Religion and the Nigerian Condition

While the pundits are still analysing the factors that shaped the outcome of last week presidential election in the United States (comedian Chris Rock said you don’t beat a Kenyan in a race!), the most formidable opposition to President Barack Obama’s re-election came from the American Christian Evangelicals. The reasons were not difficult to fathom: Many of them could not reconcile themselves to his healthcare reform policy which covered contraception; his seeming ambivalence towards the State of Israel (which he is yet to visit) and his open endorsement of same-sex marriage. But at the end, Obama still won in religion-biased battleground states like the Catholic-dominated Ohio, evangelical-heavy Iowa and Virginia as well as in Florida.

With the election over last Wednesday morning, I left Washington to spend a few days in Boston and I decided to visit the Harvard Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs where I spent the 2010/2011 session as a Fellow. Evidently delighted to have me around, the Centre’s director invited by me to join the current Fellows at their Friday seminar last week. The topic of discussion was “The Challenges of Religious Pluralism in the United States” with Ms Diana L. Eck, one of Harvard’s most respected scholars and a Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society, as speaker.

Quite naturally, Prof Eck spent considerable time in her presentation to speak on the role religion played in the election but the eye opener for me was the discussion that followed, as Fellows, one after another, expressed what they described as a culture shock about their American experience. They found it difficult to understand why in this day and age, many Americans would still consider God and religion important in their affairs. Drawn mostly from Europe, Asia and Latin America, many of the Fellows spoke about their countries and the fact that the idea of God and religion had for a long time faded away. One Fellow, a lady who said going to Church was no longer fashionable in her country, added: “Out of curiousity, I attended a church here last week and I actually enjoyed it. I found it very entertaining.” The discussion went along that line until Prof Eck asked Lt. General Abdulrahman Dambazau (immediate past Chief of Army Staff and the only African in the class), “is religion important in Nigeria?”.

Without hesitation, General Dambazau answered in the affirmative before he added: “I want Segun to share the Christian perspective while I will speak for Islam.” As we explained how religion has become a potent weapon in our country, I am sure it was also not lost on the Fellows that we are still generally a poor people despite our religiousity.

In our country today, before every government meeting, prayers are said by both Islamic and Christian adherents to commit deliberations into the hands of God, even when the outcome might have already been predetermined by the hands of men! But this is not restricted to government. In some of the banks that CBN had to take over as a result of the greed of their CEOs, there were daily corporate supplications to God before commencement of business. It didn’t matter that some smart people were already manipulating events outside of God. At motor parks, there are all manners of charlatans masquerading as pastors and Imams and at markets, there are also prayer warriors who have no qualms cheating customers after their profession of holiness.

The result of the foregoing is that a resource-endowed country where majority of the citizens live below poverty line now holds the dubious distinction of having the highest concentration of private jets in Africa. Owned largely by bank CEOs, Christian clerics, fuel subsidy merchants, political office holders and their cronies, these expensive toys--each of which costs millions of Dollar—have grown in number to about 200 today, up from about 50 in 2008. In a brilliant piece posted on the internet last week, Obinna Akukwe wrote on the contradiction of religion in our country: “...God hears the personal prayers of Nigerians for a better personal life but when it comes to extending such to national life, the same God shuts the door. Something is wrong somewhere.”

Yes something definitely is wrong. Today, many otherwise respectable Christians in government and business would do any deal, compromise any principles and break any law, all in the bid to make money at the end of which he/she could deploy some of the ill-gotten wealth to the Church. Their Muslim counterparts are no better. Many would also steal and spend part of the proceeds either to erect Mosques or to send some poor folks to Mecca, in a fashion almost akin to an armed robber sending relief materials to his victims in a perverted sense of benevolence.

Our nation is now defined by majority of the Seven Social Sins, identified by Mahatma Gandhi which are: politics without principles; wealth without work; pleasure without conscience; knowledge without character; commerce without morality; science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice. It is therefore no surprise that the United Nation’s report released on Tuesday listed Nigeria as leading the world with 10.5 million children not attending school. Six per cent of the young men (15- 29 years) who left school are illiterate and 26 per cent semi-illiterate, according to the study by UNESCO’s Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report.

But since we have elevated religion to a national ideology, the question we should ask is: why is it that the most religious countries on earth are also the poorest while the least religious countries are wealthier? Congo, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria etc are among the most religious countries yet majority of their people are poor whereas prosperous countries like Sweden, Japan, Denmark, Hong Kong, etc are among the least religious. A close examination of countries where you have the most brutal form of dictatorship/incompetent government and corruption also reveals that they are among the religious countries. For instance, a recent 44-nation survey of the Pew Global Attitudes Project which shows global regional divides over the personal importance of religion concluded that “in Africa, no fewer than eight-in-ten in any country see religion as very important personally.” In actual fact, 96 percent of Nigerians are religious!

I must point out here that I am not in any way suggesting that religion is not important or that God should have no place in our national life. No, I cannot suggest that because I firmly believe that God presides over the affairs of men and indeed, the lesson from the United States is that we can hold on to our individual faith in God and personal commitment to our religion yet still prosper as a nation. For instance, a recent survey titled, “Beliefs About God Across Time And Countries,” conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, ranked United States fifth among selected religious countries. The research was able to establish that on religion “Americans’ views are closer to people in developing nations than to the publics of developed nations.”

What that establishes is that it is not wrong, indeed it is right, for every Nigerian to hold on to his/her faith. But religion should never be a weapon of manipulation (by politicians) or exploitation (by Pastors, Imams and political cum business elite). There should at all times be a clear separation between religion and the state while adherents must live what they profess. As things stand today, there seems to be but a thin line between religion, politics and business in our country and rather unfortunately, our people are worse off for it.
• This piece was first published in THISDAY on 15th November, 2012

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