Nigeria and the problem of evil
How many copies of the Bible and the Quran do we need in a society to make people “God fearing” as they would say? How many churches or mosques do we need in a society for that society to have respect for human dignity? How many pastors and imams do you need in a society before it can be fully instructed to observe and respect basic principles of human decency?
Late on the night of Sunday the 9th of March, 2014, some people around my hometown in Nigeria innocently attacked and BEHEADED my immediate younger brother and took away his head leaving the body headless. The group over-powered him, tied his hands with electric cables and used a sharp knife to slaughter him. Because the knife would not fully cut him, they used an ax to cut him off. This is gruesome and difficult to read, I know, but this is reality of Nigeria for me at this moment.
I got this news early on Monday morning after I returned from Antigua, Guatemala on Sunday evening where I had an excellent experience teaching “Sociology of Third World Development” to the students of my University. The students were very engaged and I left Guatemala feeling great about my experience with the students given the deep and penetrating questions they raised about Third World Development in spite of their relatively privileged social backgrounds. I did not know that in a few hours later, by about 5:30 a.m. on Monday, I would be awakened from sleep by persistent calls from Nigeria and be informed that my immediate younger brother was gruesomely killed.
To worsen things, I sent money immediately so that my family in Nigeria can get a befitting casket for his burial – a funeral without the head of the dead person! But on Tuesday, when my family went to get the corpse from the mortuary in Bauchi Teaching Hospital in Bauchi State Nigeria, the casket was stolen from the mortuary. One person, who went to pick the corpse of someone related to him, left his own casket which was not well-made and took the one made for my brother because it was better looking, to go and bury his own relative. The mortuary attendants were there but did not know anything. This gives the reader an idea of part of what it means to be human today in Nigeria. It is hard for me to understand what happened.
“I was not born in the U.S. but I am pretty sure that if what happened to my brother would happen in Saint Paul, Minnesota (where I live), it would be a huge issue. And something will be done about it. This is not to say that the U.S. is a perfect society, but one must affirm the functioning of institutions which is the crucial issue here.”
I am confident however simple answers like I should take it easy because God predestined that and God cares in this kind of situation become just like clichés. I say so because to make such statements means trying to make a claim about fully knowing the NATURE and even ESSENCE of God. It is not easy to be in my situation and to be simply told that God created a person in his image; he loves the person created, cares about the person and knows everything that will happen to the person, and yet allow someone to be slaughtered with a knife and ax. Frankly, it is hard to absorb this kind pontification and go to sleep when you are in my situation. It is better to say, one does not know and does not understand. My brother did nothing wrong to anyone. He was just innocently walking. But some Nigerians in pursuit of money and power decided to kill him to take away his head for ritual purposes. This is what Nigeria has become in the 21st century. My brother will not be the last. There are many innocent people across the country who will suffer such bestiality. Here are some thoughts for general reflection:
a) I grew up poor in a peasant family in Northeastern Nigeria. The group I come from is locally known as “Talakawas” i.e., the masses. But in spite of the pain of growing up poor, I remember the peace and respect for human dignity then. Unfortunately, on this note, Nigeria is not making progress but deteriorating and falling apart at an alarming pace. Yet the elites are self-absorbed in their own world.
b) What does it mean to be human? In many of my courses, I ask students to bring on the first day of classes, a statement explaining what it means to be human and what we owe each other for merely being human. We need to answer this question before we know someone’s religion, socioeconomic status, gender, race or nationality. Given the behavior or these hoodlums, what at the minimum do we need for someone to be human? I am an African and born and raised in Nigeria, but if the behavior of these people does not satisfy the minimum requirement of what it means to be human, and this kind of vicious acts increases as election year in Nigeria comes close, are people becoming more human or less human? Human bodies are like hardware. What the bodies are used for depend on the software loaded into them, in this case, sociologically: norms, values, ethics, and morality.
c) From 1960 to date, the two Abrahamic religions have expanded in Nigeria and penetrated different parts of the country’s culture. Indeed, religion is all over the place in Nigeria and on the surface of people’s consciousness. Some questions, however, need to be asked: given the multi-religious nature of Nigerian society, how many Muslims or Christians do we need in a society for that society to function very well? How many copies of the Bible and the Quran do we need in a society to make people “God fearing” as they would say? How many churches or mosques do we need in a society for that society to have respect for human dignity? How many pastors and imams do you need in a society before it can be fully instructed to observe and respect basic principles of human decency? How many times do people need to pray in a day, go to church or mosque in a day, swear with the name of God in a day before that society becomes God-fearing and respect human dignity?
d) To use as an example, Scandinavian countries are considered to be less religious (very secular) or even post-Christian. This notwithstanding, human dignity, rights and humanity are treasured and respected irrespective of one’s religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status etc. Then compare the situation in Scandinavian countries with the situation in Nigeria, where religion is all over the place, but also, it is “no-where” to be impressively found in terms of how it shapes public affairs, discourses and respect of the least powerful and privilege. What is the status of religion in empirical terms with regard to a well-functioning society in this comparison? Is it just enough to be institutionally religious in a society while socially disorganizing and dehumanizing other people’s lives , while being satisfied that one has the complete truth and has salvation and will go to paradise? How can people be very religious but the empirical evidence suggests strongly that many areas of human life that are supposed to be directly impacted by the social ethics and morality of the religion or faith are not manifesting positive impact as a religious person would claim? Is religion just about rituals that have no bearing in how people related to their fellow human kind? Can a people claim to really fear God when such an ethic is not in any way reflected in the way they treat their fellow human being? My brother’s death compels me to ask these deep questions. They require more than Sunday school answers.
e) Given that Nigeria used not to manifest this kind of extreme and extravagant aggrandizement that leads to treating others as instruments for one’s selfish ends, how did Nigeria arrive at this juncture? Can Nigeria hope for the better by relying on high velocity prayers to bring about miracle? Or does the country need to think deeper given that no country in human history has achieved genuine and meaningful human development through a miracle?
f) Nigeria is a society that in the language of American sociologist Robert Merton, has “culturally approved goals” and “culturally approved means” of achieving the goals that are distorted and vitiated by centrifugal social forces. There is a fundamental confusion on the moral purpose of the Nigerian society. It is not clear what the goals of the country are and over the years there has been little care about strengthening the role of institutions that stabilize genuine and authentic human morality and ethics. Consequently, people have lost their bearing in pursuit of their egoistic interests and in doing so they have become a menace and threat to the future of human kind as represented in Nigeria, to use insights from French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Old stable ways have been destroyed, and new stable ones have not been instituted. For how long will this last.
g) The dysfunction of institutions is a major explanation of the spiral of Nigeria’s decline. Many see progress and development in Nigeria, but I am not impressed. Measuring development by the number of SUVs on the street, new buildings that are constructed, flamboyant weddings or clothing, sophisticated cell phones and technological devices etc. are not good enough. Forget about the aggregate statistics claiming success in economic growth in many African countries, the number of people converted from “paganism” or how many years Nigeria has lived since the country was amalgamated in 1914 by the British. Professor Dudley Seers, who was the one time director of the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex UK, says, the questions to ask about development are: what is happening to poverty, what is happening to unemployment and what is happening to inequality. If anyone of these indicators is increasing or remaining intact, the country is not developing irrespective of the level of growth recorded. The question is what sort of institutional arrangement in a country translates economic growth into genuine and real human development? Nigeria is a poor example for this. It is naïve to celebrate the new African middle class without asking: what are the moral and ethical moorings of that middle class? Simply because they are middle class does not mean they are automatically having the appropriate moral and ethical commitment that promotes a decent human society. What if the middle class is a repository of human aggrandizement, moral and ethical bankruptcy and decay because of the disease of consumerism and “affluenza”?
h) In spite of what happened to my brother, neither the local government in my state, the hospital where the casket was stolen nor the security agencies of the state would consider such a development a social problem that requires serious investigation. Even if there are persons interested in investigating, there is no political will to translate the findings into appropriate public action. Similarly, the authorities would not consider this situation a social problem that warrant the need for a serious reexamination of how the society is structured, institutions designed and social processes conducted to disorient human beings to acquire the incentive to behead someone and takeaway his or her head for the sake of ritual practice so that they can acquire money or win electoral politics. No society can make progress or guarantee human dignity without addressing the question of institutional design and functioning. Do even the Nigerian elites seriously care about this? It is now more than 50 years after independence.
“Scandinavian countries are considered to be less religious (very secular) or even post-Christian. This notwithstanding, human dignity, rights and humanity are treasured and respected irrespective of one’s religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status etc. Then compare the situation in Scandinavian countries with the situation in Nigeria, where religion is all over the place, but also, it is “no-where” to be impressively found in terms of how it shapes public affairs, discourses and respect of the least powerful and privilege.”
i) The postcolonial state is an embarrassment to many Nigerians and many Africans. Many people celebrated the independence of Nigeria. I did not know the time but I heard the music that was used to celebrate that independence and on that basis imagined the joy of the people at that time. But apart from the civil war and many other ethnic / political conflicts the country had faced, the serious crisis the country is now facing is that of MORAL AND ETHICAL BANKKRUPCTY AND EMPTINESS. Quoting Cicero, Saint Augustine said that without justice in a society, the people become a gang of robbers in pursuit of what he called “Libido Dominandi” i.e, the lust to conquer under all circumstances as the Romans did during their time of conquest. The rich are getting richer, and the poor remain hopeless and often pushed to the wall to commit the kind of acts committed against my brother. As one person I called in Bauchi State (Nigeria) explained to me, the buyers of such human heads are known. And in one case, someone arrested said that they are paid five thousand Naira (Nigerian currency) for a human head, which is the equivalent of roughly less than $35. Sometimes they exhumed graves to cut the head of the dead person. Given all this, I am pretty confident that if there will be a referendum in Nigeria today, if it is not rigged, the majority of ordinary Nigerians who feel terribly disappointed with the postcolonial state and elite would not mind the British to return and run the country. The country is a blessing for a few at the expense of the majority. I do not want anyone to use religious language that can be appropriated as a cover to excuse the failure of Nigeria’s postcolonial state and ruling elites.
j) To be honest and frank, I cannot promise anyone that I can easily forgive and forget the murderers of my brother and indeed other innocently killed human beings. It is impossible for me now to really laugh. On Monday, I could not eat throughout the day and did not feel hungry. Only a strong compulsion to sleep makes me take a nap, otherwise what comes to my mind is the idea of attacking an innocent person on the road, tying him with cable and slaughtering him and taking away his head in order to use it for ritual purposes to acquire wealth or power. My major concern is the question of “meaning.” I was not born in the U.S. but I am pretty sure that if what happened to my brother would happen in Saint Paul, Minnesota (where I live), it would be a huge issue. And something will be done about it. This is not to say that the U.S. is a perfect society, but one must affirm the functioning of institutions which is the crucial issue here. I will still continue to maintain my commitment to the struggle for a more just society. But this is a turning point in my relationship with Nigeria.
The act of killing my brother is a social problem and has to be understood as such, notwithstanding the persons that were directly responsible for that. Any attempt to explain the situation in Nigeria by simply relying on religious clichés would not in the long run change anything because there is no commensurate effort to translate the social ethics of the religions into human behavior and action. Religion is increasing, but the fear of God or public and private morality is declining. This does not add up. And one wonders what are even the social ethics of the religions given that there is no religion apart from those practicing it and if our empirical observation suggests those practicing the religions are not effective in transforming the society, then we have to ask: how many religious people do we need for a society to be well-functioning? I lament the sorry situation of Nigeria, and the moral bankruptcy of the elites which has percolated into the lower reaches of the social structure. Now I have every reason to study: “THE PROBLEM OF EVIL.”
Zalanga is Professor of Sociology at Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A.