Our belief system and the deity-based Shrines

The discovery of human remains at the Okija shrines in August 5, 2004 has attracted many comments and criticisms from the public, but a surprising number seem harsh and unrealistic. Although it is expected that such incident would elicit some criticisms (this has recently become a dominant hobby in our sociopolitical melodrama), the commentators failed to examine or understand the reasons why the citizens are patronizing the deity-based shrine. Therefore, this article is expected to fill the void.

The reviews of social science journals indicate the reasons for the propagation of the Okija-like shrines that are scattered across the land prominent, which are our belief system and the moral values of the society. Others include leadership failure (abdication of responsibility on the part of the government and lack of enforceable laws), economic reasons, and of course, the ‘almighty' bribery and corruption. In a society in which nothing works the people have to anchor their belief in something. The courts in the land cannot resolve any case (even a small land dispute) without resorting to bribery and corruption, but the people fear and respect the psychology and the non-corrupt powers of the shrines. For instance, if a rich person wants to usurp a land that belongs to the poor the rich person could be summon to the shrine by the poor to ascertain the true owner of the land. And the disputants who must be made to face the shrines would be reminded that they would face the wrath of the gods if they were found wanting. The psychology of the shrine works wonderful as the people believes in and dreads the powerful gods.

In general, a society's belief system (a tenet or body of tenets held by a group) directs the people's social behavior. Thus, in a society where the leaders are greedy and corrupt and in a nation where there are no functional laws to regulate social activities the criminal-minded group would exploit even the most revered belief systems for selfish purposes. Every society has a belief system and societies in the West have their belief systems too, which the developing world tends to adopt or copy. But in most cases Africans perceive their belief systems as primitive and expose them to ridicule. This, unfortunately, has been case with the deity-based shrines; the Western world likes to make fun of Africa when it comes to a thing like this. Therefore, if such shrines that are feared and respected and revered by the people as the "custodian of truth and protectors of the oppressed" were located in the West the Developing World would have been falling over each other to reach the sites and to study the system. We should emulate the West and improve and protect, respect and adore our systems to positively project our image to the Western world. We should purge the shrines of "evil activities" and preserve and study and improve on the essential part of the system. Not all belief systems have a deity (or deities), and this writer who only believes in progressive traditional African belief system, would not hold brief for any shrine associated with evil intents. It must therefore be emphasized that those who have been patronizing the shrines with evil intentions at heart should be arrested and punished.

It was reported that the apparent mischievous and dubious Chief Chris Uba paraded the members of the Anambra State House of Assembly before the Okija shrines to take an oath of allegiance during the recent general elections. And he made the gullible politicians to believe (or promised them) that President Olusegun Obasanjo would do anything he wanted him to do for them if they remained loyal to him. If such dubious intents (abuse and misuse of the shrines) would be stopped the powerful shrines could assist the society in controlling bribery and corruption, political assassinations, and other vices that are rampant in the society. This is because nobody would like to be dragged to the gods knowing that his/her life would be extinguished should one refuse to say the truth.

It has been noted that a society's belief systems exist for the purpose of explaining phenomenon otherwise unfathomable to the uninitiated. And in some cases political leaders have been initiated and converted. Any person dragged to the shrines would be required to take an oath and to say ‘the truth and nothing but the truth.' If this has been working why should the government destroy the shrines?

Our ancestors, many of who were believed to have served their "Chi" or "Chineke" (God) through the little gods, lived longer, apparently for their honesty. Many of them were incorruptible and had impeccable character, and were the custodian of truth and lived a less hassled and more relaxed life, because they did not covet more than they could afford, and feared that the gods would harm them should they lie or steal. In those good old days honesty was the corner stone or foundation of the society. Those days are no more! Presently, the most pious could hold the bible in the right hand and commit atrocities with the left hand simultaneously; and criminals could rob and kill and swore on the bible and walk away smiling. And after killing and robbing they would donate a part of the loot to a local church and the priest (who might not be ignorant of the criminal character of the donors) would thank and bless them and ask the "Almighty God to reward them Abundantly." But this was not the case in good old days when the shrines were feared and respected, as the psychology of the shrines would haunt any criminal who is dragged to the gods. At for truth and honesty, let the society strengthen and restore the powers of the gods!

The questions are if making the mischievous politicians to swear on the shrines would reduce electoral frauds or if taking the oaths of office on the shrines would make them honest, what is wrong with that? If getting civil servants to swear on the shrines would reduce the wasteful expenditures, irregularities, and the stinking corruption in government why shouldn't we refine and keep the system? If this would obliterate the ‘419-scam' epidemic and restore the good image of Nigeria; if it would tame the nonchalant attitude of the wealthy and privileged few that embezzle the funds meant for the poor. And if that would make Nigeria safer and secure this writer sees nothing wrong in forcing the ‘suspected evildoers' to swear on the shrines to prove their honesty. Because of the apparent increasing moral laxity all sort of things are happening in the society that would not happen in a normal society without attracting some consequences. Oddly, many people in the society would pretend to be what they are not and they covet more than they could afford. Is honesty still the best policy in Nigeria? It seems the government in place today is full of individuals who are only interested in what they could extract from the public treasury and not what they would do to fructify the resources. They have done nothing to protect the citizens or improve their living standard.

Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong in having well-intentioned shrines, which are regulated and protected from being abused and misused. The politicians who have desecrated the shrines visited them with evil-intents at heart; they believed that the shrines would help them achieve their political ambition. Our forefathers did not set up the shrines for this purpose. As Governor Ngige rightly noted the custodians of the ‘shrines and their collaborators' had used them to subject their fellow human beings to "untold spiritual, mental and psychological hardships."

It has been reported that the majority of the priests at the shrines were members of the Bakassi Boys who found themselves unemployed when the organization was disbanded at the tail end of the Governor Chimaoke Mbadinuju administration. ‘Man Must Wak!' Due to hardship the citizens must device other means (fair or otherwise) to make a living since there is nothing on the ground to buttress the unemployed and the needy. And many of the poor and the sick who have turned superstitious have strong belief in the powers of the deity-based shrines and often consult them when they are sick. But this group often takes the advice of modern medicine with a pinch of salt. When a belief system is corrupt it becomes exploitative and dangerous. That is the case with the Okija-like shrines littering the landscape. Even religion, which is a ‘belief system,' is currently being misused to exploit the gullible masses.

When the police raided the shrines many of the patrons pretended as if it was a new thing but they have all along they believed on the powers of the shrines and distrusted the people who were supposed to vote them into office. (Sorry, the votes do not matter in Nigeria - the powerful deities could make anything possible for them). As earlier noted, criminals seem to have been exploiting our belief system to support their evil purpose. Our incorruptible traditional religious worshippers who believed in the good reasons for setting up the shrines would visit them to make peace and ask for forgiveness if they wronged their neighbor. But the "so-called Christians" -many of whom are hypocrites - worship in the church in the morning but would visit the shrines at night! The people are have been aware all these years that all these are happening. So, what is the hue and cry about the shrines? The raid, which seems political to this writer, has not revealed anything new. Was it not at one of the shrines that Governor Chris Ngige swore an oath of allegiance to his godfather and the gang? Even high-ranking military and police officers (retired and serving) and civil servants seem to be the patrons of the shrines. It is strange that the federal government that has been backing Chief Chris Uba and his nefarious activities would feign ignorance of the presence or the powers of the shrines.

It is not too late to restore the tarnished image of the shrines and allow them to perform their duties as the ‘custodian of truth and the protector of the weak.' Due to bribery and corruption it is easier these days for an elephant to slide through the eyes of a needle than for a criminal to say the truth in a court of law. The Okija deity-based shrines episodes could provide us an invaluable opportunity to study our value system, change what is not working and strengthen those that are useful. Let's not destroy what works and purge the sites of criminals, study and coalesce around the original philosophy of the shrine. With proper funding the shrines could be converted into African cultural research centers, tourist attraction sites and of course, gold mines! This writer may not be ‘wise enough to know what justice is, but knows what an injustice is. To demean the shrines is, in this writer's opinion, an injustice! Finally, it is a common belief that in life, unresolved problems have the unfortunate characteristics of reinforcing each other. Will Nigeria's inability to resolve its problems not manifest here again?

Victor E. Dike, CEO of the Center for Social Justice and Human Development (CSJHD), in Sacramento, California, is the author of Nigeria and the Politics of Unreason: A Study of the Obasanjo Regime [London: Adonis and Abbey Publishers, November 20, 2003]



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