Friday, August 13, 2010

The Old Gods Are Yet With Us

“Storm at Sea,” by Radcliffe Bailey.
About a week ago protesters rallied at the Ogun State House of Assembly and pelted the building with eggs. They then placed clay pots containing traditional charms and fetishes around the premises vowing terrible curses on the honourable representatives if they did not approve a key piece of legislation. The group of esteemed men and women - all avowed Muslims and Christians - immediately packed up and closed for the day. None of them returned to the House until the items were removed.

To me, this just goes to show that despite the veneer of imported religions like Christianity and Islam, our hearts still belong to the old gods. A perfect example of this is in oath taking. Many Nigerians can and do lie without issue on a Bible or a Koran, but very, very few will even take an oath on a traditional fetish - let alone lie on it. They will claim that such items are devilish and diabolical, and that to associate with them is against the religion they currently practice, but I am convinced that it is because the ancient fears are still with very much with them.

I am convinced that the lawlessness and insecurity we currently experience in Nigeria comes from the fact that we have built our institutions on sand. We have lost our sense of community and responsibility because we lost the indigenous systems that undergirded these institutions in the past. In Nigeria today, it is every man for himself. Those who occupy our positions of authority from the university lecturer to the bank president, do not seem to understand that they work for the masses. They preach service with their mouths, but the evidence is in the work of their hands. And we condone it, because we know we would all do the same if we were in their place.

The situation is accurately reflected in Ngugi Wa’Thiongo’s “Wizard of the Crow,” which I am currently reading. I’m about a third of the way in and I am entralled by the author’s incisive observation on the place of religion in African society. In it, a man who people believe to be a powerful wizard becomes more powerful than the illegitimate government in power or the corrupt institutions that prop it up.

We are rightly considered to be one of the most religious societies in the world, but I wonder if this is only because we protest too much. We loudly proclaim our faith as if volume could compensate for the secret place in our hearts that the new God has not touched.

I know for a fact that if we returned to invoking the old gods in our public spaces, we would have a far more functional society than we do now. A perfect example of this theory in action can be found here. In a community in Edo State, elders who were fed up with rampant kidnapping got together and placed a powerful curse on anyone who practices the act within the community. Almost overnight, it is reported that incidents of kidnapping ceased. Nobody wants to mess with that kind of power, no matter how devout they might seem on Sunday morning or Friday afternoon.

Imagine if our leaders, judges and lawmakers had to swear on the altar of the deity of their hometown when they came to office that they would not steal, lie or engage in any other form of malfeasance. That is not to say there won’t be oath breakers, but at least we would weed out the grossly criminal and ensure that those who enter our scared spaces understand that they work for us, for the gods, and not for themselves.


  1. If you think that that is what people truly believe, then that makes sense, but there certainly are those Nigerians who have wholeheartedly rejected those traditional religions and to whom it would be pretty unthinkable to take an oath on them.

    What I think that this really does is point towards the deeper problem in Nigerian society where any serious discussion of those religions in polite company is such a faux pax. If people were free to express that those religions are important to them, then maybe the words of those who express their rejection of them would have more weight and people could actually swear by whatever it is that has meaning to them.

    Of course, this is the perspective of an outsider who hasn't been in the country for six years, so take it for what it's worth.

  2. this post is spot on, it rings so true.

    @Scottie, i believe only a few Nigerians have wholeheartedly rejected traditional religions to the stage that they would feel unaffected by traditional religions. this is simply because most Nigerians still harbour tremendous fear of the unknown 'evil' and 'paganism' which they imagine is inherent in traditional religions. even if they were not willing to take an oath on a god or goddess, they'd be pretty shaken if someone was to take an oath bringing down a curse on them. in my experience any mention of 'rituals' or gods tends to bring out more fear than you'd expect.

  3. It really is a pity that we in Nigeria, and indeed Africa have chosen to discard what is good in our traditions and taken what is evil. Many practise Christianity and Islam in the context of tradition and fear- just like in the 'old days' of the gods.

    I would beg to differ here with you Chinelo. The main reason people in Nigeria take their faith (especially Christianity) for granted is because of the benevolence of the GOD they serve. The ancient 'gods' were not nice...they were wicked, capricious and cruel and meted out vicious punishments to detractors. THAT is the fear they carry...and the 'respect'. Now, we all know that if we sin GOD will not strike us down and we can go to church/mosque and get 'cleansed'. So what happens? We have people who do as they please without a sense of consequence.

    While I agree with you that these so called leaders we have in Nigeria would probably 'serve' better if under the yoke of 'traditional gods' it doesn't necessarily mean that in the long run it will be good for society.

    Yes, society then was more organised and there was a sense of cohesion and responsibility...but what about ritual killings, slavery and a host of other bad things they brought with them?

    Its a 'caught between a rock and a hard place' situation as far as I'm concerned.

  4. @Sifushka: You seriously think that the old gods were wicked? How would you know that if you never lived in the old world world where they did not have to compete with the maniacal jealousy of the Christian God demonizes and then eats up all other gods that crosses its path?

    That haven been said. While Chinelu's intimations are tantalizing, we still have to think of the process and the cost of politicizing religion. It is always a tricky business.