Religion - The Opium of The Poor in Nigeria


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Religion - The Opium of The Poor in Nigeria




Olaewe Ewegbemi


March 20, 2005


 This article is an excerpt from my journal of a visit to Nigeria bewtween July and September 2003. Names and identities of people have been excised to preserve their privacy.    

While I was in Manchester(England)  between July 9-14, 2003 on my way to Nigeria , I was  shown the video of  a niece's  engagement and wedding ..all combined! While watching the video, I could not resist the urge to ask whether the video was truly about engagement or wedding or  a religious revival..  People danced and sang all types of religious songs and punctuations of “Hallelujah  ,  Praise the Lord” intermingled with the songs .  The only semblance of engagement or marriage in the video was when the yams were brought , as the tradition calls for in Yoruba land,  when the family of the groom presents yams, kola nuts etc. to the parents of the prospective  bride in order to show that their son is capable of  catering to the material needs of the woman once she becomes their wife.

That video would serve as the backdrop or harbinger of  what I would  see and continue to see since my arrival here in Nigeria  (Southern part) on July 15, 2003 .  The newspapers , the airwaves , everywhere are heavily saturated with religion! God is everywhere …in the living rooms , roadsides, garages(motor-parks) ; workshops ; in taxicabs …anywhere  and everywhere….physically in songs, loudspeakers;  however ,  I am not sure if he(God) is around spiritually.


While historians and theologians have done enough recording of the first coming of Christianity to Nigeria, the intention here  therefore is not to chronicle or pretend to be an authority in this arena. Suffice it to say that missionaries preceded the British colonization and eventual domination of several parts of Africa---especially South of the Sahara. The missionaries came with their Bibles in one hand and colonialism on the other. While they  were largely successful in the Southern part of Nigeria, they met with more resistance and competition from the Muslim invaders(the Jihads) in the North  and invariably the North became more Islamic  than the South. , a dichotomy that still plagues Nigeria today( To wit, the presence of Shari a courts in the North , a clear indication of the North’s disposition to theocratic laws , in preference over more “democratic and just” common law tradition prevalent in the South.


Once the Muslims and the Christian invaders arrived , Koran  schools would sprout everywhere in the North , while the Christian missionaries in the South ensured that schools were established to take care of the souls of the natives. .turning out  catechists  , pastors and  others to spread the word.  Before long, atheists or animists would be persuaded or cajoled into receiving the Word and with baptism, would take on names such as James, Joshua, Esther, Florence etc to show that they are now Christians , and these baptismal names would soon supplant their traditionally –given names like Ojo, Oja, Abiye, etc.. I  was given a christian name  when they finally persuaded my late father to get me baptized.circa 1954 when I was already in Primary Three!  As soon as I got baptized, everyone started calling me this new name and I did not succeed in getting rid of it until after my arrival in the United States of America in 1971 when my cultural and political consciousness had matured enough for me to re-discover Olaewe , my given traditional name.! Consider how many years of living under that foreign and superimposed name and how long it took me to revert to my roots and self-rediscovery. Many Nigerians are still under the yoke and the yoke seems to have gotten heavier and more oppressive  with the Lord’s second coming to Nigeria.

While many Nigerians would rediscover their identity and cultural pride by reverting to their traditional names as I did,  the trend seemed to have died  and the born-again syndrome (akin to what late Kwame Nkrumah called neo-colonialism) appeared to have captured the minds and souls of the people again. Yoruba names which speak eloquently about their birth, origin and family traditions  once were sources of pride to the people , a distinguishing mark from one household to another and also one that speaks to the culture in its rituals of religion and naming ceremonies and  of which many anthropologists from foreign lands have written about. The late Professor William Bascom of the University of California at Berkeley, USA  comes to mind.  His book, THE YORUBAS OF SOUTH-WESTERN NIGERIA is a celebration of Yoruba culture and tradition with special emphasis on Ifa and the gods  like the Greek gods.

While the first missionaries did not have the advantage of modern technology and the mass media to sell their religion, the Lord’s second coming to Nigeria has ample access to television, video-cassettes, the internet and so on to do its evangelical work. And perhaps more significantly, the natives that received the Word  from the missionary’s prior to independence were a very wary and doubting proselytes. Now, we have natives that are not only very eager to be consumers but also many of them now see religion as a way to make money and live the good life. They are very willing and ready to be the local spokesmen and women of such foreign religious rightists as represented by 700Club from USA. While the first missionaries contended with rural , agrarian and animistic populations, for want of a better word, the second missionaries , are blessed with urban populations , most of whom are either under-employed, unemployed or are petty-traders or wage-earners- who nonetheless are shackled with poverty and disease after many years of misrule and neglect ..either by the military dictators who have been the players on the Nigerian political scene for most of  post-independent Nigeria , or by the reckless civilian regimes that have punctuated  military rule. The people have had to endure these “vagabonds in power” as late Anikulapo Kuti, the celebrated Afro-beat musician  appropriately described these ugly Nigerians in one of his albums. .



Newspaper head-lines , almost on a daily basis throughout my  two-month stay in Nigeria portray the grim realities and disconnect between the ubiquitous religious houses and pervasive prayers and prayer meetings  and the absence of any salutary effects on the living and lives of the people by religion. Here are some samples from various newspapers  of headlines or bylines as collated by me until I got fed up with writing anymore of them. They detailed accounts of Fraud, Corruption, Armed   Robbery; Political In-fighting ; etc:

bullet “ Government Revenue Drops by N19bn “ (The Punch, July 31),
bullet “New Judge Withdraws from Omisore Trial”( Omisore , a Senator from Oyo State is accused of involvement in the cold murder of Bola Ige, the Attorney-General for the Federation during Obasanjo’s first term as President),
bullet “ Nigeria loses N50bn yearly to product faking”,
bullet “3 killed as NURTW members clash”( a result of leadership tussle within the rank of the National Union of Road Transporters Union in Ondo State),
bullet “Anambra Crisis, tragic for democracy”( Ngige, the elected governor of Anambra State was abducted shortly after taking office in May 2003 by some PDP (Peoples Democratic Party!) members and was apparently forced to sign  a letter of resignation . The abduction , carried out under the direction and supervision of an Assistant Inspector –General of Police (Ige, his last name) was treated as an “internal affair” by the PDP until pressure mounted in the press that those involved in the coup on the electoral process should be brought to justice and tried for treason, abduction being a criminal offense under the constitution. The matter was yet to be given any judicial treatment up till the time I left Nigeria in September! Perhaps those old enough  would remember the excessive and extra-legal powers exercised by another chief of police , Sunday Adewusi under President Shehu Sagari , a civilian president in 1979)
bullet “Ngige rejects political solution”
bullet “PDP may pardon Uba, others , says Ogbeh”
bullet “Banks’ fraud in 2002 hits N65bn , says  CBN”(The Guardian, July 30, 2003),
bullet “Dethroned Ekiti monarch’s daughter narrates father’s ordeal”,
bullet “ Ibadan , A city where robbers are ‘owners’”,
bullet “One chance robbers scourge Lagos commuters”(The Guardian, July31, 03). “ The mode of operation is the same. They capitalize on the large population and the frenzy with which Lagosians go about their business…Operating in commuter buses called “Danfo”, painted in commercial colors, the robbers strike most during  peak and rush hours …” The story went on to describe how these crooks lure  commuters into their fake buses and then take them to  remote destinations to rob them of their possessions before dumping them off the bus. The  unlucky passengers  go into these buses , believing that they are genuine, especially after seeing mothers and their babies in them , not suspecting that these mothers and their babies are used as ploys to lure victims into the fake passenger buses!  These groups of vicious criminals have also been reported to throw  off their victims from moving vehicles  to their death after robbing them of  cash and valuables.


An article that appeared in one of Nigeria’s newspapers ,  published by the in its online edition of February 28, 2004 says: “ Study Rates Nigerians World’s Most Religious”.

“ P.M News (Lagos) February 27, 2004, Posted to the web, February 27, 2004: Lagos

A survey of people’s religious beliefs carried out in 10 countries …suggests that Nigeria is the most religious nation in the world, according to a BBC report today. Ten thousand people were questioned in the ICM poll for the BBC programme , What The World Thinks Of God.

Over 90 per cent of Nigerians said they believed in God, prayed regularly and would die for their belief…. The countries polled were the US, the UK, Israel, India, South Korea, Indonesia, Nigeria, Russia, Mexico and Lebanon….”.

While Nigerians would die of their religious belief, they are not ready to die to liberate themselves from the oppressive regimes, poverty, disease and ignorance!

Another interesting point is that in the same  All website of the same date, these were some of the stories rated as Top News for Nigeria:

·        Plateau Crisis: Police Arrest 50 Persons

·        Fuel Scarcity Looms As NPA Shuts Down Ibru Jetty

·        70 Killed in Ibadan-Ife Road Crash

·        Police Parade 90 Over Oil Bunkering;

On and on goes the tales of woe, which are regular features in Nigeria dailies!

A leaflet was brought home to me on Wednesday, August 30, 2003 by  a 14 year old girl (that lives with my hosts while I was in Nigeria  ) from a nearby fellowship, run by the Scripture Union group, which she attended that evening at Oba-ile, Akure.  The religious leaflet asks this question on its front page:

“ What On Earth Is Going To Happen?”  The first lines of the 3page leaflet answers the question thus:  “ Plenty, if you ask me! According to the Bible, the end of the age is almost upon us! The “Great Tribulation”--- a time of unparalleled trouble and disaster –is just around the corner….”

The leaflet assured its readers and followers that before this catastrophe strikes; Jesus’ followers would be “caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be by the Lord (Thessalonians 4: 17-18). All Christians will be taken to heaven before God judges the earth”.

REVREND JIM JONES, AND HEAVENS’ GATE:  Jim Jones promised the same thing to his followers in 1972 or so before  their massacre in Guyana took place. He promised them, men , women and some with their children that they were going to be taken to heaven. Almost thirty years or so later, disaster would strike again when men and women were methodically prepared for their death after the promise of the heaven opening up to take them to their savior. In neither of the two cases did any of the fanatical and obsessed followers rise up to go anywhere before they met their gruesome end.  If anyone doubts that such disaster can happen in Nigeria, let him or her look around to see how pervasive and fanatical religion has become in Nigeria. If those Nigerians polled by the BBC said that they are ready and willing to die for their religious belief, what more evidence do we need that Guyana or Heavens’ Gate is just a matter of time in Nigeria!


While the whole landscape is reeling in poverty, slums, overflowing sewers and gutters, while NEPA refuses to supply electricity, while pipe-borne water is replaced by “Pure Water” and bottled water of all names and brands (don’t ask me how pure the water is!), while armed robbers, area boys and other criminals (forget the white collar crimes, those are not deadly since no limb is ever lost) have taken over and tall gates and fences are the norm for most home-owners and barbwire is on every window( in case of fire , those homes and other dwelling units rented out to the poor workers will roast their occupants because these barbwires and heavy gates would hamper any rescue operation., and don’t forget that fire-fighters are non-existent and water is a luxury!). The Christian evangelicals and other “Winners” of the new religious landscape invite their followers to wait to be “caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord” to enjoy eternal peace and happiness in heaven!  That, however is on the assumption that the armed robber does not strike to eliminate him with a bullet or by throwing him out of a moving vehicle before he has a chance to “be caught up in the clouds”


Well, the Lord's  second coming to Nigeria is at least reaping  a bountiful harvest..the fishers of men should be very happy! 





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