In 1843 Karl Marx, a German philosopher, economists and historian, wrote what later became his celebrated dictum: “Religion is the opium of the people.”
He might not have said this in denigration of religion. As an addiction, he saw during the era in which espoused this dictum, the hold organised religion had on people. Faith, to summarise the German philosopher, was something that people, the hoi polloi of the time, conjured for themselves as a source of “phoney happiness to which they turned to help numb the pain of reality.”
They took to religion as people take to anti-depressant or sleep inducing drugs to temporarily forget some sorrow or pain or, as some are wont to do, take to drinking to drown their sorrow.
Religion was seen then, as it is seen even now, as the most powerful force in any society. Admittedly, this influence is beginning to wane seriously in some advanced civilisations of Europe and the Americas where the youths have begun to desert the church in droves in favour of some alternate opiate.
Despite the threats from such alternative opiate like football, the allure of drugs and the craze for money and even the social media (Facebook in particular) with their instantaneous reach across the borders and their unlimited capacity to connect people, despite all these threats, religion has not ceased to have a major influence as a unifier or an elixir.
Certainly not in Nigeria where churches and mosques continue to sprout like mushrooms in every nook and cranny of the major cities. Religion, when put to good and productive use, serves as a potent unifying factor. But in many unfortunate circumstances, it must be admitted, it has also proved over the years, to be a pernicious conflict inducer.
A country like Nigeria which is grappling with the problems of deep-rooted suspicion fuelled by the numerous fault lines – ethno-religious, social and political – religion can actually play the role of unifier, an agent to promote understanding and love and amity in the society.
But this can only happen in the hands of leadership adept at playing such a unifying role. President Muhammadu Buhari put his finger on what could have turned out to be an elixir of sorts in this respect when he bemoaned Nigeria’s loss the other day with the death of Chief M.K.O Abiola, the presumed winner of the June 12 presidential election on 1993. The President lamented the fact that if Abiola had emerged president, the recurring issue of ethno-religious crisis in the country would have been laid to rest.
This may sound to some people as an exercise in counterfactual indulgence. But the facts tend to support President Buhari’s position. Chief Abiola was coasting home to victory with an unprecedented political innovation – a Muslim-Muslim ticket – in a country polarised by egregious religious divide.
But that was not even the genesis of what turned out to be the winning formula. What it did, aside from the contribution of his politically-savvy running mate, Ambassador Babangana Kingibe, was Abiola’s own larger-than- life multidimensional personality, his love of giving and his sense of empathy among other factors. He was trusted by people whose lives he had touched. He could give hope and he could inspire people to believe in their innate capacity for self-actualisation.
Though a Muslim, he did not discriminate against other people. He was at home with Christians as he was with Muslims. He contributed to the church as he contributed to the mosque.
A good mixer, he would dine with the king and dance with the pauper. Also, he had an incredible knack for doing this binary exercise with seamless ease that came with natural inclination as opposed to a politician’s proclivity for showmanship and pretence.
Instead of playing one against the other, he could easily have used religion to unify the country. I guess this is the point President Buhari was making. But there must be something he can do to get more Nigerians of means to emulate the late M.K.O. Abiola.
Some of the examples that he praised to the high heavens must not be interred with his bones. Though Abiola was a difficult act to follow, but some of his humanitarian gestures could be institutionalised.
For example, he was the Pillar of Sports in Africa. Naming the Abuja national Stadium was an appropriate physical honour, something we can see. But the Federal Government, following the footsteps of M.K.O Abiola could easily have also done what businessman Femi Otedola did for the ailing Christian Chukwu, former Super Eagles captain.
Christian Chukwu, bedridden for long, needed to be flown abroad for treatment. His family and concerned citizens embarked on fund raising for him. Mr Otedola eventually came to his aid and flew him abroad for treatment.
Chukwu is back, fully recovered courtesy of the generosity of a cheerful giver. The former captain led the national football team to win the Africa Cup of Nations trophy in 1980. Indeed, he won many other laurels for the country.
Using religion, Karl Marx’s opium of the people, even the average Nigerian, man or woman, especially the youth, has all it takes to be a bridge builder, an agent of nation building. See what they do during religious festivities of Christmas and Eid festivals.
There is a reasonable outpouring of goodwill from Christians to Muslims on Eid days like the one we just celebrated. At Christmas and the New year, there is equal camaraderie from many Muslims to their Christian counterpart. This show of goodwill is something our leaders can build upon to promote unity in diversity instead of merely mouthing it.
The newspapers are awash with goodwill messages from the leaders. The Sultan of Sokoto Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III, governors and even party leaders as well as the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN Rev. Samson Ayokunle have all preached peace and unity during the Eid celebration. And when it is Christmas time, the same messages of peace and unity would rent the air.
If we are so committed to our religion and we genuinely believe that it is the foundation of peace and unity, why do we take delight in tearing ourselves apart and condemning one another on the basis of religious difference? Why can’t we say no to those who use religion to sow seeds of discord among us?
If truly we are addicted to our various faiths as we are addicted to sports, especially football, why can’t we turn this opium into a cause celebre, something to promote national unity instead of pulling the country down? With so much religiosity preaching against the evil effects of sin of murder and coveting your neighbour’s property, why do we celebrate killings and mass murder based on hate and bigotry. Why has the country elevated the heinous crime of robbery and kidnapping to the level of religion with its priests and nuns and imams and Alfas using their AK 47 instead of their rosary?
As in other areas of national endeavour, we once again turn to President Buhari for leadership. I have argued many times that this president may have his faults and his weaknesses like any other leader. But he is not a religious bigot or a jihadist.
He may be guilty of procrastination and not being decisive on some burning national issues. But that he is promoting one religion against another is not one of the faults you can easily pin to his agbada.
But perception is crucial. He still has a lot to do to promote fairness and even-handedness in some appointments to reflect the diversity of the country and to promote inclusiveness. With the sincere and effective use of the interfaith organisations, religion can be deployed to promote the sorely needed unity and harmony in the country.
On this note, I say Eid Mubarak to all my faithful readers. This column will be on a short vacation from next week.