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Delivering verdict in God’s name

A religious leader in Nigeria tenders public apology for his utterance against First Lady
First Lady Oluremi Tinubu (left) with President Bola Tinubu at a function on Feb. 25, 2023.

First Lady Oluremi Tinubu (left) with President Bola Tinubu at a function on Feb. 25, 2023. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 25, 2024 11:04 AM GMT
Updated: March 26, 2024 03:12 AM GMT

Before the dust of damage control settles over an Islamic cleric’s public apology for his comments about Nigeria’s First Lady, Oluremi Tinubu, it is crucial to reflect on the consequences for religious leaders who stoop low to the level of disrepute.

In a short amateur video, Idris Tenshi, a Katsina-based Islamic cleric referred to Oluremi as an “infidel” while issuing a fatwa (an Islamic edict) to kill her.

“[Bola] Tinubu’s wife is an unbeliever and among the unbelievers, she is a leader,” Tenshi said in the Hausa language, adding, “She is among those that Allah has instructed us to kill because she is among the leaders of unbelievers.”

In a Feb. 22 report, New York-based news agency Sahara Reporters noted that the cleric insinuated that “the Muslim/Muslim ticket that brought President Bola Tinubu to power was a scam.”

According to the report, the cleric said that Oluremi “being an infidel should be put to death as provided for in the Quran” though he did not cite the chapter or the verse in the Islamic holy book to back his claim.

After a pushback from Nigerians across the spectrum, the Islamic scholar released a new video in which he apologized to the First Lady.

“I would like to pass this message to Nigerians regarding a video I did that is circulating on social media,” he said.

Tenshi emphasized that “all the things I said were a mistake and I don’t stand on the words. Other clerics have given me a proper explanation of the verse that I quoted.”

The preacher who seemed to rely on the dictum credited to the 18th century Alexander Pope which says, “to err is human and to forgive is divine,” stated, “As a human being, I am prone to making mistakes. I am apologizing to Her Excellency Remi Tinubu over the comments I made, and I take back the words.”

He also directed his apology to the citizenry saying, “I am also apologizing to Nigerians because she [Remi Tinubu] is like a mother to us.”

The cleric used the opportunity to urge Nigerians to support the president stressing that “the season of politics is over. I made those comments during electioneering campaigns.”

He also declared, “Now that God has given Bola Tinubu power, we have no other option than to support him and wish him and his family well. Whoever felt offended by the things I said, I am sorry.”

Spewing venom  

To be fair to him, Tenshi is not the first cleric to attempt such an obnoxious declaration. On April 23, 2021, the BBC published a story that disclosed that Nigeria’s immediate past Minister of Communications and Digital Economy and renowned Muslim cleric, Isa Pantami expressed views sympathetic to jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and Boko Haram.

In leaked audio and video recordings that made the rounds on various social media platforms, the BBC underlined that “in one sermon after there had been a deadly religious conflict and tensions were still high in Shendam, Plateau state, he [Pantami] volunteered to lead Muslims back to their homes, saying that he was willing to die in the process.”

Consequently, in an apology, he said, “I was young [13] when I made some of the comments…” Although there were calls for his dismissal from office, he remained minister until the expiration of the Buhari administration, on May 29, 2023. 

In a similar scenario, other religious leaders went beyond issuing threats to taking dreadful actions. For example, on Jan. 11, 2007, a Lagos High Court in Ikeja sentenced Chukwuemeka Ezeugo popularly known as Reverend King, to death by hanging with an additional 20 year’s imprisonment for the attempted murder of a congregant, Ann Uzoh, whom he accused of committing fornication.

Although the preacher pleaded not guilty to the charges brought against him, 10 witnesses testified against him. On Feb. 26, 2017, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the previous ruling of the lower court which found him guilty and sentenced him to death by hanging.

In a related development, on Feb. 17, 2017, the Vanguard detailed how a 56-year-old pastor, Jones Nwaeze, was arraigned before an Ikeja magistrate court in Lagos for allegedly chasing worshippers with sticks and threatening to burn down his church. The story indicated that the resident pastor of Gospel of God Church denied all charges leveled against him. The question is, were all these non-compos mentis (out of their minds)?

Policy recommendations

In Nigeria, religious leaders are revered across the board. This is because the country is a multi-religious, ethnic and patriarchal society. This respect must not be taken for granted – otherwise, they become persona non-grata. As such, the writer proposes urgent steps to wean religious leaders of the venom of divisiveness, hate speech, and fake news.

One, since it is commonplace for unlettered leaders to play to the gallery or play God before their adherents, the government should set a diploma or bachelor’s degree as the benchmark for becoming a religious leader. After showing proof of sufficient education, they should be issued licenses to operate or lead a congregation. Indeed, leading people requires some level of education.

Two, in the light of monitoring and evaluation, the Department of State Services or other ancillary agencies should visit mosques, churches and shrines in disguise to listen to sermons. There should also be monitoring of online sermons. This will put religious leaders on their toes not to inject viruses of hatred in their preaching.

Three, as is the practice in the developed world, lawmakers should develop a framework for mandatory reporting of priests/pastors and imams who make death threats, terrorize their adherences, or bully them into silence.

Four, unless erring leaders are made to face the music, upcoming leaders will grow to step into the same ocean.

These outbursts remain drivers of incessant religiously motivated violence. Nigeria is not a theocratic country like Afghanistan,  Iran,  Mauritania,  Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the Vatican.

In liberal democracies, power belongs to the people. Part of that power is deciding how to use freedom including the right to religion and free speech.

While Tenshi’s public apology is commendable, the motivation for his brazenness is reprehensible. Many others like him have shot amateur videos issuing threats. Today, they are walking freely on our streets. What makes a country is the rule of law.

Where this is lacking, anarchy becomes the order of the day. We must not wait unless it happens to the wife of the president before we condemn what is wrong. In the end, evil has no religion or tribe. It is not lost on me that leadership is a burden. As such, may God guide our leaders right!   

Justine John Dyikuk, a Catholic priest, is a Lecturer of Mass Communication at, the University of Jos-Nigeria, Senior Fellow, International Religious Freedom Policy, Religious Freedom Institute (RFI), Washington DC and PhD Candidate, University of Strathclyde Glasgow, United Kingdom.

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