The Power of Religion, By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
(Article originally published by the BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-29692580)
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is the author of the novel, I Do Not Come to You by Chance, winner of the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize. She lives in Abuja.