Like a number of people out there, I found Dr. Reuben Abati’s article on the “spiritual side” of Aso Rock annoying. Abati, a well-educated man by any standards, held a front-facing office in the most powerful office in Nigeria as recently as 17 months ago before his phone suffered a catastrophic failure of non-rings. His piece about supernatural forces jinxing everyone and everything in Aso Rock left me wondering what re-conditioned him.
If he had stopped at merely narrating how the dread of a bugaboo loomed over them when they worked in Aso Rock, the piece would not have been as problematic as it was for me. Believing one could be jinxed, and factoring that into administrative calculations is not necessarily an admission of one’s gullibility. Belief in the supernatural and scepticism of its existence is not always antipodal.
Some of us have struggled to reconcile our agnosticism with curious phenomena for which we could not find immediate answers in scientifically tested knowledge. Some of these beliefs about jinxes still, curiously enough, find expression in some places of the world that could be termed too “rational” and “civilised” to accommodate inane superstitions.
I give examples: The White House for instance, is considered one of the spookiest places in the United States; former president George Bush and his daughter, Jenna, have both claimed to have either seen or heard a ghost in the White House. If that seemed too silly, consider that for years, the legend of the Curse of Tippecanoe was used to account for the deaths of their eight American presidents who died while in office. As the story goes, in 1811 the Governor of Indiana, William Henry Harrison, had used brutal tactics to displace Native Americans from their land. When Harrison became president in 1840, “they” said the leader of the tribe, Tecumseh, cursed that anyone who became president in a year divisible by 20 would die in office. Harrison died a year later.
Then, came Abraham Lincoln who was elected in 1860 but was assassinated in 1865. Strangely, the “20-year curse” held up for 120 years for eight different presidents who were elected in a year divisible by 20. The jinx was finally broken by Ronald Reagan; he was elected in 1980 but survived an assassination attempt. His wife, Nancy, afterwards hired an astrologer who managed his schedule. Despite subscribing to a belief in a curse some of us would find ridiculous, his country was not hopelessly trapped in the sort of underdevelopment that characterises over-religious countries such as Nigeria. When I matched Reagan’s panic over the Tippecanoe “curse” to Abati’s blame of demons, I doubted that the issue was merely that such beliefs found their way into modern society. Rather, it could be that people like Abati let ghostly tales freeze them into phrenic paralysis.
For all his pretext at not being superstitious, Abati blamed mysterious forces for fire accidents in his apartment, poorly-worded presidential speeches that missed the mark of public acceptance, helicopter near-crash, stalled presidential aircraft, chronic illnesses, road accidents, cancers and the laughable dildo army of office staff consumed by phallic anxiety.
What finally got me was his claim that, “when Presidents make mistakes, they are probably victims of a force higher than what we can imagine.” What unimaginable higher forces could have been responsible for the massive looting carried out by human – not superhuman – agents right under President Goodluck Jonathan’s nose? To what extent were evil spirits responsible for the profligacy of the very corrupt government Abati worked with? Did those evil spirits also join their company to indulge in the bacchanal feasts through which they frittered valuable public resources? What supernatural power could account for Jonathan’s lethargy that caused the security issues that plagued the country under his watch to greatly deteriorate? None of the issues that fuelled public angst against Jonathan’s government came up in that essay; none of the human agents was apportioned responsibility; instead, Abati gamely tried to pass off incompetence as metaphysically induced “mistakes.”
Sadly, he failed to demonstrate in his piece that either he or anyone else explored other options to explain why the fire incidents occurred; whether their diet and work schedule could be blamed for their sexual impotence; how the ratio of the road accidents their convoys were involved was any different from the rates of accident that occurred in Nigeria. From 2011 to 2015 they were in Aso Rock, the Federal Road Safety Corps recorded 44,761 accidents all of which claimed 26,488 lives. Did Abati imagine that they were insulated from the reality that claimed that many lives because they could blow everyone off the road with sirens? Statistically, Nigeria has one of the highest accident rates in the world. Given the figures, Abati should not be wondering why they were involved in accidents but instead should be asking why it did not occur more frequently.
Another unfortunate part of Abati’s postulations is the fact that he let his illlogical postulations about the influence of a vindictive supernatural power plaguing Aso Rock overshadow the more important things he had to reveal to the public- the climate of fear, hostility, and paranoia that haunts a president and which makes him recede into an ethnic cave manned by only his trusted kith and kin. That would have made for an interesting read; to learn how a president wrestles such atmospheric antagonism and yet still manages to thrive (or not).
While I found Abati’s article entirely nonsensical, I have no wish to contest whether the forces he alluded to in that piece exist or not. That is beside the point; besides, more people’s lives are ruled by one superstition or the other than we know. Some have tame and mundane beliefs such as lucky numbers or particular outfits they wear on certain days. (Some people have blamed the white jersey of the Super Eagles anytime Nigeria loses a football match at any level wearing that colour). Others take certain phenomena seriously. They are all entitled to hold such private beliefs if it soothes them.
The underlying lesson one comes off with from the piece is not that some demons seized control of the thing below their belt in Aso Rock but that a Legion of demons apparently messed with the thing above their necks. I am doubly disappointed by Abati because he was supposed to be the decorated academic whose opinions on certain subjects should have been legislated by intellectual rigour and curiosity. At the end of the day, the people he was surrounded with successfully dragged him down to their level. By touting beliefs that no rational basis, it was obvious he capitulated.
This is the other problem I have with Abati’s piece – the subtle demonisation of African traditional religious practices to glorify more “modern” and “civilising” religions. After blaming a number of factors on “the forces of darkness”, he proceeded to give examples – people bathing in blood and walking with their feet up in the air. Those fantastic imageries come straight from Nollywood and radio programmes like Irikerindo popularised by the late broadcaster, Kola Olawuyi.
Such depictions of supernatural power are a staple of filmmakers who raid beliefs nurtured in the African traditional religious imaginary, exaggerating and exploiting them for cinematic content. They then create stories where the evil indigenous beliefs purportedly propagate is vanquished by the power of the Judeo-Christian God. These ideas of the “true” God conquering deviant powers are regularly snagged by Nigerian churches and then dedicate their energy to exorcising a representation of evil created in their own imagination.
It is not for nothing that Abati says if he were to become President of Nigeria tomorrow, he would build a new Presidential Villa that would be dedicated to the “all-conquering Almighty, and where powers and principalities cannot hold sway.” If we ask Abati to pause and tell us what the religion of this all-conquering God would be, it would be most likely the Christian one.
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