As the world watched Abubakar Shekau’s video declaration of Allah’s instruction to him to sell the nearly 300 (276 has emerged as the official figure, but no one really knows) girls he kidnapped at midnight from their boarding school beds in Chibok, Borno State, something happened at last that had been long awaited: action, rather than platitudinous words of outrage. As is often the case nowadays, this turn was galvanized by social media, chiefly Twitter and Facebook, with the hashtag “Bring Back Our Girls” as the battle-cry.

Perhaps this awakening had something to do with the shocking levity, the manic joviality, with which Shekau turned the clock backwards several centuries to evoke memories of the trans-Saharan slave trade which predated and later co-existed with the trans-Atlantic version. “I abducted your girls,” he announced gleefully, shaking the right pocket of his military fatigue jacket in anticipation of his profit from slave-trading in 2014. Then laughing, growling, and taunting, he informed us that he would be selling Allah’s children under the direct instruction of Allah: “I will sell them in the market, by Allah.  . . . There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell.”

Did Allah speak to Shekau or not? Is Shekau God’s anointed prophet sent to establish his holy kingdom in Nigeria or not? I have no doubt that if Shekau has indeed received instructions from any entity other than his demented self, it is the devil. But, then, Shekau is not the only one who claims to have direct conversations with the almighty. His counterpart in Uganda, Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army, also claims God’s authority for countless acts of murder, mutilation, sexual slavery and use of child soldiers in his decades-long campaign against Yoweri Museveni. Shekau may have borrowed a leaf from his brother Kony’s book of horrors: in 1995, Kony killed or abducted hundreds of villagers. A year later, he set the example of kidnapping girls when he took 139 in the town of Aboke. Both holy warriors have in turn borrowed from the fat tome of religion-induced horrors compiled by the two dominant religions — from Papal bulls sanctifying slavery to the medieval terrors of dipping heretics in boiling cauldrons or burning them at the stake, witch-hunts, the Crusades, forced conversion jihads replicated today in the terrorism of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda affiliates worldwide, etc.

Nor does God only give his commands of “Go and utterly destroy, bomb, capture or torture the Amalekites” (non-believers, the unchosen) to rebel warriors. Every week, in churches and madrasas, the anointed, mostly men, relay to us the commands God gave them in private: to wipe out the unbelievers; build a cathedrome or a revival camp the size of a town; buy a private jet for the Daddy General Overseer; make five, ten, twenty faithful worshippers instant billionaires; bind all witches and wizards, principalities and powers (though that task was presumably “finished” two thousand years ago, it must be performed anew every Sunday or revival service), etc. The level of intimacy, of chumminess, between God and his self-anointed, as expressed by the latter, can approach outright blasphemy and profanity in their effort to claim exceptional sanctification or chosenness. Here is how a famous Daddy Overseer sets himself apart in the author’s biography on the back of one of his many books of holy voodoo: “Pastor [no need to state his name] has put his ear to the Almighty’s chest and heard His heartbeat. In his devotions, he shares what God is telling him.”  Yes, what his congregants hear every time he mounts the pulpit or he is giving counsel is the pristine, unfiltered, word of God relayed through him merely as an inert, inorganic and incorruptible pipe. And, yes, the pastor not only hears God speaking to him directly from the heavens, just as Yaweh spake to Moses in the burning bush, but far more than that hears the Almighty’s heartbeat, no stethoscope needed of course! It goes without saying that this Daddy Overseer knows God’s every thought, perhaps even before God has thought it! What can top this? That he was at the right side of God when he created the heavens and the earth and without him (pastor) was nothing made that was made? As my good friend Akin Adesokan once told me (if my memory serves me right) that the master storyteller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, who loved to explore the mystic side of our humanity, once quipped with regard to a famous moral philosopher-writer, this pastor is indeed “God’s elder brother!”

And here is where the trouble lies: if we accept the claims of these many men and women of God to have received direct instructions from the almighty in private, what grounds can we have for disbelieving the Taliban’s Sheikh Omar, Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, LRA’s Kony and now Boko Haram’s Shekau? If on the ground of unspeakable atrocities, what then about the long list of unconscionable acts in the holy books of the Abrahamic religions? At any rate, how tell God’s disciples from the devil’s? Isn’t this all the more reason why we should tread with care on holy grounds and pray ceaselessly for discernment when reading the holy books, bearing in mind always that the letter killeth?

I have wondered aloud before about our willingness to believe without an iota of doubt the claims of direct communication with God by self-appointed apostles (see “God Told Me . . .  In Memoriam: Kofi Awoonor, 1935-2013” and would now add that it is the greater source of all religious troubles, old and new, that have bedeviled the world, and there is reason beyond Shekau’s madness. In the report, “Police nab ‘prophetess’ for setting 9-year-old daughter ablaze” (Vanguard, 15 May 2014), the evil-doing mother claimed to have merely been obeying God’s instruction. Hear her: “I was only obeying God’s instruction. I had a vision while praying that my daughter is from the witchcraft world. When I prayed to God over it, I received an instruction through the Holy Spirit to burn my daughter’s body in order to deliver her from the evil society.” Mind you, she “prayed to God over it,” so surely God must have spoken to her through a vision. Another alleged witch was luckier, so to speak, as the world can testify through a video that went viral. Brought to another famous Bishop Daddy Overseer’s church for exorcism, the man of God would not simply say, Thou spirit of witchcraft, come out!, but gave the poor girl what we Nigerians call “a dirty slap” for daring to say that she is not a witch but only “a witch for Jesus.” And you thought that Christ very sternly admonished thus, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven!” If this pastor truly believed the girl possessed by the spirit of witchcraft, to what or whom then did he exert physical violence (as if the struggle with evil is a schoolyard brawl)—the “familiar spirit” or the child? And is this the method of exorcism bequeathed to him by Christ?

And just to give one more example, as I write a Sudanese woman, Meriam Yehya Ibrahim Ishaq who is eight months pregnant, is awaiting the execution of a sentence of 100 lashes and then hanging imposed by God’s cleric for the crime of converting and marrying a Christian man.  The severity of the sentence appears to have been partly influenced by the refusal of Ishaq to recant. Said the judge, “We gave you three days to recant, but you insist on not returning to Islam. I sentence you to be hanged to death.” Officially her crime is apostasy and adultery, the latter because Shari’a law does not recognise her marriage to a non-believer. As for the prosecutor, he is all for “upholding our traditions and customs as Sudanese.”

The new hashtag ought to be, #Secularism or death! Sooner or later, this too will be taken up by our brave new world of internet revolutions seeking to drive fundamental change on the solid grounds of our troubled world. If we die alone and go to heaven or hell on individual merit, there can be no reason for compulsion in religion. After all, the worst kind of punishment imaginable is assured the unbeliever or sinner by all of the dominant world religions. Isn’t this enough reason for a strict observance of separation of state from faith, of ecumenism and the freedom of the individual to follow whatever road he or she wishes to eternity? It should be enough consolation if one is “saved”; let the other choose salvation or accept the indescribable horrors of hell. It is the ultimate irony and proof of criminal intent to say that in order to save my neighbor I must kill first kill him or her! Anyone who cannot wait for God’s judgement tells us only one thing: that he or she does not believe in God; that God is a liar. And there again lies another problem of our age: the zealot or fundamentalist may well be a closet unbeliever, a repressed “heathen!” Which is what makes him or her so dangerous.

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