No Country For Nigerian ‘Unbelievers’
05 Apr, 2013In my national youth corps year, I got a job offer with a woman who was a magistrate but also ran a private school by the side. One day, she asked me to show up for an interview with her but when I did, it turned out to be a chat. Actually, she did the talking and I, not sure if I was being tested, listened. She narrated stories that ranged from crime cases she had dealt with to marital infidelity. She asked which church I worshipped. I told her.
“That church?” She said. “The pastor lives in South Africa and his wife somewhere else. What does he do when he has to have sex?”
I responded that I had no way of knowing. She provided the answer herself, saying she knows what men do even when their wives were around. She went on criticising churches, including the one she attended, in really strong words. When it was time to thank her for offering me the job, I asked why she still goes to church despite her antagonisms.
I have not forgotten her response:
“My dear, I have to. I am a magistrate. If our people see you as godless, they will think your judgment is influenced by the devil and not by the law. Here, you must be seen believing in something.”
There are people out there who, for one reason or the other, base their religion on the principle of you must be seen believing in something. Social appearances count for everything and therefore, the profession of faith is primarily to keep up pretenses. They do not give a damn about faith, and neither fear God nor regard man. They will hardly recognise their own God if he passes them in a mask at a market square. But to declare yourself as an atheist, agnostic, freethinker or even non-religious in Nigeria is to open up yourself to suspicions by people who cannot deal with your neutrality. It is easier for them if everyone is either a Muslim or Christian.
It gets worse in Nigerian political spaces because practically everything is designed for these two religions. Politicians are either Christians or Muslims and are paired to reflect a so-called balance. We still talk about M.K.O. Abiola/Babagana Kingibe’s unprecedented Muslim/Muslim ticket as if it is some life-changing scientific discovery. Because we hardly demarcate between religion which should be a private affair, and politics which should be public, politicians go over the top to be seen believing in something.
In 2011, after the Action Congress of Nigeria governors were voted into office in the South-West, one of the first things they did was to go to Saudi Arabia. A friend told me that in one of the states, in the governor’s pictures placed on billboards, he was wearing overtly religious costumes and his hands clutching prayer beads. To contest as governor in a Muslim state, a female candidate has to quickly put a hijab over her head even though other images of her show she is different from what she portrays. They all have to make a show of their religiosity because it comes down to one thing: Religion in Nigeria is more theatrical than a personal conviction.
In the final analysis, there is little space left for those who are not into organised religion. Rather than be disadvantaged, people hide their true selves and pretend they belong to either Islam or Christian faith. I must add that this phenomenon is not exclusive to Nigeria. Elsewhere, people sell their candidature by showing they have certain social and moral values that could either be religious or non-religious-based. In the case of Nigeria, however, we have majored so much on this that the religious space has become an extension of the political.
And if there is any leader who has consistently manipulated the religious space to derive political gains, it is President Goodluck Jonathan. Many of the dramas about his Presidency have occurred in a church. When his wife, Patience, unwittingly confessed what she had been up to in Germany as regards her health, she did so in a church. Recently, when Jonathan himself was giving a speech about electricity supply and power cut, it was in a church. You wonder why he had to talk about his agenda in a church at all. Why not simply worship and go home? Again, when he and his ex-godfather, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, had to stage their reconciliation, the church was a veritable platform. At least twice now, Jonathan has gone to a prominent Pentecostal church located on the ever-busy Lagos–Ibadan Expressway to kneel before its General Overseer and beg for prayers. The first time, it was shortly before the 2011 elections and the image it produced turned out to be an iconic one; it shows in a simple but powerful manner, the dynamics of the politics of religion in Nigeria. When Jonathan gave his famous I-am-not-a-lion-not-a-Nebuchadnezzar-not-the-Pharaoh-of-Egypt-and-I-cannot-figure-out-I-am-supposed-to-be speech, it was still in a church. It was also in a church that he announced he was not the best but God chose him. When he spoke about fighting corruption, his efforts second only to the US, and which threw people into laughing fits, it was still in a church!!
As if those were not enough, he recently presided over a fundraiser that got a whopping N6bn for his hometown church. One would think that with all the hoopla generated when an Italian construction firm donated a church to his village, he would go easy on his churchy activities. In a country where there are no basic educational facilities, where schools are worse than pig stys, the best he and his coterie of friends could do is to build one more church. At least, Obasanjo, with all his “defects”, raised funds for a library. And to top it all, this week, the President travelled to Enugu to inaugurate, not a specialist hospital or cancer research centre, but a church built by the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu.
It is high time somebody told the President he is overdoing things. We know he must be seen believing in something, regardless of how antithetical this is to his stance on issues such as corruption but as the President of a country that recognises no religion, he needs to deemphasise his religiosity. When he goes to church, he should limit his engagements to worship and when he comes out, he can resume talking about his policies. And politics too.
- Abimbola Adelakun (email@example.com)
Article culled from Punch