Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Sanusi Lamido Sanusi created another controversy last Monday when he called for the banning of major regional and religious organisations that he believes have impeded national unity and heightened insecurity in the country.
Speaking at a dinner organised by the Northern Reawakening Forum (NRF) in Abuja, Sanusi said groups such as the Jama'atu Nasril Islam [JNI], Christian Association of Nigeria [CAN], Arewa Consultative Forum [ACF], Egbe Afenifere and Ohaneze Ndi'Igbo are no longer religious or cultural in nature but are political associations masquerading as socio-cultural or religious organisations. He reportedly said, "These religious organisations, the Arewa, Afenifere, including Jama'atu Nasril Islam (JNI) and CAN should be banned because they are not religious organisations, they are not culture organisations, they are political associations under the guise of religious organisations."
He also said the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic enjoined government to promote associations that cut across ethnic groups and religious divides and frowned at situations where government officials love to engage these associations. He also blamed the insecurity in the North on elite figures who hide behind religion to pursue their selfish political goals.
Not surprisingly, all the groups mentioned by Sanusi swiftly condemned his remarks. CAN's Secretary-General Rev Musa Asake said, "CAN is not the cause of trouble or insecurity in this country. CAN was formed to protect the interests of Christians, especially in fighting persecution...The 1999 Constitution guarantees freedom of association and Sanusi cannot just wake up and call on anybody to proscribe it...It is this type of statement that causes problems, not CAN as an institution."
Leader of Afenifere Chief Reuben Fasoranti said in response, "That is a big joke. We (Afenifere) are not given to violence. We want unity and progress. He is shooting the wrong target. We want progress and improved welfare for our people. They know where the problem of insecurity is coming from. They should tackle Boko Haram. They should talk to their leaders to put their people in check." Ohaneze Ndi'Igbo's National Secretary Chief Nduka Eya on his part said, "Sanusi does not deserve our response because his comment is frivolous. How can they ban CAN, Ohaneze, Afenifere, etc? Nobody is going to respond to the nonsense he is talking about."
ACF's National Publicity Secretary Anthony Sani, who also responded said, "The existence of different regional and religious fora are not as divisive as posited by Malam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi precisely because they have overlapping interests whose countervailing forces reinforce the unity of the country. Their place in the order of things is to advance the cause of national solidarity through relative pluralism and not to promote insular particularism that cannot fit into their place in the order of things."
Odua Peoples Congress' [OPC] National Coordinator Otunba Gani Adams was quoted as saying, "[Sanusi] is becoming too controversial nowadays because I don't know what concerns Sanusi with religious bodies and pressure groups. As the CBN governor, his role is to discuss the economy and the financial state of the country. To say CAN, JNI and other pressure groups should be banned shows he has a hidden agenda."
Certainly, there is something perplexing about the CBN governor dabbling too much into political matters. Even though the constitution guarantees everyone's freedom of speech, convention, tradition, service rules and plain good taste all serve to restrict the freedoms of certain persons including civil servants, soldiers, traditional rulers and clerics from dabbling into certain matters in public or even in private.
As to the substance of what Malam Sanusi said, let us note at the outset that none of these groups he mentioned can be banned under the 1999 constitution as long as it does not resort to violence or sedition. For now, there is no reason to believe that anyone of them has done so.
As usual with a sweeping generalisation such as Sanusi made, it contains both elements of truth and error. With respect to the major religious groups JNI and CAN, it is true that on some occasions in Nigerian history the utterances of the leaders have been less than restrained. Mention could be made of CAN President Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor's remarks in the wake of the horrific attacks on churches blamed on the Boko Haram sect. Yet, the episode was a trying one for CAN leaders and CAN's national leadership under previous heads had been generally restrained. JNI, dominated as it is by royal fathers, is generally a restrained organisation though it may have ruffled feathers on some past occasions.
As for ACF, Afenifere and Ohaneze, they merely stepped into the void created by the weaknesses of the Fourth Republic political parties. It is important to note that no such groups existed in the Second Republic when the parties of that era over-mobilised citizens and left no room for inter-party regional associations. What Sanusi said about politicians seizing them as launching pads for selfish political ambitions is certainly true; these groups themselves often complain about people who retreat into them when their political careers are at an ebb, only to vanish once their fortunes improve.
Certainly, our democracy cannot be built on the basis of regional groups, which in any case cannot sponsor candidates for elections. Only a rejuvenation of the political parties with coherent ideological and program focus will solve this problem. There lies the truth in what Sanusi Lamido Sanusi said.