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Why Nigerians pray

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If you live in Nigeria, it’s hard not to sometimes think that something is wrong with you. This often happens when you are down on luck and have tried all you can and things are not working out as you hoped for. Then you start thinking that perhaps it is an ancestral curse at work, or that ‘village people’ have cast a special spell on you to impede your progress. You feel frustrated and underappreciated, believing that your earnings and results are not commensurate with your skills, talents and experience.

But this is nonsense, really. You are not cursed. The real culprit is the Nigerian economy and how our society is oorganised. We are a poor country, mainly populated by struggling people trying to get by. In such circumstances, it is almost impossible for talents to be rewarded to the full extent they deserve. This is coupled with the fact that we are not a merit-based society. The slacker in school with a well-connected uncle in government will probably do better in time than the first-class brain that used to teach tutorials. While influence peddling exists in every society, the most developed ones have minimised this and are mainly competence, rather than connection-based.

If you doubt this, when last did you see a job vacancy for the Central Bank of Nigeria, or the foreign service?

Many Nigerians instinctively understand this. They know that success and progress here depend more on connection than competence, and respond to it in one or a combination of three ways:

1. They pray: The greatest weapon Nigerians think they possess is prayers. Ours is one of the most religious societies in the world. According to the Pew Research Centre (2023), a staggering 95 per cent of Nigerians report praying daily, placing the country second only to Afghanistan in terms of prayer frequency. This indicates the deep integration of prayer into the daily routines of many Nigerians.

What do Nigerians pray about? They mostly ask for supernatural help to overcome the economic and socio-political challenges, which are mainly the outcome of leadership failures. However, the prayers are often not for help to disrupt the adverse political and economic system, or to change the status quo, but that this system favours them as is. They ask God to make their case different: ‘’There may be poverty in the land but my case will be different”.’ “Bandits may kill hundreds, but Father Lord, my family and I will be safe this new year”.’

This attitude is the reason religious programmes are packed full weekly, and especially at the end of the year when people are more pious and hope that somehow all the failures and challenges of the preceding year will not follow them to the new one. It is responsible too for the prevalence of religious themes such as ‘Redeemed to Flourish in Hard Times’, ‘Divine Repositioning’, and ‘No Loss, No Lack, No Limitation’.

In all of this, Nigerians seek God’s help, as a unit, to be the exception and not the rule. The norm in the country is that of poverty, insecurity and general hardship and these Nigerians think that it is only God that can make them escape these.

2. They join politics: This is one of the reasons why political contests are so fierce. For many Nigerian politicians, elections are a matter of life and death, a fight to finish (Supreme Court). Because being in a political office appears to be the surest way of escaping poverty and other Nigerian maladies. It provides an exclusive pass into that limited group of big men and women with power, which, in the country, is often followed by great, if unexplained, wealth. That way, you can largely function above all the problems – petty and serious – that define the average Nigerian life. To be sure, not all those who adopt this strategy contest for political offices. Some actively support political actors with the hope that they will be their vehicles to power and the soft life.

3. They flee: Many Nigerians, especially young ones, tired and frustrated by the ingrained disparities and obstacles, elect to leave. They don’t fight the system, or are tired of doing so, and emigrate to places, especially Europe and North America, where they believe their talents and skills will be fully appreciated and rewarded. This has become so common in the last decade or so, making the Yoruba word for ‘run away’ – japa – almost becoming part of the English lexicon.

Of the three strategies, prayer is the most common and easily accessible to the majority of Nigerians. It doesn’t cost anything, only faith in a supernatural being. Few Nigerians have the influence or resources to run for political office, or to emigrate from the country. But all can pray, and ask God to make their personal circumstances different, atypical of the country’s average.

At this point, prayer appears to be a desperate act of helplessness, an awareness of one’s impotence in the grand scheme of things, and an inability to change anything by oneself. But the evidence that things will truly change because it’s a new year and because Nigerians pray is scarce. Every year appears to be worse than the preceding one for the country.

Yes, there will be exceptions, a few Nigerians that will live large and well, despite the challenges. But our best hope for a peaceful, stable and prosperous society is to fight collectively to make the changes we want to see happen; putting pressure on elected officials to ensure reforms across the board. Asking or praying to be an exception in a failing country is somewhat selfish and unrealistic. In a truly failed state, a Somalia, no one will be exempted. States fail when the nameless majority resign to fate, and accept the anomalies as normal, while seeking to be part of a shrinking pool of exemptions – until the day when there is no longer room in that pool.

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