By Nimi Wariboko
Since the release of the BBC Africa documentary on the late Prophet TB Joshua, Nigerians have been debating the merits of the expose of his unsavoury lifestyles. Thousands of commentators gallantly rose to defend his reputation just as many more castigated him. What led me to write this essay is to not adjudicate between the contending camps, but to put their debates in a wider context.
The ongoing debates reveal more about religion and our national character than what the man himself revealed about us when he was alive. First, the position of his defenders reveals how faith is supported in Nigeria. Scepticism is a luxury many Nigerians cannot afford; it raises anxiety about their faith that they are not willing to entertain. Second, the arguments of some of his critics are based on their fantasy. Many Nigerians are wont to criticise what they fantasise about. Third, his critics mock his defenders in a manner that crudely ‘otherizes’ them. Finally, too many of us still have ‘colomentality.’ The BBC documented something and suddenly everyone is talking endlessly about it as a 24-hour news channel. What is really new about what the BBC put out?
Many commentators are frustrated that there are Nigerians who are fervently defending him after all that the BBC exposed. Many scholars have told me his defenders are blind and irrational. I responded by saying they are not. To reduce their defence to irrationality is to miss a crucial point about religion and how it works on the psyche of its adherents.
Those who defend him might well know or believe that he did something wrong. But to jettison him now will threaten the foundation of their faith, put their whole belief system into a crisis. At the bottom, the failure of Prophet Joshua is not just the failure of a particular man, but that of a worldview. If the man that you believed had the ears of God is now exposed as a deceiver, you might doubt your religion itself. If the Pentecostals were to give up their faith in miracles, prophecies, pastors who bridge the physical and spiritual worlds, and persons who can access secret information from God’s heart such as Joshua represented, then they might as well jettison their faith in Christianity.
The blindness of his defenders is not due to stupidity, but a certain anxiety or an unwillingness to doubt or even question their religion or understanding of what Christianity is. What TB Joshua represented (miracles, prophecies, wealth, power, and so on) constituted the texture of their faith and religious thought. They cannot think or are yet to accept that their faith or belief system is wrong. To accept that the texture of their thought has been wrong all along is to start the process of questioning their current religious leaders and their own integrity as followers.
To harbour the radical thought that their religion might be wrong as TB Joshua was wrong is to begin the process of looking at most of their religious leaders with a “corner eye.” This might engender a moral or psychological crisis in them. Their defence of him is not done to cover his alleged accusations but to cover or protect their psyche or web of beliefs. Cognitive dissonance, you might say.
All these should not be construed to mean that every Christian in Nigeria or defender of the late prophet is unable to question their faith practices or escape from any web of beliefs that blinds them to certain truths about their religious leaders. There are many Nigerian Pentecostals who question the undue authority, magicality, and pastoral supremacy of their religious leaders.
This brings us to my second point. Many Nigerian pastors who now criticise him used to fantasise about his profuse performance of “incredible miracles.” If some of them felt anxiety or disgust around him, it was because he excessively or effortlessly offered “signs and wonders” for public consumption what they all secretly wanted or professed. He brought out their fantasy to an excessive degree.
Thus, I argue that TB Joshua was not a religious leader in the traditional sense; there was something in TB Joshua more than TB Joshua himself. He is an “organisational device.” He was a figure that represented the terrifying excess of pastoral subjectivity, a subject around which the excessive fantasies of “pastorality” organised and circulated. His character appeared in the Nigerian Pentecostal scene to make everything clear about the charismatic pastors whose hope was to perform endless miracles, speak as oracles of God, possess enormous wealth, and have powerful men and women all over the world as their friends. Yes, TB Joshua displayed terrifying excesses and they negated what many well-meaning Pentecostals believed, but those attributes were integral to being a Nigerian Pentecostal pastor.
Third, the BBC documentary-birthed critics of Joshua are arguing that anyone defending him is living in an alternate reality. They hold that the defenders are not part of the supposedly rational or authentic reality that they the critics live in. This is a silly argument. The argument that the critics live in the “here and now” and TB Joshua defenders live in “there and out” reality, and that they are “others” who live in some la-la land is ridiculous.
The fact that they do not share the viewpoint of their fellow Nigerians who criticise the late prophet does not make them irrational or constitute them as citizens cut off from contemporary reality. There is no “reality and the other,” just as there is no “time and the other” as the famous anthropologist Johannes Fabian argued a long time ago. Fabian argued that it was a bad scholarship for anthropologists to maintain that the “natives” they were encountering did not live at the same time as they do because they had adjudged them to be “savages” or “underdeveloped.” For instance, they were meeting natives in 1950-both anthropologists and their subjects were in the same year and place—but the anthropologists insisted that their “objects” were from a primitive time. The critics of Joshua’s defenders exhibit a similar attitude. They are encountering the defenders of Joshua in the same Nigerian reality, but still think their fellow citizens inhabit a separate reality. This is a form of hubris. Reality is full of contradictions and perspectives, and pluralistic differences in comprehending it do not exclude some from its shared coordinates.
Finally, let me state that all that the BBC revealed about the late prophet has been circulating one way or another in this country. Why didn’t many of us echo or popularise them until a foreign, white-owned organisation aired them? The massive faith we have exhibited in the BBC documentary is not merely based on its vaunted credibility, but a testament of our national character that believes what whites say about us is more important or meaningful than what our own experts say about us.
We are not dupes of any imperial ideology; we are complicit in the construction of our postcolonial reality or the ideological fantasy that sustains it. Our orientations to all that is white contribute to the frustratingly inescapable fantasy that interpellates us. Colonial ideology is motivated in each person from within via desires for the white’s world acceptance that are complicit with the postcolonial status quo.
To counter our psychic subjugation to the white world’s acceptance, our critique of colomentality should not be in the form of clearing illusions (false ideas) that we think Europeans and postcolonial ideologies inflicted on us to legitimise sociopolitical domination. It is not about exposing the hidden truths of hegemonic nation-states. There is no need to go back behind any curtain or smoke screens to reveal the ‘real’ of reality that the dominant nations (‘the usual culprits’) have hidden from us. Rather, we need to expose our “fantasy-constructions.”
Wariboko is the Walter G. Muelder Professor of Social Ethics, Boston University, United States
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