Campus Babalawos and Cyber Ritualists

ENGAGEMENTS: With Chidi Amuta


As a young teacher at Ife, one of the climactic moments of my career was the rise of  Prof. Wande Abimbola as Vice Chancellor. A modern tertiary institution founded on a futuristic vision of national greatness was to be led by a scholar steeped in Yoruba tradition with its pillar of superstition and ancestor worship. A renowned cultural scholar and accomplished traditionalist, Professor Wande Abimbola was undoubtedly a leading authority in traditional religions as well a devout follower of Yoruba ancestral divinities. Some accused him of being an Ifa priest, a charge that he never denied, but instead tended to affirm by often prefacing his scholarly presentations with short incantations and brief divinations. 

Some feared that his ascension to the vice chancellorship of the university would dilute the national character of the university and its modernist thrust and ethos. To his credit, however, Wande Abimbola, though a Yoruba native son, served out his term without reducing the stature of the university or localising its cosmopolitan cultural orientation.

For many of us then, the University of Ife was the perfect synthesis of a certain fidelity to national cultural authenticity and the urgent need for national development and modernisation. The modernising instinct at Ife was rooted in the belief in cutting edge research in science and technology as well as a cultural rootedness in its symbolic location. No wonder, Ife was designated a centre for the then national nuclear power programme. In fact, an experimental reactor was in the process of being built there hence my friend Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, then Foreign Minister, could boast of the imminence of the black bomb as Nigeria’s answer to the mania of nuclear power threats that saw Pakistan, Libya and even South Africa at various stages of joining the nuclear club.

In many ways, Ife was powered by a certain fidelity to the guidance of its founding motto: For Learning and Culture. The learning aspect was global and perfectionist in the pursuit of excellence in diverse fields. Ife assembled some of the best scholars from all over the world in a community of learning that respected excellence and diversity. The culture aspect was animated by a certain closeness to the symbolism of Ife itself as the spiritual epicenter and fountain of the Yoruba nation as one of the main hubs of Nigeria’s cultural ecosystem. The University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) was simultaneously national and international. Our humanities and social sciences were animated by  lively ideological fights dictated by the reality of Cold War partisanship. Those arguments animated academic debates and also made the cold beer sessions at the Staff Club unforgettable.

I must confess from the onset that on matters that concern the University of Ife or Obafemi Awolowo University, I am not likely to be totally dispassionate.  I am a proud alumnus of that great institution. But on one matter, I am pretty certain. Ife remains a centre of important learning in our country. Those of us who attended that university have not only distinguished ourselves in various fields nationally and globally, holding our own among the best in the most distinguished centres of learning and industry all over the world.

The current news from Ife is disheartening. A viral video doing the rounds of the social media has shown a parade of devotees of sundry traditional worship clad in all white and a motley other costumes invade the campus of the university in a protest mode. I understand the macabre parade is in aid of some matter that has nothing to do with either tradition, faith or culture. The media reports indicate that the strange protesters were indigenous Ife traditional worshippers who were on the campus to protest the recent appointment of the 12th Vice Chancellor of the institution. Media reports on the trouble at Ife are united in the common story strand.

In line with its extant traditions and processes, the university council duly selected one Professor Adebayo Bamire as the 12th Vice Chancellor of the University. Like his predecessors, Professor Bamire parades the full gamut of academic qualifications and the usual litany of publications, research and teaching records. His other 15 colleagues who vied for the position but failed to clinch the job were no less qualified. A university is first and foremost a meritocratic institution.

But in a rather dramatic development, one of the unsuccessful contenders in the vice chancellorship race, a Professor Rufus Adedoyin, has challenged the process that saw the emergence of Bamire as fraught with lack of fairness and irregularities. The aggrieved contender has petitioned the University’s Governing Council, alleging some procedural defects. It has been established that the petitioning professor came a distant ninth in the process that produced the new leadership. Apart from the unproven grounds of procedural irregularity, the grounds of protest has expanded to include the charge that the protesting Professor Adedoyin was discriminated against in the process because he happens to be “an Ife indigene.”

Therefore, without waiting for the outcome of the petition to the university’s governing council, the tools of protest have been expanded to include a violent procession of worshippers of some traditional Ife cults and ancient sects. A violent pageant of juju priests and worshippers have invaded the campus of the Obafemi Awolowo University. They came armed with charms, amulets, cudgels, machetes and other dangerous weapons to upset the peace and order of the campus. In addition to incantations and curses, the embarrassing ancestral train also inflicted injuries on innocent staff while damages to public property have been reported. The main thrust of their grouse is that Professor Bamire, the new vice chancellor, is not a native son of Ife. No one has however questioned the man’s academic credentials or other qualifications for the position. To the best of my knowledge, the university authorities have stood by the transparency and fairness of the process that produced the new vice chancellor. Beyond the purely meritocratic requirements of the due process required in the selection of a vice chancellor, there is no indication that indigeneship and nativity are part of the qualifications for vice chancellorship in this or any other Nigerian federal university.

The world outside is not too interested in how the Ile Ife academic community resolves its internal leadership tussle. It is purely an internal administrative ritual. What is a matter of urgent national interest and curiosity is the unusual turn of events in what is ordinarily a routine leadership selection matter. Matters of administrative or procedural irregularity are best settled following the due process of petition, investigation and remedial resolution. I am not aware that our federal universities have in their statutes any prescription requiring that their vice chancellors should be selected from among scholars from the immediate catchment locality or community. The location of a university in one’s village does not automatically entitle a son or daughter of that village to the headship of the institution. 

Nor does the Nigerian regressive political rhetoric of ‘turn by turn’ have any place in the hallowed precincts of a university campus where merit in its purest definition should guide appointments especially into academic leadership positions. However, as a former teacher, I am aware that the vast majority of junior and intermediate staff in each federal university where I taught were drawn from the local communities. I am also not aware of any statutory or other requirement that the headship of these institutions should be drawn from among persons of any religious, geographical or cultural persuasion.

The most disconcerting aspect of the recent happenings at Ife is perhaps its symbolism for present day Nigeria. The embarrassment has spread to opinion and political leaders. The Governor of Ondo State, Mr. Akeredolu has cried out against the sacrilege at Ife. So has Wole Soyinka, himself a former Ife teacher. Here is a university, a citadel of learning and modernity in an enlightened part of the country suddenly overrun by the forces of ancient ancestry. The forces of ancient superstition in their most undiluted form have been invoked by ambitious academic politicians. The powers of ancient gods and deities have been summoned to wreak evil repercussions on enemies of the soil on which the university is planted. That these ancient customs and their agents are being summoned to fight the cause of a learned professor is indicative of how far Nigeria’s regression has gone. 

The Ife incident is by no means isolated. It in fact contains the major elements of the current Nigerian malaise. The basic impulses behind the actions at Ife are coming from a larger Nigerian national canvas or moral derailment. This is a nation in which the patronage of all manner of esoteric cults and faiths has drowned all pretensions to modernity. This is a country in which even the high priesthood of Christianity visit juju priests and fortune tellers at night to enrich their prophetic ensemble.

Our politicians are devout Christians doing the rounds of Pentecostal crusade locations in the day and reverting into Ogboni cultists at night. Our leaders are clients of sleek worldly pastors in the morning and patrons of ritual fetish cultists at night. Investigations into recent episodes of politics related corruption revealed the allocation of hundreds of millions of naira for ‘spiritual services’.

Our politicians of a particular persuasion spend millions of dollars annually to import marabouts from places as far away as Mauritania, Egypt, Yemen and Istanbul. A particular leading figure once confessed that he imported a barefoot Buhdist monk from the Himalayas who walked all the way to Nigeria to reside in his study for years to tell him in advance what might happen to him on a daily basis. After years when the monk had exhausted his financial  quarry, it was time to depart. The Nigerian politician demanded a parting prediction. He got one: You Shall Live Long! Maybe he was right as the politicians, now retired is approaching age 90! The monk probably forgot that he had “trekked” to Nigeria. He requested and got a first class ticket home!

A frightening dimension to our regression into the depths of superstition and the occult is its relative popularity among our youth. It is not just the youth out on the urban streets or in the rural areas or the ones who did not go to school. On most of our university campuses, students have recently graduated from the mindless violence of cultism in the early 2000s to the present viral popularity of cyber crimes. Nearly every Nigerian university campus now has a cyber crime cell of students. The EFCC and other security agencies have a hard time keeping track of these groups of “Yahoo Yahoo” undergraduates.  Among these students and youth is the belief that cyber scams or 419 are better instruments for attaining instant wealth than the ancient grind of study and excruciating  hard work that we older generations endured to get to this junction. The successful cyber scammers on campus have outlandish automobiles, troves of cash and assorted designer wares to show for their valiant exploits.

To be a cyber criminal is to have advanced mastery of information technology. This is one step above basic scientific knowledge. To be a master of cutting edge internet know how and still be so backward as to believe in the efficacy of the superstitious world of rituals and the occult is the defining puzzle of modern day Nigeria. And yet our future is founded on this anachronism because it is now the home ground of our youth. 

As things stand today, the dividing line between cyber crimes and involvement in real organized criminal activity is hazy. A new gruesome logic has followed. A gruesome logic has emerged that says the chances of success in cyber crimes and instant wealth are increased by a bit of human sacrifice. Consequently, youth are kidnapping and killing their mates to harvest body parts for sale to fetish agents who promise them instant prosperity. This is why of late the police has had far too many cases of ritual murder and harvesting of body parts cases. No one has had the courage to expose the arrant foolishness of believing that there is any connection whatsoever between ritual murder and wealth creation. The entire human organ trade and epidemic of ritual murders is based on the new currency of a culture of superstition. 

Worse still, as in the Ife university incident, a certain sense of sectional or nativist entitlement has created a nation in which the elite when beaten in the meritocratic contest for privileges and patronage at the national level quickly run back to their ancestral roots to demand those same privileges as rights of ancestry. They insist on positions that should accrue to their zone, tribe, ethnic group or faith. What follows is the failure of meritocracy and the systemic dilution of quality to please the mobs of tribe, faith and geo political nonsense. Its key drivers rejuvenate the powers of ancient customs and traditions and re-enact gruesome practices such as ritual murder for sacrifice in order to frighten their opponents with the sight of the blood of their innocent victims.

The nation suffers the consequences. First violence rules the waves. Human life is reduced to numbers on the front page of daily journals. A new paradigm of heroism is created. The politicians as hoodlum, patron of thugs and assorted touts is assumed to be normal in a new definition of normal that benumbs all rationality. The gunman, ‘known’ or ‘unknown’, becomes the national dread of everyman. Agents of death are waiting at the street corner to exact tributes or terminal justice.

Of all the damages done to our progress by the resurgence of all forms of arbitrariness, impunity and regression into ancient customs and superstition, the most lethal is the damage to the emergence of a scientific sensibility. The greatest marker of human progress is the transition from superstition to the scientific spirit. The logical relationship between cause and effect governed by the laws of logic and evidence is what distinguishes primitive societies from the modern ones. Evidence, observation, experimentation and inference is the logical sequence of the scientific mindset. The logic of human progress is the movement away from superstition and illogicality to the realm of science, of cause and effect  and of logic. Without the scientific spirit there is neither progress nor even justice based on the rule of law on which society and democracy are based. 

Nigeria’s future is caught in a tragic trap that looks more like self cancelling charmed circle straddled by three ominous agents. The politician leading us to a new world of modern development but who is also a patron of decadent superstitions from church, mosque and shrine. The professor of science who invites ancient juju priests to validate his academic credentials. The young internet wiz kid who is also a cyber criminal and ritual cultist. 

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