Letter from Africa: The power of religion

Worshippers pray into the New Year during the crossover watch night church service at the Redemption Camp on Lagos Ibadan highway on 1 January 2014 Image copyright AFP

In our series of letters from African journalists, writer and novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani argues that most religious leaders play a positive role in Nigeria.

Many religious leaders in Africa are regarded as superstars.

Take the pastors of Nigeria's mega-churches, for example. Their meetings pack stadiums across the continent. Their books are bestsellers in a society that is frequently accused of having a poor reading culture.

And in a country that lays claim to a huge percentage of Africa's most acclaimed moguls, entertainment personalities and intellectuals, the Facebook and Twitter pages with some of the highest number of followers are those of pastors.

A 2010 survey by the US-based Pew Research Center shows that "the vast majority of people in many of Africa's nations are deeply committed to the practices and major tenets of Christianity and Islam". Some 87% of Nigerians surveyed said religion was very important in their lives - compared with 19% in the UK.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Muslims form the second biggest religious group in sub-Saharan Africa
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Relations with the Christian majority are sometimes tense

Heads of State and other top government officials seek audiences with prominent clerics - referred to as "men of god" - sometimes circulating photographs of these encounters possibly as evidence of divine validation.

Hawkers peddle pirated DVDs of their sermons alongside Hollywood blockbusters and the massively popular Nollywood films.

Rivalling Achebe

Telecommunications companies offer ringtones in the form of prayers recorded in their voices. At one time or another, some pastors have taken steps to distance themselves from bulk text messages sent out in their names.

Text message instructions from renowned clerics are usually taken seriously in Nigeria, often going viral. They could be anything from a call to communal prayer at a specific time, or an injunction against retaliatory violence.

TB Joshua: Popular Nigerian cleric

Image caption People from across the world turn to TB Joshua for salvation
  • Founded Synagogue, Church of All Nations in the 1990s
  • Runs Christian television station Emmanuel TV
  • The ministry professes to heal all manner of illnesses
  • Controversially this includes HIV/Aids
  • Known as the "Prophet" by his followers
  • Tours Africa, the US, the UK and South America

Profile: Nigerian preacher TB Joshua

Why do we rely on 'miracle cures'?

I sometimes joke that if the leaders of Nigeria's five largest churches merely hint that no-one should have anything further to do with Chinua Achebe, the author's fan base and book sales in his home country would instantly, unquestionably plunge and his works would eventually be struck off the national curriculum, regardless of how widely acclaimed he is around the world.

The pastors are sometimes accused of making themselves into gods.

But the matter may be largely out of their hands. One might as well castigate Michael Jackson or Oprah Winfrey or The Beatles for being worshipped by their fans.

Some observers view the power and popularity of religious leaders as a problem.

A 2005 BBC Who Runs Your World? survey found that Africans trusted religious leaders above other leaders.

Charlatans, who exist in every occupation, could take emotional and fiscal advantage of naive followers.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The late US pop star Michael Jackson has a huge following in Africa
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Films with a religious theme are popular across Africa

And one ill-timed word from a trusted pastor or imam could easily spur violence.

However, in many cases, religious leaders use their influence for good. They have been instrumental in mobilising lethargic citizens to the polls.

'Secular West'

Back in 2007 when many Nigerians were convinced that their votes wouldn't count in the forthcoming general elections, I know people who queued for hours to register, simply because their pastors enjoined them to do so.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Many Muslim and Christian leaders have been at the forefront of health campaigns

They play key roles in the battles against polio, HIV and sickle cell disease, with some religious organisations making it compulsory for couples to undergo genotype testing before marriage, thereby forcing them to face, in advance, the risk of giving birth to a child terminally ill with sickle cell anaemia.

Religious leaders also played key roles in tackling the recent Ebola outbreak in Nigeria by passing on relevant information and stressing the urgency of the situation from their pulpits.

The Emir of Kano, Muhammad Sanusi II, one of Nigeria's most influential Muslim leaders, set up an Emirate Council committee to provide information on the disease to local government heads, imams and similar bodies in northern Kano State.

Muhammad Sanusi II: Influential Nigerian emir

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The emir (C) is a strong critic of militant Islamist groups
  • Born into the Fulani royal family on 31 July 1961
  • Grandson of a deposed emir, Muhammad Sanusi
  • Holds degrees in economics and Islamic studies
  • Appointed Nigeria's central bank governor in June 2009
  • Suspended in February 2014 after fall-out with president
  • Crowned 14th emir of Kano on 8 June 2014
  • Changed name from Lamido Sanusi to Muhammad Sanusi II

Nigeria's colourful new emir

The Roman Catholic Church nationwide altered its established pattern of administering the Eucharist, in order to reduce person-to-person contact with saliva and other bodily fluids as a way of combating Ebola.

Some in the secular West might be tempted to ridicule religious leaders, but in Africa they could accomplish greater good if their immense influence was harnessed in more structured and focused ways.

'Rare quality'

International organisations and other world leaders could collaborate with them to achieve development goals and to tackle crisis situations such as terrorism.

Take for example the Adamawa Peace Initiative (API), launched in 2012 by the American University of Nigeria in Yola, the capital of Adamawa, one of the states in north-eastern Nigeria badly affected by the insurgency waged by militant Islamist group Boko Haram.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Islamist insurgents have bombed churches in Nigeria
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Religious riots have also led to the destruction of mosques

The API comprises local religious, academic and community leaders who are committed to peace and harmony. Yola has so far escaped the violence plaguing much of the region.

Religious leaders, as long as they harbour no hatred towards any particular group, could also intervene in situations where politicians and diplomats may not be trusted, especially as their appeal tends to cut across ethnic and language groups - a very rare quality amongst African leaders.

The BBC survey showed that most Africans place religion above other factors, like ethnicity, when distinguishing their identities.

Regardless of anyone else's opinion of religious leaders, a significant number of Africans have clearly chosen to revere them, and that choice deserves to be respected.

Religion could turn out to be one of Africa's greatest assets.

Related Topics