THE CHALLENGES OF AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION IN SUSTAINING
DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE IN NIGERIA
CHARLES OKEKE, Ph.D
Dept of Christian Religious Studies
Nwafor Orizu College of Education, Nsugbe
Religion is one of the phenomenon that play essential roles in the lives of Nigerians. It influences to a larger extent, the political, economic, social and cultural lives and affairs of Nigerians. In Nigeria, there are three major religions that evidently impact on the people. They are Christianity, Islam and Traditional Religion and these religions have their roles in sustaining democratic governance in Nigeria. This paper, therefore, is geared towards highlighting the roles of African traditional religion in the Nigerian democratic setting.
African Traditional Religion and Concept of Democracy
In Africa there are many tribes and each of these tribes has its own traditional religion. Religion normally exists in two main clauses: the historical and the non-historical, otherwise called indigenous religion. However, there should not be a mistake of understanding these clauses as religions that have history and religions that have no history because, in fact, all religions and everything in the universe have some history.
A historical religion may be considered as that religion which has written documentary records. Such religions include Christianity and Islam, while non-historical religions have no written documentary records. These include African traditional religions. The actual difference is that records of the African traditional religions and other traditional religions are largely based on oral traditions, folk-tales, customs, proverbs, festivals, idioms, legends, names, myths, prayers among others. Hence they are described as religions which are passed down from generation to generation of the world. On this note, Oborji (2005) was correct when he says, “ATRs are not “Book” religions nor are they formulated into a set of dogmas. Every member grows assimilating whatever ideas and practices that are held in his/her family and community” (p. 10). Besides, African traditional religions have no founders or reformers, so that the beliefs among the different communities would differ greatly especially as each group would incorporate its national heroes (Mbiti, 1990).
African traditional religions are more restricted in their localization and are usually confined to one culture or pattern of life. They are non-proselytizing. The most characteristic feature of African traditional religions is their absorbing character. In other words, they are open to assimilate any religions that come their way. The whole life from the cradle to the grave, even beyond the grave is the tie which binds man to the unseen powers. Another characteristic feature of ATRs is domination of the minds of the Africans by the spiritual. The reality of the spiritual world is vivid to the African mind. The strange stone or rock, the over-hanging mountain, the gigantic tree and other elements in the universe or natural phenomena attract the attention of the African and impress on his mind the existence of an invisible spirit in the object of his perception. In dreams he sees some of his relatives in the appearance of human forms. He cannot shake off the belief that they are not still alive.
Generally, in African traditional religions, there is a belief in the hierarchy of spiritual beings (Okeke, 2012). Thus the Africans believe in the existence of the Supreme Being. He is the creator of the universe and everything in it. Oborji (2005) maintains that “many translations of the Africans’ names for God suggest that God is the Creator, Almighty in heaven” (p. 11). Africans also believe in the existence of the lesser deities. According to Metuh (1987), “The deities of a group other than one’s are sometimes believed to be hostile and dangerous” (p. 17).
Besides, the traditional African believe in the existence of other spirit forces such as the ancestors, agwu, that is, one of the spirits believed to, among other things, populate the universe. But these spiritual beings are not of equal importance and power to the Supreme Being. They are rather regarded as mediators through whom the human being makes supplication to the Supreme Being. Moreover, the traditional African prays and worship because he is aware that he is a creature who is in relationship to other beings whose protection he enjoys and who are the source of his life on whom he depends. According to Okeke (2012), “The beings in the universe exist for the sake of human being. Their work, among other things, is to protect and enhance the fullness of human life” (p. 44).
Man’s main relationship with these spiritual beings is through the veneration of the ancestors and sacrifices. Thus, the deities and ancestors are the medium through which the traditional African approaches God. This explains the reason for many shrines everywhere in the traditional society for the deities and less for the Supreme Being. At the hierarchical structure of these beings, man is at the lowest level. For him to survive, he must live a life of balance with the spiritual beings (Okeke, 2012) and eschew from his life and activities all forms of social evils and abominations.
The concept of democracy in this paper may be a bit problematic to conceptualize if we want to distil the various existing schools of thought on the subject. This paper is convinced that the overall import of any form of government is its ability to effect a change and enhance the capability of the people it governs, to manage and control and promote national development, whether social, economic, political and otherwise. On this note, our conceptualization of democracy must be in line with our lived reality and whatever structures that would sustain democratic governance in Nigeria must reflect our peculiar environment. Thus, democracy can be viewed from two perspectives: ideology and politics.
Democracy as ideology is the philosophy of governance which sets high premium on the basic freedom or fundamental human rights of citizens, the rule of law, the property, the free flow of information and the right choice between alternative political positions (Mabogunje and Obasanjo, 1992), while democracy as politics is concerned with the institutions and processes of governance that tend to foster consensus while simultaneously promoting, sustaining respect for the ideology of democracy (Salami, 2008).
Democracy as a system of government originated from the Greeks. In a democracy, political sovereignty is vested on the electorate or the people. This is why Nwankwo (2002) defines democracy as “a system which gives periodic opportunities for the masses to choose their leaders” (p. 32). From a layman’s point of view, democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Onyisi (2012) affirms that “democracy means individual participation in the decisions that affects one’s life” (p. 46). The bad form of democracy is what Nwankwo (2002) calls “mobocracy” (p. 33). According to Nwankwo (2002), mobocracy means government formed through mob-action means by unorganized group of people who have no objectives or direction clearly mapped out” (p. 33).
Besides the fundamental human rights, which are directly tied to the persons at the helm of affairs at the local, state and federal levels, one of the major ingredients of survival of democracy in any nation is peace. Without peace no meaningful development can be achieved and no harmonious living can be experienced. This is why this paper will like to deliberate on the essence of peace in African traditional religion and societies vis-à-vis the need for peace in democratic governance.
The Meaning of Peace in African traditional Societies
Peace is very often taken as the absence of open war or conflict. This is perhaps because war is arguably the most antithetical condition to peace of any kind. In African world, peace is valued and cherished even in the presence of many tribal conflicts. The traditional African cherishes harmony. Oguejofor (2005) sees harmony as “living in accord with various spheres or levels of reality” (p. 82). Therefore, to obtain peace, one must live in accordance with right principles in his relationship with the supernatural, the deities and other spirit-forces, ancestors and one’s fellow human beings as well as with other elements in the universe. These elements like plants, animals are not just subjected to man’s whims and caprices. They are not to be abused as mere objects; hence they are given a certain level of difference by the creator, and in some case deified. It is in this line that Senghor (1967) speaks of African who “does not begin by distinguishing himself from the object, the tree or stone, man or animal or social events. He does not keep it at a distance” (p. 29).
Traditional African has a strong sense of understanding the universe. For him, there is no strict dichotomy between heaven and earth, the world of the ancestors and the world of man. The spirit world is the guarantor of earthly existence and it is imperative on human beings to maintain harmonious existence with these beings. Any infringement of this obligation on the part of human being is believed to set off a chain reaction of disorder in earthly affairs: personal, familial, communal, national and so on (Oguejiofor, 2005). Such calamities are regarded as the foundation of the absence of peace. Thus they are not often viewed as having natural causes. War, on the other hand, is not isolated from the African reality or world-view as absence of peace. Thus, Ferguson (1978) writes that “a number of African tribes see war as a national calamity sent by God in punishment or retribution for some offence committed by the community or its representatives” (p. 16).
In African world view, the universe occupies a special importance. One cannot live at peace or a fulfilled life without adequate material means. Thus he has to live a long and morally upright life blessed with children, good or natural death and accorded a befitting burial and funeral. In this case, African traditional religions differ from some religions such as Christianity in which the adherents can live a miserable life here on earth to enjoy eternal bliss in the hereafter. African traditional religions have no conception of goodies in the sky after one’s death. Part of the goodies of life must extend to earthly life since there is no dichotomy between this worldly and the other worldly. With this conception, peace is not viewed as merely the absence of internecine organized wars. Thus the war to live a fulfilled life here on earth is necessary, otherwise, life is viewed as precarious (Kalu, 1978) and harmony must be sought with the natural and supernatural forces, which impinge on human life. The evil spirit must be appeased and warded off and the infringement of the spiritual/temporal order must be expiated.
To put it succinctly, the promotion of life and enhancement of it is the cardinal principle of African traditional morality and life. The goal of all moral conduct is therefore the fullness of life. In Africa, human life is considered full when it is marked by spiritual, material and social blessings; when the network of relations with the spiritual, human and material beings is as it should be. And this is the meaning of peace in African traditional religions.
Thus a peaceful harmonious existence as enunciated by Oguejior (2005) “must include adequate material means to live noble and worthy life and to die a dignified death in order to live in peace with the ancestors and be qualified to await reincarnation and live out another cycle of life” (p. 83).
Thus in traditional African societies, peace is not an abstract, theoretical concept, but rather a down-to-earth and practical concept. Peace is conceived not in relation to conflict and war, but in relation to order, harmony and equilibrium. Onah (2005) maintains that peace in traditional Africa is “a religious value in that the order, harmony and equilibrium in the universe and society is (sic) believed to be divinely established and the obligation to maintain them is religious. It is also a moral value since good conduct is required of human beings if the order, harmony and equilibrium are to be maintained” (p. 47).
Any action that is capable of hindering another from attaining peace or the fullness of life is considered a breach of peace. This means that a selfish or unjust person, even when he is not violent, is anti-social, though possessing the material things, yet does not live in harmony with other members of the community, is therefore, regarded by the Africans as an enemy of peace.
The Need for Peace in Democratic Governance
For Nigerians to enjoy the “dividends of democracy” (using political jargon), there is the need for a peaceful environment. For any government policies to succeed and thrive there must be an enabling environment. Looking around, one sees that there are many factors that suggest that we are far from having a peaceful environment as a nation. For example, in Nigeria today, political violence is on the increase. A number of politically motivated killings have taken place across the country since the emergence of the present democratic dispensation. Ejikeme (2008) listed few of these killings as “the assassination of Bola Ige on December 23, 2001, that of Harry Marshal on March 05, 2003, that of Aminosoari Dikibo (February 14, 2004) and that of Anthony Williams in July 27, 2007” (p. 32).
Moreover, violent crimes have become daily occurrence in Nigerian society. Hardly does a day pass without one hearing or reading of one crime or the other. The most common being armed robbery, kidnapping, raping of the weaker sex especially minor; boko-harram, among others. All these forms of crime evidently cripple meaningful development in Nigeria. They are signs of absence of peace in the country. Religious intolerance seems to be on the increase too. Love is lost between adherents of one religion and another. This too does not promote peaceful democratic governance. Whatever happens in Nigeria today is considered from religious view point.
Further still, in Nigeria today, ethnicity, nepotism, tribalism, god-fatherism and institutionalized corruption have become the bane of development. In traditional African societies, all these are seen as crime and abomination. In those days there is a sense of reverence to the sacred. People are afraid of committing crime (Okeke, 2012). Once crime is committed certain rituals must be performed to calm the anger of the spirit and ward off the impending calamities that would befall the individual as well as the community (Okeke, 2012).
Among the traditional Africans, the stress on community life is on togetherness, on communion, on respect for traditions and on unquestioning acceptance of what the ancestors have practiced, sanctioned and established as the way things are done (Okeke, 2012). With this in mind, the events in Nigerian society where members of the same family, clan, community or ethnic group exploit one another and engage in communal clash and abduct their fellow community members, and all sorts of crimes and wars are waged against one another, are a big challenge to the basis of this claim on democratic governance in Nigeria.
The Way Forward
The question that begs for answer at this point is, what can the present Nigerian society including the democratic government in Nigeria learn from the African traditional religion and culture? How one answers this question determines the extent one sees the challenge of African traditional religions on democratic dispensation in the country. Needless to say that the atrocities committed against mankind in God’s name and in the name of politics in this country are on record. However, a good and healthy placement of religion in the social polity of this country will always ensure that the inevitable qualities of religion are harnessed, while a bad one turns religion not only into an opium according to Karl Marx, but also a time bomb (Ejikeme, 2008).
It is therefore, the opinion of this paper that when religion is properly channeled, it could be used as an instrument of peaceful democratic governance. African traditional religions contain many values. Thus peace and harmonious coexistence can invariably lead to peaceful democratic governance. In fact, the ethics of African traditional religions demands the individual to be his brother’s keeper. African traditional religions totally forbid any type of social or personal crime. The religion teaches obedience to constituted authority and recommends punishment for offenders. It also teaches peace, love, honesty, healthy living, respect for the elder, dignity of human person, righteousness, humility, fear of God, community consciousness, among others.
African traditional religions abhor murder, homicide, kidnapping, rape and other forms of sexual crimes, corruption, bribery, disobedience to parents, and all types of illegal killings such as euthanasia or mercy killing, abortion and contraception. African traditional religions hold human life in high esteem; thus, human life is sacred and blood must not unnecessarily be wasted. Freedom of worship is allowed and other religions are highly tolerated. When all these values are imbibed by the democratic government, then peaceful democratic governance becomes possible.
This paper examined the challenges of African traditional religions in sustaining democratic governance in Nigeria. It looked at the democratic governance in Nigeria from the prospective of African traditional religions and culture and established that for any democracy to survive and achieve its objective peace is a sine-qua-non. Without peace there will be no meaningful development.
Peace is one of the values African traditional religions can bequeath the world, especially the Nigeria democracy. The result of harmonious living is peace. Harmony is a fundamental category in African traditional religion and thought. No attempt is ever made to cancel out differences; rather all effort is devoted to finding a way in which differences can continue to harmoniously co-exist. In personal life, as Onah (2005) rightly says, “such a harmony consists in the ability to reconcile one’s desires with one’s means, coordinate one’s thoughts, sentiment and their verbal expressions and discharge one’s religious and social duties. One who is able to do this will experience inner peace. In the community, harmony entails smooth relationships between persons and other beings” (p. 48).
In line with the above, Onah (2005) asks a pertinent question: is it possible to globalize some African moral and religious values or are we resigned to a unidirectional globalization of values, especially non-values from a very limited segment of the globe?
This paper is of the view that the rest of the world and in particular the contemporary Nigerian democracy/society should learn these values from African traditional religions and then humanity will be enriched.
To achieve meaningful democratic governance in Nigeria, the following recommendations are necessary:
1. We must recognize the social and moral values of religion. They are indispensable assets for peace and nation to progress and develop.
2. For a democratic governance to be effective there is need for peace to reign. Government and other stakeholders as well as individuals must provide enabling environment for everyone to practice his/her religion freely. In other words, religious freedom must be practiced by everyone.
3. Interreligious dialogue is also a necessity. There is need for periodical dialogue between stakeholders of various religions in Nigeria. This will enable adherents of one religion or another to understand, tolerate and respect the religious doctrine and belief of the other.
4. The religious leaders must ensure that their congregation is not indoctrinated and that fundamentalism is not allowed or encouraged among their faithful.
5. Every hand must be on deck to fight corruption and the evil of corruption in our country.
6. Everybody must imbibe the tenets of his/her religion and live in his/her life the moral principles which religion teaches.
7. A course on interreligious dialogue should be introduced in all levels of our educational learning. This will help adherents of one religion and another to understand the other’s religious doctrine, and therefore, tolerate one another.
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