SEOUL, South Korea–The president of Africa’s most populous nation begins and closes every day praying with a Baptist minister.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo is a committed Baptist who prays daily and has begun teaching a weekly Sunday school class, according to Yusufu Ameh Obaje, president of the Nigerian Baptist Convention.
“Every morning we start our devotion at 6:30, and members of his family and some close ministers join us in the state house,” Obaje told EthicsDaily.com.
The morning devotional includes prayer, singing and studying the Bible for a “minimum of 30 minutes,” Obaje said. “Before he goes to bed, I join him in closing prayer, sometimes as late as 4 a.m.”
As chaplain to the president, Obaje said his “role is largely spiritual and advisory.”
He leads the Sunday worship service, prays with the president before he departs on trips and meets with him at his request.
Obaje lives in the official residence and also serves as a sounding board for the president’s preparation for his Sunday school lesson.
“We jointly discuss what book he teaches,” Obaje said. “After his preparation, I listen to him before he presents it. Often he is so thorough that I have little contribution.”
Calling Nigeria’s leader “very spiritual,” Obaje said that President Obasanjo “gives priority to God in all his undertakings.”
Obaje credited Obasanjo’s religious commitment to the former general being jailed in 1995 on charges of plotting against military dictator Sani Abacha.
“In his over three years of imprisonment, he spent most of his time praying and fasting and writing books,” Obaje said.
Obasanjo, an ethnic Yoruba, rose to prominence as an officer during Nigeria’s 1967-1970 civil war.
After the assassination of Gen. Murtala Mohamed in 1976, Obasanjo took over the reins of government. In 1979, he became the first African military leader to return government power to civilian rule.
Obasanjo was elected president in 1999 and re-elected in 2003 with more than 60 percent of the vote.
Located in West Africa, Nigeria is more than twice the size of California with a population of 124 million people divided into some 250 ethnic groups. Major tribal groups include Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba and Ibo.
The nation is religiously divided among Muslims (50 percent), Christians (40 percent) and indigenous beliefs (10 percent). The Nigerian Baptist Convention has over 1.5 million members, according to the Baptist World Alliance’s 2003 statistics.
Nigeria has long been racked by military, ethnic and religious conflict.
Obaje, however, disputed the image in Western media that Nigeria’s much-reported violence was religiously based, pitting Christians against Muslims.
He is national coordinator and executive secretary for the Nigerian Inter-Religious Council. With 50 members evenly divided among Muslims and Christians, the council’s goal is to promote peaceful coexistence.
“One of the major findings of our council is that the so-called religious conflict is heavily tribal, political and cultural,” Obaje said. Religion is used by some people because “they know that religion can be used to destabilize society.”
Obaje said that sharia, Islamic law, “is a legitimate organ of Muslim religion to help the faithful be more committed to God.” He called it a “positive element of Islamic religion” that helped “Muslims practice their religion.”
Asked about sharia’s impact on Baptists, Obaje, who served as the president of the Nigeria Baptist Seminary for 10 years, said Islamic law does not apply to Baptists, but only to Muslims.
Baptists are allowed to practice their own faith within Nigeria’s constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion, he said.
As one of three Nigerians attending Baptist World Alliance’s general council meeting, Obaje expressed concern about the Southern Baptist Convention’s decision to leave the BWA.
Noting Jesus’ words about unity of the church, the Nigerian leader said, “Christian groups … must seek to work together as a family.”
Southern Baptist mission work in Nigeria started in 1850 with Thomas Jefferson Bowen, when the slave trade still existed. After World War II ended, Nigeria became one of the larger Baptist mission stations.
“Despite the unfortunate separation of the Southern Baptists from the BWA, we believe that our cooperative program should continue,” he said. “I pray that we will never be presented with a choice between the SBC and BWA. But if we were we would choose BWA.”
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and executive editor of EthicsDaily.com.