Francis Anekwe: Norms For Oath-of-Office In Nigerian Democracy
Throughout the civilized world, public office-holders such as Presidents or State governors use the Holy Book on the occasions of their swearing-in ceremonies – (the Bible for Christians and Quran for Muslims). Some, however, use the text of their nation’s Constitution. These are the norms Nigerian politicians elected into public offices have been using till date. There are acceptable norms, cultural ethos and values practiced throughout the world where modern democracy is the order of the day. Experts and students of political science as well as historians of cultural anthropology all agree on this cultural fact. None of them has advocated or rather told us that there was a time in human history public office holders used fetish deity on the occasions of swearing-in ceremonies into elected political offices.
In the same context, experts and students of African culture and traditional religion have never told us that in traditional African society, community leaders and college of elders were sworn-into their functions with fetish deities. Rather what we know is that in many traditional African societies, leadership is community-based and people-oriented. There is a laid down tradition and customs for the choice of community leaders and their empowerment as handed down by the ancestors. The elders as the custodians of the community tradition and customs exercise this function of choosing and empowering the emerging community leader in the presence of all. This is often done at the village square under the palaver-tree with the participation of all, old and young, men and women, including children. It is never done in secret or in a shrine of a deity or debia (medicine-man or even chief-priest). Traditional African culture or religion is not conceptualized as a draconian metaphor. Rather African culture and traditional religion are seen as societal tradition and worldview which promote harmonious co-existence and good relationship among people living in a given community or society. This is because African Traditional Religion (ATR) is a tolerant and harmonious religion, not punitive or vindictive one.
This brings us to the main trust of the present article. Nowadays, Nigeria’s political landscape appears to be increasingly becoming once again, more amusing than ever. This, however, is not an amusement that brings relief or hope to the people. Rather it is a continued indication that all is not well with Nigeria’s current socio-political ecology. It is an indication that most of those currently occupying the seat-of-power in the nation’s political scene are yet to marry governance with intellectual rigor. The loose statements coming out from the mouth of some of our highly placed political office-holders these days is a sign that a good number of them lack the average intellectual requisite for political leadership of a complex country such as ours. Otherwise, how do we explain the manner most of our politicians and public-office holders have become famous these days in making loose utterances even in sensitive issues in which these politicians are often not experts or familiar.
The worrisome aspect of all this is that such loose and unfounded utterances by politicians in high places are made often without much reflection of their long-term consequences. One may even say that the politicians who utter these loose and misguided words do so consciously, perhaps, with the sole aim of misleading and deceiving the poor masses for selfish ends! If this is so, it is very unfortunate.
The most disturbing aspect of it all is that such sensitive and loose utterances often come from a highly placed political office-holder, like governor of a state or federal minister, as the case may be. This was the case recently in a statement accredited to Rochas Okorocha, Governor of Imo State, Nigeria.
Governor Okorocha was recently reported to have said that Nigerian politicians should be sworn-into offices with ‘African’ deities and not with the Bible or Quran, which according to him, are too merciful and forgiving. The governor also equated fetishism with African culture and said, inter alia: “People that go outside their culture have automatically lost their identity.”
Governor Okorocha made the above statement in Abuja few days ago during the quarterly public lecture of the National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO). According to the Governor:
“The Bible and Quran are too merciful. That is why some of us (politicians) do things without conscience knowing that God is merciful and forgiving.”
Going further, Governor Okorocha also added:
“We can fight corruption culturally in the sense that politicians should be sworn into office with deities. These deities don’t have mercy on anyone once they go contrary to its standard.”
The implication of the above statement of Governor Okorocha is that at their swearing-in ceremonies as public-office holders, Nigerian politicians should submit themselves to the Devil rather than to the God revealed in the Bible. Again, the governor’s statement implies that those politicians who swear on the God revealed in the Bible do so deceitfully, since they had already sold their souls and consciences to the Devil. Another implication of the Governor’s statement is his belief that Africans have no sense of God who is merciful and forgiving but rather of fetish deities in the satanic world of punitive vendetta and deceit.
Furthermore, the governor appears to be equating African Traditional Religion and believe in the One-Supreme God who is Creator and Sustainer of the universe, with deities and fetishism. The governor’s statement negates the fact that African concept of God has found its fulfillment in the Christian God revealed in the Bible. The God, who is the Creator of the universe as recorded in the Book of Genesis and worshipped in African Traditional Religion, is the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He is the God revealed in Jesus Christ and in the Bible.
The novelty of Christianity in this regard, is that through the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ, God-made-man, humanity has come to know who God is, the One-True God who is the Father of us all, participate in His inner-life, the Trinitarian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Therefore, through his speech cited above, Governor Okorocha may not be aware of the fact that what he was saying in essence is that Nigerian politicians on assumption of public-offices should abandon their Christian God and give themselves and consciences to the Devil. This is the crux of the matter!
Since Governor Okorocha confesses publicly of being a Christian, and Christianity is also my own religion, my take on him in this article is inspired by the above implications of his statement which centers principally, on his choice of fetish deities instead of the God revealed in the Holy Scripture, in swearing in politicians for public offices in Nigeria. My take on him is also based on the fact that both of us come from the same background of African tradition and culture. However, from all look of things, it is obvious that I do not share his view of advocating fetish deity instead of the Christian God to Nigerian politicians and public office-holders for oath-of-office. I do not also advocate such a thing at all for anybody! Neither do I share Governor Okorocha’s view, his transformation of fetish deity into an African culture. True and authentic African culture and traditional religion have nothing to do with worship of deities and fetishism.
Here some questions readily suggest themselves: Why is it that Governor Okorocha who made use of the Bible on the two occasions he was sworn-in as governor, could today make such round-table condemnation of his Christian faith through his radical U-turn against the basic source of the Christian religion, the Holy Bible and God? Put in another way: What is it that has made Governor Okorocha recommend fetishism and worship of deities for politicians in Nigeria? Moreover, how did the governor arrive at his conclusion that God and African culture are enemies? The question is: “Does culture mean Godlessness, heartless, and mercilessness?” Again, how did Governor Okorocha arrive at his conclusion, which seems to suggest that ‘African traditional religion and cultural worldview on mercy is devoid of God, that Africans have no sense of mercy, forgivingness or love?’
In what follows, I shall attempt to respond to some of these questions inherent in Governor Okorocha’s speech cited above. Since what is at stake is the question of justice and judgement, we shall begin with a brief overview of the biblical teaching on “the Holy Spirit and Justice in the World.” Thereafter we shall provide a bird’s eye view of “what is culture” in order to show that African culture has nothing to do with fetish deity worship and punitive vendetta as Governor Okorocha’s speech seems close to suggest. We shall conclude the article with a brief allusion to traditional African concepts of “mercy” by showing how the African teachings on God and harmonious community living or sharing are ways the Providence had prepared the forbears of the continent for the reception of the Christian faith on God, mercy and forgiveness through the Gospel proclamation.
The Holy Spirit and Justice in the World
In an earlier article published in this my column, I spoke of an alternative story, a “new world order”, which Jesus Christ inaugurated for us through his teaching, passion, death and crucifixion on the Cross. In that article, we referred to the gospel story, the meeting of Jesus with the disciples of John the Baptist who asked him: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus’ answer was:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame work, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who is not scandalized of me” (Mt 11:2-6; Lk 7:18-23).
Through his preaching, public ministry, death on the Cross and resurrection, Jesus Christ changed and replaced the old order of rancor, vengeance and condemnation with mercy, forgiveness and love. He provided us with a new “constitution” so that justice and mercy would follow. In this way, he inaugurated a new “new constitution” of love, mercy and forgiveness for all humanity. It is under this new environment shaped by God’s mercy, forgiveness, justice, and offer of salvation through Jesus Christ that we now live and interact with one another and the world in general. This is the condition, under which we be judged and saved on the last day through Christ. It is the new story or rather “new world order” Jesus inaugurated through his life, ministry, and especially, passion and death on the Cross.
This brings us to the heart of the argument – the Holy Spirit and justice in the world. The Gospel of John speaks of a further task of the Holy Spirit: he must convince the world about sin, justice and judgment (cf. John 16:8). Jesus himself explains the meaning of this affirmation. Sin is the sin of not-believing, of refusing to believe in the One that has been sent by the Father for the salvation of the world.
Justice is the following: God has glorified the Holy-One who has been unjustly condemned to death by men. And judgment refers to a definitive condemnation of Satan, the judgment of God upon the prince of this world. We can notice the difference between convincing about the sin of men and condemning the prince of this world. While the former does not necessarily lead to a definitive condemnation, the latter instead, regarding Satan is final. The sin of men is the remediable sin. In fact, God has not sent his Son “to condemn the world, but so that the world may be saved through him” (cf. John 3:17).
However, in spite of this clear fact, also for men there exists an irremediable and unforgivable sin, called “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (Mathew 12:31ff; Mark 3:28ff; Luke 12:10). This blasphemy consists in “refusing to accept salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit, operative in virtue of the sacrifice on the Cross.” If blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is irremediable, it is so because of its very nature. In fact, it means “a radical refusal to accept this remission, of which he (the Holy Spirit) is the intimate dispenser and which presupposes a real conversion, which He operates in conscience.”
This specific task of the Holy Spirit, to convince the world about sin, has Christological imprint; that is, men’s fundamental sin is the sin of not wanting to accept Jesus Christ as the Savior, the Son of God, the One sent, par excellence, by God the Father. To convince the world about this sin means to convince humanity about the need to convert and to accept redemption and salvation as God’s gift. The Holy Spirit has therefore the task to make men’s eyes converge upon Jesus Christ, to open their mind and their heart, so that they may welcome Jesus as their Savior. It is according to this Christological insight that the Holy Spirit’s fundamental mission can be interpreted. The centrality of Christ and his salvific mystery clearly appears in the action of the Holy Spirit who is present and acting in the heart of the single persons and of the community of the faithful (cf. Luke 1:41-45; 2:26-32).
In the rising Church, the action of the Holy Spirits proves to be particularly important and efficacious. To the apostles the Holy Spirit gives the strength necessary for them to be able to be witnesses to Christ, as he wished (cf. Acts 1:8; 2:14-36; 4:8; 11-12; 6:5,10; 7; 7:35 etc.). One can easily see how the Holy Spirit’s action is always linked, whether directly or indirectly, with the person of Christ and his Paschal mystery, that are the principal object of the apostles preaching and at the center of the life of the Christian communities (cf. Acts 9:17-22; 13,2; 1 Corinthians 12:3).
The implication of all this for us today in Nigeria is a call to prioritize love of one another in our human relations and promote culture of equal justice to all, based on our shared common humanity and dignity as children of One True God, who is the Creator of us all. The world and humanity redeemed by Jesus Christ through his death on the Cross and resurrection is founded on God’s offer of love, mercy and forgiveness. This is the Christian vision of the world and humanity. Anything otherwise, is not of the gospel or Christian witness.
In other words, the era of justice through impunity and vendetta is over. We are today living in a redeemed world and humanity through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. In the new dispensation, we are daily challenged to always acknowledge and confess openly the place of God and his salvific work in our lives. It is our denial or rather lying about what God has achieved for us all through the mystery of Jesus Christ on Cross that the Bible calls the ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’ – referred to as an unpardonable sin by Jesus Christ himself.
This is because the specific work of the Holy Spirit is to awaken in us, in our hearts and minds what God has achieved for us all for our salvation through Jesus Christ. The refusal to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds for conversion and acceptance of Jesus Christ as the Savior and Self-Revelation of God, is described by the gospel as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
African Culture and Christianity
Governor Okorocha’s speech has also implications for our understanding of African culture and traditional religion, since he seems to project a deformation of true African religiosity and spirituality. Again, African traditional religion and culture have nothing to do with fetishism or deity worship. Rather the essence of African tradition and culture in this regard, revolves around our reverence to our elders who are the custodians of the tradition and customs as handed down from the ancestors. In other words, African tradition emphasizes great reverence to the “ancestral inspired” words of the elders. The words of the elders, directed by the tradition and customs laid down by the ancestors are abiding rule of life, a rule that must be repossessed by the living, for upon them depend their welfare and wholeness.
In other words, the respect, which the Africans accord to words of their elders, is no mere customary exercise. Rather it is part of the general framework of their respect to their elders themselves and ancestors. It is therefore religious and sacred. The gestures and the words from the elders enacted through ritual and the African’s effort to conform his or her conduct to the ancestors’ rule and conduct of life are life-and-death rule of conduct, guarantors of salvation, and a testament for posterity.
This African tradition should not be confused with fetishism or worship of deities. Rather it is the recognition of a particular role African cultural heritage plays in introducing our people to the mystery of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus told his disciples: “If you remain in my word, you will know the truth and gain life for yourself” (John 8:31-32). The disciples took seriously the words of the historical Jesus to them. The early Christians were able to discover a new source of life through their observance of the words of the crucified and risen Lord. The power of the last words of the man on the gibbet begins to impart life force in all its fullness to the disciples.
These are words of love and power he bequeaths, after death, to his disciples. It is precisely in his death and resurrection, with its soteriological meaning, that Jesus transcends the last words of our dying elders or ancestors. This means that the sapiential words of our elders, when evaluated both from the Christian and African perspectives, is a divine bond between the living and the dead, bond of vital union, life force, or divine power. It is a bond that sustains mutual interaction and sharing of life. In Christian theology, it is a bond of the Holy Spirit. For us Christians, this divine life of the Spirit is conveyed by the risen Christ to the believing community.
What is culture?
Culture is difficult to define because quite often it means different things to different people. Even among cultural anthropologists there is yet no single definition of culture which is acceptable to all. For some authors, culture is “a historically transmitted pattern of meanings in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life”. Early scholars defined culture as that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of the society. They also viewed culture as cultivation, civilization or sophistication, and in terms of their intellectual enlightenment, music, classic education, artistic refinement.
However, later scholarship began to connote the characteristic mode of human life equiperated with civilization. Today, culture embraces the sum total of what an individual acquires from his society: a set of norms, standards, and associated notions and beliefs for coping with the various demands of life, shared by a group, learned by the individual from the society, and organized into a dynamic system of control. In sum, culture is defined today by many authors as the totality of the mode of human existence from the most insignificant things of life to the highest moral and spiritual values from birth to death. It embraces a people’s worldview; the way they think, decide, act, speak or talk; the way they organize themselves, interact, communicate, and celebrate; the way they work, pray, and worship; they way they eat, drink, play, dance and rest until death comes.
However, for the purpose of the present article, culture may be defined as a totality of those elements which distinguish a people from another. In this context, it embraces those things that the Africans have acquired as distinct people: symbols, conceptions, and values which they (Africans), by a process of enculturation, inherit and pass on, and through which they communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life. It includes African religious worldview, customs, values and habits, socio-political and economic organizations. In fact, all aspects of African life, both traditional and modern. This comprehensive notion of culture includes also a culture of development and human promotion; a culture of justice, peace, and human rights and the human person; a culture of politics, and a culture of religion and spirituality. For all these areas concern human beings and society; they have human dimensions. Therefore, to limit culture to only one aspect such as art or religion is to present a distorted picture of African culture.
All this implies that African culture and traditional religion should not be confused or even equated with worship of deities and fetish culture of impunity or vendetta.
African Concept of “Mercy”
The basic argument of Governor Okorocha in his speech we are examining is that the African tradition and culture have no sense of mercy, love and forgivingness. It is pertinent therefore that we look at the concept of “mercy” in African culture and traditional religion in its relation to the Christian teaching on the term.
As a Christian theme, however, the term “mercy” does not have a direct and immediate correlation as such in the languages of most of African traditional societies associated with the traditional religion. But it is evident that mercy is not something strange to the vocabulary or religious consciousness and cultures of the Africans of societies of the traditional religion. It is also evident that the term “mercy” in its general sense and significance is not something peculiar to the Christian thought alone. People of African traditional society, religion and culture have their own ways of expressing and practicing mercy according to their own understanding and reality. Mercy is both religious and cultural in its meaning and expression. It is a basic cultural and community expression of the society and therefore of the adherents of the traditional religion. In all however, mercy in African culture and traditional religion could be gleaned from: a) African concepts of God as creator and sustainer of universe, b) African worldview on community life, caring and sharing.
With regard to the first point, the keyword is that God cares for the people. God is the creator and origin of the universe and everything that inhabits the earth, including man and woman. God not only created the universe but he cares, and that is why he shares in every detail in the affairs of man and woman and the community through the mediation of the ancestors and God’s omnipresence. As often happens it is man who turns parts of the universe into sacred objects and deities, who uses other things for sacrifices and offerings, which also may turn him away from God. This is so because human person thinks of himself or herself as being at the center, he or she consequently sees the universe from that perspective. It is as if the whole world exists for human person’s sake.
Secondly, mercy in African worldview can be deduced from the concept of community among the people of the traditional religion. African Traditional Religion (ATR) is basically, community cultural religion. To say this is to recognize that as a traditional religion, ATR functions as the life wire of the community and its component families. In this sense, community just like the concept of family in African culture and traditional religion, includes all living members of these groups, besides being mystically connected to the ancestors and, through social pacts, to outsiders such as friends and others. Besides, membership within the community (clan or tribe), is usually brought about by special initiation rites showing thereby the sacredness of the community. In African societies of the traditional religion, living community system is seen as culturally binding. It is seen as a fact of life.
From the foregoing discussion, one can virtualize the cultural meaning of “mercy” in African culture and traditional religion. This is found in the people’s constant search to live in harmony with God, nature and with one another through community living as laid down by their ancestral traditions and customs. The breach of any aspect of the customs and traditions for harmonious living as laid down by the ancestors by any living member of the community or the community itself is regarded as an offence against the ancestral tradition and the Supreme God, the Creator of the universe. To appease God and the ancestors and restore harmony for the well-being of the individual or the community, sacrifice is needed. Sacrifice in this sense becomes the way adherents of the traditional religion use to welcome back an offender into its main fold after a period of estrangement caused by negligence or evil acts committed by the offender. This helps to remove the sense of guilt both for the offender and the community as a whole.
Again, the strong sense of the community in ATR helps to protect and take care of the weak and needy of the society as laid down by the traditions and customs of the people. This practice brings out the cultural sense of mercy as compassion, forgiveness, care and solidarity as virtualized in the way of life of adherents of African Traditional Religion.
In conclusion, one can say that it is absolutely, wrong to equate African culture and traditional religion with the worship of fetish deities. It is also not correct to equate the God revealed in the Bible with fetishism and worship of deities. To do so is to encourage syncretism and deformation of true and authentic African religiosity, which may pose serious danger to the ongoing process of inculturation in African Christianity. Worse still, such a distorted view of African culture and traditional religion may promote activities of charlatans of the New Religious Movements, who are today rapidly turning Christianity in Nigeria into a religion of workers and seekers of miracles.
The present Nigerian situation, the sorry state in which Christianity and Christians have found themselves today, should inspire any convinced Nigerian Christian to faith commitment in the power of God revealed in Jesus Christ. One way of doing this is to reaffirm daily, our profession of the Christian faith in the One-True God revealed in Jesus Christ. Our profession of faith in Jesus Christ, the Word of God recorded in the Holy Scripture, brings with it a commitment on the part of the believer.
Our incorporation into the mystery of Jesus Christ and His Church begins with the reception of the sacrament of Baptism by the individual believer. However, the individual’s faith and profession of it is to develop, grow and mature through “confession, decision, and practice of the faith itself, which unites the two.” The three, “confession, decision and practice of the faith”, go together since they are integral. It is not enough for one to claim that he is a believer just by a mere confession without personal decision for total commitment to the cause of the Christian faith and praxis. It is also not enough to make a decision without confession and practice of the faith. Moreover, it would amount to highest act of human deceit for one to claim that he is a Christian but does not believe sincerely in his heart of Christian teaching and practice of it, the rule of life as taught by the Gospel and the Church.
Finally, Governor Okorocha, perhaps, may not have realized that by suggesting that politicians be sworn-into public offices with fetish deities instead of the Bible (Holy Book), he is invariably advocating replacing God with fetishism in Nigeria’s socio-political landscape. Also, equating African culture and traditional religion with fetish deities is like propagating deformation of true African religiosity and cultural ethos.
In today’s Nigeria, when Christianity and Christians are facing a serious threat from radical Islam, terrorists groups such as Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen militia, with the suspected connivance of the present federal government, it is expected that Christians in public offices should demonstrate their firm faith in Jesus Christ and help save Christianity from total eclipse in Nigeria. The fact is that our Christian religion and worship of One-True God revealed in Jesus Christ, is seriously under attack in Nigeria today. The radical Islam has posted the Islamization of Nigeria as an objective to be achieved at all cost. Accept or reject it, this is the situation of things today in Nigeria.
Francis Anekwe Oborji is a Roman Catholic Priest. He lives in Rome where he is a Professor of missiology (mission theology) in a Pontifical University. He can be reached by email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.