Ogboni cult in Beta Edu and T.B. Joshua | Festus Adedayo

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The “Edan” is a Yoruba Ogboni cult insignia, an emblem of membership in the Ogboni society. It is a cylindrical duality of male and female brass figures with iron stems attached to it. Mostly joined at the top by an iron chain, the edan is said to signify old age, experience, knowledge, and wisdom. The female edan also has a beard motif. It recreates the image of the goddess, Edan, a manlike woman, an “Obinrin bi okunrin” who possesses the wisdom of a Babalawo – diviner – and the epicenter of human morality. This image is intermixed with the supernatural powers of a witch, an aje, reputed to have powers for the defence and protection of Ogboni cult initiates.

Ulli Beier, the German-Jew catalyst for modern African culture, stood in awe of the edan when he saw it. In his In a Colonial University (Iwalewa-Haus, University of Bayreuth, 1993) Beier narrated his first encounter with the edan in 1950 and his overview of the Nigerian ritual art at the University of Ibadan, thus: “After dinner, liqueurs were served in the sitting room and …Professor Christopherson passed round his latest acquisition – a magnificent Ogboni (a secret association of Yoruba priests and chiefs invested with major judicial and political functions and devoted to the worship of the Earth) brass figure some 30 cm long. I had never seen anything like it, had no idea what it meant or where it came from but was overwhelmed by a feeling of awe as I held in my hand the heavy object, emanating so much power and ancient wisdom.”

In Nigeria, corruption and religious trickery are like the edan, conjoined by an iron chain of culture, history and a sustained system of elite greed. Today in Nigeria, this Ogboni emblem is signposted by suspended Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Beta Edu and late Temitope Balogun Joshua, popularly known as T.B. Joshua. If Nigerians didn’t know anything else about Nigeria, they know that these two evils, corruption and religion, are twin viruses that have eaten deep into the marrows and red cell corpuscles of their country. They are also aware that the two evils have centuries-old existence. So when the BBC, last week, assumed it had hit an exclusive story-mine by airing a documentary on the sordid life of charismatic pastor, unorthodox televangelist and founder of Synagogue of All Nations (SCOAN), T.B. Joshua, the British broadcasting outfit, it will seem, was merely playing to the gallery, no pun intended. BBC had alleged in the documentary, through interviews with alleged eyewitnesses, that Joshua’s pastoral life had been a potpourri of rape, shambolic miracles, torture and forced abortions. Whether in pre, colonial or post-colonial Nigeria, Nigerians are/were genetically wired to believe in the supreme potency of achieving material success and healing from harnessing mystical powers.

As at 1922, the British colonial office was already worried by the traffic of patent medicine ordered by Nigerians from India, a country renowned to be a centre for mystical powers. By that time, literate Nigerians were already ordering, by postal service, literature on mysticism and homeopathic medicine from India. J. K. Magregor, British Nigerian resident and headmaster of Hope Waddell Institute in Calabar, was so disturbed by this trend among his pupils that he documented what he saw to the colonial office in England. He caught the pupils in possession of letters they sent abroad demanding from quack doctors methods of treating diseases and attaining success through spiritual powers. The pupils also received catalogues of magical works and letters “from various societies that professed to give esoteric teaching that was sure to bring success and happiness.” In one mail delivery, Magregor found hundreds of such requests. One example the Briton found, which he documented to the colonial office, was a 12-year old boy who had ordered by post a “Mystic Charm” from India, “a piece of valueless metal containing some wax, enclosed in the heart of a newspaper.” Included with the metal was a message to the boy from India to send money back so that he could “receive blessings from the Hindu deity Siddheswari” and he would find the blessings by “watching the flow of his nasal mucus.”

The spate of charlatans promising to provide magical powers for a fee later transmuted into the fraud ring called 419, for which Nigeria has harvested unflattering renown throughout the world. This combines to form the benumbing orgy of corruption in high and low places for which Betta Edu, Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, was suspended from office last week. None of the two evils began today. On December 18, 1920, Nigeria’s first 419 kingpin was arrested. He was Mr. Crentil, self-styled professor, an ex-employee of the Marine Department of the colonial office in Lagos. He had written to a victim in Gold Coast, now Ghana, describing the magical powers he possessed and could offer for a fee. He was charged in 1921 by the police on 3-count charge under Section 419. He was however lucky as the charges were struck off, prompting “Prof Crentil” boasting that he got off through same magical powers.

At this period in the life of Nigeria, there were itinerant native doctors who professed to connect people to their shrines that produced wealth. This, they claimed would be provided by the gods of wealth through spiritual forces. In virtually everywhere in Nigeria, there were itinerant medicine sellers and magical spellers called Ajasco Boys, Money Doublers and the like who offered a repertoire of techniques. With this, they claimed they could connect unsuspecting victims with the invisible world and engender fortunes for their victims. Over a century after, this spiritual vermin hasn’t died but its proboscis has gone more lethal. It has changed, no doubt. Now clothed in modernity, it has gone visceral, sucking the blood of innocent Nigerians who seek remedy to existential crises.

The BBC documentary of last week merely fitted into what Nigerians already knew about themselves. As it has been notoriously recalled, T. B. Joshua’s tendency for sorcery rather than Christianity, was first busted by Ibadan-based famous eerie-world-revealer broadcaster, Kola Olawuyi. His Saturday morning programme on Radio Nigeria and OGBC was a crowd puller. On one of such, Olawuyi showed, with empirical evidence and interview sessions, that Joshua had a spiritual liaison with an albino from his Arigidi Akoko, Ondo State native home. A few weeks after, another man appeared on Olawuyi’s programme claiming spiritual powers while flaunting a black egg as his talisman. He claimed to be Jemijaiye Okuku. As I listened to the programme, something told me the Jemijaiye voice was familiar. As Olawuyi was lifting the veil off the face of this so-called powerful spiritualist, the police, who had been invited, emerged to arrest the charlatan. Immediately, I connected the dots. The fellow, a man with dreadlocks, was my close friend, a decade earlier. I knew his mother and siblings. We both lived in the same Ayeso area of Ilesa, Osun State.

A coterie of mystical scammers, many wearing the garb of pastors and Imams, has succeeded in fleecing Nigerians based on the people’s longstanding abiding romance with fatalism and mysticism. Scholars have attributed this to the sustained link between the people and their traditional African heritage. Africans, Nigerians grew up to know that there is a causal link between the physical and the spiritual and that nothing is or can be if it does not emanate from the spiritual. This has necessitated the rat race to penetrate the veneers of the spiritual. In the process, the people are susceptible to the charlatanism of fakists and sorcerers who, wearing the visor of pastors/Imams, sweep them off their feet with fabulous claims. They also claim to be able to make penetrative gazes into the unseen world and are able to manipulate the corridors of the spirits to help their victims achieve unheard-of successes in the material world.

Why it becomes hard to distinguish sorcerers from miracle hawkers is that even the two prophets of Christianity and Islam – Jesus and Mohammed – equally got accused of sorcery while they were on earth. The truth is that, the divide between sorcery and miracles is very thin. Both are united by their provinces as strange and uncanny. This is what Guru Maharaj Ji in Ibadan and Jesus of Oyingbo use/used as their fortes. At one time, a lively debate erupted as magicians and sorcerers too contended that the marveling miracles wrought by of the prophets Moses and Jesus were themselves magical. In Christian teachings, we were told that Jesus was accused of performing miracles through Baʿal Zebub or Beelzebub. This god, in Joseph Conrad’s Lord of the Flies, was the devil. It was derived from a Philistine god that was hitherto worshipped in Ekron, and which was thereafter adopted by some Abrahamic religions. Beelzebub was a major demon linked to the Canaanite god Baal and which, in theological sources and predominantly Christian literature, is another name for Satan.

As a reporter who frequented his Lagos-Ibadan expressway shrine and who had, by so doing, gathered first-hand insights into his operations, I once compared Maharaj Ji with Russian mystic Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, who hypnotized his devotees. The Ibadan bearded spiritualist also claimed to be the world’s own version of Jesus Christ. In late 1906, Rasputin put self forward as a faith healer, healing Nicholas II and his empress consort, Alexandra Feodorovna’s son, Alexei Nikolaevich who had been suffering from haemophilia. Rasputin was known to be a charlatan and was eventually assassinated in 1916. Having been friends with Maharaj Ji for years and observed the vacuous faces and absent faces of the men and women in trance-like looks in his shrine, it was easy to place the Ibadan self-styled god. That piece evoked attacks from his devotees spread across his ashrams who attacked me from all fronts.

People have asked what motive that BBC documentary stands to serve. To tell Nigerians what many already knew about T.B. Joshua? Why didn’t it come at a time when Joshua himself was alive and could rebut some of the claims? Lies were put to many strands of the BBC interviewees’ accounts of what went on in the Synagogue. Same goes for claims against Joshua by persons purporting to be what they were not. In totality, these cast a pall of doubt on the documentary. While alive, presidents of some African countries trooped to Joshua’s SCOAN for healing. One of such was then Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Richard Tsvangirai. In 2008, Ghanaian president, JohnAtta Mills, was also at the Synagogue, “to seek the face of God during the election in his country.” So also was former Zambian President Frederick Chiluba, as well as the late leader of Gabon, Omar Bongo. Could Joshua be attracting all these through sorceries? When it is realized that many of the white devotees of Joshua’s church who allegedly wanted to take over the church at the pastor’s death were rebuffed, the BBC documentary may thus be viewed from the usual racial lens.

Having said this, many of the pastors/Imams who claimed to live lives of piety have been revealed to be opposites of who they are, at their deaths. An example is Frederick Antony Ravi Kumar Zacharias, an Indian-born Canadian-American Christian evangelical minister. He was the founder of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) and for forty years, was involved in Christian apologetics. At his death however, some women came forward to claim that he sexually abused them. This prompted the hiring of the Miller & Martin law firm by the RZIM to investigate these allegations. At the end of the day, their veracity got confirmed. RZIM eventually underwent a name change and public apology, subsequently excising every material pertaining to Zacharias. In Nigeria, there are famous pastors who are known to be sexual predators, occultists and greedily thirsty for material acquisitions. So what did Joshua do differently?

While religious mesmerism results in the inability of a people to think straight, corruption stagnates a nation. In their amity like the cylindrical edan, they have wrecked incalculable havoc on Nigeria since its founding. Part of this havoc can be attributed to our history and culture which make us easy prey to spiritual enchantment and corruptibility. Smart political charlatans invoke religion to sustain their hold on the political. A whiff of it got manifest last Thursday at the meeting of the Forum of Governors on the platform of APC. Asked what the fate of Betta Edu, suspended Minister of Humanitarian Affairs was, Imo State governor, Hope Uzodinma, urged Nigerians not to pass a verdict of guilt on her yet as “the only perfect being we have observed and noticed is the Almighty God.” Anyone who knows the dalliance between corruption and theology and how politicians often invoke God to entrap the people will understand what effect Uzodinma was struggling to achieve.

By the way, let us give kudos to President Bola Tinubu for suspending Edu and his decision to cut the long-winding chain of convoy in his and other government officials’ entourage. I am sure what did the magic of the convoy reduction was the persistent and unrelenting singeing of the president’s flesh over the disgusting optics of his recent visit to Lagos Island. Muhammadu Buhari ran a government that was dead to such nudges for eight years, retaining such governmental recidivists, in spite of their visibly known crimes. Tinubu should go a step further by throwing every corrupt government official under the bus. The next person to sack is Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo because what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Edu, many government officials before him and several in this government have luxuriated for too long inside the sewers of over a century-old system of distribution of patrimonial wealth among selves and cronies. The time to break that chain is now.

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