|Saturday, September 14, 2019|
Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)
frica's foremost literary giant and social critic, Chinua Achebe, in his epic book titled, "Morning yet on Creation Day", evoked the following Igbo aphorism:
"Whenever Something stands, Something Else will stand beside it. Nothing is absolute. 'I am the truth, the way and the life would be called blasphemous' or simply absurd for is it not well known that a man may worship Ogwugwu to perfection and yet be killed by Udo." - Chinua Achebe, "Morning yet on Creation Day', 94 (1975).
Achebe, in the book quoted above, discusses the devastating effect of colonial induced 'cultural change' or rather 'cultural shift' in post-independent neo-colonial African nation-states as a religious, and cultural phenomenon. He singles out the principles of African (Igbo) aphorism, "whenever something stands, something else will stand beside it." According to him, Nigeria is where it is today because, as a nation, we have not been able to challenge the instrumentalization of religion in the country's political spheres.
Wole Soyinka, another Nigerian born African literary giant, social critic and Nobel laureate, discusses the same topic from the point of view of the principles of 'African humanism' and religious tolerance. Soyinka is a great advocate of 'social change' based on African humanism and religious tolerance:
"The spirituality of the black continent, as attested, for instance, in the religion of the orisa, abhors such principles of coercion or exclusion, and recognizes all manifestations of spiritual urgings as attributes of the complex disposition of godhead. Tolerance is synonymous with spirituality of the black continent, intolerance anathema." - Wole Soyinka, "Burden of Memory", 48 (1999).
The above quotation is from a Collection of Soyinka's lectures delivered at Harvard University, titled, "Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness" (1997-1999). Here, Soyinka aligned himself with the "social vision" transmitted in African religion that he claims to be characterized by tolerance. In his seminal satirical play, titled, "The Trials of Brother Jero", which was first performed in Ibadan in 1960, when he was only 26 years old, Soyinka was suspicious toward religion, particularly Islam and Christianity.
For Soyinka, these two "foreign" religions in Africa (Islam and Christianity), instead of making most of their talents or helping society, their brains were wrapped and shriveled up, which increased the superstitious nature of many middle and working-class Nigerians. While supportive of spirituality, Soyinka is against using religion for social, economic, moral, or political advantage. Soyinka received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986.
The ambivalence of religion as force for peace and at the same time easy for manipulation by some bad elements in the society to cause bad leadership, violence and conflicts as well as manipulate people, is what we have not been able to tame in Nigeria (apologies to Wole Soyinka)! In a multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic Nigeria, favoritism of one religion over and above others destroys the very foundation of the country itself as a nation state.
In the present article, we intend to discuss the danger inherent in the instrumentalization of religion in politics in post-colonial - neo-colonial Nigeria, depicted in selected works of Nigeria's two most gifted-intellectual giants, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. The focus is on Achebe's "Arrow of God", and Soyinka's "Trials of Brother Jero."
This is to highlight the significance for Nigeria today of the works of these two great authors of our land. The overall intention, however, is to put forward as a viable option, the African philosophy and spirituality of 'relationality', as well as humanism as an alternative way for rethinking Nigeria's political landscape.
E. Eugene Uzukwu, a Nigerian born African theologian and Spiritan Catholic priest, in a recent book, titled, "God, Spirit, and Human Wholeness" (2012), made a theological re-appropriation of Achebe and Soyinka's thoughts on Instrumentalization of Religion, among others. Achebe and Soyinka, each in his own way and style, presents us with important views on the subject. The two authors emphasis the importance of multiplicity of centers of power, relationality, flexibility, respect for human person, as well as the necessity for religious tolerance that Nigeria must not ignore in its present-day predicament as a nation state.
Achebe's "Arrow of God" vis-à-vis instrumentalization of religion
Chinua Achebe's novel, "Arrow of God", dramatizes the traditional and effective pattern of challenging the instrumentalization of religion. The novel is about the dangers of instrumentalization of religion in politics and power. The genre of Achebe's "Arrow of God" is that it can be successfully used to denounce exploitative experts, politicians and priests, and especially, to address the alleged agenda of Islamization and Fulanization of Nigeria under the present dispensation. Thus, "Arrow of God" has a lot of far reaching consequences for Nigeria today.
In the first place, "Arrow of God" describes with flourish the need for flexibility, openness, and change in mediating the will of deities for the realization of community's destiny. The novel is based on a historical event that occurred in Umuchu (renamed Umuaro by Achebe), a village-group in Anambra State, Eastern Nigeria. The local deity, Ulu (that "saved our fathers from the warriors of Abam"), was the symbol of benevolence for a united Umuaro. Ezeulu was the priest of Ulu. However, the phenomenal entry of White man onto the scene (colonial world of modernity) precipitated crisis in Umuaro.
Achebe crafted the story to demonstrate the implacability of change and the overriding need for individuals, the community and deities to adjust to change so that community's destined course in life be realized.
Thus, modernity channeled by colonialism and Christianity challenged humans and divine beings. "The white man, the new religion, and the soldiers, the new road - they are all part of the same thing." ("Arrow of God", 97). The dramatis personae struggled to coherently interpret and adapt to change - an enterprise full of drama, irony and ambiguity.
In "Arrow of God", we find the Igbo wisdom tradition that nourished Achebe's African humanism for adjustment to change: "a man must dance the dance prevailing in his time." This is in harmony with the foundational "ife kwulu if akwudebe ya" ("When Something stands, Something Else will stand beside it").
Achebe cleverly put the aphorism into the mouth of the tragic priest-hero, Ezeulu, to justify Ezeulu's adjustment to colonial modernity and change. The priest-hero sent his son Oduche to a Christian school (and Church) because:
"The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well do not stand in one place. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying had we known tomorrow." - ("Arrow of God", 51).
E. Eugene Uzukwu interprets this passage to imply, that the "principle of duality, flexibility, and openness to change must be applied across the board" (Uzukwu, "God, Spirit, and Human Wholeness", 99). When the White man imprisoned the proud priest-hero for one month ("the proudest man on earth is only his messenger"), he refused to apply the same wisdom tradition to save the village-group from death.
His imprisonment prevented him from the ritual eating of one sacred yam on citing the 12th moon. Out of prison he refused to eat two sacred yams on citing the new (13th) moon. In other words, he refused to eat the regular 13th yam that should be eaten on citing the 13th moon along with the 12th yam that he was unable to roast and eat when he was in the White man's prison.
Flexibility and adjustment to change, on the part of priest-hero Ezeulu, would have enabled the village-group to see the year of 13th lunar months to a close, celebrate the new yam festival and begin to eat the new yams. For the village-group, 'the priest's refusal to adjust to change along with his stubborn pride is heresy and idolatry."
In other words, the individual is being absolutized at the expense of the survival of the community. Ezeulu refused to listen to the elders who reminded him of the aphorism, "a man must dance the dance prevailing in his time." The elders had opposed his dependence on the same aphorism to send one of his sons to the Christian school. They confessed: "we have come - too late - to accept its wisdom."
Nevertheless, pride, stubbornness, and an exaggerated perception of his power as priest had better of Ezeulu. That is why "he would rather see the six villages ruined than eat two yams." - ("Arrow of God", 232). Ezeulu symbolized the instrumentalization of religion for personal pride, lust for power and ambition. No wonder, he incurred the 'wrath of God', which informed Achebe's title of the novel, "Arrow of God."
In Achebe's "Arrow of God", the character Ezeulu epitomized the inability of the hero to perceive that religion is for the good of human community. That is, inability to understand the delicate, flexible commingling of humans, divinities, and mediators, yielding pax deorum, which led Ezeulu to the destruction of both himself and his deity. He became a sacrificial victim.
In fact, Ogbuefi Ofoka, a character in Arrow of God, mused on this fact while conversing with his friend Akuebue: "Let me tell you one thing. A Priest like Ezeulu leads a god to ruin himself. It has happened before." Akuebue modified his friend's statement, "Or perhaps a god like Ulu leads a priest to ruin himself." In fact, "Arrow of God", makes Ezeulu a sacrificial victim.
The lesson of Achebe's "Arrow of God" is that the image of the stubborn priest (or any community leader or king as such), and the unilateral perception of his position clearly contradicts Igbo tradition. Igbo tradition rejects erecting (idolizing) personal ambition, and manipulating deities (or power) to that end, at the expense of the destiny of the human community. Individual worth, progress and achievement, are celebrated and hallowed in titles (ozo for men and ekwe for women).
What is at stake in "Arrow of God" is self-centered pride, a bloated ego, lust for power that is disdainful of the community's realization of its purpose in life. This pride and disdain inserted crisis within the flexible dynamic hierarchy in divinity that characterizes most of African cosmologies where humans are not pawns in the hands of deities and arrogant community rulers.
To prove that they are not pawns and to safeguard the good of the community the elders of Umuaro told Ezeulu that they were ready to assume responsibility for any consequences that would follow his eating two sacred yams instead of one. Ulu and his priest must protect and not destroy the community.
This is the ultimate message of Achebe's "Arrow of God." The degeneration of the conflict displays the dialects of complex relationship between deities like Ulu and the human community in the overall Igbo perception of reality. Priests, cult leaders, devotees, initiates, healers, etc., through their devotion, knowledge and reputation, increase the deity's popularity and their own reputation. The perpetuation of the deity may depend on the "ability to attract, convince and maintain followers."
Consequently, the golden rule guiding this complex relationship is that deities, spirits and their priests must do what they are expected to do for the good of the community or risk irrelevance. This golden rule applies as well to all those in position of presiding over the affairs of their community, be they politicians, traditional or religious leaders. Selfish orientations of any community (public) leader and the inordinate or irrational demands of deities (civil (state) or religious institutions) are idols to be exorcised. The case between Ezeulu and Umuaro makes this clear:
"And we have all heard how the people of Aninta dealt with their deity when he failed them. Did they not carry him to the boundary between them and their neighbors and set him on fire? … Let us drive him away as our neighbors of Aninta who drove out and burnt Ogba when he left what he was called to do and did other things, when he turned round to kill the people of Aninta instead of their enemies." - ("Arrow of God", 31, 180).
Again, the major lesson here is that individuals and community are not a pawn in the hands of deities, kings and experts. The community exercises liberty by withdrawing support from one deity (and its shrine guardian) and transferring it to another deity and shrine guardian.
An Ikwerre (Igbo) proverb says it well: "The villagers may belong to a god, but the god also belongs to the villagers." The Yoruba have also the saying: "If humanity were not, the deities would not be." All this confirms why, the instrumentalization of religion, in whatever disguise, is absolutely, wrong and will always be.
Achebe in 1991 granted an interview to Bill Moyers in which he expatiated once more, on the principles of Igbo aphorism, "Whenever something stands, something else will stand beside it." In that interview, Achebe adopted a methodology that rejected in principle all absolutisms!
Soyinka's "Trials of Brother Jero" and "Impunity of Religious Intolerance"
During my second-year philosophy in 1981 at Bigard Memorial Seminary (Ikot-Ekpene), I was privileged to have played one of the leading characters in Soyinka's "Trials of Brother Jero." I must confess, however, I did not grasp the full imports of that drama then until many years later in my adult life. All the same, I was happy, Soyinka, as early as then, had warned me in that play, of the dangers inherent in the abuse of religion and spiritual powers for influence, personal and political gains, its consequences on the congregation and larger society.
The themes of "Trials of Brother Jero" include romantic betrayal, religious hypocrisy; the skepticism over the use of religion. Much of the satire and irony in the "Trials of Brother Jero" comes from the contrast between a self-proclaimed "man of god" and the ordinary community life he finds himself within. The play is technically a one act but has five scenes.
Brother Jero (full name: Jeroboam) is an evangelical prophet practicing along a large beach in Lagos, Nigeria. Despite his supposed holiness, he often takes advantage of people. While opportunistic and largely dishonest, Jero is also a product of the ignorant people around him. Jero understands what people want - money, respectability, political power - and he is willing to offer them compelling "prophecies" to reaffirm their deepest desires.
The play leaps forward to Jero standing in his "church" on the beach. He claims to be super successful and a self-made man. Despite all these seeming advantages, Jero is single; throughout the play, some comedic moments occur as he struggles against sexual impulses toward women, as well as their rebuffs.
Jero admits he doesn't want any of his followers to be entirely absolved from their problems. When Chume asks for permission to beat his wife, Jero claims that that isn't the right thing to do; the real reason for this advice is that Jero doesn't want Chume to be so independent that he doesn't require Jero's services.
As time went further, Jero begins to think that he needs to have a good brand name and starts thinking of something ostentatious to call himself. Later in the play, he'll settle on "the Immaculate Jero, Articulate Hero of Christ's Crusade."
Chume then joins Jero at the beach. Chume called sick into work. Jero is pleased that Chume found him on the beach, as he likes to appear as if he sleeps on the beach in an act of devotion.
Jero's followers start to arrive on the beach. This includes two government workers, whom Jero enticed into his congregation by prophesizing that they will gain an even higher government post in future.
From an off-hand comment that Chume makes, Jero realizes that Amope is trying to collect a tax debt from him. To avoid having to pay anything, Jero finally tells Chume that God has told him it's now okay to beat his wife.
Later that evening, Jero returns home to find Amope and Chume fighting in front of his house. Chume insists that they must go home; Amope refuses - she must collect money from Jero. The physical and verbal disagreement escalates, and neighbors start to gather to watch. Chume screams at Jero's house that if he curses Chume, Amope will forgive all his debt. At this, Chume finally realizes that Jero only agreed to the wife-beating for his own benefit. Betrayal by his prophet and angry, Chume returns to the beach to punish Jero.
The final scene takes place at nightfall on the beach. Jero watches a young politician practice a speech he'll give to his superiors. Scheming that Chume will no longer depend on him, Jero decides he needs more followers, and approaches the young man. He claims that unless the young man follows him, God will take his future political success. Helpless, the young man agrees.
Chume appears on stage muttering to himself. He believes Amope and Jero are having an affair. He insists, and it's implied that he soon will commit a violent act against Jero.
The young politician kneels in the sand as Jero begins the conversion. But then, Chume bursts back onto the scene wielding a dulled sword; Amope accompanies him, and together they chase Jero. When the young politician opens his eyes again, Jero has disappeared. He interprets this as a sure sign that Jero is/was a man of God.
Once the scene calms down, Jero tells the audience what happened next. The politician started telling everyone that Jero was whisked away by God; he prays that the prophet will return. The politician is asleep on stage. Jero says that when he wakes up, he will tell him that Chume is an agent of Satan and must be locked up in a mental hospital. He throws a pebble at the young man, who wakes up and exclaims, "Master!"
In Soyinka's "Trials of Brother Jero", it is as if Brother Jero is the emerging "African Christianity's equivalent of Nwulu in the "Arrow of God." Brother Jero's congregation, which operates along the Beach of Lagos, equally takes a similar role like that of Umuaro village-group in the "Arrow of God." This is the general posture and texture of Soyinka's "Trials of Brother Jero." The novel dramatizes in a more eloquent way, the emergence of most of today's "Lagos based Neo-Pentecostalism and healing churches." Not only in Lagos are they found, but across Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
Apart from the "Trials of Brother Jero", another interesting work is Soyinka's acknowledgement lecture of the Nobel Prize in literature, where he took issues with what he called "the exclusivist monotheism of Western Christianity that denigrated African religious values."
Soyinka also discusses instrumentalization of religion (Islam and Boko Haram) in Nigerian politics in a lecture he delivered on October 2014 at Waston Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University. The lecture was titled, "Hatched from the Egg of Impunity: A Fowl Called Boko Haram."
Soyinka analyzes the current reign of impunity, religious intolerance and violence in Nigeria. Implied here is the disturbing reality that Nigeria, a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation state is notoriously operating an exclusivist, and an absolute federal system of government, controlled mainly by one ethno-religious group from the Northern part of the country. The present federal government of President Buhari, which is notoriously lopsided, is a case in point.
Because of this unjust situation, the political gatekeepers of Nigeria have continued to maintain their hold on power through impunity of all kinds, which includes, 'hatching Boko Haram and Fulani killer-herdsmen', and allowing them to continue unhindered, to unleash terror on the rest of the country, especially, Christians and indigenous populations of the Middle belt and Southern states of Nigeria.
Next, is Soyinka's world most acclaimed masterpiece, "The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute" (1999). "The Burden of Memory" consists of three lectures originally delivered at Harvard in 1997. The central concern in them is the question of how historic wrongs might be righted, the focus being on the terrible injustice the people of Africa have been subjected to: slavery, colonialism, apartheid, post-colonial misrule and dictatorship as well as the neo-colonial project.
Very interesting also is Soyinka's article on Orisa (Yoruba) religion, titled, "The Tolerant Gods" (published in "Orisa Devotion as World Religion" (edited by J.O.K. Olupona and T. Rey (2008). He refuted Hegel's claim (made in Lectures on the Philosophy of World History) that monotheism in Western philosophical categories is the symbol of civilization.
Soyinka, however, declared that the multiple spirits and mediators, like in the Yoruba orisa religion, were a more viable option. Soyinka's claim for his Yoruba orisa religion is based on the existential experience of orisa cult as flexible, tolerant and respectful of the human person, as opposed to what he considers the "Christian and Islam totalizing and intolerant monotheistic order that denigrated other ways."
Here Soyinka discusses the presence of "the multiple spirits and mediators, in the Yoruba orisa religion, as a more viable option." Soyinka's claim for his orisa religion is based on the existential experience of orisa cult as flexible, tolerant and respectful of the human person, as opposed to what he sees as the Western totalizing and intolerant monotheistic or exclusivist order that denigrated other ways.
"It is the profound humanism of the orisa that recommends it to a world in need of the elimination of conflict, since the main source of conflict between nations and among peoples is to be found as much in the struggle for economic resources as in the tendency toward the domination of ideas, be these secular or theological." - (Soyinka, "Tolerant Gods", 48).
The viewpoint of pioneer African theologian, Bolaji Idowu, goes in the same direction. He believed that a renewed ATR is the only hope for the spiritual renovation of Africans.
According to Soyinka, exclusivism and monotheism imbedded in the Western and Arab spirituality and worldviews dominant in post-colonial Africa, do not promote the freedom and dignity of all humans. Thus, Soyinka aligned himself with the "social vision" transmitted in African religion that he claims, characterized African spirituality of relationality, and that he equally, claims was characterized by tolerance.
Both the Igbo wisdom saying, "Whenever something stands, something else will stand beside it", and the Yoruba orisa religion option for tolerance and flexibility, are inspired by the same source. Both are inspired by the African philosophy of relationality (Ubuntu), "We are, therefore, I am" (cognatus ergo sum), as opposed to the individualistic Western (Descartes) philosophy, "cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore, I am).
In African philosophy and traditional society, the value of interdependence through relationships based on shared equality and mutual respect comes high above that of individualism and exclusivism. In traditional African society, unilateral control or dominance from one center or by one ethno-religious group is anathema.
However, some of Soyinka's assumptions here need critical appraisal. Because while I may go for African philosophy of relationality and humanism, however, it is wrong to claim that the two religions that originated from the Near East - Christianity and Islam - are refactory. As we saw earlier, African Christianity practice lives and elaborates this relationship based on the flexibility of both ATR and Christianity. What Lamin Sanneh refers to as "cultural translatability of Christianity and ATR).
Again, without downplaying the merit of Soyinka's contribution, however, it is necessary to point out that his 'universal condemnation of monotheistic religions', did not take into consideration the fact that even African religion itself is a religion based on two principles - attributes of a monotheistic God. Africans' attributes to God revolve around the two principles of creation and absoluteness.
For example, in Igbo religion and language, God is known as, a) "Chineke" (Creator-God (principle of creation); and b) "Chukwu" (Supreme Being, or High God (principle of absoluteness). In other words, the presence of multiple spirits as mediators in the divine hierarchy of African religion does not at all negate the monotheistic foundation of African religiosity and philosophy. Rather, it enhances the uniqueness of monotheistic God, already at work in the African religion, before the advent of Christianity and Islam in the continent.
I think that what is at stake in this case, is what Uzukwu rightly calls, the "Ontological Underpinnings of West African Religions." The multiple tendencies in Igbo religion, for instance, draws attention to the underlying ontological principle of duality and plurality that is the basis for understanding being and religion in Africa. This understanding confirms the aphorism: "Whenever Something stands, Another comes to stand beside it":
"Whenever something stands, something else will stand beside it" is repeated every so often as the ontological principle undergirding the understanding of the emergence of the Igbo human type. Igbo republicanism, their practice of direct democracy and their love for debate or palaver are derived from this principle. Duality or relationality is at the core of religion; it is at the core of the perception of Chukwu, the Supreme God." - (E. Eugene Uzukwu, "God, Spirit, and Human Wholeness: Appropriating Faith and Culture in Western African Style", (2012, p. 15).
This is clearly seen in the founding myth of Nri (the most influential Igbo village-group):
"And what is more, Chukwu Himself in all His power and majesty, did not make the Igbo world by fiat. He held conversations with mankind. He talked with those archetypal men of Nri and Adama, and even enlisted their cooperation and good offices." (Ibid. p. 17).
The philosophy behind this Nri myth is not unique to Igbo. The myth of pre-existence and having predestined course in life involving conversation with God and/or the deity bearing destiny are common among the Igbo and many other African societies.
In all, however, Achebe and Soyinka raise some issues pertinent for the survival of Nigeria today as a nation state. The relevance of Achebe and Soyinka's writings is simple. Both Nigerian authors, each in his own literary style and methodology, is telling us that it is high time we take "a second look" against the instrumentalization of religion in Nigeria's body politics. It is high time we tell ourselves the "naked truth" and do the needful. 'A stitch in time saves nine!'
Nigeria, "Pressure Cooker" of Conflicts & Violence
Before we conclude, it is necessary that a brief reference be made to the recent report of the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, on Nigeria.
Speaking at a news conference some days ago at Abuja, the UN envoy said that Nigeria needed urgent action to end the "pressure cooker" of violence that has claimed thousands of lives. According to her, "Nigeria is currently facing multiple conflicts, from attacks by the armed group Boko Haram to fighting nomadic killer-herders."
Going further, Callamard said:
"The overall situation that I encountered in Nigeria gives rise to extreme concern … The warning signs are flashing bright red: increased number of attacks and killings over the past five years with a few notable exceptions … If ignored its ripple effect will spread throughout the sub-region given the country's important role in the continent."
The UN special rapporteur also examined safeguards over the use of the death penalty and laws applied by Islamic (Sharia) courts. She condemned vehemently the government repression and extrajudicial killings targeted at some specific groups:
"I have also considered security repression against Shia Muslims, the Indigenous people of Biafra, and against Ogoni people", Callamard said.
We referred to the above report of the UN envoy, simply, to corroborate Achebe and Soyinka's concerns of the dangers of instrumentalization of religion in Nigeria's body politics. It confirms what everyone knows already that religious manipulation is a major factor, fueling the current political crisis, bloodbaths, ethnic-cleansings, ethno-religious violence and conflicts in the West African country.
This is why many knowledgeable people are sounding strong note of warning to the present federal government of President Buhari, against the unfolding agenda of Islamization and Fulanization of Nigeria by his administration. Even though, the government knows it is pursuing utopian agenda, which will never materialize, however, it is better to be warned of the dangers ahead before it consumes everybody.
As we say in Igbo "Onye mara azu, ozu n'ikwe, onye amaghi azu, ozu n'ala". Which loosely translates, "he who knows how to pound (e.g. pounded yam), does it within the parameter of the bowl (mortar). While he, who does not know how to do it, does it off the bowl, on bare floor."