Harnessing Spirituality as Capital for Nigeria’s Redemption


By Tunji Olaopa

Reading this title alone gives you some specific religious imagery. The ideas of spirituality and redemption are two key issues that are fundamental to, especially, the Islamic and Christian religions in Nigeria. Both religions believe firmly in the cultivation of spiritual virtues that have the capacity to enhance a person’s chances of gaining heaven. While Islam holds firmly to the redemptive possibility inherent in adhering to deeply spiritual practices, like fasting during the Ramadan month, Christianity believes in the redemptive power in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Both religions also hold firmly to the capacity that a redeemed person has to become a good citizen of any state. However, and contrary to the promises that these two religions hold for understanding an individual’s capacity to be a good person, Christianity and Islam have both contributed to Nigeria postcolonial predicament. One of the factors making it impossible for Nigeria to achieve national integration, since it gained independence in 1960, is religion and religious fundamentalism.

One can say categorically that the Nigerian state is inscribed within a religious imagination which stands contrary to the religious crisis it is going through. Religious symbolisms are scattered in Nigeria’s national imagination. Even though the constitution states that there shall not be any state religion, the national anthem and the national pledge invoke the name of God, consecutive Nigerian leaders, from the presidency to the state level, are usually found in league with religious leaders and in religious places of worship; and prayers are often said at national functions. Yet, and since its emergence from colonial calculation, Nigeria has had to keep contending with the virulence of religious crisis. This began from the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates of Nigeria in 1914 which laid the foundation of a serious ethno-religious postcolonial crisis whose enormity we are just experiencing at the moment, especially with the Maitasine crisis of the early 1980s, the Boko Haram insurgency, and most significantly with the interpretation of electoral possibilities and administrative efficiency in ethno-religious terms.

At a much more fundamental level, fundamental, that is, to the efficient running of the Nigerian state as administrative machinery for transforming the lives of Nigerians, religious crisis translates fundamentally into a framework of inefficiency and stagnation. This is because religious practices creep into the workplaces in very insidious ways that mark the beginning of administrative and institutional dysfunctions. In other words, religious fundamentalism also becomes a part of the factor that has contributed to the inefficiency of the public service in Nigeria. Since the citizens have perceived the government as being absent in their lives, and hence they have no investment in its activities, it becomes possible and even meaningful for them to translate government time into religious time. Thus, a worker in a government agency does not find it illogical to come late to the office because he or she had to attend a morning prayer meeting. An entire sector of an MDA could be involved in series of prayer meetings to facilitate the payment of arrears by the government. A cashier in an office in the pay office could keep customers waiting because he or she had to read the Bible or go to the mosque to pray. A director can equally refuse to see important visitors or attend meetings because of some religious functions. Thus, with the ascendancy of religiosity, efficiency in the public service had witness some dimension of decline. Religion further enhance the perception of government work as a sinecure, a place where one goes to just sign the register and then leave immediately to pursue some other productive responsibilities like evangelism.

The task of rethinking the institutional framework and dynamics of the public service, as the most efficient machinery for getting the Nigerian state to perform effectively, has been my forte for many years. and it has become increasingly clear to me for a long time that the public service suffers from a religious malaise that further complicates its optimal functionality in achieving an efficient service delivery that smoothly backstops Nigeria’s democratic governance experiment. In confronting this issue, one need engage necessarily with the attempt, in the literature, to separate religiosity from spirituality. In this regard, religiosity is blamed for all the negative sides of religious manifestations like terrorism, bad work ethic, religious rivalries and stereotyping, and so on. On the other hand, spirituality is taken to consist of the type of openness that sees all humans as one under God. Spirituality, that is, contrasts to the kind of absolute certainty which the Abrahamic religions holds that they are the sole custodian of the nature of God, and everyone else is an infidel. It is this type of fundamentalist dogmatism that gets others killed in the name of religion. Thus, the big vision of spirituality breaks down religious walls.

However, while we can concede that spirituality holds the ace in enabling us to achieve spiritual capital, we must be careful in throwing away religiosity. This is because being religious possesses a lot of substantive meaning for people, and especially Nigerians who are toiling under the burden of underdevelopment and suffering. While spirituality may be tending towards the abstract for most people, it is to religions and all its rituals and liturgies that people find succor and comfort in trying times. It is therefore safe to argue that while spirituality is intimately related to religion, religion does not define the whole essence of spirituality. In other words, you can be spiritual while being religious, and yet you can also be spiritual without being religious. I prefer to argue that religiosity and spirituality are mutually reinforcing dynamics. With this understanding, we can then begin the task of achieving the required spiritual capital—added to the other required political, social and generational capitals—that Nigeria urgently needs to rethink its postcolonial development realities.

Spiritual capital defines the entire body of spiritual insights, paradigms, axioms and dialogues that enable people with different and even seemingly incompatible faiths and religions to work together for a greater purpose. Modeling a development agenda founded on spiritual capital must begin from Nigeria’s understanding of its secular foundation and the requirement of ecumenism. Section 10 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution states boldly, even if not clearly, that the Nigerian state shall not have or profess any state religion. But that is as far as its claim to secularity goes. There is no stated philosophical reflections and legal contents as to the imperatives of secularity for the understanding of Nigeria. This is one of the reasons why it has been difficult for the Nigerian state to respond to severe challenges by its own constituents and even non-state actors that challenge its supposedly secular basis. Thus, in 1999, Zamfara became the first state to test the bounds of Nigeria’s federalism and secularity when she instituted Sharia Islamic law as the official legal framework in the state.

On the other hand, ecumenism serves as a theoretical and practical points of engagement that allows several religions to relate with one another on non-conflictual but spiritual levels. The first leg in this ecumenical understanding is to define religion in terms of its most minimal content—as a framework of relationship between humans and the sacred that helps human beings to generate ideas of truth and of meaning necessary for coming to terms with their existence and with the necessity of social harmony. At this minimal level, we are on very safe grounds because each of the religions and their claims can be reduced to those values and ethos that enhance human relations—love, peace, unity, justice, tolerance, generosity, loyalty, dutifulness, hard work, and many more. The second leg of this ecumenical understanding is inter-faith or interreligious relationship. Interreligious dialogue essentially refers to the organized framework that facilitates encounters and negotiations between people coming from different religious worldviews and traditions. Interreligious dialogue differentiates between being knowledgeable about some other religious groups and their theological frameworks and dynamics, and being exposed to those other religious groups and their histories and traditions.

Religious conflicts happen because adherents of one religion assume either too little or too much about the other religions and their practices without any attempt at deliberately seeking dialogue and relationships. Spiritual capital is therefore founded on the imperative of all religions relating together because they all either stand or fall together if the Nigerian state continues to fail to make good on its developmental aspirations of making life better for Nigerians. Poverty and unemployment have no ethnic or religious affiliations. Those who are poor are equalized at the level of socioeconomic debasement that leaves out their religious or even theological beliefs. Yet, the greatest advantage of calibrating a framework of spiritual capital is that it provides a foundation around which the spiritual energies wasted in futile religious antagonisms are channeled into fruitful development relations, especially with the institutional and structural apparatuses of the Nigerian state in ways that enhances the aspirations of good governance. Imagine that a Christian and a Muslim working together would focus on the demands of the office rather than on the rivalry as to who should be the next director. Imagine that a Christian and a Muslim would both collaborate in fishing out all manifestations of bureaucratic corruption rather than perpetuating it.

The success of a framework of spiritual capital in Nigeria’s development reflection is hinged on an institutional reform of the existing inter-faith relationship. In 1999, the leaderships of the Christian and Islamic communities came together to form the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) to provide a platform for dialogue on religious conversation and discourse that would douse the religious tension and conflicts experienced everywhere across Nigeria. The challenge now is to integrate more institutional dynamics that will broaden NIREC’s capacity to midwife a religious crisis-free Nigeria. One useful way should be a curricula intervention. The elements of spiritual capital could properly be mainstreamed into the existing curriculum especially in Civic Education. This will serve as an elemental avenue for reaching into the impressionable minds of the Nigerian children and youth about the significant spiritual elements in all these relating religions which Nigeria critically require to forge ahead, and which in turn will rebound on the development capacity of the state to transform their lives.

One of the lasting influences of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930) is to convince us that beneath all the rituals and liturgical paraphernalia of religions, we can find some definite spiritual capital that could be conducive to the developmental purposes of the modern state. At least, as he successfully argued, the protestant work ethic of frugality, hard work and investment led to the emergence of capitalism.

*Olaopa is Executive Vice-Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), Ibadan