Religion is such a strong force that it percolates every aspect of life in human society. This is to the extent that, even among atheists, religion lurks in the background of their activities. The centrality of religion has convinced scholars like Louis Berkhof, John S. Mbiti, John S. Pobee, and Geoffrey Parrinder to conclude that human beings (sometimes focusing strongly on Africans) are incurably religious. Certainly, some scholars, notably Okot p’Bitek and Kwasi Wiredu, have challenged the idea that Africans are notoriously religious. They maintain that Africans are rather pragmatic in their pursuit of religion. While there is some truth in the assertion that Africans are religiously pragmatic, there is no equivocation that religion still holds sway in the lives of human beings.
It is important to also bring some clarity about the religiosity of human beings. Those who deny the inherent religious proclivity of human beings have a narrow understanding of religion. They usually limit religion to its esoteric aspect. They hardly look at religion as a superstructure or philosophy (worldview, if you like) that (re)shape the life of people. Thus, while religion has the supernatural bent, religion is equally a force that shape the worldview (how people view the world) of people. The idea that religion is only about the supernatural is a product of the nineteenth century: it was a century that saw radical (humanist and atheist) scholars seeking to discredit religion (particularly Christianity). The fruit of their scholarship contributed to foregrounding secularism in theory.
The attempt to separate religion from politics (secularism) and to situate human beings in a straitjacket dichotomy of religion and non-religion marked the beginning of the crisis in terms the role religion plays in the public sphere. By the 1960s, religion had progressively lost its stronghold in shaping the moral landscape of life. The mid-twentieth century was unique in de-centralising religion from the public sphere. But regardless of the extent to which religion has been mortgaged from the public sphere, there is no vagueness that the stakes are high when issues of religion stray into public discussion. And it is to refute the compartmentalisation of life into sacred and profane that informed Karl Barth’s assertion that Christianity is a relationship with God, not religion.
Since the efforts by Christians (with some form of support from the state) to construct a national cathedral, issues of religion in the public sphere have gained unprecedented attention. Many people continue to harp Ghana’s supposed secular constitution to demand from the state to disengage from matters of religion. It is important to state that as early as the 1950s, Nkrumah, as part of nation-building, proposed to construct Ghana as a ‘secular’ state. Indeed, this was against the backdrop that the Anglican Church (because of Ghana’s historical connection with England) was to be the officiating church at all state functions. Even so, Nkrumah’s appropriation of secular rhetoric was part of his own idiosyncrasies to build national unity in the face of religious plurality. His most philosophical book, Consciencism, was one of his own creative efforts at synthesising Ghana’s triple religious heritage – Islam, Christianity, and indigenous religions.
Given the centrality of consciencism in Kwame Nkrumah's philosophical outlook and his own appropriation (and parodying of the Christian Bible) of religion, it is clear that the idea of 'secularism' was part of the nebulous concepts that burdened post-colonial states in Africa. It must be pointed out that since the time of Kwame Nkrumah, virtually every president of Ghana has consulted one religious leader or the other. Nkrumah was eclectic in his appropriation of religion: he consulted spiritualists, Muslims, Christians, and indigenous practitioners. There were times he was engaging the service of Nana Akua Oparebea (b. 1900 – d. 1995), the priestess of Akonnedi at Larteh. Kofi Abrefa Busia, was a lay preacher with the Methodist Church, who was also deeply religious. There are credible accounts of his high level of spirituality which made it possible for him to survive multiple assassination attempts on his life by Kwame Nkrumah. Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, like Nkrumah, was eclectic in his religious appropriation. Hilla Limann also had religious functionaries supporting him (even though some felt he was a humanist). Jerry John Rawlings favoured the Afriknia (Africa kanea – Africa’s light). In the 1980s, it was only the leader of the Afrikania Mission, Osofo Vincent Kwabena Damuah, who had a monopoly over the national radio station to propagate his religion – which was nothing short of reviving ancestral cult. J.A. Kufour deployed religion to win the 2000 elections. During the 2000 elections, he was presented as a humble and god-fearing man with a vision to save Ghana from oppression and suppression. John E.A. Mills was noted for his engagement with Pentecostal Christians. He was advertised as a man of peace. He is on record to have almost converted the seat of government to a prayer shrine. John Dramani Mahama (John 3:16 was his teaser) and Akufu Addo (I Samuel 17:47, ‘The battle is the Lord’s) have also used religion to achieve a political end.
The functional role of religion in Ghana is such that it gives people hope, in the face of perplexity and grinning poverty. But, perhaps, the most important role of religion is seen on the eve of every new year. New year prophecies, have since the 1990s, become a major character of the Ghanaian religious cosmogony. On 31st night, most Ghanaians – Christians and non-Christians, throng the church space with the hope of transitioning into the new year. There are many reasons why 31st December is such an important day in the lives of Ghanaians. This is because it is the penultimate day to a new year and people are certainly unsure of what the new year holds to offer them. Addition to that is the human penchant to peep into the future. The fear of the unknown future is one of the reasons why human beings have devised all sorts of antics and strategies to know what lies ahead in life. The flirtation with 31st December could also be remotely linked to the December 31, 1981 coup in Ghana, staged against Dr. Hilla Limann by Jerry John Rawlings and his comrades. Have we developed a paranoia as a result of the coup and in the process fetishised 31st December?
Machiavelli said that human beings desire to know the future and yet when they are in the future, they desire for the past. In other words, the concept of time – past, present, and future – remains one of the defining limitations on human beings. Human beings have solipsism that traps them in the present. The past cannot be relived, but it is relied upon to reflect the present and also peep into the future. While the past is part of the storehouse of time, and the present is an existential reality, the future is simply unknown. It is known to only God. In fact, in Isaiah 44:7, God defined his divinity by appealing to many things (his creation) and also his control over time. His control over time shows that He and human beings do not occupy the same space (to cite the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas). God lives in and out of time simultaneously. Man lives only in time.
But because human beings only live in the present, the desire to know the future increases the anxiety level of humanity. It is for this reason that divination – as occultism and cultic practice – featured in virtually all human society. When I was growing up in Maamobi (Accra) in the 1980s, we had a Muslim spiritual functionary living right behind our compound house. And his alleged spiritual prowess saw politicians and high-ranking state officials and businessmen and women moving in and out of his ‘shrine’ in search for spiritual answers. Politicians and businessmen and women consulted him to know what lied ahead of them. These religious seekers made it possible for we the children to eat massa and deep-fried meat virtually every week (since religious seekers are often asked to do sadaka – gift-giving for ritual purposes).
In indigenous religions, the quest to know the future gave rise to abisa among the Akan. While the practice of abisa is a universal phenomenon in indigenous religions, I am using the Akan for the sake of convenience. Abisa was part of the efforts of human beings to explore the will of the divine. It is an effort to peep into the future to guide the present. Students, workers, patients, politicians, and traders all consult religious functionaries for abisa. The abisa brings the divine close to human contact. It helps human beings to manipulate the system of the world. One bizarre way my colleagues and I attempted to predict (abisa) our Basic Education Certificate Examinations (BECE) questions in 1998 was a suggestion by one of our mates, Joseph Kennah, that we should consult a lottery caster.
In Christianity, the cognate of abisa is prophecy. Prophecy featured prominently in the theocratic governmentality of ancient Israel. The nation of ancient Israel had national prophets who were responsible for telling the mind of God to the administrators and the people. As national prophets, they could rebuke kings whose administration run roughshod against the will of God. The prophets also provided military guidance. Through their interaction with God, they were able to guide warriors on war strategies. In the inter-testament period, wrongly referred to as four hundred years silence, a few individuals in the Jewish history rose who claimed to use rituals to foretell the future. But a few years before the birth of Jesus Christ, there were ad hoc and spontaneous prophets, who were operating. We know of Zacharia, the father of John the Baptist. We also know about Prophet Agabus in the life of Paul. But the extent to which prophecy constituted part of governmentality had waned since the Jews were under the rule of imperial Rome.
The entry of Jesus Christ into human history marked the ultimate revelation of God to humanity, while the canonised Bible marked the ultimate revelation and concretisation of God's will for humanity. If anyone wants to know about God's mind concerning an issue, one is directed to read the Bible. But, there are times God continues to speak to people on some specific issues. These issues may include marriage, health, political leadership, and business. But the caveat is that these revelations should cohere with what the Bible says. But in the face of specific revelations, it is political prophecies that have assumed ultimate importance in Ghana. This is because man (in a generic sense) is a political being (to paraphrase Aristotle). Politics – administration of resources to satisfy human needs – is at the core of our existence. Without politics, nothing will run.
Given the centrality of politics, which is also about power and how it is regulated, political prophecies remain contentious in Ghana. The vexatious nature of political prophecies is based on the partisan bent some of these prophecies take. The key exponent of political prophecies including Rev. Isaac Owusu Bempah, Archbishop (elect) Elijah Salifu Amoako, and more recently Nigel Gaisie. There are many more other such prophets, but this year, these trio have received maximum attention because of their contradictory predictions about who will win Ghana’s 2020 general elections. While Salifu Amoako and Owusu Bempah are convinced that the New Patriotic Party (NPP), under the leadership of Nana Addo Danquah Akufu Addo, will retain power (with Salifu Amoako predicting 53 percent margin for the NPP), Nigel Gaisie thinks that the National Democratic Congress (NDC), led by John Dramani Mahama, will win the elections.
The differences in prediction (prophecies) have caused the irk of some other pastors to run unchecked with insults. One such pastor, also a prophet, is Kofi Oduro. Kofi Oduro took to his church space to lambast and lampoon the political prophets in Ghana. He used very unsavoury words like prostitutes, sex maniacs, corrupt, and hypocrites to characterise the political prophets. In response, Salifu Amoako and Owusu Bempah have equally descended mercilessly on Kofi Oduro. Owusu Bempah has also used unprintable words to ‘expose’ Kofi Oduro. In the end, Ghanaians find themselves in a quagmire of religious verbal assaults. Social media has mediated the extent to which the insults and counter-insults are publicised. It is, therefore, easy for Ghanaians who are frustrated with these prophets to join the fray to cast aspersions against Christianity in general.
In the whirlwind of all this, my position is that the quest to know the future will continue to be with us and signify our humanity. Knowing the future can lead human beings to engage in all forms of occultic practices, including numerology, astrology, palmistry etc. But, regardless of how we seek to know the future, it is important for political prophets to respect each other’s unique prophecies. This is precisely because none of them controls the world. All of them may have the right to claim that God spoke to them, but we need to democratise the charisma and the gifts of the prophets, such that it is pointless to attack prophecies. Everyone should have the right to prophesy since it is part of one’s constitutional right. One of the points at which prophecies could be controlled is when its content explicitly portends danger to the peace of Ghana. Until then, we should treat all these prophecies as part of human’s quest to unveil the future. Since God alone controls the three dimensions of time, we should just stay cool and count on Him to rule His world. In the end, whether NPP or NDC wins 2020 elections, Jesus Christ is still the King of the universe.
Charles Prempeh ([email protected]), African University College of Communications, Accra