It takes a lot to get Nigerians really, really excited these days. Yet, last week, Tunde Bakare managed to get many Nigerians’ full attention. He did so with an astonishing suggestion: that many of Nigeria’s prominent church men himself included should be herded into jail. It was a startling prescription. And it came as Mr. Bakare’s unusual response to the festering scandal of money in the Nigerian church. Nothing illustrates that scandal quite so powerfully as Nigerian pastors’ appetite for private jets.
Had the prescription for imprisonment come from a secular source, it would likely have stirred reactions of self-righteous, sanctimonious outrage. Many Nigerians are intolerant of any form of criticism of so-called men/women of God. In the eyes of some faithful, anybody who dares question the choices of a “televangelist” must be a heretic. And any such critic must be hell-bent, and deserving of eternal damnation.
Mr. Bakare is a now well-known pastor-politician. In the reigning language of Nigerian Pentecostalism, he is the general overseer of the Latter Rain Assembly. Once, he was known for the fiery political denunciations that rained down from his altar. Unafraid to put his pulpit to political uses, he rained scorn on Nigeria’s power abusers and embezzlers. His admirers called him a prophet, a title he seemed to love.
Despite the political nature of his pronouncements, many of us were rather surprised when Mr. Bakare consented to become the underling on Muhammadu Buhari’s presidential ticket in Nigeria’s 2011 elections. The role of full-time politician did not suit him. On the campaign trail, his statements lacked the sharpness and indignation of his pulpit language. And when he tried to speak with his accustomed forcefulness, the fact that he was a partisan robbed his statement of much power.
That brief foray into politics has continued to color public reaction to Mr. Bakare’s political statements. Week after week, he delivers devastating body blows to the Goodluck Jonathan administration. However, some critics often dismiss his mostly on-target criticisms of Mr. Jonathan as signs of a man licking his wounds following a crushing defeat.
Mr. Bakare doesn’t come across as one to bother about how his critics characterize him. He thrives in the art of rhetorical drama. And he’s certainly no believer in polite expression, as if he had decided that Nigerian politics was too septic to warrant temperate language. Before and after dabbling into politics, he has continued to speak in the same brash, take-no-prisoners’ style. A whole gallery could be built around his many unconventional, provocative and even jarring utterances. On occasion, he turns his blistering eye and cutting tongue inward, focusing on those Nigerians call men/women of God.
Often, he appears determined to unmask his fellows, to expose their moral flabbiness to public ridicule. His call for big-time pastors to spend a spell in jail is not the first time he has turned the searchlight on those who trade with the Word. But not even his antecedents prepared me for his latest intervention. It’s no wonder that his statement struck a chord with many Nigerians.
Let’s be clear: faith is not to be belittled. For many people Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and all faith matters (a lot). In calling people to set their sights and hearts on noble and ennobling values, faith can serve to lift individuals and cultures. We all have basic needs for food, shelter, healthcare and security. But we also strive for something less tangible but no less indispensable: human dignity. At its best, sound religious faith can both fertilize and serve that demand that humans be treated with dignity.
The most admirable religions and religious officials are those that insist on the inherent dignity of the human person, regardless of his or her social stature. There are many religious figures in Nigeria who speak with moral clarity and stand for exemplary values. Unfortunately, their voices are sometimes drowned out by the fifth columnists whose passion is money, money and more money.
Most religious personalities have the benefit of a pulpit. The best of them try to put those pulpits to the service of the noblest causes. They remind us of the ephemeral nature of material possessions. They urge us to rein in our acquisitive tendencies and to respect the rights of others to decent lives. They remind us that the end hardly ever justifies the means. They teach us that those with more than enough owe an obligation to help the less fortunate. They exhort the strong to assist the weak to rise to their feet, the rich to ensure that the hungry are fed, the powerful to realize that they must act with restraint and give account.
Sadly, too many of Nigeria’s religious leaders (and many adherents of different religions) seem to sorely miss the most important point. That, or they have discovered how easy and enticing it is to turn huge personal profits by playing traitor to what ought to be their (sacred) mission. And so there’s a crisis of faith in Nigeria (and elsewhere in the world). It’s not farfetched to state that too many money-minded charlatans have invaded churches. Too many pastors, priests and imams have remade God in their own frail images. For them, God is another business, another heartless means to hustle cash from people.
And what a mess these traffickers in God have left. They excuse rigging by lying to their congregants that all power comes from God. They harangue their wretched followers to tithe themselves onto death. Many of them have taken to preaching the gospel of prosperity devoid of moral anchor. They quote passages from the Bible, but it’s clear that their faith and deepest loyalties lie elsewhere: in cold cash. They have become apostles of various brands of corruption.
Some people blame the mushrooming religious sects for the derailment of impressive faith. Yes, in a culture where any rogue can concoct an absurd-sounding name for a church and, pronto, become a “general overseer,” standards are apt to go south. Years ago, as a young journalist in Lagos, I received a surprise visit from a man I knew during my years in Enugu. This man, named Lloyd, was notorious for smoking pot, drinking to excess, and consorting with prostitutes. When he came to visit me in Lagos, his eyes were blood-shot and his breath reeked of beer. Yet, he cheekily unfurled a poster of his forthcoming crusade in parts of Lagos. The poster claimed that “Pastor Lloyd” had done many miracles, including raising two women from the dead! And then he disclosed his mission: he wanted me to help him by writing a feature that declared his great powers as a miracle doer.
I don’t recall how I managed to restrain myself from laughing, but I told the guy to try impressing somebody who didn’t know him. I have since forgotten his last name, but I won’t be surprised at all if Pastor (perhaps Bishop?) Lloyd later struck it big trading in God’s name and preying on the desperation, superstition and gullibility of Nigerians. For all we know, he may well be the proud owner of several expensive cars (even if he has not made the ranks of private jet owners).
In some sense, the Lloyds of Nigeria are minor players in the scandal of religion. Many of the older, traditional churches have become money-grubbing machines. Reluctant to ask hard questions about their benefactors’ sources of wealth, these churches are content to rake in as much filthy cash as possible. They’ve become willing enablers and tools of those who wreck Nigeria by stealing it blind.
A few years ago, a former chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission singlehandedly built a huge Catholic church in his community. You’d think that morally alert bishops would sit him down and ask where he got all the money from. Instead, several bishops attended the church’s dedication. From the pulpit, they took turns to extol the donor. For good measure, they also scolded those who had raised legitimate questions about the man’s fraud-ridden stewardship at INEC.
The craze for money within the church is driving up corruption in every sector of the country. When bishops, pastors and imams abandon their task to ask tough questions and to uphold sound moral principles, they embed themselves with the elements whose mindless looting has left Nigeria an empty shell. By all means, let’s build more jails and let’s throw in these jet-loving, wealth-flaunting preachers who are veritable fertilizers of graft and greed.