Nigeria’s student zealots

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and one of the most corrupt in the world, is also one of the most religious. Poll after poll marks the increase of a powerful religiosity which is permeating every aspect of life in the country from politics to popular culture. But nowhere does Nigeria’s obsession with religion manifest itself more vigorously than on its university campuses.

A particularly tragic indication of the campuses’ involvement in the collective quest for heavenly salvation came in September, when news broke of the events involving nine students of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.

Founded in 1962, the university established an international reputation in the ’70s as a formidable intellectual powerhouse before succumbing to a nationwide decline in the ’80s.

The students, seven male and two female, all members of the Word Ablaze Fellowship, a campus Christian association, had abandoned the end-of-semester examinations for the nearby village of Tonkere, where, it later transpired, they had retired in anticipation of Rapture.

The aspiring rapturees had spent the better part of a week on a meagre diet of bread and water eagerly anticipating their ascent to Paradise, before eventually being rescued by a local hunter. At no point during their five-day fast in the forest did they levitate so much as an inch.

The saga of the “Ife Nine” is symbolic of Nigerian society’s collective longing for an outside (read divine) solution to problems directly traceable to human agency. To cite just one example, the popular quest for a “divine intervention” has led to the increasing influence of an array of “spiritual advisers” who have become part of official structures of power across the country.

Pastor Enoch Adejare Adeboye, the enormously influential leader of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), tops the list of a select theocratic class with a “direct line” to the corridors of state power. But how has a still notionally secular country, with a great intellectual tradition, come to find itself in the grip of a profoundly pietistic ardour?

Nigerian universities have lost their once cherished status as the epicentre of intellectual life in the country, and this has happened in tandem with the creeping religionisation of the campuses. While the one is not necessarily the direct cause of the other, religious groups (both Christian and Islamic) have largely stepped into the space (symbolic and physical) vacated by secular intellectual organisations.

The nationwide wave of charismatic religious fervour first broke on the campuses in the late ’70s, an important part of the “Pentecostal revolution” sweeping modern Nigeria. Back then, the emergent interdenominational student groups were sociable, if not exactly inviting, and for the most part were regarded as merely quaint or a trifle eccentric.

They were just another aspect of a lively campus culture. But since the early ’80s “born-again” students have sought to cultivate a specific identity as worshippers, one which works against the idea that they are first and foremost students indulging in their right to experiment with ideas. Student-as-questor-after-knowledge has been replaced by student-as-disciple.

In the same period the universities themselves have undergone a profound structural transformation, clearly visible in the degradation of physical infrastructure, the demotivation and consequent exile of faculty, and the decline of a once intellectually vibrant and politically astute student leadership.

In turn the campuses have transmuted into religious spaces where an increasingly bitter inter-religious struggle between Christianity and Islam and the rival sects of each is played out on the very walls of the institution.

A visitor to the campus of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, where I myself was on the faculty in the mid-’90s, would be assailed by a rash of posters exhorting the potential convert and declaring divine ownership of putatively shared space: “Accept Islam and be Saved”, “Only Jesus can Save”, “Die not except as a Muslim”, “Islam, the only way to Paradise”, “This campus is for Christ”.

This explosion of religiosity paralleled the decline and disappearance of secular campus organisations whose essential “profanity” was central to the universities’ core identity as non-religious spaces.

Easily the most famous of such “profane” bodies was the Kegites (palm-wine drinkers) Club, whose dedication to ribaldry epitomised the culture of subversion that characterised the campuses.

There were several other organisations like the Man O’ War whose founding ethic might have been moral but not necessarily religious.

This pattern is not unique to universities, but part of a trend across Nigeria and West Africa as a whole.

The imposition of the World Bank and IMF’s Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) in the region in the ’80s discombobulated entire economies, families and individual lives, with young people in particular being especially susceptible to the depredations of the new economic order.

With the national state so sharply undermined, individuals sought refuge in all kinds of alternative solidarities, among them an array of churches and other religious groups which promised to deliver exactly those things that the state could no longer be relied upon to provide.

Nigeria’s plight exemplifies a larger trend. Up till the early ’70s the country could boast of having, in Ile-Ife and Ibadan, two of the best universities anywhere in the whole of the British Commonwealth.

That neither university (actually no Nigerian university) made it into a recent list of the top 1,000 tertiary institutions in the world is eloquent testimony to the crisis which has sapped the country’s institutions of higher education, indeed the whole of the education sector, to its very foundations. When in the ’80s Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka (one of the many illustrious products of the then University of Ife) called for the closure of Nigerian campuses for a year so that their raison d’être could be redefined, he was roundly derided.

Yet today no one seriously disagrees with the situation described by one-time education minister, Oby Ezekwesili, as a state of emergency.

The “Ife Nine” are best seen as the inevitable products of this bedraggled system. The Word Ablaze Fellowship is merely one star in the galaxy of religious organisations that have redrawn the spatial, intellectual and moral geographies of the Nigerian university. And rather than being unique in their quest for an “emergency exit” out of Nigeria, they embody both the desperation and the collective longing of the people, particularly young people of college age, for an external and/or ethereal mediation of a national existential crisis.

The rapturees-in-making are comparable to their compatriots who besiege the embassies of Western countries daily in an invariably futile search for travel visas. In the imagination of present-day Nigerian youth “heaven” and “abroad” are mere synonyms.

Following their rescue, the Nine chorused their disillusionment with life on the campuses and in the country in general, one of them wondering aloud where it was written in the Bible that they should take examinations.

The unquestioning acceptance of the literal truth of the Bible on every subject is itself a testimony to the crisis of free academic inquiry on the campuses. In March this year, students of a secondary school in the northern state of Gombe clubbed a female school teacher to death for allegedly desecrating the Koran.

These young zealots will find the current environment on Nigerian university campuses more than welcoming. 

Ebenezer Obadare reports on the rise of Nigeria’s campus crusades