Buhari & The FRCN Affair By Louis Odion, FNGE

Buhari & The FRCN Affair By Louis Odion, FNGE

For once, President Buhari on Monday chose to act with a despatch and clarity rarely seen in his tenancy at Aso Rock in the last twenty months. The ink of the reports of the forced resignation of Pastor Enoch Adeboye, arguably the dean of Pentecostal district of the nation’s Christian community, had barely dried before someone was made to lose his job in Abuja.

Not only was the voluble Executive Secretary of the Financial Reporting Council of Nigeria, Jim Obaze, summarily given the boot, his controversial Corporate Governance Code has been suspended as well.

Drawing from the FRCN Act of 2011, Obaze not only insisted that religious groups among other not-for-profit organizations registered under the Companies and Allied Matters Act began to obey some of the rules of the regular market, but apparently crossed the red line by also attempting to impose age ceiling and tenure limit on clerics.

In announcing his resignation bombshell to a captive audience numbering tens of thousands gathered at the monthly Holy Ghost fellowship at the iconic Redeemed Camp located along the Lagos-Ibadan highway (now sometimes dubbed Africa’s longest “miracle corridor” on account of the proliferation of worship centres), the septuagenarian with seemingly imperturbable look temporarily lost his temperance.

With Obaze hell-bent on full compliance, “Daddy G.O (General Overseer)” declared that the churches in Nigeria were now clearly under attack.

Until now, according to FRC, only 89 out of 23,216 registered churches in Nigeria had complied with the regulation floated under the Goodluck Jonathan administration. (With Pastor Adeboye’s compliance last week, it is safe to assume that the number would have climbed to 90.)

Of course, it is obvious someone lost sleep in the executive bed of Aso Rock the night after Adeboye’s apostolic equivalent of a declaration of war. It is, therefore, a matter of conjecture whether Buhari, probably with eyes on 2019 already, would not have been more frightened by “Daddy G.O’s” subsequent battle cry to his flock across the country (obviously in millions) to go register with any political party of their choosing urgently with a view to taking more than a passing interest in politics and elections henceforth.

Coming from the very flock where Vice President Yemi Osinbajo descended, nothing could be more ominous for Buhari.

But FRCN distraction was utterly avoidable had commonsense prevailed. From his rhetoric in syndicated newspaper interviews, it is obvious Jim Obaze had all along opted for a showmanship incompatible with the restraint and sobriety expected of a bureaucrat, much less the regulator of a sensitive sub-sector.

If truly the policy objective was to ensure stricter adherence of good corporate governance, there is a surfeit of provisions in extant “Code of Corporate Governance in Nigeria” to compel fidelity among religious organizations wishing to dabble in profit-making enterprises.

One, it is a moot point, whether in municipal or international law, that whoever comes to the market-place must submit to the prevailing rules of engagement. I do not think any religious group going into commercial ventures would contest this. Such subsidiaries are obliged to pay taxes just like players of secular progeny.

In fact, workers in the church or mosque are not exempted. Religious organisations are obliged by extant laws to remit PAYE deducted from workers to tax authorities. Any violator or accessory is liable and it does not require much litigation to prosecute and commute anyone to prison here. On these settled points of law, only an unreasonable Pastor or Imam would seek exemption.

So, it was needless for Obaze to over-dramatise the subordination of church organisations involved in commercial activities to the customs of the corporate world. He and his meddlesome cohorts need not have attempted to reinvent the wheel.

But where I think Obaze went astray was seeking to blur the dichotomy between ecclesiastical calling and commercial intercourse. Lumping religious organisations among NGOs under the broad canopy of non-profit organizations, as the controversial FRCN regulation expressly seeks to do, is quite anomalous. And for Obaze to thereafter take liberty to tell off differing Pentecostal leaders to “take your churches to heaven if you cannot obey the new law” is the most idiotic thing to say.

So power-drunk, Obaze even tried to personalise the issue. Hear him: “In keeping other peoples’ money, you have to prepare account. That is why churches fought me so badly, took me to court as a person and then my office too. Mosques and orthodox churches freely complied, but those Pentecostal churches called me to ask questions. They said: ‘This church is church of God and we are accountable to God.’ And I told them: ‘Very good, so you must take this church to heaven, you can’t operate it here’. When public funds are involved, government needs to ensure proper accountability.”

From the foregoing, it is easy to locate Obaze’s fundamental conceptual error. Church’s money is not public (government) money from the poor legalistic lens he seemed to view things.

But this is not to dismiss one weighty insinuation. One suspects that, like most critical observers today, Obaze’s aggression was fed largely by an unstated annoyance at the manifest material contradictions in the miracle industry in contemporary Nigerian society. For instance, whereas the Pastor continues to luxuriate in obscene opulence, the flock wallows in abject poverty. Some have converted the church to family business. Tithes and offerings are used to buy private jets for the pastor while majority trek to the temple every Sunday.

Detestable as it is, the truth is that the onus to challenge such shenanigans afflicting the temple today ultimately lies with the adherents themselves, certainly not a meddlesome political authority seeking to wail louder than the dispossessed. To do otherwise is run the risk of arbitrariness, if not a crude throwback to the Stone Age.

Beginning from the middle age, the consensus among those who subscribe to the concept of democracy is that, for harmony and balance in the society at large, the state needs to keep a dignified distance from the temple.

The moral basis for this is perhaps best captured by an enlightenment philosopher, John Locke, with a submission that since rational people are unwilling to cede their conscience to state control as the liberty of conscience is intrinsic to man, the government therefore lacks the capacity to exercise any authority whatsoever in the spiritual realm.

Nigeria cannot now aspire to be an exemption.

But had FRCN, deploying the ample facilities of existing laws, found any Pastor wanting in the remittance of PAYE due to government or evading taxes on any commercial undertaking or engaged in clear act of money laundering, I doubt if the Christian community would have spoken in unison like we have witnessed in the past one week.

So, Obaze’s thinly veiled activist sophistry against the “internal affairs” of the church would then seem misplaced indeed. By the way, if such a regulation could not be fully enforced during the tenure of Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, what could have given Obaze the effrontery it could be imposed under Buhari, a Muslim, without raising sectarian dust?

As custodians of the spiritual realms, let it be recognised that churches/mosques/shrines cater for peculiar social needs. In liberal democracy, it is never the remit of the political authorities to meddle or interfere in the leadership preferences of the faithful or the tenure. It is not the business of the state to dabble in what people worship and how they choose to relate with their shepherds or idols.

The most government does is keep an eye on the boundaries: ensuring that in exercising your freedom of religion you do not violate the right of others. Otherwise, FRCN would, by the same token, be empowered to order Sat Guru Maraji to immediately turn in his handing-over notes having spent more than twenty years commanding his sprawling temple located at the gate of Ibadan.

Overall, while Obaze’s swift dismissal may have temporarily assuaged anger in Christian community at a time of mounting sectarian tension in the land, it hardly absolves the dereliction at the top, which would seem to enable the FRCN insolence in the first place.

According to media reports (which remained undenied at this writing), the storm had incubated since October, with Obaze allegedly flexing muscle with the supervising Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Okechukwu Enelamah. The former was said to have bluntly refused a simple directive from his superior who, as a political appointee, was obviously better equipped to weigh the grave costs of such precipitate action.

The question then: at what point was the attention of the President drawn to the insubordination of the erstwhile FRCN boss? There could only be three possibilities. If he was kept in the dark for so long over something so potentially destabilizing, then the reporting template of the Buhari administration urgently needs to be dismantled. But if he knew but chose to dither, then president is well advised to rethink his own conception of national security. In case the president first read about the otherwise long-running brouhaha only last Saturday like most Nigerians, then he is truly in dire need of salvation himself.

In the final analysis, we can only hope that PMB is now politically born-again and will henceforth accord emerging issues of grave national importance the same blazing urgency the FRCN nuisance was treated on Monday. For instance, had similar sense of urgency been shown early over the Southern Kaduna disturbance, the nation could have been spared the needless trauma of the recent pogrom of Christian minorities that lasted days.

On Christmas Eve alone, no fewer than 800 defenseless citizens were butchered in cold blood by suspected Fulani herdsmen. The killings continued unabated all through the Yuletide season. It took more than a whole week for the president to finally rise from a curious midday slumber and rally the Military to curtail the rampaging murder gangs. Alas, they started mounting frantic roadblocks only after the beasts had leisurely walked away.

Abdication of authority could not be more scandalous.

Social Media As New Boko Haram

It seemed a perfect copy. The “t” was nearly crossed, the “i” boldly dotted. The headline spoke directly to the burning issue of the day over which not a few Nigerians had understandably been losing sleep – the money-doubling scheme called MMM.

Before its shadowy promoters abruptly suspended their operation in December, thousands – if not millions – of Nigerians already had billions of Naira trapped in the scheme whose attractions include a promise of phantasmagorical returns on investments within weeks.

So seductive was the bait that even the General Overseer of a leading Pentecostal church in Lagos admitted that the London branch of his flock earlier lost a staggering $5m £5m to the money-doublers.

As reported by the blog late on Monday, ahead of the scheduled return of the Ponzi scheme, the Presidency had had a change of mind.

Based on fresh advisory from the EFCC, according to the blogger, the presidency had not only quashed its earlier damning disclaimer but now considered MMM a true partner in poverty alleviation, particularly at this time of recession.

And something quite unprecedented, if not revolutionary, the presidential endorsement was capped with a profuse apology to the miracle workers toiling tirelessly, day and night, behind MMM.

All interested Nigerians were therefore urged to take advantage of MMM’s return to better their financial condition. Just as the perennially adversarial media institutions were enjoined to, for once, sheathe their swords and halt opposing progress.

What further proof of authenticity could anyone have thought or expected to believe this evidently “good news” than its direct attribution to the President’s own Media alAdviser, Femi Adesina, as the author, his designation painstakingly spelt out and his names fully capitalized, for effect.

My first instinct after reading the bulletin which I imagined must have trended on the social media Monday evening was outrage, wondering whether the Buhari administration had indeed become so bereft of sanity to volunteer itself to be implicated in such sordid matters.

So, my next reaction was to call Yomi Odunuga, The Nation’s Aso Rock correspondent, an Abuja insider, to verify the release.

It was news to him: “To the best of my knowledge, no such statement came from the Villa today.”

I decided to call Femi, my old colleague and brother. He screamed in incredulity at my inquiry, asking rhetorically: “Me, issue a statement endorsing the Ponzi scheme ke?!”

Coincidentally, hours before Femi’s purported “Ponzi statement” began to trend that Monday evening another “breaking news” was being retailed by a different blog declaring categorically that “Tension grips Delta Community ahead of Osinbajo’s visit”.

As usual, without fear of God or respect for facts, the blogger disclosed that all was set for Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s visit as part of President Buhari’s commitment to contain renewed militancy in oil-rich Niger Delta. His port of call was listed as the restive Gbaramatu Kingdom in Warri South-West Local Government Area of Delta State.

Stretching creativity to an unbelievable limit, the blogger then linked reported arrest and invasion of some ex-militant leaders’ homes by soldiers to the concert of precautionary steps being taken by the authorities ahead of the arrival of the august visitor.

To garnish the picture, a local leader was quoted in the report as confirming the impending visit.

But it was an agitated Laolu Akande, Media Adviser to the Vice President, who issued a frantic disclaimer later that Monday evening categorically denying Delta even featured in his boss’ itinerary for the day, let alone a scheduled trip to Gbaramatu.

Surely, journalism, our noble calling, is under attack. Once, the written word – in cold print – was taken as gospel. But not any more as quacks, hustlers and just any mischief-maker with access to the laptop besiege the cyber space seeking to redefine truth not as fact but as fantasy. E-rats, millipedes (apologies to Wole Soyinka), cowards and such monstrous creatures now hide in the anonymity of the cyber space to peddle falsehood and foment libel.

It is high time all stakeholders were alerted to this clear and present danger to our collective social health.

A Learner

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