John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Catholics Suspend National Activity In the Christian Association of Nigeria

by John Campbell
January 28, 2013

Storm clouds gather over the Church of the Holy Trinity in Onitsha, Nigeria, April 14, 2005. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Courtesy Reuters)


The Roman Catholic Church has suspended its participation in meetings at the national level of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). The Catholic bishops stated that “CAN is being dragged into partisan politics thereby compromising its ability to carry out its true role as conscience of the nation and the voice of the voiceless.” The current CAN president, Ayo Oritsejafor, has been an outspoken supporter of President Goodluck Jonathan and the governing Peoples Democratic Party. In reaction to the Catholic suspension of its participation, one CAN spokesman has said that they are “free to go.” He also accused them of “arrogance” and claimed they were angry because the presidency had moved to the Pentecostals.

Radical Nigerian Islamic groups, labeled Boko Haram, have been attacking Christian churches in northern Nigeria for the past few years. CAN has been a national Christian voice in responding to those attacks. While some CAN rhetoric can be fierce, Christian reaction thus far has been largely free of reprisals against Muslims, especially in the predominately Christian parts of the country. The Catholic suspension is bound to weaken CAN; they were one of the founding pillars of the organization.

The Roman Catholic Church is a powerhouse among Nigerian Christians. Its adherents number an estimated nineteen million, out of a population of perhaps 170 million. It is either the largest, or the second largest (after the Anglicans) Christian denomination in the country. There are three Nigerian cardinals, two of whom are under age eighty, and eligible to vote in the next papal election. Among other outspoken critics of the Nigerian political economy and human rights abuses have been John Onaiyekan, cardinal archbishop of Abuja and Matthew Kukah, the bishop of Sokoto.

CAN has been the most important Christian umbrella organization in Nigeria. Founded in 1976, it originally included the mainline Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church. Subsequently, it grew to include Pentecostal and “African” churches. Until recently, its leadership has been dominated by the mainstream Protestants and the Catholics. However, its current president, Ayo Oritsejafor, senior pastor of the Word of Life Bible Church, comes from the Pentecostal tradition; the vice president, Archbishop Daniel Okoh, is president of the Organization of African Institutional Churches, the umbrella of “African churches.” CAN presidential elections are frequently contested. Oritsejafor defeated Archbishop Onaiyekan for the presidency in the last elections, in 2010. Onaiyekan in turn had defeated the Anglican primate in the election previous. Oritsejafor has been criticized for a lavish personal lifestyle, including the use of a private jet, a present from anonymous donors.

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  • Posted by Chike Chukudebelu

    “The Catholic suspension is bound to weaken CAN; they were one of the founding pillars of the organization.”

    I am not sure you understand the context of CAN or Christianity in Northern Nigeria. Let me explain:

    1. Anyone who knows anything about Christianity knows that it is not the natural state of things for Catholics and Protestants to stay together under one roof. They usually do so when they perceive a common threat like Abortion/Gay Rights in the United States/Europe.

    Usually, theological differences keep them apart (e.g. Catholics were never part of the World Council of Churches).

    2. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) is a response to the religious politics of Northern Nigeria and the refusal of the Northern ruling elite to separate Mosque and State. Burning issues like the political Sharia and Boko Haram will still persist whether Catholics are part of CAN or not.

    3. CAN is a POLITICAL organisation, it has been from inception. CAN presidents have usually been outspoken. Classical examples are Okogie, Akinola and Makinde.

    4. The focus of CAN has always been Northern Nigeria. There is little need for CAN in the more religiously tolerant South. Most Northern Christians are not bothered if “Ayo Oritsejafor is too close to government”, provided that he works to prevent congregations from being blown up on Sunday mornings. They also know that his private jet is not used to bomb anyone on Sunday morning.

    5. You remarked on “Catholics being a powerhouse in Nigeria”. Let me also remind you that the most Catholic part of Nigeria (Igbos from the South East) is also one of the most likely to suffer from religiously motivated violence in Northern Nigeria.

    Gideon Akaluka, who was beheaded for “desecrating the Quran”, was Igbo and most probably, Catholic. If Catholics are no longer in CAN, they will still require a pressure group to protect their interests in Northern Nigeria. As you know, religious zealots make no distinction between Catholic and Protestant Churches when they go suicide bombing.

    6. Catholic Bishops have taken pains to explain that this is strictly an internal matter and that Oritsejafor has agreed to meet them. The truth is that Catholics need CAN a lot more than CAN needs the Catholics. As I earlier pointed out, it is all about Northern Nigeria.

    7. Oritsejafor is the first CAN president to testify at the US Congress. Many Nigerian Christians actually like his advocacy skills and the job he is doing to mobilise Nigerian Christians in the US to form a pressure group.

    8. In the meantime, Sheik Gumi made a series of inflammatory remarks. I am worried, but not surprised that this blog chose to ignore them.

    9. Finally, this is a sad commentary on religious politics in Nigeria. We cannot make up our minds on whether we are a secular, multi-religious (whatever that means) or a one-third Sharia state. As long as this persists, there will be space of religious advocacy groups like CAN and JNI.

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