My God is Richer than Yours
By: Salisu Suleiman
As Nigerians join the rest of the world in congregating for Hajj, our ironic preoccupation with religion comes out once again. A few years ago, a survey showed Nigeria to be the most religious country in the world, with 90 percent of the population believing in God, praying regularly and affirming their readiness to die for their beliefs. The survey, "What the World Thinks of God" also showed Nigeria coming tops as a praying nation at 95 percent, compared to 67 percent in the US.
Our brand of Christianity has assumed a uniquely Nigerian character: loud, colorful, vigorous and patently overdone. At a time when many are fleeing churches in droves and church attendance are at record lows, the business of worshiping Christ is a trillion naira concern in Nigeria – and growing. Apart from controlling public vaults, the easiest way to own a private jet in Nigeria is probably to talk-smooth on a church podium.
And Muslims will not be outshone. Our brand of Islam is just as peculiarly Nigerian: pretentious, ignorant, obtuse and grotesquely expensive. A quick way to power and influence in Nigeria is to affect a religious mien, grow a huge beard, don a turban and deliberately pepper conversations with Arabic words and phrases. Political and business leaders of all shades and persuasions – Muslim and Christian - would flock to pay homage and seek patronage.
But none of these is new. A growing trend is the calculatedly obscene manner some eople spend money to demonstrate religiosity. At no place is this more evident than during lesser Hajj or Umrah, when people seem to be paying for exclusive access to God. To start with, this ritual is not an obligation, yet some people beg and borrow just to keep up with peers who travel every year. In the midst of such desperate exhibitionism, genuine devotion is a derivative.
The less affluent task themselves needlessly to perform Umrah, while the rich definitely go for the overkill. During the last Umrah, $100,000 was paid at a luxury hotel for a state governor for 10 nights; he stayed only two. This was a needless waste of $80,000. Worse was the case of a well-known politician who had wired $250,000 as payment for a 10 night stay, but didn't show up. At current exchange rates, that is 40 million naira. My grouse is not that he didn't show up; even if he had exhausted every cent of the amount, such pricey prayers probably pry out true faith.
The math is simple. Which would be a worthier act, spending N40 million for a few days of luxurious devotion, or using the same amount to change the lives of at least 100 Nigerian families forever? For a university graduate who doesn't mind driving a cab, N400, 000 would buy a taxi. The same amount can kick-start many small businesses as take-off capital. For a farmer in my hometown, that amount would buy land, farming implements, a bull and an irrigation pump – and a passport to wealth. For a desperate young man in a village who wants to get married, that amount would build him a house – and pay all marriage expenses.
Even these are very generous estimates. The entire contents of some kola nut hawkers' tray – from which they feed their families is often less than N3000; the entire assets of some sellers of ‘pure water', chewing gum, handkerchief, orange, biscuit – and a variety of other things – are often between 1,000 - 2,000 naira. If our pious politician had chosen to spend his N40 million by changing the lives of 1,000 countrymen by giving just N40, 000 to each, how many potential armed robbers, kidnappers and prostitutes would have been recovered for society?
But for the Nigerian rich, the worship of God has a class component – with a seeming competition to spend outrageously, ostensibly to please God. The unspoken assertion seem to be ‘my prayers are more exclusive than yours', while the more brazen proclaim: ‘I could see the Holy Mosque from my hotel room'; ‘I haven't missed one pilgrimage in the last 20 years'; ‘I brought my entire family with me'; ‘I stayed at the Intercontinental because Hilton's standards are falling' or ‘I stayed at Raffles. Try it next year'. In the midst of such chest thumping exertions to outspend others in the service of God, it is easy to forget that we left many homeless and hungry compatriots back home.
If the keys to Heaven could be bought with money, Nigerians would probably outbid every other people in the world, with change to spare. The contradiction in using stolen funds to build mosques and churches is often lost; in the same breath, monies are stolen from the treasury and transferred to numbered accounts - and the change used to sponsor friends and family to Mecca and Jerusalem. Ours is a bizarre bazaar where everything goes. In the midst of such frenetic exhibitionism, true religion is a rarity.