A Nigerian governor apologized Friday, after he implied that Pope Francis supports his role as a campaign leader for a controversial presidential ticket, which breaks from the custom of power-sharing between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria
“I now realise that I may have overreached myself in the course of trying to defend my personal decision in accepting this appointment, and thus the reference to the Holy Father was not intended as an act of disrespect to his exalted and reverred office,” wrote Simon Bako Lalong in an Aug. 12 note to the president of Nigeria’s bishops’ conference.
The letter came after Lalong said Wednesday that Pope Francis had no problem with his role on the campaign of the All Progressives Caucus’ all-Muslim presidential ticket — despite widespread Catholic opposition to a party decision that selected Muslims to campaign for both the presidency and vice-presidency.
Nigerian political parties customarily choose one Muslim and one Christian for their presidential tickets, and aim to balance other government appointments between Christians and Muslims.
But the All Progressives Caucus, Nigeria’s ruling party, shocked the country last month when it announced that it had selected Muslims for both spots on its ticket for the 2023 presidential elections. Some Christian leaders in the country, especially Nigeria’s Catholic bishops, have said the move will increase violence and discrimination against Christians.
Lalong, who is the Catholic governor of Nigeria’s Plateau State, sparked controversy this week when he agreed to become director-general, or campaign chairman, for the APC’s presidential ticket. Some Christian leaders have said Lalong is acting recklessly, or will contribute to harm of Christians in the country.
The governor has defended himself, invoking his Catholic faith in the process.
Lalong told media Aug. 10 that he is a papal knight - a member of the Vatican’s Order of St. Gregory - and that Pope Francis had no concerns about his political decision.
“I am a Catholic … I’ve been given an award by the pope, the highest papal award — Knight of St. Gregory the Great… I hold the papal knight[hood]. And as a Catholic everything we do, we do it and we send the advice to the pope. The pope has not told me that what I am doing is bad, to accept the general-director [role]. As a Catholic, we take that direction.”
After Lalong’s remarks, Catholics in the country raised objection to the implication that Pope Francis supported the governor’s political decisions, or even that Lalong had consulted with the pontiff before taking a new job.
An association of papal honorees in Nigeria challenged Lalong’s claims on Thursday, suggesting they were self-serving and untrue.
In a statement, Esther Uduehi, president of the Association of Papal Knights and Medalists in Nigeria expressed the “disappointment of all papal honorees in Nigeria at a statement credited to you [Governor Lalong] which would tend to bring the revered image and person of the Holy Father, the pope into your local politics.”
“Your action, to say the least, is not only disappointing but condemnable and not expected of a Catholic and more so of a papal knight. The Holy Father is a busy man and does not interact with individuals so easily as you will want Nigerians to believe,” the statement added.
“An ardent Catholic, and a papal honoree at that, ought to know where and when to apply the brake in discussing issues of the Church,” Uduehi said. “No true Catholic, no matter his/her position in the society, will deliberately politicize the revered name of the pope for the purpose of a position in a localized political matter of any country.”
Uduehi said the association of papal honorees was considering an official complaint to the country’s apostolic nuncio.
“I have been mandated by all papal knights and medalists in Nigeria who feel betrayed by your statement to ask you to produce evidence of your claim or refute the statement credited to you.”
“The executive [board] of the Association of Papal Knights and Medalists in Nigeria will be meeting to take a decision and make recommendations to [the bishops’ conference] and thereafter to the papal nuncio,” the statement said.
Lalong’s answer seemed to come in his letter to the Nigerian bishops’ conference on Friday.
The governor wrote that after he accepted a campaign position with the APC, some Nigerians “turned a political weapon, with some spreading rumours and questioning the integrity of my credentials as a Catholic and a papal knight.”
“In trying to make my case, I have granted interviews to justify why I believe that the appointment did not in any way undermine my commitment to the Catholic Church.”
“In the course of defending myself, I had cause to make reference to my credentials as a Catholic and a papal knight. In the process, I made reference to the Holy Father,” Lalong wrote to Archbishop Lucius Ugorji, president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference.
“I now realise that this was an error on my part and had caused some level of concern and embarrassment to many, especially the members of Papal Knights which I belong,” the governor added
“Your Grace, by this written letter, I wish to tender my unreserved apologies and ask for their understanding and forgiveness from my brothers in the Catholic faith and, through you, the entire members of the Bishops' Conference, our fathers and our leaders.”
Lalong’s letter also explained that he believes his political decisions are the right ones for a Catholic.
“The appointment understandably, was received with mixed reactions across the Christian community who genuinely feel aggrieved by the decision of our party to settle for a Muslim-Muslim ticket. While many people commended me for the appointment and saw it as a way of remaining to fight for our own interests, others cast assertions on it on the grounds that our faith had been insulted and denigrated,” he wrote.
The governor stressed that “my commitment to the Catholic faith to which I belong remains unreserved and undiluted. I will continue to uphold the banner of my faith in public life as I have done over the years.”
While soliciting episcopal blessings, he recalled that “in the last or so years,” he has “been at the forefront of facilitating” political dialogue with the bishops, whom he called “fathers in the faith.”
“I remain committed to this and pray that you will continue to encourage us as we ascend the slippery slope of politics.”
But the country’s bishops have been critical of APC’s presidential ticket.
Bishop Matthew Kukah of Sokoto condemned on Thursday the Muslim-Muslim ticket on Nigerian television, stressing that Nigerians would reject the APC’s candidates during the 2023 election.
During an interview with Channels TV, Kukah questioned the religious weaponization of politics in Nigeria.
“As a Christian, I can tell you very frankly that the decision of the APC, naturally, I felt astonished," the bishop said.
“As a Christian, this is totally reprehensible. It is not acceptable to me, but that is the decision of the APC as a party. Perhaps, when the campaign starts, we will hear what people have to say,” he added.
Nigerian society is divided between a predominantly Muslim northern region and predominantly Christian southern areas. The country has customarily elected presidential tickets with one Muslim and one Christian candidate, usually representing both religious diversity and regional balance — a practice that many Nigerians believe has helped hold together a country with deep religious, regional, and economic rifts.
Government ministers are also usually appointed in Nigeria with an aim to achieve regional and religious balance.
The APC’s July announcement has amplified division among Nigerians along religious lines, in a country where the fault lines of ethnicity and religion have claimed lives and livelihoods.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, has 3 major religions, more than 400 languages and 250 ethnicities. Hundreds of Christians have been killed in the country in recent months, in terror attacks that have also seen more than a dozen priests kidnapped or killed.
Lalong was named to the Order of St. Gregory in 2019. In 2021, a group of students petitioned the pope to strip the honor, charging the politician with restricting some citizens from participation in party elections.