By Tabia Princewill
The practice of putting individuals before institutions is one of the many issues preventing Nigerians from benefiting from the justice, equality and fairness which their global counterparts take for granted. Instead, excuses, in Nigeria, are made to explain why certain rules don’t apply to certain people, or why “human rights”, genteel treatment apply only to the rich and not to the poor.
It was Martin Luther King Jnr day in the United States on Monday. His legacy holds many lessons for countries such as Nigeria where segregation and oppression based on wealth, religion and ethnicity are the order of the day. He said, “the time is always right to do what is right”.
Part of the Nigerian propensity for delusion, our collective refusal to face reality, or the part we play in either creating or sustaining our own problems, is unfortunately encouraged by our religious leaders (both Christian and Muslim) who would rather it seems, encourage the ignorance of the masses than push Nigerians to think deeply about issues.
A mind that thinks critically would be quick to realise how curious (some might say unjust) it is that the benefits paid for by church congregations (luxury cars, mansions, private jets) belong exclusively to the church hierarchy, while most worshippers wallow in poverty. The idea, in fact, that one needs to “pay” for blessings, entering into a transactional arrangement with God, is curious at best, a corruption of the very idea of faith and blessings bestowed freely not because of us or our actions but because of God’s grace and mercy.
Was Jesus a capitalist or an entrepreneur? He gave away bread and fish, he didn’t sell them! Enter now the Financial Reporting Council act which sought to promote good governance, best practices in NGOs (under which churches are classified) and the private sector.
Virtually no church or religious organisation in Nigeria accounts for its funds. Do members get to see these institutions’ income statements? Do they know what assets are owned by the church? Are these assets separate from the personalproperties and resources of individual clerics? How exactly are funds managed and spent? Abroad, citizens are protected from rapacious individuals: it is not assumed that attending a church or a mosque guarantees a person will be honest or well behaved. In fact, the outward impression of holiness is the perfect cover to commit unlawful acts, all over the world. Every day one reads about cases of rape or child molestation committed by would-be pastors, in our own society where fraudsters pass themselves off as lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc. and practise without any degrees or certification, undetected.
Who is to say everyone is what they initially seem? This is why laws exist, to protect citizens from the predatory instincts of their fellow man. Therefore, in other climes,churches, like any other organisation, whether secular or religious, operate with a board of trustees as well as checks and balances. Are religious leaders in Nigeria accountable to their congregation or followers?
The practice, more often than not, is to act like a despot, or to position oneself as the be all and end all of an organisation, encouraging sycophancy and cult-like hero worship. It isn’t “witchcraft” to question what happens to tithes, offerings, pledges etc. Despite the huge amounts at their disposal, how come Nigeria has next to no free schools sponsored by religious organisations, unlike what obtained in the past?
Blindly following the orders of certain pay masters, we decided to see the FRC law as an attempt at oppressing Christianity by some would-be fanatic Muslims.
The day we cease to see everything in terms of North vs. South, Muslims vs. Christians, politicians would have lost their hold over us for good. We don’t realise in Nigeria, that every one of our archaic, unproductive ideas about ethnicity and religion exists for someone else’s benefit (the political class). We cannot push for more accountability and transparency in politics and ignore religious institutions which whether we like to admit it or not, often act as a conduit for illicit funds.
That aside, isn’t it interesting that US laws and rulings (e.g. Spencer v. World Vision) define a church as “a religious corporation, association, or . . . society . . . organised for a religious purpose (that) does not engage primarily or substantially in the exchange of goods or services for money beyond nominal amounts”?In the US, state laws regulate the internal affairs of all non-profits, including churches (the question of whether Nigerian churches would pass as non-profits in the US is up for debate).
The likes of Mobolaji Bank-Anthony (the late philanthropist who donated so much to the famous Igbobi orthopaedic hospital in Lagos) are few and far between in today’s Nigeria. Church leaders in particular who are allegedly billionaires in foreign currency, contribute mostly to politics, their investment in schools and hospitals is hardly ever free.
There seems to be a net difference between religion and charity today, which is ironic. There was allegedly pressure in some quarters for President Buhari to remove the immediate past Executive Secretary of the FRC, Jim Obazee, who sought to enforce a new rule limiting leadership terms at the head of not-for-profits to 20 years. When will we in Nigeria stop personalising laws?
It is hard to believe the law was aimed at “ousting” any church leader. It is high time in Nigeria we learn to be objective and debate the benefits (or lack thereof) of laws without personalising them, all to protect individuals. Spear heading an organisation is a mission, a service on behalf of the community.
Imagining that one can do so honestly, creatively and productively beyond 20 years “in office”, when one becomes jaded, worn-out, corrupted, moreover, by the concerns of daily life (and why not, by earthly pleasures and accolades), is naïve and putting too much faith in human nature.
No matter the man or woman, 20 years at the helm of any organisation, would giveanyone the confidence (not to say the arrogance) in a hypocritical, sycophantic society such as ours, to bypass any and all rules.
The US Constitution says “congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, meaning, it is God we must adore, not the men called to serve him. To everyone who continues to believe real change in Nigeria is possible, be inspired by MLK’s words:”we must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.”
The destabilising, confusing statements of influential men and women in Nigeria should no longer come as a surprise. The question now is what will we do about them? Why would a Pastor say: “if God’s plan is for Nigeria to break up, he should do it”.The context or situation is irrelevant. Rather than condone Nigeria’s division, men like Oyedepo should have made it their business to tell truth to power long ago.
Political corruption, greed, a lack of social investments are the cause of militancy and religious killings in Nigeria. Nigeria must be the only country where religious leaders entertain the delusions of politicians and sell their destructive narrative rather than stand on the side of the people.
Censorship is dangerous in a democracy but since we cannot count on the wisdom of public figures who should know better, well-meaning Nigerians must find a way to stop politicians and their accomplices from sullying impressionable minds, after all, who is providing a counter-narrative? What does FFK gain by promoting Biafra?
The South-east complaining of marginalisation should rather ask their leaders for accounts of the funds meant to develop the region. FFK recently applauded the “martyrs” of the 1966 coup, which introduced military rule to Nigeria no less, and the ethnic colouration of his discourse didn’t go unnoticed.
When will we rid ourselves of the agents of ethnic discord in our midst? Politicians playing a game of relevance take advantage of the gullible nature of some Nigerians.
Tabia Princewill is a strategic communications consultant and public policy analyst. She is also the co-host and executive producer of a talk show, WALK THE TALK which airs on Channels TV.