How involved should priests be in politics? Nigeria is a reminder it’s not just an American question.
The United States is not the only nation struggling with the problem of outspoken priests becoming entangled with the partisan politics of the day. In Nigeria, the Rev. Ejike Mbaka has been leading a Catholic ministry that some critics liken to a U.S.-style evangelical church, complete with church merchandising, prosperity gospel appeals and a willingness to engage directly with national politics.
In recent months, Father Mbaka became personally embroiled in a confrontation with President Muhammadu Buhari over disintegrating security across Nigeria but particularly in northeastern and “Middle Belt” agrarian communities, often Christian, that have been subject to repeated attacks by Islamic militants and Fulani herdsmen. The president is a member of the Fulani ethnic group.
In April, Father Mbaka, who had twice previously campaigned for the election of President Buhari, publicly renounced his support, citing the current state of conflict and insecurity in Nigeria. He called on the president to resign and in the event that he did not, Father Mbaka asked the Nigerian legislature to initiate impeachment proceedings.
Father Mbaka became personally embroiled in a confrontation with President Muhammadu Buhari over disintegrating security across Nigeria but particularly in northeastern and “Middle Belt” agrarian communities.
The confrontation became so heated that the bishop of the Diocese of Enugu, Callistus Onaga, intervened, ordering Father Mbaka to step away temporarily from his ministry.
On May 5, a group of Catholic faithful—members of the Adoration Ministries Enugu Nigeria (AMEN), led by Father Mbaka—organized what in the end became a near riot outside Bishop Onaga’s residence, demanding to know the whereabouts of their spiritual leader. Father Mbaka, in obedience to his bishop, had taken a monthlong leave of absence to reflect on his behavior, but the mob had become convinced that something more nefarious had occurred to the popular pastor.
Father Mbaka has since apologized to Bishop Onaga and the church.
“The church did not kidnap me, it was a [mixed-up] story,” the priest told his congregation at Mass on May 9 before embarking on his retreat.
“I am standing here on your behalf and render my sincere apologies to the Holy Roman and Apostolic Church where I belong and say, may the mother church forgive us in any way we didn’t do it well.”
Father Mbaka returned to his ministry on June 10 and has restored normal weekly activities at the Adoration ministry. America was unable to reach him for comment on this report.
The diocese has made a clear effort to rein in Father Mbaka’s ministry. In a statement signed on June 3, Bishop Onaga and the diocesan secretary, the Rev. Wilfred Chidi Agbuchie, said, “Christ in the blessed sacrament must remain at the center of worship and not [a] personality cult.”
“We are praying for Nigeria in distress, yet we continue to sink it into distress, [asking], ‘What will God do?’”
According to the statement, the ministry, moving forward, will be accorded pastoral privileges of the diocese and will now come under the pastoral and managerial obligations of the diocese. “The Adoration Ministry Enugu shall be administered and organized as a chaplaincy,” Bishop Onaga said. That means the bishop can assign chaplains and assistant chaplains and carry out occasional pastoral visits to the chaplaincy.
“There shall be no partisan politics by way of engagement or by prophetic naming of candidates for positions of power,” Bishop Onaga said.
Father Mbaka has a history of making partisan political statements, which he attributes to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. His comments this time provoked widespread public criticism. A presidential spokesperson, Garba Shehu, accused the priest of turning against the president after Father Mbaka brought three security contractors, unannounced, to a visit with Mr. Buhari at the presidential palace in Aso Rock. None received contracts with the government.
During a homily on May 3, the priest called that a “childish, laughable accusation,” adding that the trio had a proposal that promised to tackle insecurity in the country and only wanted an audience with the president.
Father Mbaka’s spat with the president raised concerns not only about where the church should draw the line in its involvement with affairs of state but also how it could most helpfully engage with the often-binary constructs of politics in a country like Nigeria.
Canon law is clear on matters relating to the state: “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power” (Canon 285: §3).
The Rev. Emmanuel Ikeri, priest-in-residence at St. Flavius Catholic Church in Oworonshoki, Lagos, told America that in the event that a priest is in a position to seek or exercise civil power, permission must first be granted from his local bishop. If that permission is not obtained, it would be an act of disobedience against that ordinary to exercise civil authority.
Bishop Onaga: “There shall be no partisan politics by way of engagement or by prophetic naming of candidates for positions of power.”
The punishment for such disobedience can be severe. “The church takes away what is called faculty—that is, the power you have to celebrate Mass [or function as a priest],” Bongo Adi, an assistant professor at the Lagos Business School, said.
There have not been many instances in Nigeria of such conflicts. One that stands out involved the late Rev. Moses Adasu, a Catholic priest who in the early 1990s ran for and went on to serve as governor of Benue in east-central Nigeria for two years despite his bishop’s decision to refuse to make a canonical exception for that role. He was excommunicated for this canonical offense.
“The church doesn’t really get involved in politics, and priests are not encouraged to take actions that will expose them to political trouble,” Dr. Adi said.
“But when it comes to speaking truth to power, canon law does not prohibit any priest from speaking against oppression or government highhandedness or dictatorship,” he added. Dr. Adi was studying to become a priest around the same time as Father Mbaka. He recalled Father Mbaka as an inconspicuous seminarian known for being deeply prayerful.
But in Nigeria, where one is either for or against a ruling government, any form of opposition, as has been evident with the current leadership, is interpreted as a plot to overthrow or unseat the current regime. That makes any sort of political engagement or discourse difficult to separate from partisan politics.
According to Father Ikeri, following the Second Vatican CouncilI, the church’s role, particularly as it pertains to a country like Nigeria, should remain educating the people about the effects of their political choices on issues like the economy or respect for human rights; mitigating the effects of decades of poor governance on their psyche; and encouraging them to demand more from public officers who do not always have their best interests at heart.
“Drawing the line between church and state here is simple: Don’t interfere. Don’t be partisan.”
“The church cannot do anything more. She cannot suspend the politicians or tell people [who to vote for,” said Father Ikeri. “But she can and does continue to re-educate the people about what the true dividends of democracy should be.”
“Since this administration, [over] the past five years, when you wake up every morning you start hearing that people are killed in many parts of the country,” Sister Nwaonuma said. More than 500 civilian lives have been lost this year in various criminal and terrorist attacks across the country, according to Human Rights Watch data.
While the Buhari administration cannot be entirely blamed for Nigeria’s current troubles, a national decline experienced since the present leadership was inaugurated in 2015 has been startling. Inflation has been above the central bank’s 9 percent target range for years. Unemployment rose to 33.3 percent in the last quarter of 2020, adding more than a million Nigerians of working age to the pool of the unemployed.
Food inflation continued to rise and in May stood at 22 percent, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. The spiking cost of food has been linked to insecurity in food producing states because of Fulani attacks on agrarian communities, an escalating problem that the government has been unable to decisively counter.
While the Buhari administration cannot be entirely blamed for Nigeria’s current troubles, a national decline experienced since the present leadership was inaugurated in 2015 has been startling.
Nigerian priests concerned about their flocks and their own safety—particularly in the northeast, where insecurity is most threatened—have not been silent. In 2019 and 2020, Nigeria’s clergy marched in the streets to protest the government’s ineffectual response to kidnappings and killings, especially those targeting Catholic clergy and laity.
Many of these have been the result of clashes between communities and the Fulani. Others have resulted from attacks by an Islamic militant group, Boko Haram, and its internal factions. Attacks have also come from an escalating armed banditry, kidnapping rings and underground-market merchants luring and killing their victims for body parts. On the Global Terrorism Index in 2020, Nigeria ranked third, after Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the eastern state where he leads the Adoration Ministry, the charismatic Father Mbaka elicits a frenzied reverence from his church community. Masses on Friday and Sunday and mid-week services include lengthy sermons, fiery prayer sessions, energetic dancing, testimonials from congregants and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
Father Mbaka is known to launch into diatribes against Nigeria’s sociopolitical status quo. Often, the speeches include blatant endorsements of politicians who visit Father Mbaka in search of prophecies of their political fortunes and and prayers for their political ambitions.
“A priest has the right to support any political candidate [privately], but he has no right to publicly endorse any candidate,” said Father Ikeri. “A priest cannot be discouraged from praying for a politician who asks for prayers, but that moment should not become a moment for politicking, a campaign ground.”
Over the years, Father Mbaka’s comments and ping-pong support for politicians across the country have called his and the national church’s credibility into question and consistently earns him the ire of the public.
“The prophetic ministry is quite precarious. No one knows the mind of God,” Dr. Adi said, adding that priests remain only agents whose humanity can and does interfere in their understanding and explanation of divine intention. That is why it is hard to call Father Mbaka’s political commentary at Mass, a kind of private revelation, simply partisan.
“Within the magisterium of the church, there is no place for private revelation [about partisan politics]. Why? Because the church does not want to be caught in the kind of problem that Mbaka is in now,” Dr. Adi said.
It is not in the place of religious leaders to identify whom they think should occupy political positions or favor one candidate over the other.
At the same time, Dr. Adi does believe there is a role for nonpartisan criticism of the status quo by the church, and if the bishops do not engage in it, he supports priests like Father Mbaka, closer to the people, who are willing to take on that role.
Father Ikeri insists that it is not in the place of religious leaders to identify whom they think should occupy political positions or favor one candidate over the other.
“Drawing the line between church and state here is simple: Don’t interfere. Don’t be partisan,” he said.
Prayer for Nigeria in Distress In 1993, just a month after the military’s nullification of the June 12 elections—remembered as the fairest in the democratic history of the country—Catholic bishops composed the “Prayer for Nigeria in Distress” and distributed it to be said in parishes across the country. More than two decades later, the words of that prayer and another like it—“Prayer Against Bribery and Corruption”—have been on-and-off-again features at Masses across the country.
The prayer’s plea still resonates: “Spare this nation, Nigeria, from chaos, anarchy and doom.”
The prayer should not be reserved just for the government of Nigeria, Dr. Adi suggested. The church itself is in distress, struggling to find a way to criticize a political culture it sometimes participates in securing and promoting.
“I don’t know,” Father Ikeri told America when asked if the church in Nigeria is doing enough in its political engagement. “The church has to go at the pace the society is going,” he said, admitting that in Nigeria social progress has been slow. There is sometimes collusion by church leaders with the political class.
Political characters of questionable integrity have been welcomed by some church leaders, who encouraged tacitly—sometimes directly—the support of the faithful, he said. At the same time such associations are made by some in the church, prayers are recited for Nigeria because of political dysfunction, insecurity and corruption.
“We are praying for Nigeria in distress, yet we continue to sink it into distress, [asking], ‘What will God do?’” Father Ikeri said. How does the church expect such prayer to be practically effective, he wonders. “The church needs to step up and undo this unholy alliance with the state,” he concludes. “Prayer will become mere words if the heart does not experience true conversion, a determination to direct one's heart toward what one is praying for.”
Sister Nwaonuma, for her part, said it is imperative to keep praying, adding that prayers from religions across the board might just be what has helped Nigeria survive its many trials.
“I think it would be uncalled-for for any Catholic at this point, when this country is really boiling, to say they are really tired of saying a prayer for Nigeria in distress,” she said.