002 to be precise), ‘Before the Slide into Adoration Ground’, followed a stampede that claimed the lives of 14 worshippers and injured scores of others. He accused the then Enugu State Governor, Chimaroke Nnamani of instigating the mayhem. I crave the indulgence of readers to recall a few lines from the piece: “…The man of the moment in Enugu today is a young, fiery and charismatic reverend father. The attraction of the cleric is that in a system where government has become rather removed from the people, it is very easy for the critic to be popular. Father Ejike Mbaka is almost a cult figure. So popular is he that I have been told that there are two Governors in Enugu now: One in the Lion Building as the Government House is called. The other one holds court weekly at the Adoration Ground…Mbaka does not offer any alternative to (Governor Chimaroke) Nnamani in terms of leadership, but he at least says the kind of things the displaced, the disenchanted, the hungry and the marginalised would love to hear. He can articulate their anger. He can put words to their disappointment. And he can apportion blames. People like that offer temporary relief in times of distress and they can cause trouble for those in authority…”   

I am pretty sure that Mbaka will soon be back to business. The Catholic Church cannot shut down the Adoration Ministry for long without social upheaval. I hope the reverend father will also learn useful lessons from this experience. But my main message is to young Nigerians who are enthusiastic about the Permanent Voter Cards (PVC). It is commendable that they want to exercise their franchise in 2023, but they need to go beyond that to seek a seat at the table. This requires getting involved in political parties and demanding accountability of public officials. Democracy must mean more than voting at periodic elections. It must translate into a better life for people. Until that happens, Nigerians will continue to troop to the Adoration Grounds that offer nothing more than temporary relief to long term problems.   

The universally accepted definition of democracy is one by the 16th United States President, Abraham Lincoln: ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people’. But I prefer that of the late American journalist and scholar, Henry Louis Mencken which defines democracy as “the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” Whichever we go with, the constant is that people’s welfare is, or should be, at the centre of any democratic project. Sadly, we run a system where voting has become an end in itself. And with that, those who romanticise collection of their PVC merely play into the hands of politicians who behave as though they are doing the people a favour while mismanaging public affairs.  

The Governor of Zamfara State, Bello Matawalle, last week took two important decisions that tell a compelling story not only about the place of accountability in the Nigerian public service but also about the nature of our democracy. First, the governor declared this week (from Monday 20th to Friday 24th June) work free to enable the public and civil servants in the state go to their respective communities to obtain their PVC. He also directed, as a matter of priority, that all commissioners, special advisers, permanent secretaries and other public office holders, as well as party officials and traditional rulers must monitor and supervise the ongoing voter registration exercise.   

That done, the governor then approved the appointment of an additional 169 top government officials and aides, “in a bid to promote unity within the APC in the state.”

This followed an agreement reached by the three APC camps in the state to work together. The other two are led by former governor Abdulaziz Yari and former Senator Kabiru Marafa, whose court case handed the governorship to Matawalle (then of the opposition PDP) free of charge after the 2015 general election. These appointments include 103 senior special assistants (SSAs), 28 Directors General, and 13 special assistants to the governor. The list also includes 10 new permanent commissioners and part-time members of various ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs), among others. One notable appointment in this ‘political sharing formula’ is that of Chairman, Zamfara Independent Electoral Commission!   

Whatever human development indicator one uses, Zamfara remains a backward state. To worsen matters, the industrious people who are renowned for agriculture can no longer farm as a result of banditry and the general climate of insecurity. But the government in power, like preceding ones, can live with these problems without consequences. If Matawalle is not sharing expensive vehicles purchased from scarce public resources, he is making meaningless appointments that are mere distribution of spoils and will not advance the public good. To be fair, one can say the same of many governors in Nigeria today whether in the north or south. But the audacity of asking people to take one week off in order to secure their PVC while resources of the state are shared in phantom appointments is beyond the pale.   

Ordinarily, what distinguishes democracy from other forms of government is the notion that those who hold the levers of power can be held accountable. This is not what obtains in Nigeria today. Citizens who periodically elect demigods are so disempowered that they have been reduced to no better than serfs. That is where the Mbakas come in. What the reverend father takes from politicians who visit his adoration ground is what ordinarily should be deployed in service to the people. The problem, however, is that the theology that makes the people accept crumbs taken from their oppressors also disempowers them from asking questions that could ultimately turn the table. That renders the man of God complicit.   

Whichever way one looks at it, the Mbaka anomaly raises many issues about our society and the ills that plague it. The Catholic Church, known for its discipline and systemic orthodoxy has, for some inexplicable reason, left a priest in one station for almost three decades. In the process, the reverend father adulterates the gospel with transactional political partisanship, while at the same time cultivating cult-like followership with philanthropy. It is therefore little surprise that politicians have converted his popular place of worship into a platform to seek his endorsement. But this is a general problem that the Church in Nigeria must deal with.   

Meanwhile, the good thing about the Mbaka/Obi saga is that both are ethnic kinsmen who also share a similar Catholic faith. But as we enter a season of campaign for the 2023 general election, clerics need to be careful. As prominent stakeholders in Nigeria, it is within their rights to support any candidate of their choice. They can even openly endorse those candidates. But to weave their personal prejudices in the spiritual garb of prophecy is wrong. Exploiting the gullibility of their followers by turning faith into a weapon of manipulation is also dangerous. As I argued in the past, while there should be a higher purpose to seeking public office than the prospect of winning elections, it is also clear from the ‘prophecies’ that come with seasons like this that clerics who should ordinarily be showing the way are now part of the problem of Nigeria.   

We live in a country where men of God appoint themselves political prophets, confusing the traditional separation of church and state. And the evidence of that anomaly can be seen in the rot that now permeates every segment of our society. The lesson of Mbaka’s recent misadventure with the Peter Obi phenomenon is that the power of religious authoritarianism and demagoguery stops where the will of the people becomes a potent force. We are probably at that tipping point in Nigeria.  

Lumumba in Memoriam 

Come Monday, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will celebrate its 62nd anniversary of independence. But the real highlight of that day will be the official burial of a lone tooth, the only surviving remains of the assassinated first post-independence Prime Minister, and icon of African liberation, Patrick Lumumba. The story of how Lumumba was ousted from power and murdered in January 1961, before his body was dismembered and dissolved in acid is just too gory. But in his column yesterday (Lumumba’s Golden Tooth | THISDAYLIVE), my colleague, Kayode Komolafe recounted the sinister role played by the Belgian colonial authorities at the time while paying an appropriate tribute. I leave readers with the moving lines of Lumumba’s last letter from custody to his wife, Pauline Opango: “Neither brutality, nor cruelty nor torture will ever bring me to ask for mercy, for I prefer to die with my head unbowed, my faith unshakeable and with profound trust in the destiny of my country, rather than live under subjection and disregarding sacred principles. History will one day have its say, but it will not be the history that is taught in Brussels, but the history which will be taught in the countries freed from imperialism and its puppets. Africa will write her own history, and to the north and south of the Sahara, it will be a glorious and dignified history.” 

 I say Amen to that! 

The Wigwes at 60  

I have over the years benefitted from the kindness of some members of the older generation of Nigerians who, for inexplicable reasons, have taken me as their son. These are hand-lifters who have at different times encouraged and supported me and my family. One is the former Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) Director General, Pastor Shyngle Wigwe. Ever since he read a column I wrote in 2001 and called, he has taken me and my wife under his wings, always praying for us, as he does for several other young families. Despite the fact that we left Lagos in 2007, he has kept in constant touch. It is therefore with delight that I learnt during the week that Pastor Wigwe and his wife will be celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary this Sunday. In the world in which we live, the Wigwes are a perfect example of what marriage and family is all about. And for those who are curious about names, the Wigwes are the parents of Herbert, the Group Managing Director of Access Bank, and my sister, Joyce, until recently the Executive Director for Government Affairs and Policy in West Africa at General Electric.  

I wish them a happy diamond anniversary.  

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