Why you should care
Because he could help swing one of the globe’s biggest elections in 2019.
In place of armed security at the Commissioners Quarters in Awka, Nigeria, a gray-haired choirmaster sings as you make your way from the gate. The sun emerges from behind a neon-yellow cloud to greet the fluttering greeneries of short hibiscus flowers, emergent neem trees and tile floor of a caramel-colored semidetached house. Here lives Archbishop Emeritus Maxwell Anikwenwa, aka the door to political power in southeastern Nigeria.
“If they say that I am influential, I am influential because I speak my mind,” Anikwenwa says. “I don’t talk from both sides of the mouth. I am after the truth. I don’t fear; I don’t owe anybody the privileges of lies.”
As Nigeria prepares for February’s presidential election, Anikwenwa is among the critical Igbo ethnic group leaders who have shifted support away from President Muhammadu Buhari to challenger Atiku Abubakar, as Buhari struggles to live up to the high expectations that greeted his 2015 victory. The question of whether Africa’s most populous nation turns back to the political party that has dominated this century could fall to influential men like Anikwenwa who rouse religious fervor.
If the teacher turned clergyman for the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) is indeed a door to power, he would open without a creak. Such is his voice: calm, affectionate and authoritative without seeming imposing. Anikwenwa does not live to be known — only to influence things. He operates in the shadows, the object of relentless consultations from politicians seeking electoral victory.
I am not many people’s favorite. My truthfulness commands some sort of hatred.
“It is likely that [the] majority of the people do not even know the original sources of the things that happen. Powerful hands like [Anikwenwa’s] fashion things in Nigeria politics,” says Rex Arum, of the Nigeria Union of Journalists.
Last year Nigeria overtook India as the country with the most people living in extreme poverty (87 million), and it has the most children in the world not in school (13 million). Rampant illiteracy and poverty mean people are unable to make independent political choices. Add in the many years of misrule stirring not just apathy but hatred toward politicians in parts of Nigeria, and loyalty and trust go not to the political leaders but to unelected influencers — particularly religious leaders. Ordinary people offer their loyalty and even follow the body language of people like Anikwenwa.
“The process has been abused because most — maybe not all — of these influencers exchange their consent for money or gifts,” Arum says. Being Anikwenwa is tempting: Favor-hunting politicians bring cash bribes in bags, cars, cows for feasts. “Politics in Nigeria is too deceitful and deeply corrupt,” Anikwenwa says. He rejects all bribes, he says, a firm stance unlike his slow, trembling gait at the age of 78. “You can’t confuse me with the material things of the world.”
Chukwuemeka Ezike of Trinity Theological College, Umuahia, in southeast Nigeria, confirms that Anikwenwa’s conscience has no price tag. “Even from his days as a bishop, he rejects gifts and offers,” Ezike says. “That was something of an example. That built a lot of confidence in him. It made him more powerful” in a naturally corrupt society.
Anikwenwa’s rise came gradually. He had a rough upbringing after losing his mother at age 6. He served in the army during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967–70, then moved to the church, where he felt he could meet and serve more people. For decades he openly rebuked nonperforming politicians, speaking feared truths while also becoming a philanthropic leader. His clear-eyed preaching made him a star to millions, and he directly swayed elections in the southeast, from the federal Parliament to local legislatures.
Anikwenwa speaks succinctly. When those words come, the government listens. When the words are scarce, the government hunts them through concealed consultations, cherished endorsements and sometimes submission. Beyond national recognition (including the prestigious Officer of the Order of the Niger), he has been rewarded with concrete successes. One was the government’s 2017 military pension reform, which better aided eastern Nigerian veterans of the civil war. Another was the city of Awka’s street electrification.
Anikwenwa has developed a reputation for toughness that his defenders say is more akin to perfectionism. “I don’t waste praises on people,” he says. “My greatest challenge in life is the challenge of being misunderstood. I am not many people’s favorite. My truthfulness commands some sort of hatred.” At a 1996 memorial following the death of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president, Anikwenwa said that “no reasonable person would die for Nigeria because of the disrespect it showed to Azikiwe.” The line earned him threats and interrogation by government security forces.
The father of three and grandfather of nearly a dozen spends his leisure time playing tennis or enjoying his garden and a good book. His favorites include biblical scholar Matthew Henry’s commentary on the Book of Job and anything by his hero, the late Cecil, J. Patterson of the Church of Nigeria. In 2002, Anikwenwa published a collection of his synod speeches, God’s Grace All the Way.
In his 50 years in the clergy, Anikwenwa has few regrets — but he does say he met fewer people than he would have liked to through his career. He also harbors a long political to-do list: an increase in the minimum wage, decentralizing power from the federal government and a greater representation of women in politics.
If politicians can bring those priorities, not cash in a bag, to this sunny corner of Awka, they might emerge with a powerful blessing.
Read more: The big global vote of 2019