An African theological response to EndSARS
On the 3rd October 2020 a video went viral on social media showing police officers killing a young man from southern Delta state in Nigeria. It sparked youth-led protests across Nigeria against brutality by Nigeria police’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). On the 11th October, the Nigerian government responded to the demonstrations by disbanding SARS and replacing it with a new unit called Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT). This however did not appease the protesters who continued their demonstrations for an overhaul of the police and security apparatus.
On the 20th October soldiers opened fire on the protesters at Lekki toll gate. The Nigerian government denied it fired at its citizens despite eyewitness testimonies. Amnesty International reported that 12 people were shot and killed at Lekki toll gate and at another location in Lagos. Amnesty estimated that overall 56 people were shot dead nationwide by state agents.
There have been many protests against SARS who have harassed, extorted and killed many young people for simply having a smart phone or diving a nice car. But the killing in October was the tipping point. Seen in a wider context, the #EndSars movement is an outcry against the many years of police brutality and political indifference. It is a demand for justice and a desire to see a country of enormous potential flourish. The movement is the collective rebellion by the country’s youth against Nigeria’s corrupt and dysfunctional political system. It is a demand to the government to treat the youth with respect, provide them with functioning educational, economic and social systems that will give them a hope and a future.
Given that the social and political environment affects the material, psychology and spiritual health of the person it is no surprise that African theologians have been writing and reflecting on a theology that takes the socio-economic and political structures in Africa seriously. This article offers an African theological response to SARS and the role of churches and Christians in responding to oppression and injustice.
What is African Theology?
Muzorewa (1990) defines African Theology as "a reflective interpretation of what the biblical God is doing to enhance African survival through the agency of people who are informed by Scripture and traditional concepts of God who is revealed to us through the faith and life of Jesus Christ." This definition has the benefit of confirming African Theology as distinctly African because it speaks to the world view and cosmology of the typical African whose traditional religious belief already contains within it a belief in the existence of a Supreme Being that is immanent and transcendent and is also personal and is concerned with the survival of the African person.
African Christian Theology is also a theology of liberation. It is concerned with the liberation of the oppressed from economic, psychology, social and political bondage. It seeks to expose the structural, religious and linguistic powers of oppression and injustice. It does this by revisiting the Gospel to discover the Jesus who sided with the oppressed and came to set the captives free. African theologians have used the Exodus narrative to proclaim liberation from structures such as colonialism and apartheid. African liberation theology is distinct from South American liberation theology which focuses on liberation from the structures of oppression whereas, for South African theologian Allen Boesak (1984), drawing on the experience of the apartheid struggles in South Africa where Black people were denied their dignity and their black African identity, the primary focus of African liberation theology is therefore about recovering and affirming the dignity and identity of humans as beings created in the image of God.
African liberation theology is fully African because it "theologize[s] and reflect[s] on the Christian faith from the perspective of African conditions. The idol to be overcome in Africa is the idol of colonial Christianity through the incarnation of the Christian faith into African cultures and the neocolonial structures that impoverish Africans" (Ogbonnaya 2015:37). As articulated in a statement by the African Conference of Churches meeting held in Abidjan in 1969, African Theology is a theology that is grounded in the Bible and which speaks to the Africans mind set. It speaks to the spirituality of the African as well as her material and immediate socio-political challenges (Muzorewa 1985:96).
Application of African Theology to EndSARS
What does this definition of African Theology mean for the churches in Nigeria? Within the framework of African Theology, what should be the churches’ spiritual and moral response to police brutality and the #EndSARS movement?
In the bible Book of Amos, the prophet reminds us that God is a God of justice. Amos denounces the empty prosperity of the northern kingdom of Israel. He is convinced that God demands social justice for all people, rich and poor. The message of Amos is of God’s judgement of the rich and privileged for their greed, self-indulgence and neglect of the poor and the oppressed (Amos 5:21-24). The day of God’s judgment will be a day of darkness for Israel. The book ends optimistically with a promise of restoration if Israel repents and obeys God’s commands.
Using Amos as our guiding text and African liberation theology as our interpretative framework, how then should churches engage with protests such as #EndSARS?
First, the Church in Nigeria should recognise its implicit role in the perpetuation of the systems of economic, political and social injustice which deeply affect the youth and the poor. Religious leaders are often in close relationship with the political elite to the extent that they cannot offer effective and substantive criticism of politicians and the ruling class. Religious leaders are too willing to receive political patronage in order to gain prestige, influence and power. The church cannot be complicit with the oppressor especially when doing so is against the religious values of freedom, justice and human dignity. African liberation theology calls upon the church to acknowledging the part they play in oppressing in that they have allowed themselves to be co-opted by the oppressor and so the church cannot be absolved from guilt.
Second, the church should actively side with and identify with the youth and the poor who initiated the #EndSARS movement. Several charismatic church leaders including Pastor Enoch Adeboye, Pastor Tunde Bakare and Bishop Oyedipo have condemned the attack and issued strongly worded statements. Pastor Adeboye released a statement saying “I condemn in the strongest possible term, attacks launched by the Nigerian military on unarmed young people, who have been peacefully protesting police brutality over the past twelve days as #EndSARS protests.” Pastor Bakare said "We cannot afford to keep silent when the youth of our nation are being oppressed by a Nigerian state that is supposed to protect them." In a statement, the Anglican Archbishop of Lagos, Dr Humphrey Olumakaiye said "we appreciate the youths for exhibiting unparalleled interest towards the betterment of this nation and not losing hope of the bright future we all long for."
While church leaders must be credited for speaking out and must continue to do so, the church's actions must go beyond issuing official public statements and expressing mere words of appreciation of the youth for their courage and activism. While it is true that the church has spoken out against corruption, it is arguable whether it has been effective in challenging and exposing national systems, legislations and policies that adversely affect the youth and marginalised in society such that it can be said that the church was instrumental in bringing about social reform. Julius Nyerere (1974:88) said, and which still applies today that "the Church must obviously and openly fight the existence and maintenance of the physical and spiritual slums and must work with the people to build a future based on social justice…only by doing so can the church hope to reduce hatred and promote its doctrine of love to all men…love expressed in action against evil… the church acquiesces in established evils, it identifies itself and the Christian religion with injustice by its continuing presence".
Finally, the church has to preach a theology of poverty. According to a World Bank report, 40% of Nigeria's population live in poverty. Nigeria has a very young population, with 60% of its population under 25. The country also has the largest number in the world of young people in poverty. It is the young who suffer disproportionately from Nigeria’s high rates of unemployment. In the face of the country's socio-economic challenges, preaching the prosperity Gospel appears attractive and reasonable. However, preaching a theology of poverty speaks directly to the condition and situation of the least in society and offers the individual real hope of breaking free from the structures of material, physical and spiritual deprivation. The church finds its prophetic voice when it preaches poverty because by doing so it articulates the Gospel that Christ preached. Perhaps, one of the challenges in addressing social injustice is the individualised piety of evangelical theology which places emphasis on private morality. The problem with this approach is that it neglects the importance of this world. It minimises the relational aspect of Christianity. The church must rediscover the relational dimension of justice and community transformation. Indeed, the governing theological and homiletical principle of the church can be summed up in Jesus’s words at the temple "the spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to announce good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour" (Luke 4: 18-19).
The future looks very bleak for the youth of Nigeria. African Theology contextualises the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the concrete practices and experiences of oppression, exploitation and poverty lived in and by Nigerians and indeed African people. It is concerned with proclaiming and advancing the common good and establishing a society in which both the oppressed and the oppressor are truly free and living a life of dignity as humans created in the image of God.