Essays / The Pontifical Papers

REJECTING THE PROMISED LAND | by Ayo Sogunro

ayo-sogunro-presenOne of the more convenient allusions used by patrons of the current administration to justify—and raise hope for—Nigeria’s economic state is that of the “journey through the wilderness”. For example, during a church statement last week, the vice president made reference to this analogy. He suggested that the president was the equivalent of the biblical Moses, tasked with the role of leading Nigerians out of their current wilderness. To quote Professor Osinbajo: “We are on our way out of the wilderness. We should not be like the children of Israel when He took them out of Egypt and after a few problems, became grumblers-in-chief.”

For those unfamiliar with the context, this allusion recalls the biblical story of the ancient Israelites and their enslavement in Egypt. According to the Bible, the Hebrew God called on Moses to demand the freedom of the Israelites from the cruel Pharaoh, and then lead them out of Egypt into the “Promised Land” of Canaan. As with any such freedom-fighting role, this assignment was not without its challenges. There were complaints, battles, rebellions and multiple genocides. In short, it took some forty years for those Israelites to get from point A to point Z.

Unfortunately for us, that 40-year trek has made this story an appealing reference for APC politicians today. Not only is Buhari likened to a messianic figure, but we are we also urged to stop complaining or risk divine disapproval. To these politicians, the parallels seem unarguable. We have an old man exiled as a young prince, but now back to save the day.

Parallels like this appeal to our spirituality and sense of destiny. This means we have a purpose. Of the 196 countries in the world, we are a special people guided by divinity. We are not just an arbitrarily fashioned nation created by greedy colonial interests and then left to flounder under unintuitive and out-dated administrative systems. In short, religious analogies are comfortable to a weary population. However, lazy politicians have abused this ideal. At the risk of preaching, let us consider the following arguments that show that our circumstances have little in common with the journeying Israelites.

Competence before obedience: Moses came back to rescue the Israelites after a 40 year exile. However, he did not get a warm welcome. It is clear to me that he had to demonstrate his competence as a messiah before soliciting for obedience. He had to prove that he was a changed person—capable of serving the people—before asking the Israelites to abandon their own affairs. Hence, he challenged the Pharaoh, invoked the 10 plagues and parted the Red Sea. It is clear to me that Moses insisted on complete obedience only after he had achieved these fantastic acts. Whenever the people grumbled, he would always remind them of his proven competence in bringing them out of Egypt. The reverse is the case under the current administration. Without having done anything, the government is insistent on complete obedience. That is certainly not the Moses way.

Forty years was not the plan: Moses also indicates that the 40-year delay in the wilderness was not the original plan. It is made clear that the Israelites wandered around as punishment, until almost all of the original followers of Moses were deceased. I doubt if this is the message the vice president and others intend to pass. But we cannot cherry-pick the connotations of our analogies. Some may argue that yes, Nigerians are being punished for the bad behaviour of the past. But this pedestrian argument also demonstrates the blind elitism in our social psychology. The political cliques that structured a consumer economy, lived off the riches of oil revenue, and sank the economy are not the ones suffering hardship and starvation. The generals and politicians who ruined Nigeria are fine. It is the masses that suffered under their misrule that are suffering. The Israelites were punished for rebelling, but if the current economic situation is our own wilderness, then the masses are simply being punished for not having rebelled.

Policies were defined clearly: Moses detailed his reform agenda. His laws, regulations, and policies spanned three books of the Old Testament. He was more than eager to share the vision he received on the mountain. President Buhari—our supposed Moses—rarely talks to us. When he does, it is mostly through the foreign press. Similarly, President Buhari is yet to show what Achebe calls “a radical programme of social and economic re-organisation or at least a well-conceived and consistent agenda of reform”. Now that almost all campaign promises have been revoked, we have no clear map. If this is the wilderness, then we are stumbling around blindly, seeking our way by trial and error.

President Buhari hardly fits the Moses archetype. So far, he has acted no differently than most of his Nigerian predecessors in office: from Balewa to Obasanjo. If we are to borrow biblical models, he is more Pharaoh than rebel leader. Nevertheless, these conclusions are simply extrapolations from a Hebrew story that has no relevance to Nigerian politics and governance. And that is the point: we can all play the game of Promised Land and each reach widely different conclusions. Yes, Nigerians need hope. We need assurance that these difficult times will pass. But we are not children to be soothed with bedtime stories. We have had—and heard—enough pseudo-religious sound bites.

And so, our hope in a better future has to be derived from the logical conclusion of clearly defined government policies. More than faith, we need the “how”, “why” and “when” of official decisions and actions. We need to follow the rigorous route of factual arguments and presentations, not the shortcut of convenient Bible analogies. It is time to reject fanciful allusions. We will progress only when we face the future through critical engagement with the realities of the present.


Originally published in slightly modified form here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.

Follow @ayosogunro on twitter for more engagement, buy his books, and—if you really like stimulating, if sometimes annoying thoughts on socio-legal philosophy—enter your email in the right sidebar to get notifications of fresh talk on this fine blog.


Ever wondered about the class structure of Nigerian society? Read the mini-series on the Hierarchy of Nigerian Policy.

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