Catholic bishops in Nigeria raise up security and common good concerns before presidential elections
Ahead of upcoming general elections on Feb. 25 and March 11, Nigerian Catholics want their next national leaders to address the difficult political and socio-economic issues facing the country. Leading candidates from the three main political parties have been on campaign tours, organizing rallies and town hall meetings to woo voters. Their supporters have been mobilizing resources to help them win the elections.
Nigeria, a nation of more than 220 million people, is deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. Election cycles are usually tense periods, with agitation rising across divisions over solutions to the country’s main problems—insecurity and corruption.
Despite promises by politicians in Nigeria to restore public order, abductions for ransom are common, and Islamic extremists continue to carry out brazen attacks.
Nigeria’s economic instability has been exacerbated by corruption and inequity. More than 70 million Nigerians live in extreme poverty. Rising unemployment has propelled a wave of migration of young Nigerians in search of better lives abroad.
The ruling government’s inability to address broad civil insecurity has heightened tensions across the country. Despite promises by politicians to restore public order, abductions for ransom are common, and Islamic extremists continue to carry out brazen attacks.
In northeast Nigeria, Boko Haram terrorists are pursuing a jihad campaign, and in Middlebelt Nigeria, priests and parishioners alike have been attacked and killed by extremists, even during Mass.
In 2022, at least 39 priests were killed and 30 abducted, according to a report by S.B.M. Intelligence, a Nigerian consultancy. In early January, after gunmen failed to gain entrance into a rectory in Nigeria’s northern region, they set fire to the residence. One priest escaped, but another priest was burned alive.
“They operate freely, sacking homes and villages, abducting and killing citizens,” said the Rev. Omokugbo Ojeifo, a priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja and a doctoral student in political theology at the University of Notre Dame.
The Catholic bishops’ conference of Nigeria and other Christian bodies have condemned the government because of its failure to address security challenges. Some have called for the resignation of President Muhammadu Buhari, who rose to power on promises to stem Nigeria’s communal and interreligious violence.
Election cycles in Nigeria are usually tense periods, with agitation rising across divisions over solutions to the country’s main problems—insecurity and corruption.
But with less than five months remaining before the end of the president’s term, Father Ojeifo said, Mr. Buhari has failed to live up to promises to contain the Islamist insurgency and other violent actors in Nigeria.
Many had believed that because of his experience as a former military leader, Mr. Buhari would succeed against extremists and other insurgencies. Instead, Father Ojeifo said, “the country got worse under his watch.”
“Christians in Nigeria have found themselves in a situation where the government can no longer protect and secure their lives,” Father Ojeifo said, noting that the violence is “generating a considerable shift in the choice of leader [Christian Nigerians] want from the coming election.”
Mr. Buhari is barred by presidential term limits in Nigeria from seeking reelection. Of Nigeria’s three leading presidential candidates, only one, Peter Obi, representing the Labour Party, is a Christian; the other two are Muslims.
As the campaign period neared its end on Feb. 18, both Bola Tinubu, the candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress, and Atiku Abubakar, the candidate of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party, held rallies in the northeast, where extremists have waged a decade-long insurgency. They both promised to improve the lives of residents in the region.
A great departure from Nigeria’s typical career politicians, Peter Obi, has generated the most excitement among Nigerian voters of all faiths.
On social media, Mr. Obi, who has emerged ahead of the other 17 candidates in most polls, said Africa’s most populous country needs a “reset and reboot" from the two major parties that have governed Nigeria since it left military rule in 1999.
The Feb. 25 election that would lead to a transitional government is the most consequential vote in many years for Nigeria, according to analysts.
“This is a battle for the soul of the country considering the challenges confronting the country,” said Idayat Hassan, who leads the Center for Democracy and Development.
Nigeria is struggling with a worsening security crisis that has killed thousands in the past year, an ailing economy that has made citizens poorer, and growing separatist agitation in the southern region that has left the country more divided along ethnic lines.
A great departure from Nigeria’s typical career politicians, Mr. Obi, 61, has generated the most excitement among Nigerian voters of all faiths. A former two-time governor of a state in southeast Nigeria, Mr. Obi’s style of politics appeals mostly to young people who have lost hope in the ruling government and who desperately seek a change from Nigeria’s status quo.
Mr. Obi preaches frugality, cutting the costs of governance and saving for the future generations rather than borrowing now and adding to a mounting pile of public debt.
Father Ojeifo predicts that Mr. Obi’s faith may play to his favor.
In 2022, more than 2,000 Christians were killed by pastoralists, while 17 villages were destroyed.
“The vast majority of Christians are looking forward to voting for him in the election,” he said. “But of course, his candidacy is also resonating among young people—Christians and Muslims who see him as embodying the values and competencies they want in a leader.”
Across Nigeria, the Catholic Church has been raising awareness of election issues and urging eligible parishioners to vote for candidates who promise to uphold human rights, respect freedom of worship, provide jobs and address the nation’s plague of violence.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria said it has continued to encourage citizens to be more involved in the voting process because “participation is at the core of the realization of the common good which good governance serves.”
In a statement released on Feb. 17, the bishops said the church teaches that responsible citizenship is a virtue and that participation in the political process is a moral obligation.
“One of the potent instruments of participation in the political life of a country is the choice of its leaders,” the bishops said. “In the face of the daunting challenges facing our nation, we should not give in to hopelessness and despair, or compromise our values in such a manner as to come up with leaders who are neither intended by God nor truly elected by the people.
“We, as citizens, must learn to make the right choices for good governance to thrive and be sustained. We, therefore, urge one and all to be more conscious of the kind of choices that they make in their life, especially as we approach another critical period in our political history.”
“The practice of politics in Nigeria and its failures are hurting many lives. We are faced with what can be called a ‘politics of death.’”
During Mass on Jan. 9, the Most Rev. Godfrey Igwebuike Onah of the Diocese of Nsukka in Nigeria’s southeast region, urged parishioners to register for their voters’ cards and get ready to vote on election day.
“Your votes count,” he said. “If you don’t vote, nothing will change. Let’s do our part so that God will help us.
“That’s the power we have now and it is very important,” he said. Bishop Onaga has frequently spoken out about the state of the nation, advocating good governance and improved security.
Father Ojeifo said that the bishops’ target audience is not limited to Catholics, but every Nigerian citizen. “What they have articulated is their reading of the signs of the times in our country, which every perceptible observer will agree with,” he said.
“A simple way of stating it is that the practice of politics in Nigeria and its failures are hurting many lives,” Father Ojeifo said. “We are faced with what can be called a ‘politics of death.’
“Whether it is poverty, hunger, misery, the collapse of the economy, the spread of fear, the culture of violence, corruption in public service or the denial of civil liberties, what is manifestly clear is that the political, economic and legal systems [maintained in Nigeria] are resulting in human degradation.”
The Rev. Ugochukwu Ugwoke, a priest of the Institute of the Schoenstatt Fathers, told America that the church in Nigeria “is called to be the herald of ethical values and salt and light into what is so often a corrupt political environment. The church has done well in advocating for free, fair and credible elections.”
Father Ojeifo adds that the bishops are not speaking as sectarian chieftains or partisan lords but as prophets, messengers of God, who have a responsibility to form the moral conscience of society. “They come from different locations across the country, and are deeply in touch with what’s happening to the people at the grassroots, in the cities, in towns and villages,” he said. “So, they are giving voice to the pains and worries and anxieties of the people.”
The church’s push for credible elections could not come at a more pivotal moment for Nigeria, as Boko Haram defies all efforts to diminish its reach and growing competition over land lead to bloody attacks by pastoralists on isolated farming communities. A report by Release International says that in 2022 alone, more than 2,000 Christians were killed by pastoralists, while 17 villages were destroyed.
In December 2020, the United States designated Nigeria as a “country of particular concern” when it comes to religious freedom, alongside China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. This designation applies to nations that engage in or tolerate “systemic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom,” nations that can face U.S. sanctions if they fail to improve.
But in November 2021, Nigeria was dropped from the list, a move that angered Christian groups and human rights associations. A new report from Open Doors, an advocacy group for persecuted Christians, found that Nigeria accounts for 89 percent of all Christians martyred worldwide in the 2021-22 fiscal year. The 2023 World Watch List on global Christian persecution, which assessed 50 countries, reported that Nigeria accounted for 5,014 of the 5,621 Christians worldwide who were killed because of their faith.
With reporting from The Associated Press