Religion And The Obasanjo Administration


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Religion And The Obasanjo Administration



G.A. Akinola




culled from GUARDIAN, March 19, 2006


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.



Dr. Akinola is with the Department of History, University of Ibadan.



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