Fuel Subsidy, Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and the Nigerian Masses

by Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA

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The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." ÔÇô Luke 4: 17- 21.

The Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) recently announced its intention to remove subsidy from the price of fuel from next year. The existing fuel subsidy has enabled millions of Nigerians to have access to petroleum products at a fairly reasonable price. According to the FGN, the subsidy removal would save the country billions of dollars, thereby freeing funds for investment in the oil sector. This proposal from the government has generated numerous debates, strong reactions and commentaries by labour unions, financial analysts, business communities, NGO's etc.

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), an umbrella organization of the various Christian denominations in Nigeria, has stepped into the debate. The CAN under the leadership of Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor has expressed its support for the removal of the fuel subsidy and called on Christians and Nigerians to support President Jonathan Goodluck. Pastor Oritsejafor indicated that although the removal of the subsidy will be a difficult pill to swallow, the government must convince Nigerians that the gains from the subsidy removal will be used to the benefit of the masses.

According to a Pew Research Center report, almost 80 million Nigerians are Christians. As an umbrella organization for the Christian community, CAN is often viewed as a representative of the voices of 80 million Christians. If the CAN leadership is expressing its support for the removal of oil subsidy, can it really be said to be representing the best interest of at least 80 million Nigerians? With almost 64 per cent of the population living below the international poverty line of US$1.25 per day, one wonders how the church leadership has arrived at a conclusion that we should support the removal of the fuel subsidy in Nigeria, which is more likely to push millions further down the poverty line, as it could worsen the twin impact of inflation and unemployment currently plaguing the Nigerian masses.

In the past decades, the Nigerian Government has been gradually lifting the subsidy on oil, often citing that the subsidy removal would benefit the citizenry, however, these so-called benefits are yet to accrue to the Nigerian masses. As Nigeria does not have adequate social safety nets, the fuel subsidy is one of the very few avenues in which the masses benefit from the ÔÇśnational cake'.

In this article, I will not be addressing the economics of the proposed fuel subsidy removal, but will detail my thoughts on the attitude of the Nigerian Church leadership in the fuel subsidy debate.

The Nigerian church leadership is characterized by its apathy and silence on issues that negatively affect the vast majority of Christians and other Nigerians. With the exception of a few leaders, the church aristocracy has failed to speak up on issues such as child abuse, poverty, violence, declining health standards, corruption and government policies, which continue to push us deeper into the poverty line. With the Nigerian church leadership backing the FGN on the removal of the fuel subsidy, this now represents a new shift by the leadership from apathy to support for policies, which continue to undermine millions of Nigerians. Has the church leadership now transformed itself from being an apathetic Saul of Tarsus watching the authorities stone the Nigerian masses with the pebbles of corruption, oppression and deception, to an enthusiastic Delilah of Philistine prostituting with the authorities to shave off the locks of the Nigerian masses with the clippers of poverty and injustice?

What are the possible factors contributing to the Nigerian church leadership's apathy towards the plight of the Nigerian masses? Why does the Nigerian church leadership support government policies, which are detrimental to the poor people of Nigerian society? Why doesn't the Nigerian church leadership stand up for the rights of the poor and those at the margin of society? There are three possible factors namely a) closeness to the power structure b) widening wealth gap between the Clergy and the congregation c) straying away from the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus Christ.

In biblical times, there were engagements between the religious leadership and government authorities, however government officials did not often influence the religious leaders. The religious leaders spoke up when their followers were persecuted, when their beliefs were jeopardized or when God's commandments were disobeyed. From Scriptures we learn how Moses stood up to Pharaoh when he refused to let the Israelites go free; we learn how John the Baptist rebuked King Herod for taking his brother's wife; we learn how Samuel confronted Saul when the latter disobeyed God's command. Unfortunately, in Nigeria as a number of church leaders have gained access to government officials, they have not used this access to fight for the cause of their congregation and the Kingdom of God. Rather, the politicians have often used the access to the Nigerian church leadership to promote their own agenda and some politicians have used the church as a platform to castigate their opponents. With this closeness, it often becomes difficult for the leaders to openly challenge government policies, which impact negatively on their congregation. As a consequence, the church leadership has become what Martin Luther King once described as a ÔÇśtool of the state rather than a guide and critic of the state'.

Another factor contributing to the apathy of the church leadership is the growing wealth disparity between the clergy and the congregation. The Nigerian church does not operate in a vacuum and very often, the happenings in the wider society trickle down to the church. Nigeria is a society with a high degree of economic inequality, with the rich being extremely rich and the poor being extremely poor. In government, the politicians are getting richer and richer, while the governed are getting poorer and poorer. In the corporate world, the senior executives get heavily rewarded often to the detriment of the lower grade employees, customers and in some instances shareholders. The church is sometimes no different, with a number of church leaders enjoying the luxuries of life such as private jets, expensive cars and properties in choice locations; while the majority of the congregation barely survive on the necessities of life. This has often resulted in a situation whereby the church leaders and the congregation live in two different worlds, with the church leaders living ÔÇśa life of heaven on earth' and the congregation living ÔÇśa life of hell on earth'. With this disparity, it becomes increasingly difficult for the church leadership to view life from the paradigm of the congregation.

The final factor is a straying away from some of the teachings of the Master. Jesus had and still has compassion for the poor and others at the margin of society. As the quote detailed at the beginning of the article suggests; a key part of Jesus ministry while he was on earth was addressing the concerns of those at the margin of society. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, the prosperity gospel has become the dominant theology in a number of our churches. This has resulted in people looking inwards and watching out for themselves rather than others. It has also resulted in the poor being labeled as unworthy in the Kingdom of God, as they are assumed to have failed to take advantage of ÔÇśGod's purpose for their lives'. In some instances, church leaders refer to poverty as a sin. With a mindset and theology that has a disdain for the poor, one should not be surprised that the Nigerian church leadership is failing to champion the cause of the poor.

Martin Luther King once rhetorically asked the question ÔÇśwho was better suited to articulate the concerns of the congregation than the church leadership?' Throughout history up to the present time, church leaders have always been at the vanguard of social justice and the fight for the cause of the underprivileged. During the Civil Rights Movement, church leaders such as Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson played a significant role in tearing down the walls of segregation in the USA. In South Africa, religious leaders like Desmond Tutu lead the fight against Apartheid. In Poland, the priest Jerzy Popieluszko was murdered for his stance against the repressive communist regime. Mother Teresa, a Catholic nun, was a champion for the sick, the orphaned and the poor. It is time that the Nigerian church leadership follows suit and begins to stand up for the poor, the vulnerable and other Nigerians at the margin of society.

In conclusion, all around the world, the poor and marginalized are being pressed deeper and deeper into the abysses of poverty, despair and hopelessness. In this time of moral conflict, the church has to take its rightful place and stand up and be counted. This is currently being played out in the United Kingdom, where the church has been put on the spotlight in the ongoing tug of war between the protesters from the Occupy London Movement and the City of London Corporation, over the rights of the former to set up a protest campsite in front of St Paul's Cathedral.

On one hand, a group of church leaders have opted to join the City of London Corporation in seeking a legal injunction to eject the protesters from the protest camp, while on the other hand, another group of Christian leaders have drawn up plans to protect the protesters by forming a ring of prayer around the camp outside St Paul's Cathedral, should an attempt be made to forcibly remove the protesters. Analogous to the UK situation, the Nigerian Church leaders would have to choose whether to side with the authorities to eject the Nigerian masses from the camp of hope, comfort and rest or whether to form a ring around the Nigerian masses to prevent the poor from the blows of oppression, inflation and poverty.

Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA

November 2011

The views stated in this article are personal to the writer and does not represent the

views or opinions of any company or organization with which the author is or was

associated.