There is this interesting WhatsApp story of a drunkard who woke up one morning deeply repentant after a bitter fight with his wife the previous night. Intent on ameliorating the situation and turning a new leaf, the man took out the crate of beer he believed was responsible for his character flaw and started smashing the empty bottles. He smashed the first bottle saying, “You are the reason I fight with my wife every day!” He smashed the second bottle, “You are the reason I don’t love my children!” He smashed the third bottle, “You are the reason I don’t have a decent job to take care of my family!”
Apparently determined to exorcise the ghosts of all the demons that had conspired to wreck his home, the man directed his anger against the empty bottles of beer which were smashed one after the other. By the time he got to the tenth bottle, the man was confronted with a new situation that required rational thinking. The bottle was sealed, full and cold. After a moment of hesitation, the man took his decision: “You will have to stand aside”, he said to the bottle of beer that still had its liquid content intact, “I know you were not involved!”
There are several lessons we can take away from the action of a man who would rather wallow in self-deceit than take responsibility. We see that in the way our country is being managed at practically all levels by leaders who play to the gallery. But the citizens are also complicit because they are easily manipulated and those who hold the levers of powers understand that point so well. That can be glimpsed from the conversations going on in our country today. Despite the challenges that confront us, the future most Nigerians envisage does not go beyond the next election with all the discussions now about 2023 and which region (and religion) should produce what office. And when 2023 finally arrives, the topic will change to 2027 in an endless cycle of squabbles over inanities. But let me not get ahead of myself.
I was reminded of the drunkard story on Tuesday after reading a news report of how the Kano State Hisbah Board destroyed over 196,400 bottles of beer in its effort to ensure a “sane, peaceful and sharia-compliant society.” Represented by his deputy at the big ceremony, Governor Abdullahi Ganduje said, “In Islam, drinking of alcohol is strongly forbidden, being one of the backbones of committing sins, either big or small, and that has been highlighted at several places in the Holy Qur’an. Our Islamic scholars, religious and community leaders should join hands in the crusade against such social vices because the issue of taking alcohol is forbidden by both Islam and Christianity.”
Before I go to the essence of my intervention, it must be stated that this is the sort of hypocritical decisions that makes many to question the viability of our federal structure. The issue of Value Added Tax (VAT) proceeds is one of the strongest points being canvassed by proponents of restructuring the country and it is difficult to fault. It is also one of the arguments made by former Vice President and presidential candidate of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Atiku Abubakar before the last general election. “If a state is opposed to cattle tax or bicycle tax or alcohol tax, or pollution tax, for instance, it should not expect to share in the tax proceeds from those items,” Atiku said in 2017. But this intervention is not about the structure of the country or VAT but rather about the manner religion is being exploited by some political leaders.
In his lecture, ‘Morality and the State: The Nigerian Experience’ at the 21st convocation and investiture ceremony of the Nigeria Academy of Letters early last month, Emeritus Professor, Godwin Sogolo, FNAL, addressed some of these contradictions. He lamented that in Nigeria, the notion of the individual as a citizen, with rights and privileges, in relation to the state is not one that flows freely in people’s consciousness. “Nor is the state perceived as an agent with obligations to the individual. In most cases, the state is seen as the acquired property of powerful rulers, despite the pretentious romance with democratic institutions. The truth is that there is hardly any sense of obligation to the citizen, unless it becomes necessary as a means of holding on to power,” said Sogolo.
This is where religion comes in as a tool for political mobilization. In Nigeria, 95.5 percent of the respondents to a Gallop Poll conducted a few years ago said that religion was the principal essence of their being. Political leaders in our country know this very well and they exploit it for their selfish ends. When, for instance, in March 2017 there was a renewed outbreak of meningitis in the country with several victims in his state, the then Zamfara Governor Abdulazees Yari blamed it on the sin of fornication. “People have turned away from God and he has promised that ‘if you do anyhow, you see anyhow.’ That is just the cause of this outbreak, as far as I am concerned. There is no way fornication will be so rampant and God will not send a disease that cannot be cured. The most important thing is for our people to know that their relationship with God is not smooth. All they need to do is repent and everything will be alright,” he explained.
Yari of course knew that by placing the problem at the doorsteps of God, he could easily shirk his responsibility to the people. But deploying religion for politics is not restricted to the North. In 2017, the then Governor Rochas Okorocha built in the Imo State Government House a multi-billion Naira ‘Basilica’ where he used to preach and ‘anoint’ worshippers. At about the same time, Governor Nyesom Wike, who proclaimed Rivers as a “Christian State where God lives among his children”, also completed a Christian Ecumenical Centre. And in January last year, the foundation stone of an 8500-capacity worship centre in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. Speaking at the event, Governor Udom Emmanuel asked individuals and corporate bodies to join his government in building the centre that would serve as “an avenue for God to bless the people of the state.”
By imposing a theocratic order that pushes the responsibility for ‘blessing the people of the state’ to God as in Akwa Ibom or criminalises the sale of alcohol in Kano ‘to please God’, these governors are assured of support in a society where majority of the people are ever ready to die for the faith they proclaim, even if it does not reflect in their character and lifestyles. The interesting thing is that the same people who order the destruction of vehicles carrying alcohol in Kano may be sharing such drinks with friends in the privacy of their homes. It is the same with Christian governors who build expensive cathedrals in their government houses, to reinforce the unholy wedlock between the pulpit and the political podium.
As I wrote in my book, ‘Power, Politics and Death’, before every federal executive council session, prayers are always said by both Islamic and Christian adherents to commit deliberations into the hands of God, even when the outcome might have already been predetermined by the hands of men! This is a practice that is now common to both the public and private sectors in Nigeria. In some of the banks that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) have had to take over as a result of the greed of their CEOs in the past, there were daily corporate supplications to God before commencement of business. It didn’t matter that these corporate men and women were also playing ‘kalokalo’ with depositors’ funds.
We should all be worried about the growing importance of religion as a marker of identity and a tool for political exploitation in our country. While religion can indeed help to restore moral order, the experience of Nigeria has shown that it is actually being deployed in promotion of private interest. By invoking religious sentiments, the people are easily triggered to action in support of whatever cause the political leader seems to be pursuing. In a predominantly illiterate society, nothing can be more appealing than to be seen as ‘one of us’ by the masses.
The story of the drunkard and his bottles of beer with which I opened the page is very instructive. The man could pick and choose which bottle to destroy and which one to keep because it was all part of an elaborate scam to keep on deceiving himself that he was making the right choice. It is in the same way that Ganduje and fellow travellers across the country use religion to create the impression that they are moral and trustworthy, in a bid to hoodwink the people, regardless of their actual public conduct.
Meanwhile, being a moral police created by the instrumentality of the law, I have nothing against Hisbah and its mandate. My issue is with leaders who use religion not to advance public good but rather to attain political ends. To create the “sane, peaceful and sharia-compliant society” that Ganduje envisages for Kano, the one million children who, according to the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), go without education or prospect of one, would have to be taken off the streets. The thousands of young people that are hooked on codeine would also have to be weaned of drug and rehabilitated. The challenge of course is that it is difficult to invoke the name of God to mobilise for such causes. The key contradiction of the Nigerian state therefore is that while we operate a secular constitution, the state is run mostly by sectarian pretenders.
On the whole, the vice grip of religion on our collective consciousness as promoted by those in political authority is clearly an intentional diversion. Once majority of the people are fixated on the divine as the ultimate source of blessing or damnation, it relieves earthly leaders of the burden of responsibility and accountability. When pleasing God by punishing sins (for which only the poor are always caught) becomes the raison d’être, wealth and success become blessings from above, not a function of government policies that enable people to attain economic success. When stupendous wealth accrues to leaders and their families, it is also part of the ‘blessings from above’ while those who are rigged out of electoral victory will need to wait for their ‘turn’.
A system built on such fraud cannot for long endure.
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