By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
Democratic politics is by far the most brutal competitive sport invented. Unlike other sports where the combination of individual skill, perspiration, inspiration, and experience or team ethic can be dispositive, outcomes in politics can hinge on externalities unrelated to these such as the security services, voters, the media, electoral management bodies or all of the above.
To grapple with these uncertainties, political competitors are always hard at work to enlist every available aid possible. In Europe and the Americas, Algorithms now play a huge role in the design and deployment of micro-targeting solutions that seek to uniquely personalize the electoral experience in much the same way that retailers do for the average consumer.
Around Africa, the belief is widely touted that “power comes from God” and “He bestows it on whom He chooses.” This has, however, never precluded the men who seek power from rigging elections, ballot-stuffing, bribing electoral umpires or buying judges who determine electoral disputes. Presumably, all these count as instruments in God’s arsenal. They are by no means the only ones.
In his 2015 study on Democracy in Africa, Oxford University’s Nic Cheeseman, explained that “from the pre-colonial period onward, the widespread belief in an invisible realm – which exists in parallel to the visible world and can act upon it – has conferred considerable power on those thought to be capable of wielding occult power.” Ebenezer Obadare of the University of Kansas adds that “religion and religious agents and factors continue to affect (African) politics.”
The belief around Africa that both presidents and wannabes need such powers to keep well in power is often deeply held. Politicians for the most part are awake when ordinary humans are asleep without necessarily being asleep when those others are awake. They get little sleep and cannot be sure that their efforts will be rewarded with anything other than public rejection.
Being a community that is chronically sleep-deprived, their need for doctors and for unseen powers would seem both logical and natural. Those who currently seek the presidency anywhere in Africa would surely be well advised to amplify their spiritual fortifications as they set about their pursuit. The record of some of their more famous African predecessors in this enterprise bears a brief recall.
In October 2016, Nigeria’s former presidential spokesman, Reuben Abati, infamously testified that “there is some form of witchcraft at work in the country’s seat of government.” In saying so, he only certified one of Nigeria’s worst kept secrets. The presidential entourage of General Sani Abacha reportedly had more than its fair share of shamans on retainer. In the years between 2008-2010 when former President Umaru Yar’Adua was ill in office, the official registry in the Presidency was reportedly deluged with desperate offers of the magical and miraculous from shamans of diverse denominations, many of them complete with exotic menus of ritual sacrifice and offering.
Many people are willing to swear that when Nigeria’s current presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, announced in August 2017 that rats and rodents had forced the president to work from home long before COVID-19 made it fashionable to do so, he was putting an agreeable face on the advice of presidential marabous whose diagnosis of the ill-health of General Muhammadu Buhari was that some enemies had planted dark forces inside the president’s office. If so, the only way to overcome them was for the president to steer clear of that space.
No one will ever know if President Buhari was to any extent assisted in resisting the mystical forces reportedly arrayed against his presidency by the fact of having a Pentecostal pastor as his deputy. Many other African presidents before him had to make do with less formidable spiritual armour.
In their Dictionary of African Politics, Nic Cheeseman, Eloïse Bertrand, and Sa’eed Husaini assert that “(African) political leaders have sought to harness belief in witchcraft to their own ends” and narrate how former Congolese ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko “employed the Senegalese marabout ‘witchdoctor’, El-Hadj Babacar Kébé, and an influential Malian marabout, Serigne Babacar Cissé, to bolster his spiritual authority.”
El-Hadj Kébé, who died in at the age of 70 in 1984 as one of Senegal’s richest and most influential men, made good from this association. One of the tallest and most exotic skyscrapers near the Place de l’indépendance in Dakar, capital of Senegal, is Immeuble Kébé, which is part of his estate. Mobutu, his most famous client by the way, was Catholic.
From neighboring Mali, El-Hadj Kébé’s contemporary, Serigne Babacar Cissé, had an even more improbable career also as marabou to Benin Republic’s long-serving soldier-turned-democrat, Mathieu Kerekou. Disregarding differences in faith and nationality, Kekerou made Cissé his Minister and retained him as closest adviser for many years with a reach into every crevice of Benin’s Byzantine politics and government. In this role, El-Hadj Cissé orchestrated on behalf of Kerekou a myth of both spiritual invincibility and political longevity.
When, following Benin’s transition in 1991 to multi-party democracy, the leading opposition candidate, Nicephore Soglo, took seriously ill, this was seen as proof positive of El-Hadj Ciss at work. Soglo survived but not before his retinue recognized that his weak credentials in spiritual warfare needed to be bolstered. After he took office in 1992, therefore, one of Soglo’s first acts was to organize an international Voodoo festival. Spiritually fortified, Soglo, a Christian, in 1996 elevated Voodoo to one of Benin’s “great” religions, alongside Christianity and Islam.
Senegalese and Malians do not enjoy a monopoly of shamans with trans-boundary capabilities. Nigeria’s Apostle T.B. Joshua was reputed to regularly minister to Kings and Presidents against the deadly designs of enemies known and imagined. Ghana’s former President, John Atta Mills, who died of throat cancer in July 2012, looked to him for deliverance from terminal metastasis. How much the ministrations of the founder of the Synagogue of All Nations helped President Mills must be a matter of conjecture.
John Atta Mills was by no means the only one of his peers who found time to arrange furtive assignations with T.B. Joshua. The Justice Elton Singini Judicial Commission of Inquiry established by the government of Malawi into the death also in 2012 of President Bingu wa Mutharika, devoted considerable time to sifting evidence on the relationship between President Bingu and T.B. Joshua. In its January 2013 report, the Commission wrote: “It was also well known that some few months prior to his death, the President travelled to Nigeria on unannounced visit. While the visit was kept under wraps in Malawi it, however, became clear that the President had indeed travelled to Nigeria. Due to the manner in which the President left the country…there were widespread speculations that the President had undertaken the trip to Nigeria to meet T.B. Joshua.”
Among the pieces of evidence it collected, the Inquiry disclosed a letter written by the dead President to T.B Joshua on 24 February 2012 in which he reminded the “man of God” that “everything is possible with God” and requested him to “continue to pray for various countries and people” and to “please remember the nation of Malawi in your prayers.” 41 days later, on 5 April, President Bingu died.
TB Joshua was not alone in the vocation of the prophetic Christian marabou. In January 2015, Catholic priest, Ejike Mbaka, claimed that his god had told him that Muhammadu Buhari could save Nigeria. Seven years later, he rowed back that “he saw a vision that President Muhammadu Buhari would be Nigerian leader in 2015 but never asked Nigerians to vote for him.” That was over two years after he talked up in advance the ruinous verdict of the Nigerian Supreme Court which elevated to the position of winner the man who came fourth in the governorship election in Imo State in 2019.
In Nigeria, the presidential villa has been an infirmary for a long time. Columnist, Abimbola Adelakun, recalls that “since 1993, Nigeria has had at least six leaders. Three of them ailed—two died in office and one spent extended time in a hospital abroad.” Since 1999, the casualties of the presidential villa have included one First Lady, one sitting president, and one Chief of Staff to the president in succession. Unsurprisingly, presidential witchdoctors have been much in demand. With the two leading candidates well over 70, and intimations of serious physical degeneration around one in particular, Nigeria’s presidential election due to take place in February 2023 could make these political witchdoctors even richer. It’s all for God and country.
A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at [email protected]