When the old time religion fails


Uddin Ifeanyi

A crisis of faith afflicts Nigeria’s elite. For too long, they have believed in the utility of sanctuaries in the West, where they have built summer getaways from the often riotous conditions at home. These getaways doubled as places of refuge for the political classes ― available to retreat to when their citizens can no longer live the way they used to, nor themselves rule in the familiar ways. In our elite’s scripture, the West is not just about governance and the rule of law, which make it extremely difficult for citizens of badly ruled places to extradite their rulers when the latter seek refuge there ― illicit lucre and all. It is also a place of conveniences ― better schools for the kids, and healthcare facilities for themselves ― and the ease of access to these.

Thus converted, this faith has thrived on a broad reading of the Christian injunction to tithe: Monies that could have driven investment in new capacities locally have been re-appropriated and deposited as savings in the “place where the Lord has chosen to place His name” (the West) ― in order that once there, our elite may “bestow that money for whatsoever their soul lusteth after”. Unfortunately, whereas the bounty which our leaders have spread in the West means that they “eat there before the Lord their God, and rejoice, they and their household”, it has also meant a paucity of funds to spend on hospitals and schools locally. Ensuring that poor adjusted quality of life across the larger part of the citizenry would continue to threaten a breakdown of law and order. Conversely, a poorly-provisioned and nearly always fragile state had the usefulness of reinforcing elite belief in the West as hallowed grounds.

That was before SARS-COV-2 and the COVID-19 pandemic it has brought with it. An auto-da-fé of sorts, this has been. The one scenario that the high priests of our elite’s profession of faith in the West did not envisage: a random threat that not only put the West at just about the same risk as the rest of us. But one that simultaneously denied them access to all the convenience that the West represents. Worse, by its very provenance, COVID-19 endangered the elite and its jet-setting ways in a way that no existential threat to the nation or its component parts ever has.

What to do? Even if the means were available to build the infrastructure locally that’s boosted the West’s relative resilience to the virus, the stoppage of manufacturing worldwide, the let on airlines, and the need to keep physical distance even amongst the hoi polloi who’d have to work at the many construction sites, make this not immediately feasible. Easily, therefore, our leadership has aped the West. Locking down as soon as it was fashionable there, even when that was the full extent of the national strategy. Large isolation centres were built, same way the West did, even when we had neither enough ventilators to support the severely ill, nor reagents to test for the disease on the requisite scale.

And when the West began to lift its foot off the lockdown, the mimesis locally was as uncanny as it was predictable. Wags have been heard to point out the large implications for social order of locking people down, where, as in Lagos State about two-thirds earn their keep daily. But even then, without having put together enough contact-tracers, adequate testing infrastructure, and healthcare facilities to support large-scale and long-tailed isolations, the decision to ease the lockdown, effective this week, is a heroic one.

If history teaches anything, it is that in our present conditions, the toll from a second wave of infections will hurt more than that from the first one. Votaries of even a religion as secular as that to which our elite belong might find this prospect attractive. As cleansing of original sin as it is purifying of all infractions that have occurred after.

And yet, what manifests as our elite’s crisis of faith may at bottom be the sublimation of a different crisis: Of competence. Graphically illustrated by the decision by important segments of the elite to violate the very rules they laid down, when it came to bury one of their own laid low by COVID-19. Unable or unwilling to obey its own laws, an elite is then no longer in a position to aim for the equitable, if not necessarily egalitarian, conditions that underpin the provision of basic services in the West.


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