There is a line from a play by Kola Onadipe that I read in primary school, Halima Must Not Die, that returns to me on days like this one. In the play, someone had asked the lead character why she allowed herself to be deceived by religious charlatans who were simply milking her for her money. She responded, “If you cannot get the truth to buy, won’t you buy a lie?”
As I type this article about an ongoing moneymaking scheme in town called MMM, and the General Overseer of The Synagogue, Church Of All Nations, Pastor Temitope Balogun Joshua, I am aware that there can be no objective definition of “truth” or “lie” in either case.
Here and there, Nigerians talk about MMM, some kind of “wonder bank” where you invest some money and within weeks, you get a 30 per cent return. The scheme is apparently popular and a few people in my circle are involved as well. The MMM scheme does not work like other Ponzi schemes but it uses a business strategy that is unsustainable in the long run. The question is not whether it will crash or not, it is a matter of when. I asked acquaintances who were involved if they were aware that the programme was a resurgence of “Wonder Bank” that collapsed just some years ago. They were quite aware even though they were positive that the MMM would last longer than “Wonder Bank”. I also asked if they knew that the MMM had failed in countries like South Africa and Russia; it turns out that they knew that detail quite well too. None of these folk, by the way, are illiterates (and no, I did not just suggest that non-literate people are incapable of making sound decisions). These guys are quite educated, they can access information where and when necessary, and they know the risks involved. So, why do it, I asked them.
One responded that it was like buying a lottery ticket but with a higher guarantee of returns. They all said they have seen people’s investments go down in the banks, stock exchange, forex trading, and similar ventures. If the MMM fails, what will be new? While they have learnt to hedge their bets more perspicaciously, they are also mentally prepared for the inevitable. No government, they swore, can dissuade them from the venture.
While I concede that not every investor is as discerning, and some poor people out there are genuinely convinced that the MMM is running a shadowy Wall Street, the interactions with these friends gave me another perspective into the reasoning that drives people to make such risky and desperate investment choices. Not everyone is an ignoramus expecting the soil to yield a harvest beyond the earth’s abilities; some of the investors are simply trying to cash into a dysfunctional system. Like they noted, a number of financial institutions have collapsed in Nigeria, taking people’s money and livelihoods with them. The institutions vested with responsibilities to prevent and punish these failures have not always been diligent. Some of the individuals behind the failures of those financial institutions are currently seated in the highest echelons of our legislative institutions, the hallow (and hollow) chambers; they are the ones who now write the ethical codes for our society. When a society is short of truth and justice, who is surprised people buy a lie and panel beat it?
Lately, the House of Representatives called on law enforcement agencies to arrest the promoters of the MMM. I wish I could look those lawmakers in the eye and tell them how ridiculous they sound. If they were a little more reflective, they would find that the biggest Ponzi scheme operating in Nigeria today is organised government; the lawmakers themselves are a major beneficiary of the fraudulent project of governance. The Representatives can spend all day pontificating on Nigerians’ reckless habit of throwing their monies into the MMM, and how much they will hurt when the venture goes burst, they will not get anywhere. People’s patronage of the MMM is a symptom of Nigeria’s current dysfunctionality and if the lawmakers listen to people’s justification of their investment, they will understand that every self-destructive habit runs on an in-built logic.
The rather rational approach of the MMM investors made me think about Pastor TB Joshua and his prophetic enterprise in the wake of the United States of America presidential election. Anyone who knows Joshua knows that prophecies – or informed guesses, if you are a cynic – are his specialisation. He is well-known in not only Nigeria and Africa, but in fact, parts of Latin America as well. Recently, while working on an academic paper on politics and religion in Africa, I asked friends from Ghana and South Africa to give me the name of pastors whose activities affect their local politics so I could read up on them. The two of them mentioned Joshua before their local pastors!
When Joshua dabbled in predicting the winner of the US presidential election, you could tell that he was reading the same tea leaves as everyone else. He was most likely following the polls that gave the lead to Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Quantitative polling, any social scientist knows, has one huge limitation: it does not capture human complexity or reveal attitudes which people choose to keep private. In a post-election polling, people admitted they kept their choice of presidential candidate, Trump, personal because they were embarrassed at his lack of character and poor conduct. Like many people, Joshua believed too much in the nobility and sophistication of Americans to have expected they would vote a seeming buffoon like Trump as president. Joshua’s “prophecy” missed things by a mile and immediately it was obvious Trump would win, people congregated on the Internet to ridicule him and his ridiculous habit of prophecies.
I knew at the time the jokes started that this incident would change nothing in Joshua’s fortunes. One only needs to look at a popular Abuja pastor and the way he parried his alleged adultery scandal to realise that religious leaders know their audience. They know most people in their congregation will never walk away in disgust, not necessarily because they lack the gumption or that personal integrity means nothing to them, but because the religious leaders embody the truth that works for them in some other ways. Paul Ricouer, a philosopher, describes people’s acceptance of religious truths as levels of naiveté. First naiveté is the point people take religious truth literally; second naiveté, they accept it as symbolism and their attitude is more of pragmatic adjustments to the realities of how their world is structured and which would not change even if they walk away from their faith.
By the way, Joshua won a curious victory nevertheless: although Clinton lost the Electoral College, she won the popular vote. Joshua triumphantly hung to that little detail in a statement he released to clarify his “prophecy”. He went further to suggest that those who now gloat at his gaffe are simply not on the same spiritual wavelength as he is. Rather than admit he is wrong, he quickly muddles the pool and pushes back at his critics for their lack of second sight. On his social media pages, his followers and devotees have lapped up this explanation and they are quietly bleating, “Emmanuel!” to the tune of this charlatanism.
After Joshua’s church in Lagos collapsed last year, one would have expected his members to realise that prophecy or not, he does not see further than his own nose. Instead, they rallied around him and even spread his story of a mysterious aircraft. For the life of me, I do not believe everybody in such a large church is that undiscerning, they might have simply accepted that even a lie could be true. You only need to shift your meaning of “truth” and there, it works just as well.