Just two houses away from ours in Ibadan, a new church sprang up last year. The arrival of the church signaled the end of the little tranquility we enjoyed in the Apata/Oluyole axis of the city. Before the church, we had had to deal with the noise emanating from the loudspeakers of the mosque located three miles away at the Apata market. For every prayer session, including at 5:00 a.m., the adherents of Islam in that mosque blared their worship sessions through huge loudspeakers. During the fasting period, you could be sure to hear the incessant calls to Sari – the early morning (3:00 a.m.) feast – and the accompanying prayer session. It usually sounded as if the noise came from within my bedroom.
Then came this church; literally two houses away. The adherents of Christianity in this church figured that they had to out-do the adherents of Islam at the mosque. They too mounted humongous speakers and elected to open all doors and windows wide whenever they held services. And they held services virtually all times of the day – morning, afternoon, evening, late-night, weekday and weekend. Even when they held meetings (singles’ meeting, couples’ meeting, choir’s meeting, prayer warriors’ meeting, old people’s meeting, young people’s meeting, everybody’s meeting) they preceded every meeting with “prayer worship” where they sang a few gospel songs and danced to their loud instruments. They, too, sounded as if they were in my bedroom. As a Nigerian, my psyche is daily assailed by extremist Christians and extremist Muslims, as the two religions compete with one another for the purest form of ideological totalitarianism.
I picked up the paper one morning, just before heading to Lagos for an important meeting. The screaming headline was about Boko Haram killing forty-something people in a village near Maiduguri. This was the umpteenth time that such dastardly act was carried out by the terrorist group, and so Nigerians were apathetic about such news. But I was not. I kept turning over in my head all the previous headlines about what Boko Haram had been able to accomplish in Nigeria. The more I thought about it, the more I got angry at the seeming impotence of our government. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how fundamentally spineless we were as a Nation. The prevailing narrative in the land was that you were not a good Muslim if you did not engage in “Jihad” and kill all non-Muslims. And killing just non-Muslims was no longer enough for the animalistic Boko Haram members, who were now so obviously impervious to gore that they now killed Muslims who preached against killing non-Muslims!
A few miles to Lagos, just outside the village of Mowe, I hit the mother of all traffic. A couple of the churches along the Lagos-Ibadan expressway were holding their Revival services. I spent five hours on standstill in that traffic, unable to make a U-turn and return to Ibadan, and unable to move forward. As it turned out, another prevailing narrative in the land was that you were not a good Christian if your proselytizing did not involve shutting down major highways; forcing pregnant women to deliver their babies in unsanitary road-side conditions; forcing people to defecate on themselves while trapped in commercial vehicles holed up on public highways. You, as a “man of God” could then bury your head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich and act as if you did not know what was going on around you.
If you pull a pastor to the side and attempt to have a commonsense discussion with him about the need to respect the rights of others as he exercises his right to religion, his antenna for Defense Mechanism of Projection springs into action. He lectures you about how Jesus Christ is the ONLY path to heaven and how we must worship Him at all times and at all costs. He asks you why you worry about the public expressway he has blocked when the expressway to heaven through Jesus Christ is twice as wide and pothole-free.
The imam at the nearby mosque tells you that Prophet Mohammed charged all Muslims to call one another to prayer regardless of whose ox is gored. The Boko Haram fighter tells you the Prophet charged him to wage a perpetual Jihad until the rest of the world is converted to Islam. And the majority of us buy that nonsense. The feeling of existential insecurity leads us to accept at face-value the balderdash that spews forth from their mouths.
Yet, both the pastor and the imam are themselves victims of an all-encompassing ideological indoctrination which has turned their world into a cocoon. Were their worlds open, they would, of course, question the process that got them to the extremes of their ideologies; for religion is nothing but ideology. I know that the ultra-religious reader will question my assertion that religion is ideology, and may, in fact, consider it blasphemous. But I challenge them to read up on the histories of both religions, and the other major ones – Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, etc. What the overzealous imam and pastor have done with Islam and Christianity is re-package and propagate the ideas (or ideologies) of the Prophets in order to make them palatable for the gullible. In today’s world, if anybody were to claim that he received the voice of God while he was in a cave, he’d be accused of hallucination! But we accepted Prophet Mohammed’s story of thousand years past. We also accepted the stories of Jesus Christ and all the other Prophets in the Bible because; to question them is tantamount to blasphemy.
We accepted these stories because we needed to hold onto something in supplication to a higher power – God Almighty. And there is nothing wrong in that. In fact, it is, for many of us, desirable as it, at the very least, provides an abode of comfort. Where we begin to veer into extremism (and violent extremism in the case of Boko Haram) is when the imam or pastor is overwhelmed by messianic schizophrenia and we allow him to infect the rest of us with the disease; when it is no longer enough to pray five times a day as a Muslim; when you must kill non-believers; when Muslims in Ibadan stab and hack the Oloolu masquerade for “perpetuating sin”; when your son or daughter cannot marry outside your religion; when a Christian landlord in Enugu cannot rent his house to a Muslim “foreigner”; when churches set up in residential neighborhoods prevent infants, pregnant women, the elderly and the sick from much-needed sleep. We slip into religious extremism when we canvass the ephemeral societal utopia on which we base on our religious beliefs. And when we seek to impose such fleeting grandiosity on fellow citizens, we forget that we are different; that our capacities for swallowing idiocy vary. We forget that the phrase “human equality” is indeed an oxymoron.
In a million years, Boko Haram will never eliminate Christianity from Nigeria no matter how many in sha Allahs its members chant. But the sadistic and narcissistic tendencies associated with religious bigots will never allow those members to see reason. Their messiah has ordered them to kill non-believers and kill they must. From infancy, they had been exposed to the propaganda and ONLY the propaganda that paints non-believers as evil. They have oscillated, at various times of their childhood, between indoctrination and radicalization. The rest of Nigeria neglected to notice the Almajiri boy in Damaturu who, with no obvious physical defects, skips school but roams the streets begging for money and food. At the end of the day, that boy is pulled into a Madrassa in Birnin Kebbi and pumped full of food and a hefty dose of more propaganda in order to enrich and hasten his radicalization process. He is nurtured like this by his extremist handlers until he totally imbibes the principle of self-abnegation, believing that he must sacrifice his l
ife for the good of others. At this point, after being fully radicalized, he is ready for the last stage on the continuum of extremism – activism. This Almajiri boy, now a grown man, is ready to act out his radical views in the form of the sort of mayhem that Boko Haram now inflicts on Nigeria. And on the few occasions that some Boko Haram activists have been arrested, they have used this self-abductive logic to rationalize their inhumane and barbaric atrocities.
As a Nation, we failed these young men much as we failed the young men co-opted into the Niger-Delta militancy a few years ago. A viable nation ought to be able to recognize the usually obvious signs of degenerative social malaises such as the absence of functional education, functional medical services, and functional basic amenities. Early diagnosis of some of these problems allows a viable Nation to proactively devise means of interdicting the slide. Up till this moment, our solution to the Niger-Delta crisis has been nothing short of plastering the wound with a bandage. We did not apply any deliberate, permanent solution to the problem. In essence, once a new government comes to power and refuses to dole out cash to those militants like GEJ is currently doing, we would be back to square one. We would again then offer the likes of Edwin Clark the opportunity to stoke the bandwidth of discussion with incendiary remarks that serve only as accelerant that will help incinerate the polity. We would allow him to again revive and spread the old, tired feeling of victimization – the same feeling being adduced today by the aggrieved Boko Haram fighters.
Rather than propound long-term solutions for our perennial problems, our leaders offer a panoply of excuses: there is not enough money to pay teachers, to build classrooms, to build libraries and to build laboratories; there is not enough money to build new railroad tracks, to buy new train engines and coaches and to modernize our railway platforms; there is not enough money to turn our expressways into truly modern roadways with working street lights, lane markings, reflective road signs and directional signs; there is not enough money to resuscitate our moribund water corporations so as to deliver potable water into our homes; there is not enough money to supply uninterrupted electricity to our cities, let alone our villages; there is not enough money to install simple medical equipment in our hospitals…The list is inexhaustible. Yet, we hear of the mind-boggling budgets proposed by the Federal and State governments; trillions in multifold without corresponding infrastructure matching the expenditure. We generate multi-billionaires faster than any other country in the world even though most of our billionaires do not manufacture a thing.
Worse of all, we the followers celebrate these thieves. We clear the road for them when they come through. We shower chieftaincy titles on them. We kiss their feet and swear by their names. We the followers follow these faux leaders blindly. We let the poverty of our stomach lead us into poverty of ideas and poverty of courage. Rather than ask questions; rather than demand answers, we cower at the feet of these empty-headed leaders begging for crumbs from their ornate tables. We eat their left-over foods and the next day we rejoin the cycle of abject poverty to which they have consigned us. We watch them drive their exotic cars and wear their imported designer shoes. Their children go to school overseas and their family (including the family dog), receive regular medical check-ups in Europe. We see them everyday in our churches and in our mosques. And we pray to God to enrich us like he enriched them. We are victims of too much religion.