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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Francis Anekwe Oborji: Achebe’s “Arrow of God” and Politicisation of Religion in Nigeria [MUST READ]

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Chinua Achebe’s novel, “Arrow of God”, dramatizes the traditional and effective pattern of challenging the politicization and manipulation of religion for whatever gain or interest. The novel is about the dangers of manipulation of religion in politics and power. The genre of Achebe’s “Arrow of God” is that it can be successfully used to denounce exploitative experts, politicians and priests, and, especially, to address the alleged agenda of Islamization and Fulanization of Nigeria under the present dispensation. Thus, “Arrow of God” has a lot of far-reaching consequence for Nigeria today.

In the first place, “Arrow of God” describes with flourish the need for flexibility, openness, and change in mediating the will of deities for the realization of community’s destiny. The novel is based on a historical event that occurred in Umuchu (renamed Umuaro by Achebe), a village-group in Anambra State, Eastern Nigeria. The local deity, Ulu (that “saved our fathers from the warriors of Abam”), was the symbol of benevolence for a united Umuaro. Ezeulu was the priest of Ulu. However, the phenomenal entry of White man onto the scene (colonial world of modernity) precipitated crisis in Umuaro.

Achebe crafted the story to demonstrate the implacability of change and the overriding need for individuals, the community and deities to adjust to change so that community’s destined course in life be realized.

Thus, modernity channeled by colonialism and Christianity challenged humans and divine beings. “The white man, the new religion, and the soldiers, the new road – they are all part of the same thing.” (“Arrow of God”, 97). The dramatis personae struggled to coherently interpret and adapt to change – an enterprise full of drama, irony and ambiguity.

In “Arrow of God”, we find the Igbo wisdom tradition that nourished Achebe’s African humanism for adjustment to change: “a man must dance the dance prevailing in his time.” This is in harmony with the foundational “ife kwulu if akwudebe ya” (“When Something stands, Something Else will stand beside it”).

Elochukwu E. Uzukwu, a Nigerian born African theologian and Spiritan Catholic priest, in a recent book, entitled, “God, Spirit, and Human Wholeness” (2012), made a theological re-appropriation of Achebe’s “Arrow of God.”. The author opines that Achebe’s “Arrow of God”, among other things, emphasizes the importance of multiplicity of centers of power, relationality, flexibility, respect for human person and human life, as well as the necessity for religious tolerance that Nigeria must not ignore in its present-day predicament as a nation state.

There is also Achebe’s “Arrow of God” relational structure of approaching reality and encountering divine. Something Achebe himself sees as a fair interpretation, not only of Igbo worldview, but also of much of traditional African societies. It is a worldview anchored on what Uzukwu would describe as “principles of duality and relationality in African culture and thought pattern.” It is a principle of dialogue for promoting mutuality in human co-existence that Africa needs today more than ever.  This principle is vividly, depicted in Igbo mythology and story about ‘Creation’ – how the ‘divine and human’ opinions were involved and enlisted in taking that ‘decision.’

And what is more, Chukwu Himself in all His power and majesty, did not make the Igbo by fiat. He held conversations with mankind. He talked with those archetypal men of Ndri (Ndi Eri) and Adama, and even enlisted their cooperation and good offices.” – Chinua Achebe’s “Arrow of God”, – cited in Elochukwu E. Uzukwu’s “God, Spirit, and Wholeness: Appropriating Faith and Culture in West African Style”).

This last point is reflected also in Achebe’s another epic book, entitled, “Morning yet on Creation Day”, which evoked the following Igbo aphorism:

Whenever Something stands, Something Else will stand beside it. Nothing is absolute. ‘I am the truth, the way and the life would be called blasphemous’ or simply absurd for is it not well known that a man may worship Ogwugwu to perfection and yet be killed by Udo.”    – Chinua Achebe, “Morning yet on Creation Day’, 94 (1975).

In this book, “Morning yet on Creation Day’ (A Collection of short stories written by Achebe during the Nigeria-Biafra War (1967-1970), Achebe discusses the devastating effect of colonial induced ‘cultural change’ or rather ‘cultural shift’ in post-independent neo-colonial African nation-states as a religious, and cultural phenomenon. He singles out the principles of African (Igbo) aphorism, “whenever something stands, something else will stand beside it.” According to him, Nigeria is where it is today because, as a nation-state, we have not been able to challenge the manipulation of religion in the country’s political spheres.

However, in “Arrow of God”, in particular, Achebe cleverly put the aphorism into the mouth of the tragic priest-hero, Ezeulu, to justify Ezeulu’s adjustment to colonial modernity and change. The priest-hero sent his son Oduche to a Christian school (and Church) because:

“The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well do not stand in one place. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying had we known tomorrow.” – (“Arrow of God”, 51).

Elochukwu E. Uzukwu interprets this passage to imply, that the “principle of duality, flexibility, and openness to change must be applied across the board” (Uzukwu, “God, Spirit, and Human Wholeness”, 99). When the White man imprisoned the proud priest-hero for one month (“the proudest man on earth is only his messenger”), he refused to apply the same wisdom tradition to save the village-group from death.

His imprisonment prevented him from the ritual eating of one sacred yam on citing the 12th moon. Out of prison, he refused to eat two sacred yams on citing the new (13th) moon. In other words, he refused to eat the regular 13th yam that should be eaten on citing the 13th moon along with the 12th yam that he was unable to roast and eat when he was in the White man’s prison.

Flexibility and adjustment to change, on the part of priest-hero Ezeulu, would have enabled the village-group to see the year of 13th lunar months to a close, celebrate the new yam festival and begin to eat the new yams. For the village-group, ‘the priest’s refusal to adjust to change along with his stubborn pride is heresy and idolatry.”

In other words, the individual is being absolutized at the expense of the survival of the community. Ezeulu refused to listen to the elders who reminded him of the aphorism, “a man must dance the dance prevailing in his time.” The elders had opposed his dependence on the same aphorism to send one of his sons to the Christian school. They confessed: “we have come – too late – to accept its wisdom.”

Nevertheless, pride, stubbornness, and an exaggerated perception of his power as priest had better of Ezeulu. That is why “he would rather see the six villages ruined than eat two yams.” – (“Arrow of God”, 232). Ezeulu symbolized the manipulation of religion for personal pride, lust for power and ambition. No wonder, he incurred the ‘wrath of God’, which informed Achebe’s title of the novel, “Arrow of God.”

Consequences of Absolutizing and Politicizing Religion in “Arrow of God

In Achebe’s “Arrow of God”, the character Ezeulu epitomized the inability of the hero to perceive that religion is for the good of human community. That is, inability to understand the delicate, flexible commingling of humans, divinities, and mediators, yielding pax deorum, which led Ezeulu to the destruction of both himself and his deity. He became a sacrificial victim.

In fact, Ogbuefi Ofoka, a character in “Arrow of God”, mused on this fact while conversing with his friend Akuebue: “Let me tell you one thing. A Priest like Ezeulu leads a god to ruin himself. It has happened before.” Akuebue modified his friend’s statement, “Or perhaps a god like Ulu leads a priest to ruin himself.” In fact, “Arrow of God”, makes Ezeulu a sacrificial victim.

The lesson of Achebe’s “Arrow of God” is that the image of the stubborn priest (or any community leader or king as such), and the unilateral perception of his position clearly contradicts Igbo tradition. Igbo tradition rejects erecting (idolizing) personal ambition, and manipulating deities (or power) to that end, at the expense of the destiny of the human community. Individual worth, progress and achievement, are celebrated and hallowed in titles (ozo for men and ekwe for women).

What is at stake in “Arrow of God” is self-centered pride, a bloated ego, lust for power that is disdainful of the community’s realization of its purpose in life. This pride and disdain inserted crisis within the flexible dynamic hierarchy in divinity that characterizes most of African cosmologies where humans are not pawns in the hands of deities and arrogant community rulers.

To prove that they are not pawns and to safeguard the good of the community the elders of Umuaro told Ezeulu that they were ready to assume responsibility for any consequences that would follow his eating two sacred yams instead of one. Ulu and his priest must protect and not destroy the community.

This is the ultimate message of Achebe’s “Arrow of God.” The degeneration of the conflict displays the dialects of complex relationship between deities like Ulu and the human community in the overall Igbo perception of reality. Priests, cult leaders, devotees, initiates, healers, etc., through their devotion, knowledge and reputation, increase the deity’s popularity and their own reputation. The perpetuation of the deity may depend on the “ability to attract, convince and maintain followers.”

Consequently, the golden rule guiding this complex relationship is that deities, spirits and their priests must do what they are expected to do for the good of the community or risk irrelevance. This golden rule applies as well to all those in position of presiding over the affairs of their community, be they politicians, traditional or religious leaders. Selfish orientations of any community (public) leader and the inordinate or irrational demands of deities (civil (state) or religious institutions) are idols to be exorcised. The case between Ezeulu and Umuaro makes this clear:

“And we have all heard how the people of Aninta dealt with their deity when he failed them. Did they not carry him to the boundary between them and their neighbors and set him on fire? … Let us drive him away as our neighbors of Aninta who drove out and burnt Ogba when he left what he was called to do and did other things, when he turned round to kill the people of Aninta instead of their enemies.” – (“Arrow of God”, 31, 180).

Again, the major lesson here is that individuals and community are not a pawn in the hands of deities, kings and experts. The community exercises liberty by withdrawing support from one deity (and its shrine guardian) and transferring it to another deity and shrine guardian.

An Ikwerre (Igbo) proverb says it well: “The villagers may belong to a god, but the god also belongs to the villagers.” The Yoruba have also the saying: “If humanity were not, the deities would not be.” All this confirms why, the political manipulation of religion, in whatever disguise, is absolutely, wrong and will always be.

Achebe in 1991 granted an interview to Bill Moyers in which he expatiated once more, on the principles of Igbo aphorism, “Whenever something stands, something else will stand beside it.” In that interview, Achebe adopted a methodology that rejected in principle all absolutisms!

In other words, Achebe’s “Arrow of God” dramatizes the manipulation of religion for politics in the traditional and colonial African society. Today, we are all witnessing, and very rapidly too, how the manipulation is now transferred into Islam and Christianity with African slant. The same intrigues between priest-hero Nwulu and his village-group Umuaro, which we saw in Achebe’s “Arrow of God” for the Igbo ATR, takes a more nuanced form and dangerous dimension in Nigerian socio-political and socio-religious society today, and in many other post-colonial, modern African nation states.

Here, it suffices to mention in passing, however, that another classical example of an African novel (play), depicting the tragedy of manipulation of religion in politics in African society today, is Soyinka’s “Trials of Brother Jero.” Where, Soyinka presents it as new features of emerging African society. The themes of “Trials of Brother Jero” include romantic betrayal, religious hypocrisy, and skepticism over the use of religion. Much of the satire and irony in the “Trials of Brother Jero” comes from the contrast between a self-proclaimed “man of god” and the ordinary community life he finds himself within. The play is technically a one act but has five scenes.

In short, in Soyinka’s “Trials of Brother Jero”, it is as if Brother Jero is the emerging “African Christianity’s equivalent of Nwulu in the “Arrow of God.” Brother Jero’s congregation, which operates along the Beach of Lagos, equally takes a similar role like that of Umuaro village-group in the “Arrow of God.” This is the general posture and texture of Soyinka’s “Trials of Brother Jero.”  The novel dramatizes in a more eloquent way, the emergence of most of today’s “Lagos-based Neo-Pentecostalism and ‘healing churches’.” Not only in Lagos, however, are they found, but across Nigeria and other parts of Africa. (This will be a topic for another day).


I think that what is at stake in Chinua Achebe’s “Arrow of God”, is what Elochukwu E. Uzukwu rightly calls, the “Ontological Underpinnings of West African Religions.” The multiple tendencies in Igbo religion, for instance, draws attention to the underlying ontological principle of duality and plurality that is the basis for understanding being and religion in Africa. This understanding confirms the aphorism: “Whenever ‘something’ stands, ‘another’ comes to stand beside it”:

“Whenever something stands, something else will stand beside it” is repeated every so often as the ontological principle undergirding the understanding of the emergence of the Igbo human type. Igbo republicanism, their practice of direct democracy and their love for debate or palaver are derived from this principle. Duality or relationality is at the core of religion; it is at the core of the perception of Chukwu, the Supreme God.” – (E. Eugene Uzukwu, “God, Spirit, and Human Wholeness: Appropriating Faith and Culture in Western African Style”, (2012, p. 15).

This is clearly seen in the founding myth of Nri (one of the most influential Igbo village groups (which we cited before): “And what is more, Chukwu Himself in all His power and majesty, did not make the Igbo world by fiat. He held conversations with mankind. He talked with those archetypal men of Nri and Adama, and even enlisted their cooperation and good offices.” (Ibid. p. 17). The philosophy behind this Nri myth is not unique to Igbo. The myth of pre-existence and having predestined course in life involving conversation with God and/or the deity bearing destiny are common among the Igbo and many other African societies.

Therefore, in all, however, Achebe raises some issues pertinent for the survival of any post-colonial modern African nation-state, like Nigeria, today. The relevance of Achebe’s “Arrow of God” is simple. The renowned author is telling us that it is high time we take “a second look” against the manipualtion of religion in Nigeria’s body politics. Achebe is telling us that it is high time we tell ourselves the “naked truth” and do the needful, about the renegotiation of the faulty foundation and political structure of the Nigerian State.

As we say in Igbo, “Onye mara asu, osu n’ikwe, onye amaghi asu, osu n’ala”. Which loosely translates, “he who knows how to pound (e.g. pounded yam), does it within the parameter of the bowl (mortar). While he, who does not know how to do it, does it off the bowl, on bare floor.”

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 runs a column on The Trent. He can be reached by email HERE.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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