The storm raging through Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s political camp has sparked a difficult discourse in which there is no room for nuance, as is customary.
The trending coloration of the politician in two blistering attacks by US-based writer and columnist, Professor Farooq Kperogi, has left his political appeal, especially in the North, weakened.
If Kperogi’s ten-point case against Osinbajo is ignored, he claims it will lead to a “religious civil war.” The allegations leveled by the critic, whether in assessing the Vice President’s affiliation with the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), advocacy for Christian candidacy, or pathologizing of the non-Christian agenda, have sparked a fierce debate reminiscent of the media backlash against Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Pantami, when his unflattering past as a preacher was unearthed, triggering a cascade of reactions.
Pantami is to Sunni Muslims what Osinbajo is to Pentecostal Christians, and both have strong academic reputations that give them an advantage within the political class and in committing allegiances to two publics: secular and religious. As a result, the evangelical weight on them feeds on de-marketing belief systems that aren’t theirs, and such polarizations have been ingrained in us. At least until they were obliged to tone down their otherizations of “enemy” religions and sects due to governmental pressure.
In a heterogeneous community, mounting a pulpit is a risky business, and our religious leaders have been careless in preaching controversial sermons to sell divine afterlife imagery or dabbling in politics. Our houses of worship have become hotbeds of incitement to hatred and violence, with priests serving as mouthpieces for such a terrible trend. The priests also get to avoid scrutiny and backwashing of their utterances, which are plain hate speech in legal sense.
For many priests, especially those who attempt to enter national politics, the move from the pulpit to politics has not gone well. When Pantami was appointed as Minister, for example, people who were unfamiliar with his professional background felt he was a chess piece in Buhari’s Islamization strategy. To silence his opponents, his PhD certification had to be aggressively promoted. It wasn’t long before his name started to circulate as a possible Vice Presidential candidate, and his past came back to haunt him. Kperogi led the charge in contextualizing and countering Pantami’s commentaries on sensitive global trends, particularly the Taliban’s and Al-reign Qaeda’s of terror in the Middle East, concluding that the preacher was unfit to hold a sensitive public office in Nigeria.
Kperogi’s red card to Pantami, whom he has completely undressed to the point of obsession, is similar to the grenade fired at Osinbajo’s political chariot. It may take a miracle to put the Vice President’s political future back together, particularly in the North, where Kperogi’s charges have been translated into multiple local languages and distributed from one Facebook page to another, as well as one WhatsApp account to another. The Vice President’s media team’s reaction to what may be the end of their principal’s political career has been heartbreaking, particularly their use of terms like “hatchet job” and “attributing them to imagined competitors.”
I enjoy watching the love-hate relationship between Kperogi and his fans on social media, especially the one-dimensional thinkers who praise him for his critical views on the affairs of a particular region or religion, but then label and antagonize him when he criticizes the same things, issues, and places they promote or revere. Those who praised him when he tore Pantami apart, even calling him a “fraudfessor” for his dubious appointment as Professor of Cybersecurity at the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, are now questioning his mental health.
Being human with emotional sensitivities, one does not have to agree with everything Kperogi writes, but he is undoubtedly the most independent-minded social critic working today. He’s not the most objective Nigerian pundit, but he’s a courageous writer who you can’t dismiss as a hired hack. Those who are faltering in their attempts to portray him as a sectional envoy, a northern or Muslim puritan, clearly have no understanding who he is—or that he is as ruthless in his deconstruction of Muslim and northern issues as he is of Christian and southern things. He is a man who never minces his words.
Beyond his eloquent public addresses and humanizing engagements with the masses, I don’t know Osinbajo well enough to agree with Kperogi’s scathing profiling, but arguing that Kperogi’s views were sponsored or done to support a political camp or opponent has to be the silliest critique of a critic who has dismissed even the political options Osinbajo himself must’ve regarded as threats.
In a list of the Vice President’s political transgressions, Kperogi wrote that “(m)ost politicians exploit religion to gain political power, but Osinbajo wants to exploit political power to advance a narrow, divisive religious agenda,” and that this is “a big difference, and it’s a potentially destabilizing difference.” However, Osinbajo’s portrayal as a religious bigot by a portion of the northern population isn’t dissimilar to Buhari’s disastrous public relations in the South since his failed candidacy for President ahead of the 2003 presidential elections. He was chastised and portrayed as a Shariah-obsessed “extremist” unsuitable to run a secular society.
However, Osinbajo cannot risk adopting Buhari’s approach for overcoming political rejection in the South, which involves appealing to the Muslim North to oppose the ravenous South. Choosing the pulpit as a political basis jeopardizes his aspirations, even though he lacks Buhari’s cult following. The North is a vote-producing bloc where no politician can afford to become a pariah, and Osinbajo may need more than fancy speeches and the pulpit to avoid being painted as a clannish public official. To illustrate that he is not the man in Kperogi’s stories, his image makers must look beyond “divide-and-conquer” strategies.