Monday, February 13, 2017

Thanksgiving Service and the gospel according to Saint James Ibori

by Okechukwu Nwafor

Chief James Onanefe Ibori returned to a cheering crowd of his townsmen and women on February 4, 2016, after spending four and half years in a UK prison for criminal charges. Ibori's kinsmen staged a performative, flamboyant welcome for him and organised thanksgiving church service and reception ceremonies in his honour. During the church event which took place on 12 February 2016 at a Baptist Church in his hometown Oghara in Delta State, Ibori declared: "I am not a thief and cannot be a thief". In fact, according to Ibori, "Today is the day they say I should give testimony to God. For those that know me, you know that my entire life is a testimony itself and I have said it over and over again that my life is fashioned by God, directed by God, sealed, acknowledged and blessed by God and I believe that since the day I was born."

One, therefore, needs to rationalize Ibori's recent pronouncement, and its attendant aftermath, against a prevailing Nigerian psyche: first the fact that Ibori did not accept being a thief after serving a jail term for criminal offence, second the dominant Nigerian behaviourism of corruption, third the significance of God to Nigerian Christendom and for Ibori as a Nigerian politician. Indeed, this sounds like a lecture outline but it needs dissection.

Firstly, one must be alarmed that Ibori made such a statement in the first place. After a rigorous court process and an uncompromising verdict Ibori (himself pleaded guilty of the offence for which he) was convicted. It is, therefore, surprising, and at worst, embarrassing, that having fulfilled the terms of the crime in prison he would come back to deny the charges. The implication is that the moral bastion upon which human character is built is lacking in Ibori. It also means that his mind could possibly be suffering from a dangerous form of amnesia for which he totally forgot why he was held in the UK.

Secondly, there is nothing wrong in welcoming Ibori back home by his people. There is also nothing wrong in the affable and cheerful sympathy with which his people accepted him. Being away for so long eluded Ibori's loved ones of his affectionate presence. However, one becomes worried at the manner Ibori's people celebrate his return: effusive show of public festivity.  The tragedy of the Nigerian socialscape is such that there is no distinction between ignoble events and dignified events. The bash Ibori's return was treated to is utterly unnecessary. His return is not an enviable mark of achievement rather it is an ignoble anti-climax that should be treated with secluded cocktail. Such actions, obviously, sound bizarre in normal human reasoning for it means that plunderers are celebrated and should be applauded. What type of moral lessons are the Oghara people teaching to their younger generation?

Thirdly, we understand that the event was a thanksgiving church service. The question for those who were present during the event becomes: what was the subject of the pastor's sermon? One would have been able to provide a more sincere analysis had one been present during the church service. But even without being present during the service, the usual Nigerian style is for church ministers to eulogize wealthy corrupt politicians and church members, even when their source of wealth and livelihood is indisputably nefarious and malicious.  One is not surprised, therefore, that the Baptist Church in Oghara would celebrate Ibori for his 'steadfastness.' It is shameful indeed that many churches in Nigeria are mere spaces where atrocious credo of evil are legitimated. Oghara church cannot resist the compelling gospel according to Saint James Ibori. It is a gospel of double-dealing, of hypocrisy, of disturbing and arrogant religiousity and above all a gospel of visionless churching among a teeming Nigerian public.

Lastly, I want to understand the type of God some Nigerian Christians worship. Or do Nigerians have their own God who understands their capricious ways? Do Nigerians have a God who understands that even a thief should be celebrated and allowed to declare self-acclaimed innocence in the church, even after serving jail term; do Nigerians have a counterfeit God, who can be bought and asked to exculpate convicted criminals in church and he does so instantly; a God who usually invokes the case of the penitent thief beside Jesus on the Cross of Calvary to exonerate every Nigerian thieving politician and clear his road to heaven. Last word for Ibori, his people and the Baptist church in Oghara: There is God and they must attempt to discern the difference between the gospel according to James Ibori and the Gospel according to Saint James in the Holy Bible.  

Okechukwu Nwafor is an Associate Professor and Head of Department of Fine and Applied Arts, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. Email:       

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