Religion and the Obasanjo administration

By G.A. Akinola , the Department of History, University of Ibadan.


NIGERIA'S reputation as a deeply religious country is firmly
established. A former head of state spends his retirement organising
prayers across the country, while the incumbent proclaims his
born-again Christian status at every opportunity. The president's men
include religious faithful like the "daughter of Zion", as well as
latter-day inquisitors who determine citizens that must be denied
"attention" because they do not believe in God. In spite of these
displays of piety, Nigerians, especially their rulers, appear more
vicious today than they were before sanctimonious religious rituals
became a vogue. Is religion, especially in the context of what looks
like an emergent neo-Christian culture, becoming some kind of alibi
or hypocritical garb, particularly for people in power?
There is indeed a budding neo-Christian culture in Nigeria, side by
side with the entrenched Islamic culture. The country, though
officially secular, now features religious rituals in public offices,
institutions and functions. Churches and chapels compete with mosques
in government houses and students' college hostels. In western
Nigeria, many traditional rulers, once famed custodians of indigenous
culture, are now acquiring a new identity as "born-again" oba. But
what defines the emergent neo-Christian culture more than anything
else (apart from the Christian cultural content in the legacy of
colonial rule) are the world view and the beliefs and practices which
are being propagated by the Pentecostal arm of evangelical
Christianity. Thus, in an increasingly normless society, where the
educational system has practically collapsed, the aforementioned
neo-Christian evangelical world view may already be shaping the
country's future more than we realise.
In the universities, for example, there is a growing pre-scientific
outlook which accepts as reality the ideas and views, the legends and
myths, usually associated with agricultural pastoral communities of
prehistoric eras. Accordingly, Biblical stories are now widely viewed
as literally true, even though this tends to reduce aspects of
evangelical Christianity to the level of the anthropologist's concept
of primitive religion and magic. A significant element in the
neo-Christian world view are the prosperity gospellers' doctrines on
illness, misfortune, and accidents which are interpreted as due to
malevolent or demonic forces, or to "spiritual attack".
Customary practices of a religious character are demonised as being
of the devil, and names that reflect some families' historical
association with religious-cum-legendary figures and institutions
like Ogun, Sango, or Ifa, are denounced as accursed, and caused to be
changed by ignorant fanatical "pastors". The neo-Christian unabashed
identification of God with mammon has reduced the teaching of Jesus
to a hankering after material success, including the acquisition of
power and influence, often at the expense of the lives and happiness
of others. Since a quasi-blind faith in the new doctrines is
guaranteed to produce a solution to all problems, many evangelicals
cultivate or affect a bland optimism, whose effect is comparable to
that of a narcotic. Merely "believing" and declaring that all is
well, without a reinforcing and pragmatic ethic, is yet to produce
lasting results, especially in the tragic mess that pervades life in
the country today.
For good or for ill, then, evangelical Christianity, as understood
and practised in Nigeria, enjoys wide popularity. But the sincerity
of the advertised faith of our rulers and their minions is
questionable. These rulers' actions, some of which are brazen and
evil, portray them rather as believers in nothing save the pursuit of
power, in the quest for which no rules or values are too sacred to be
trampled on. The parade of piety and rectitude is therefore mostly a
cover for, and a diversion away from official villainies.
Naturally one cannot expect a consensus on this judgement, least of
all from those fervent Pentecostals who work for the Obasanjo regime,
and some of whom are unable to see their co-religionist boss in terms
other than those in which he projects himself. Dr. Ezekwesili is one
such person. On page 69 of the Sunday Guardian of January 1, 2006,
she states that "the President is living by purpose. And God
establishes that purpose for the nation and God is using him to
prepare a people for the Lord". Further, on the same page, the
minister adds, "Some Christian leaders criticise the President from
A-Z. I used to say ah! May God help us o..."
The above questions from an interview laced with rambling doctrinal
jargon, is enough to show that Dr. Ezekwesili is incapable of making
an objective and rounded appraisal of her boss and apparent spiritual
soul-mate. When she complained of the president being criticised,
even by his fellow Christians, one wonders what her response would
have been if she had been told that Obasanjo had a rare opportunity
of erecting the foundations of a democratic political culture in
Nigeria in 2003; that his administration chose instead to preside
over the most blatant electoral fraud in the country's history; and
that he has since then set a record in undermining the rule of law!
Has the minister ever heard of the General's role in the sordid
Anambra affair, or of the latest instance of presidential infamy in
Oyo State?
The minister's views agree perfectly with those of a charismatic
court evangelist, who recently argued that it was wrong to expect him
to criticise his friend, the president, in public, like the Biblical
prophets of old, since this was contrary to his canons of friendship.
Little wonder this "prophet" is always seeing a great future for
Nigeria, as if greatness is another "miracle" that can be conjured
out of decadence.
On the issue of the state of the nation under its devoutly religious
ruler, however, both Dr. Ezekwesili and the "prophet" are like many
Nigerian Pentecostals, whose attitude to public life and governance
is conditioned by what may be called the Sheikh Gumi syndrome. The
latter is a peculiar disorder which induces an endorsement of a
ruler, no matter how incompetent or vicious, as long as he is an
adherent of one's faith. Sheikh Gumi it was who declared, some years
back, that General Yakubu Gowon was a good ruler, being a Northerner,
and that he would have been a better head of state still, if he had
been a Moslem.
The wider significance of punctilious religious observance, devoid of
basic humanity, is constantly manifested in recurrent sectarian riots
and upheavals, particularly in Northern Nigeria. For the rest, the
people simply ape their rulers and their "pastors" in hypocrisy. Even
the most highly educated of the latter are starkly ignorant and
lacking in creativity with respect to bringing the teaching of Jesus
to bear on societal problems.
This is not surprising since they are ill-informed about, or
prejudiced against their own culture. Their imported doctrines, which
promise a panacea to all mundane problems, serve only to keep a lid
on popular discontent, to the advantage of reprobate rulers. The
latter, perhaps in appreciation, neither tax the churches, nor
inquire into the fortunes they make in the enterprise of
commercialised evangelisation.