ANALYSIS: Inside the politics of religious denomination in Nigeria’s Southeast

Rochas Okorocha campaigning. [PHOTO CREDIT: Official Twitter handle of Rochas]
Rochas Okorocha campaigning. [PHOTO CREDIT: Official Twitter handle of Rochas]

All politics, as the political cliché goes, is local. Politicians, in an attempt to woo voters, strive to strike a chord in their hearts. They invoke, and at times, invent social, cultural and even religious similarities between themselves and the voters and then spin convincing tales that can earn them votes.

This strategy, which is some sort of homophily-identifying with people of like minds, worked well for President Donald Trump during the last presidential elections in the United States. He knew his target audience- the ultra-conservative white supremacists, who believed that the problem of the US started and ended with immigration. Mr Trump identified with their aversion to immigration and with a we-are-all-in-this-hole-together kind of rhetoric, he won the election.

Back home in Nigeria, President Mohammadu Buhari understood this strategy—and it has worked for him. Mr Buhari started working on the strategy since 1999 when he led a team from the Arewa Consultative Forum to the Oyo State Governor’s Office, Ibadan, to challenge the government on the perceived unfair treatment meted to the Fulani in the state. It was reported that he asked the then Governor Lam Adesina: ‘Why are your people killing my people’? Mr Buhari was later to make many other pro-North – interventions. This, overtime, endeared him to the average northerner who saw him as someone who would always protect their interest. Competence, unfortunately, was secondary.

Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, who are both ethnic Yoruba, also travelled that route not too long ago while campaigning for Mr Buhari in the Southwest. They enjoined their audience to vote for Buhari so that one of them, a fellow Yoruba, would take over in 2023.

In the southeast, the Christian denomination one belongs to can determine one’s rise in the local politics. While this had not always been the case, denomination became a serious factor in 2003. The Igbos of the southeast are predominantly Christians and given that each denomination will like to have ‘their own person’ at the top, politicians many times play the denomination card to get hefty votes.

There has been some sort of denominational supremacy battle in the southeast since the early 20th Century, especially between the two dominant churches – Catholic and Anglican Churches. The two churches decades ago failed to agree on one Igbo orthography, hence today Catholic Igbo bible and other prayer books are written in an orthography different from the mainstream promoted by the Anglican Church. This supremacy battle between the two denominations is so serious that many marriages have been nipped in the bud because families prevented their daughters from marrying suitors from the opposite denomination.

Anambra seems to be the hotbed of denominational politics in the southeast. While Chinwoke Mbadinuju, a Pentecostal, was elected governor in 1999, every other governor in the state (Chris Ngige, Peter Obi and Willy Obiano) has been Catholic – although Senator Andy Uba and Virgi Etiaba, whose brief tenures were illegal, were Anglicans. In fact, many argue that Mr Mbadinuju was not re-elected in 2003 because he was a Pentecostal.

Mr Mbadinuju also said this much in an interview he granted to the Vanguard newspaper on July 11, 2011. “Yes, there are plenty of religious sentiments in Anambra politics,” he said. “In the whole of Nigeria, it is ethnic sentiments and religious too, but in Anambra State, it is between Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Pentecostals. It was much of that reason I was not allowed to contest second term. The Catholics believed it was their time and Peter Obi was chosen…”


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In Enugu State, Catholics are the majority. But until 2007, it was led by governors from Anglican and Methodist churches. Jim Nwobodo and C.C. Onoh who governed the state under the old Anambara State were both Anglicans while Chimaroke Nnamani, who was governor from 1999 to 2007, was a Methodist. However, Nnamani’s successor, Sullivan Chime (2007 -2015), was Catholic and he was succeeded by another Catholic, the current governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi. It was during the tenure of Mr Nnamani that the controversial Catholic priest, Father Ejike Mbaka, became a political force.

Many believe that Mr Mbaka’s opposition to Mr Nnamani’s re-election in 2003 was partly because the latter was not a Catholic. There might be some truth in this claim, given that Mr Mbaka had good relationship with Mr Chime and has been supporting the re-election bid of Mr Ugwuanyi. The clout Mr Mbaka now wields in Enugu State might also be the reason why for the first time, the governor and his deputy are both Catholics.

While the victory of this Catholic-Catholic ticket might be attributed to other factors, there is no denying that the voting strength of the Catholics, who are usually emotional in issues that concerns them, might have played an important role. In 2015, the Anglican Church kicked against this Catholic-Catholic ticket presented by the Peoples Democratic Party.

While addressing journalists in Enugu on December 18, 2015, the Anglican Archbishop of the Enugu Ecclesiastical Province, Emmanuel Chukwuma, observed: “Former Governor of the State, Chimaroke Nnamani who served from 1999 to 2007 is a Methodist. He picked Okechukwu Itanyi, a Catholic as his Deputy. Nnamani handed over to Sullivan Chime who is Roman Catholic.

“Sullivan chose Sunday Onyebuchi, a Methodist or so, not an Anglican as Deputy. As they are going out, all those who want to become governor are Catholics and, in the PDP, they are plotting to make their running mate a Catholic. We are saying give us an Anglican Deputy, otherwise you are looking for our trouble.”

Until 2011, denomination played little or no role in Imo politics. Although the respected Catholic Archbishop of the Owerri Archdiocese, Anthony Obinna, played an influential role in the emergence of Uche Onyeagocha of APGA as the Owerri Federal Constituency representative in 2003, he was less interested in the election at the state level. In 2011, however, denomination became a serious issue in Imo. The then governor, Ikedi Ohakim, is Anglican. Mr Ohakim later become a victim of denominational politics as rumours circulated that he whipped a Catholic priest.

Many Catholics, including Mr Mbaka of Enugu Diocese, joined in fuelling the rumour. It thus became some sort of spiritual duty for most Catholics in Imo to vote oust Mr Ohakim. And vote him out, they did. Consequently, Rochas Okorocha, a Catholic, was elected governor. In the 2019 governorship election, it is being alleged that Archbishop Obinna is supporting another Catholic, Hope Uzodimma of the All Progressives Congress.

It appears, however, that Abia and Ebonyi States, are the two Southeast states where the denomination of politicians is not critical to their electoral success.

In Abia, there is strictly no dominant denomination. While Methodists are in majority around the Umuahia axis, the Presbyterian Church dominates the Old Bende (minus Umuahia and Isuochi/Isukwuato axis).

In the Ukwa/Ngwa axis, Anglican seems to be strong in the area but cannot strictly claim dominance. The Catholics are not too far behind, but there is an encouraging number of the adherents of ‘traditional’ Ngwa churches like Apostolic Christian Church, Seventh Day Adventist as well as other little-known churches around the axis. The Pentecostal churches also thrive in the state.

However, politics of denominational came up in the state in 1999. Catholics were urged to vote the then All Peoples Party (APP) candidate, Vincent Ogbulafor, because he was a papal knight. But that did not fly as PDP’s Orji Uzor Kalu trounced him clearly. Since then, denomination has never been an issue in the state.

Ebonyi State, particularly, the Afikpo bloc is largely Presbyterian while the Abakaliki bloc is largely Catholic. However, denomination is rarely an issue in the politics of the state. The first civilian governor of the state, Sam Egwu, is Pentecostal -Assemblies of God-, while his successor, Martin Elechi, is Catholic.

The incumbent, David Umahi, is Pentecostal of the Christ Embassy denomination. Observers believe that what has remained prominent in the politics of the state is its zoning formula, known as Charter of Equity, that was originally between the Afikpo and Abakaliki blocs but later reinterpreted as between the three geopolitical zones in the state.

Indeed, it is a shame that religious denomination – and not competence – will determine who becomes governor in one of Nigeria’s most educated geopolitical zone, which, unfortunately, is punching below its weight economically and politically.

But then all politics is local. Hopefully the narrative might change soon.

Mr Meribe, journalist and media scholar, holds a PhD in Strategic Communication.

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