Religion is the opium of the people; it is the soul of a soulless world. Karl Marx Jesu ko gbowo/Jesu ko gbowo/Jesu ko gbowo lowo enikan/Halleluiah! [Jesus demands no money/Jesus demands no money/Jesus demands no money of anyone, halleluiah!] Lines from a popular anti-capitalist evangelical hymn.
A few years ago, when a chieftain of the PDP who had been convicted for rank corruption came out of jail, a high-profile thanksgiving service was held in his honour at one of the most prestigious cathedrals in the city of Lagos. All the bigwigs of the then ruling party were present, as were socialites and prelates of the highest official and non-official pedigree. When news of the event hit the Nigerian public, all hell broke loose in outrage. The condemnation was so “universal” that Olusegun Obasanjo who had been at the event and, indeed, had read the lesson, publicly expressed his regret for having attended the service. If my memory serves me right, he went on to state that he had been tricked into attending the service. But try as hard as he could, Obasanjo could not erase from the public mind the thing that the event had powerfully animated for all who heard or read of it. What is this thing? It is the close and intimate association that most Nigerians perceive between wealth – particularly loot and pillage from public coffers – with religion. If this is the case, it would appear that our work in this last essay in our series is cut out for us. And so why don’t we simply declare that just as senior lawyers provide legal cover for those who get rich from looting our national assets and resources, so do senior clerics and prelates provide them with spiritual cover, thus making it easy for us to move ahead with full steam in this discussion? Unfortunately, things are not that easy and straightforward when it comes to religion and corruption in Nigeria, Buhari’s Nigeria. What does this mean?
Dear reader, let us carefully consider the problem with the following proposition in which an equivalence is presumed between the judiciary and the clergy with regard to their separate and distinct relationships with corruption. Here is the proposition. If the judiciary makes it legally possible to loot the country’s assets and resources with impunity and in plain sight, we might add that the religious clergy makes it possible for the looters to find favour with God. That is what the high profile thanksgiving service for the convicted PDP chieftain was purported to have achieved. It is what the notorious case of a very well-known prelate who received tens of millions of naira stolen from the Sheraton Hotel in Lagos by one of its employees was supposed to have achieved: no matter how much, where and from whom you loot, you will find favour with God if you come to him.
The problem with this proposition is that there is no equivalence between the two, none at all. To put the matter rather bluntly, there is a vast difference between, on the one hand, keeping looters not only from going to jail but also preventing the Nigerian state and people from recovering the loot and, on the other hand, finding divine favour with God. Of the many differences between the two, the most important for our discussion is the fact that the service that lawyers and judges provide for looters is codified, secular and measurable while the service rendered by the clergy is non-material, ineffable and infinitely resistant to ordinary logic, ethics and even pragmatics. Welcome to the imaginative universe of contemporary Nigerian religiosity, the spiritual and psychic abode of one of the most heartless and unrepentantly evil forms of corruption in the contemporary world!
The alert reader would have noticed that I did not say “Nigerian religion” or “religion in Nigeria” in the immediately preceding sentence; I said “Nigerian religiosity”. This is quite deliberate. Linguistically speaking, the difference between “religion” and “religiosity” is like the difference between what is abstract and what is concrete, “religiosity” being the concrete forms and expressions that “religion” takes in any given local, national or regional community. More narrowly, religiosity is also used to describe expressions of religious belief that are so zealous, so excessive and often so hypocritical that they go far beyond recognizable norms throughout the world. On this premise, when Nigerians say that we are the most “religious” people on the planet, what they should instead be saying is that we are a nation and a people driven by a religiosity that has no equal on the planet. To this observation, add the fact that the line between “religion” and “religiosity” is not always clear and in fact often crisscross in confounding ways. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the subject of this series, mega-scale corruption. Permit me to carefully lay out the premises undergirding this central idea of the present discussion.
It is now widely recognized that religion in the present epoch of global history has not only been commercialized beyond levels seen in all previous ages, but also that this commercialization of religion includes both milking the poor and “softening” them for exploitation and manipulation by ruthlessly opportunistic political elites. This generalized situation is best captured by the reciprocal link that now pervasively exists between “praying” and “preying”. Thus, for everybody but especially the poor, fasting, vigils, marathon prayer sessions all the time; simultaneously but only for the evangelists of wealth and opulence, there is the “preying” as they smile all the way to the banks. As a matter of fact, the operations are generally very sophisticated and are closely linked with the financial services industries of not only Nigeria and the West African sub-region but virtually the whole world. In other words, through this interpenetration of “praying” and “preying”, religion has simultaneously become a mode of doing business in the most ultra-modern, up-to-date manner in existence at the present time and an “occult economy” that radically defies rational logic and human-centered concerns and values. Unfortunately, we have space in the present discussion to capture both the outrage and the complexity of this state of affairs in only a couple of paragraphs.
Since everywoman and everyman is equal before God, all or most of the people that flock to the churches and mosques to “pray”, either to consolidate what they (already) have or to get what they do not (yet) have come from all economic and social backgrounds. Thus, all the people, rich and poor, wealthy and in dire straits, are “praying”; all are supplicants and “clients” of the imams and prelates. As a consequence, there is so much “praying” going on, so much religiosity thriving everywhere in the land. New churches and mosques spring up much faster and in greater number than the factories and small and medium sized enterprises that open for business. Correspondingly, an infinitely greater number of man-hours are spent praying than working in productive employment since, as a matter of fact, the jobs seem always to be disappearing or are not opening quickly enough to absorb the ever-growing ranks of the unemployed. Moreover, no one can or is expected to complain about or resent the fact that churches and mosques are springing up everywhere or the fact that every day of the week and every hour of the day is now considered available for “praying”. The churches, the mosques, the prayer grounds and the “holy” spaces of spiritual retreat are bursting with record-breaking multitudes – that is all that counts. That, and the fact that the most successful churches and mosques are raking in monies at historically unprecedented levels.
At a far more complex level, there is the growing and ever more decisive role of the miraculous – together with those deemed capable of harnessing its forces – in the political, economic, commercial and intellectual affairs of the nation. At the top of the grid are the men and women of God who command not only the attention but the devotion of all cadres of the political elites, from the head of state and executive state governors to ministers and chairmen and women of local authority administrations. Worthy of special note in this respect are the growing numbers of professors who are pastors and invest far more attention and energies to their spiritual calling than their professional intellectual obligations. As a matter of fact, this phenomenon itself that entails the capture of so many in our professoriate by this tidal wave of religiosity is a major problem that requires a series of essays in its own right. Seemingly innocuous but of great significance is the practice of naming and organizing business and commercial enterprises around religious themes, discourses and symbolism: “Amazing Grace Shopping Mall”; “God Is Great Pharmacy”; “Jesus Is King Hospital and Clinic”; “There Is No God But Allah Bakery”; “God of Suddenly Traders”; “Immaculate Conception Private Tutorial College”; “Prayer and Fasting Internet Café”. Why is there so much scamming, so much fraud, so much cheating in Nigerian business, politics and higher education in the very presence of this pervasive religiosity? Although this is a good question to ask, it is not the appropriate one to pose in the present context.
I think it is more profitable in the present context – no pun intended! – to pose the sorts of questions that many ordinary Nigerians in their millions are beginning to pose with regard to the profoundly disturbing links between “praying” and “preying”. These are questions that reveal the crises of a religiosity that is inextricably tied with money-making on a colossal scale at a time of widespread poverty and hardship for the majority of the Nigerian talakawa masses. “Jesus demands no money/Jesus demands no money/Jesus demands no money of anyone, halleluiah!” So goes the second of the two epigraphs to this essay that comes from a powerful and popular hymnal critique of the extreme money-mindedness of contemporary Nigerian evangelical Christianity. Where does this critique come from?
At the heart or the molten core of the occult economy of Nigerian religiosity is a growing rejection of the extreme idolatry of wealth, especially as manifested in the belief that supernatural forces that are good or evil can be, and are often invoked to either bring and sustain more wealth or avert poverty and hardship. For the most part, a great deal of the expressions and manifestations of this belief are benign: “God of Suddenly Traders”; “Prayer and Fasting Internet Café”. However, the occult economy also has its well-known extremely bizarre expressions, perhaps the most notorious of which is the trade in human body parts for the purpose of bringing or enhancing wealth by cultic ritualists and their clients among both the rich and the poor. Where do we place highly educated and influential prelates who, based on the belief that they have special access to the supernatural, have our political, economic, judicial and even academic elites in their pockets?
“Religion is the opium of the people; it is the soul of a soulless world”. So goes the first epigraph to this essay. Concerning this famous quotation from Karl Marx, most people remember only the first, “opium” part, completely ignoring the second, “soul” or “conscience” part. Nowhere in the contemporary world has this second part been as completely buried as in Nigeria, Buhari’s Nigeria. In next week’s concluding essay in the series, we shall explore some ways in which we could begin to reinvent this forgotten tradition of religion with a humane, just and egalitarian conscience.