On Saturday, a pastor of an unnamed church, Wale Fagbere, invaded a shrine in Ketu area of Ogun State, with the intent to vandalise the place. According to media reports, the man had told his congregation he was inspired by the “Holy Spirit” to destroy the shrines in the community. Unfortunately for him, he got to the shrine only to find himself transfixed, presumably under a spell cast on him by the supernatural forces on whose turf he trespassed. We were told that the intervention of the town’s traditional ruler, Abdulaziz Adelakun, saved his life.
The story, in its entirety, resembles a clichéd plot of magical/mythical reality from Nollywood. Nevertheless, that pattern of iconoclasm by pastors or recent converts either seeking cheap publicity or consumed by genuine zeal for their god, continues to manifest. Some of them go to shrines to destroy graven images on a Saturday afternoon to demonstrate the power of God and of course, attract a crowd to their church for the Sunday morning service. For them, God, all by Himself, is not an attractive selling point. They need spectacles to market him.
Some years ago, one Pastor Abodunrin, jumped into a lion’s den at the University of Ibadan, reportedly to demonstrate that certain signs indeed “follow those that believe.” Within minutes of that venture, his life –or whatever remained of it- was never the same again. In hindsight, we blame him for not adding wisdom to his faith but if he had succeeded in subduing that lion, it would have been taken as a miracle rather than mere happenstance. In June, a drunk man got into a den in India, tried to shake hands with a lion, yet did not die because zoo officials rescued him on time. If he were a Nigerian pastor, he would rename himself “Daniel” and set up shop based on that.
Strangely, Fagbere’s story was concluded at the point where the police said they would be charging him to court for action likely to cause a breach of the public peace, and full stop. There was no further indication that anyone was curious enough to want to understand what truly happened to him. They did not take him to a hospital to seek a logical explanation for his predicament. From the police who confirmed the incident, to journalists who covered it, and most of the online commentators that read the story, there seemed to be a consensus that the pastor was indeed struck by some power for daring to tread on spirits’ space. Such a conclusion, propelled by the mythic turn of events, is baffling. Could it be that people genuinely believed such a story, or journalists would rather not let any logical analysis get in the way of a salacious narration? Perhaps, it is the familiarity of the storyline, foregrounded in popular culture, that makes this one credible. Almost a dozen major news outlets reported the incident but none seemed to probe deeper.
It is tempting to think that beliefs such as this are harmless, and that people should be allowed to harbour whatever superstitions that soothe them. What difference does it make to the price of rice if a woman claims her child was born with a copy of Quran, for instance, and nobody takes her up? However, we have to speak up also because some of these beliefs have led to unconscionable acts of violence against innocent populations. Poor older women who probably suffer from mental illness have been lynched because someone accused them of transmogrification. The media characteristically reports these stories, narrates how people make a sport of the death of their victims, and leaves it at that point. One does not see an urgency on the part of the reporter to debunk these beliefs neither is there an outrage at the violence.
There seems to be some kind of shared understanding or conspiracy between the news producer and consumer that such supernatural powers indeed exist, and whatever spate of actions that follow their manifestation is inevitable. Therefore, they dish out the stories to us and we are expected to buy them without raising basic questions of plausibility. I know there are people who believe such stories (it is their prerogative to believe what they choose) but if truly there is a god that strikes people for attempting to run over its shrine, such occurrence would be far more common. It is estimated that more than 500 shrines have been destroyed in Nigeria alone by religious fundamentalists, mostly Christians. Going by that figure, at least 500 people should have been struck 500 times.
African Traditional Religion worshippers have consistently complained that Christians desecrate their space. Last year, in Anambra State, another pastor filled with a Boko Haramic zeal, incinerated the Ikoro Uga shrine. During my national service year at the Ministry of Information and Culture in Abia State, a group of traditional religious worshippers raised a delegation to meet the commissioner and complain about the destruction of their shrines by Christians. I was amazed by the number of people who thought such destruction was in service of a greater good!
In what way are they different from ISIS that has set itself to the task of wrecking ancient religious sites, preserved ruins, and centuries-old Christian and Muslim shrines? In a number of places in Southern Nigeria, artefacts that should have been preserved for their historical and aesthetic values have been destroyed by brainwashed folks trying to rid themselves of ancestral spirits, demons, and evil power that “tie down their destiny”. The artefacts that would have been worth millions of dollars have been destroyed by ignorant people who do not want to be unsettled by any kind of knowledge.
Historically, from Ancient Egypt to the Protestant Reformation, to the French Revolution, to Chinese and currently, Islamic terrorism, iconoclasm has been about power – one side with dominant political power seeking to establish itself by eradicating others. Historical sources state that in 1902, an Igbo oracle known then as “Chukwu” was smashed by British Colonial officers who wanted their ideology to penetrate their colonised subjects quicker and who considered the oracle an impediment. Today, their clone, “colomental” pastors are still ravaging shrines for basically the same reasons.
Violence against traditional religion is, in fact, not limited to such mischief. One only needs to go to an average Nigerian church to witness their obsession with “Babalawo power” that needs to be destroyed for their own to take over. In Nigerian films, there have been many occasions that the Bible or the Quran has been thoughtlessly weaponised to destroy agents of indigenous religions. Unfortunately, the rendering is always uncritical of the psycho-cultural implications of such representations. Nigerian Christians and Muslims, who often preach tolerance towards each other, tend to act in that wise probably because they know they both have equal capability to unleash mutual damage on each other if the need arises. Christians may preach against Islam (and vice versa) but the “Holy Spirit” is unlikely to direct a pastor to destroy a mosque. Their violence is typically directed towards the category of people who do not have as much cultural and political power to respond in like fashion.
In this instance, we know that something worked against Fagbere (and which may not be another time another pastor decides to go uprooting shrines). Rather than take this story with a lot of salt, we need some scepticism to find out what really happened to the pastor beyond what has been reported. Equally important is if we can find a rational explanation for whatever struck him numb. If there is more to it beyond mere coincidence, then we can think of the possibility of undertaking a scientific study of such “power” and appropriate it to our existing systems of knowledge.