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Nigeria: Religiosity, faith and the missing link

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In May 2014, then Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola of Lagos State stirred the hornets’ nest when he described as baseless, calls that the next governor of the state should be a Christian.

The former governor, who was speaking at an interfaith conference organised by the state government, which theme was “Peace, Religious Harmony and Good Governance: Issues and Challenges,” contended that religion and good governance were two different things and democratic dividends had no religious coloration. He also stressed that anybody could emerge as governor irrespective of faith, noting that Lagosians were not known to elect their governors based on religion.

“I don’t recall the last time that a governor of Lagos was elected based on his religious beliefs. What will the preference for governor of one faith over the other even benefit us? Will it give one religion roads that other faiths cannot use? Will it give them schools that children from other faiths cannot attend, or will it bring water that only one faith can drink? Will it begin to draw a very clear line between poverty and faith? Does hunger know your faith?” Fashola had questioned.

Five years after he made this assertion, and five years after leaving office as governor, Fashola again threw familiar jabs, accusing Nigerians of over-dependence on God for success.

The Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), who is now Minister of Works and Housing, while speaking recently on “Hard Copy,” a magazine programme on Channels Television stressed that a system of belief where people tend to pray hard, rather than work hard is hazardous to the country’s development.He said: “There is enough work for God to do, but we have not done our share. So, when our children pass, we thank God. When we build a house, we thank God. When we win a match, we thank God. When we do anything. In our daily conversation, there’s too much God.

“We should get to work. It’s a mindset thing. In my view, it then doesn’t give you confidence that you achieved anything if everything has been done by God. I know that God says, ‘work and pray’, but are we working? We want to win a sports event or a match, we don’t prepare, we pray. No, it won’t happen,” Fashola stated. While reminding Nigerians that God is already preoccupied with enough work, he charged them to be resourceful to succeed as individuals and as a country.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, with a population of about 200 million is nearly equally divided between Christians and Muslims even though the exact ratio is still shrouded in uncertainty. While Muslims are largely concentrated in the North, Christians dominate in the South.

But despite not adding to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), major state actors, including the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, and the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Tukur Yusuf Buratai, and the Governor of Borno State, Babagana Umara Zulum, have at one time or the other, called for prayers for the country to surmount election violence, insecurity posed by armed robbery, kidnappings, and Boko Haram insurgency, even when the government is deemed to have fallen short of what it takes to surmount these hurdles.

For instance, Osinbajo, while speaking at the inauguration of the Deeper Life Bible Church Headquarters Auditorium, Gbagada, Lagos State, on April 24, 2018, asked for prayers for the nation to overcome numerous challenges facing it.While likening governance to spiritual warfare, he said those in government must be spiritually supported to do their best.“Governance is a spiritual warfare if anyone does not know that, I know. I ask the Church to pray for everyone of us in positions of authority in this land,” Osinbajo said.

“It is the duty of the Church, as we are, that the Church prays for the government; that the Church upholds the hands of those in government, not by complaining, but by supporting us with prayers,” the Vice President said.After serially alleging that Boko Haram had been decimated, the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, confessed that terrorism and terrorist groups could not be eliminated alone by the military. He, therefore, noted that ending Boko Haram now more requires spiritual intervention, stressing that unless religious groups wage a “spiritual battle” by addressing the ideologies, which fuel Boko Haram and ISWAP terrorist activities, the country would still have a long way to go.

Buratai, who spoke in Abuja at a spiritual warfare seminar with the theme, “Countering Insurgency and Violent Extremism in Nigeria Through Spiritual Warfare,” at the Nigerian Army Resource Centre, said: “It is easier to defeat Boko Haram and ISWAP terrorists than their ideology because while we degrade the terrorists and their havens, the narrative of the ideology still grows. Therefore, communities, families, and groups should join in the fight and narrative to reject and prevent the ideologies of the terrorists and extremist groups.

“Religious bodies and organisations in particular, which interface regularly with the grassroots, should be at the forefront of this spiritual battle and fashion out ways of stepping up their roles. It is a well-known fact that terrorism and terrorist groups cannot be eliminated by mainly military actions. This means focusing our efforts on the underlying narratives through ideologies employed by these terrorists to lure innocent citizens into their fold,” he said.

Buratai, who was represented by the Chief of Administration, Maj. Gen. Sani Yusuf, urged Islamic and Christian clerics to join the fight against terrorism and reorient the people against negative ideologies.Earlier in October this year, Governor Babagana Zulum of Borno State had reportedly signed an agreement with 30 Saudi-based clerics, who reside in the city of Makka, the seat of Islam’s holiest mosque, to endlessly pray for the return of peace to Borno State.

All the 30 contracted clerics are of Nigerian origin, and they hail from Borno, Katsina, Zamfara, Kano states and parts of the North West. They have been living in Makka for decades, devoting themselves to prayers by spending hours at the Ka’aba.
A government statement informed that the agreement sealed with the 30 clerics, saddled them with the responsibility of offering prayers and performing daily tawaf (circulation) around the holy Ka’ aba. Muslims believe that prayers offered in the holy mosque of Ka’ aba are speedily granted.

In shedding light on the country’s apparent rising religiosity and over-dependence on God, while elected representatives and even citizens are abdicating their duties, a Professor of Sociology and former Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Lagos (UNILAG), Prof. Lai Olurode looked the way of a renowned Anthropologist, the late Bronislaw Malinowski, whom he said spoke extensively about religiosity and made distinctions between religious expression and religious experience. He said: “One of Max Weber’s research was on Protestants Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism. Karl Marx saw religion as the opium of the masses. Theoretically, religion is expected to be an elixir; an incentive and a moral guide for behavioural prescriptions, thus prompting a life of ethics, honesty, purposefulness, and arousal of patriotic and nationalist zeal. All these because there is a higher being (depending on your belief system) that will audit and interrogate our activities on earth.”

Olurode continued: “The Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Raji Fashola not seeing this relationship must feel disgusted, rightly disgusted and pained. What is happening in Nigeria is religious exhibitionism and expressions, not a religious experience. Religions serve more of commercial ends and propaganda, hence scrambling and hard drive for membership. Some even rent crowds to populate houses of worship.” Olurode, who is the Chairman of the UNILAG Muslim community regretted that the proliferation of worship centres in the country does not translate to the right energy needed to facilitate good governance and improvement in the provision of social services.

“Nigeria is a classical case study of a country where there is a complete disconnect between religion, state, and society. Every sphere is compartmentalised. As we advance in age and are exposed to vast intensity of religious and spiritual interventions, the frontiers of behavioural modifications should be extended.”He stressed the need for the country to be moved away from the realm of religious peripheralism to substantive religious manifestation, adding that, “the prophets were sent to save us from the peril of evil forces. If we rely only on our human nature, or common sense devoid of spiritual intervention, we may be rich materially, but the meaning and happiness in our lives won’t be realised. Religion should moderate our greed and diverse acts of covetousness.

“What is left for Nigeria’s religious activists to accomplish is how to translate their involvement in religious affairs to exerting positive influence on humans and thus facilitate behavioural modifications in all departments of our lives. To do this needs a vigorous critique of what is and the clarity of what ought to be. For this transformation to happen, a gradual character reform must begin with you and I. The basic tenets of religion must be our public and civic activities. The improvement being envisaged is a life-long process, which must be measurable,” Olurode said.

He continued: “As I grow up from early years to adulthood, and later years, I should be able to ask myself, am I improving in adding value to productivity, or shunning regional or national work ethics? Am I feigning excuses for absenteeism and using official time for private work? And how safe are official properties, including vehicles in my care? In essence, to what extent am I practicalising my religious doctrines and respecting the major injunctions of my religion’s holy book? Once there is a wide gulf, which isn’t narrowing as I grow old, then I am not acting in line with my religious doctrines. As I dissolve into my religion, my indulgence must begin to diminish until my transition. Thus, if religion and believability are to be impactful, the older elite in government at all levels should do far better than the younger ones. Public funds should be safer with old people…”

On whether there is statistical evidence to show that religion has contributed to the country’s GDP, the former National Commissioner of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) said there could only be an indirect one. “For example, one can pose the question, has there been a proliferation of houses of worship since the 1970s to date? If the answer is yes, then what has been happening to the GDP since then – declining or rising? What of other factors of corruption? Rising or falling? What about living conditions in Nigeria? Are they improving or falling? After this, we can then draw our inferences on how religion is impacting development. We need religion to cope with nagging issues of human existence such as happiness, anguish and the future of humanity. But religion should also help in creating heaven on earth for us, or a better organised human society flowing with milk and honey for the majority in place of the rising impoverishment.”

As far as popular Kaduna-based Islamic scholar, Dr. Ahmad Abubakar Mahmud Gumi is concerned, Nigerians are hard-working people, but they often misuse religion. So, he would say that the problem is not religion, but the misuse of religion.

Gumi, who claimed that the nation is engrossed in total ignorance, as the African heritage is causing backwardness to the black race, added that every religion has two components- the spiritual component, which has to do with something beyond nature, the unseen and the seen (natural)… When you have Islam and Christianity coming to where the bedrock is African traditional spirituality, then we have problems. The African mentality is that everything is controlled by spirits; everything is controlled by gods and the spirit of the ancestors…But this is not what God is revealing in all religions. God is in charge of every day and he knows what he wants. What he wants you to do is to work hard in a righteous way.”

While urging Nigerians to work in the right direction, with the right people and pray for success, he noted that Prophet Muhammad (SAW) didn’t sit down praying, “He came out with all his forces and started facing the enemy, and then he prayed. When you want to deal with natural things using spiritual means, you will be misplacing religion. The Qur’an says if you help yourself, God will help you. You cannot just sit down and say God will pour rain on my gold and silver. No. Come and face your problems and thereafter pray for success,” he said

On claims that most Nigerians were lazy, hence their over-reliance on God to solve their problems, he said: “Nigerians are not lazy, they are only dissipating their energy in the wrong direction. We are not lazy in Africa and Nigeria, it is just that we focus on primitive instincts. We have to re-direct our energy to the right channel and Nigeria will come up.”

Gumi said to change the perception of the country being over-religious and dependent on God, the country needs a change of leadership and there must be the provision of basic needs of life for the people.

“All governments must strive to provide three basic things. There must be the availability of food, cheap medication and quality education for everyone. But our governments have misplaced their priorities. All the lingering insecurity that we are facing is just because we don’t have the right leadership and the right direction. Leaders that complain about problems are not leaders.”

Gumi added that most Nigerian leaders have studied the public and know that religion is a major weakness for them. “That is why they give imams and pastor money for pilgrimage, all in a bid to shut their mouths. When some religious leaders are patronised by governments, they simply keep quiet because people have turned religion into moneymaking ventures and worship centres are becoming limited liability companies or political parties.”

For the National President of Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), Rev. Dr. Felix Omobude, who disagrees that the country is over religious, urged Nigerians to also see the good that religion has done to some extent in the country.He added that; “what is left is for Nigerians to translate their faith into action. If you are a Christian it should not just be because of the cross you wear on the neck. If you are a Christian it should not just be because you wear a cross on your neck, it must be put into action in our work places, and it should show in our neighbourhoods. I’m sure that most of the other religious groups also teach their members, to some extent, morals and dignity of labour. I don’t know of any religion that teaches armed robbery and encourages kidnapping. So, I think that we should let our faith take hold on our actions, and also reflect in our actions. I know that there a still some people who fear God and do good deeds in this country.”

On those that resort to excessive prayers instead of engaging in productive endeavours, Omobude said: “Ideally, a good religion doesn’t encourage that kind of lifestyle, Christianity does not allow you to be indolent or spend all day in the church doing nothing. Christianity encourages hardwork, and we believe that God blesses the labour of our hands; we believe we need to be diligent in whatever we’re assigned to do, but if you are found doing something else, that is not Christianity at all. We don’t open the doors of the church for people to come and sleep there all night do nothing; we encourage Christians to go and work in order to support their families, and also support the church and the nation.”

On whether religions contributes to the country’s GDP, the PFN president said, “well, I am not an accountant or a financial manager, I don’t know how they come about it, but I do believe that Christians are industrious; they are creative; diligent in their works and they help to build a more prosperous nation. We should put God first, but while we are doing that, we should let God reflect in our labour and in all our activities. I can assure you there might not be too many of them, but there are still quite some that believe in carrying their faith along with their work. There are still God-fearing people in every sphere of our society.”

The Senior Pastor, Daystar Christian Centre, Lagos State, Dr. Sam Adeyemi, does not disagree with claims that the country is over–religious, even as he noted that the best place where good things are supposed to emanate from are religious houses. He said: “I also have videos that have gone viral saying just about the same thing- that Nigeria is over-religious. People all over the world tell me ‘every house in your country is a church, so why is there such a gap between the people’s behaviour, and what they do outside – in the society, on the road, in government, and what we know should be going on in your religious houses? And so, I think it is time for us as a society to query what is going on, and query our belief in God.”

Adeyemi, who maintained that the character of those, who profess to know God should distinguish them from others, added that there is no way those who claim to love God should not love man as well. “So I will put it this way, ‘whatever you will not do to God, you should not do it to another human being. And when we put it on that pedestal, then we seriously need to upgrade how we treat each other in Nigeria.”

Religion may not contribute directly to the country’s GDP, but “there is also a huge positive impact that religion has made on Nigeria and Nigerians. Only that the economic environment has been very harsh; young people are despondent; some don’t even see why they should go to university. The reason is that the ones that have graduated years are still without jobs. But churches have been feeding people; they have been sustaining people; paying their hospital bills and generally taking care of the people. Our church does and so the church has been good at that level. What we are asking about now is our collective success as a nation and what role is religion playing?”

He said religion either produces conformists or catalysts in a society. He said: “I will summarise it this way, religion produces conformists or catalysts in a society. If the leadership of the church follows the political structure where the elite class uses its power to channel resources to benefit itself, most people remain impoverished…In the country, things are not changing for the masses. So, the leadership structure has not worked and it cannot produce development in our country.”He challenged religious bodies to produce men and women of unquestionable character, who can say no to corruption.

“For example, when Jesus came He did not fraternise with the political elite. He introduced the kingdom of God and the values inherent in it. What he introduced ran contrary with their culture. He said to the disciples you know that among the Gentles their rulers lord it over them, but among you it shall not be so. Any one among you that wants to be great should become the servant; any among you that wants to be the first should become the slave because the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve.

And so, He turned leadership upside down. That is what Christianity, at least, should produce; that is what the Church should produce in Nigeria. People who are not out there to get, but people that are out to give. So, on a normal day, a mature Christian should not be corrupt, he should not be taking bribe, and should not be extorting anything from innocent people.

And candidly, if all people in our churches like and do what one of the speakers in our leadership conference said ‘if the people in our churches decide not to be corrupt, corruption will stop in Nigeria. So, that is where we need to start from — the quality of people we produce; are they conformists or are they catalysts for change?”


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