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Charlatanism in religious and educational institutions

Charlatanism. Now that is a fascinating word. It came into use in the early 15th century by way of French and simply means claiming to…

Charlatanism. Now that is a fascinating word. It came into use in the early 15th century by way of French and simply means claiming to have knowledge or skills one does not possess. The person who does this is a charlatan, a word often deployed to describe medicine sellers who offer one remedy for a thousand maladies or peddlers of fake miracles and other such things, like the alchemists of the past who tout elixirs for eternal youth or the philosopher’s stone capable of turning base metals into gold.

This week, a lot of energy has been expended on an incident that somehow brought together two institutions that have become citadels of charlatans: religious and educational institutions.

Religious charlatanism, emanating from religious institutions, has become a pestilence in this day and age with fake “prophets” staging fake miracles to exploit gullible Nigerians. Staged “miracles” and theatrical spectacles have become rampant in churches especially, and we are beginning to see these practices in some alfas as well. Of course, we have always had marabouts, maharajis, dibias, and witch doctors. Yet it has become so pervasive that charlatanism is no longer the exclusive preserve of dubious pastors and alfas, but we now have an increasing number of charlatan laity who offer their acting services to these ‘miracle’ conjurers. In the realm of educational institutions, it is far more complex and nuanced.

So, what would have been a regular church service at the Dunamis Church in Abuja on Sunday became a lightning rod for conversations when the leader of the church, Dr Paul Enenche, got embroiled in drama over his attempt to curb someone he believed to be one of this charlatan laity. The woman had come to church to give testimony as the first university graduate in her family. Her testimony immediately became suspect when her spoken English did not do justice to the claims she was making, especially since she claimed to have studied law.

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When the pastor quizzed her on what type of degree she had earned after 10 years of study for the course, she repeatedly said that she earned a BSc. The problem is that any person who spends two weeks in a law diploma programme, not to talk of a degree programme, and is imbued with the customary zealousness to boisterously call course mates “learned colleagues” would know that law graduates are awarded an LLB, not a BSc. The pastor was not convinced by her claim, shouted the lady down, called her a liar, insisted that his church would not be the stage for fake testimonies, and dismissed her. The video went viral, and so did the conversations around it.

As it turns out, she did graduate from the National Open University of Nigeria with an LLB in Law, and the pastor has received flak for his treatment of the woman and her public shaming. Was the pastor right to treat her as a charlatan, an educational charlatan claiming to have a degree in law that she might not possess or have earned? Based on the encounter, one might be tempted to say yes.

The reasons were obvious, and in an official statement days after, the church, even when admitting that the lady was later proven to have the degree, doubled down on the pastor’s justification for treating her that way. One, the church said, was her grammar; the second reason was the duration of the time she said she spent in the university, and the third was the mistake she made with the BSc. What that statement didn’t do was issue an apology to the woman.

The woman in question (I have refrained from naming her not to further her embarrassment) has taken to social media to post a photo of herself with her spiritual leader, Pastor Enenche, and his wife. Apparently, she was invited by the church to meet the couple and talk over the episode. She pledged her loyalty to the pastor, her allegiance to the church, and claimed she had put the incident behind her. She urged people to do the same. That is all fine and good except for the question that the post and several others on her social media raised.

How is a law graduate’s spoken and written communication so bad? Of course, not everyone can write and speak well and eloquently. It doesn’t mean they are not intelligent. After all, dyslexia is a real condition. For her though, some people have offered the defence of stage fright as a possible cause of her inability to express herself during the testimony. But how does that defence extend to her written communication composed in the comfort of her home or work, away from the eyes of a multitude? When her communication, both written and spoken, mangles the rules of grammar in that fashion (and we are not talking about typos), especially for a graduate of a course that prides itself on eloquence and frankly everything else, it raises genuine concerns. It makes us question the quality of education she had received. This is not a good advert for the National Open University of Nigeria.

But this is also beyond the NOUN because the Nigerian education system, like the religious institutions in the country, has proven to be fertile ground for charlatanism as well. A cursory look at a range of graduates will demonstrate that some of them cannot defend the degrees they have, while others have an excellent grasp of their areas of study. Fake professors have been outed, fake certificates have been issued, quack graduates, notably in medicine, have laid claim to one institution or the other, and the system has been worked such that university officials have traded grades for sex, favours, or monetary rewards.

We are not talking about the questionable hire and retention of lecturers, often on the basis of being indigenes, or the habitual sacrifice of merit at the altar of mediocrity. So we end up with lecturers who run their classes like cults, where their students are taught to be timid and afraid, not curious and enlightened, to buy handouts and self-authored, poorly-stapled pamphlets as recommended text or fail.

These institutions have both, in a way, been entrusted to sanitise themselves from charlatanism. Both have largely failed in this task. The system of accountability in them has been compromised by those who administer it. So when graduates who do not inspire confidence, like the woman in question, emerge, there is room for suspicion.

Likewise, the religious institutions have become, for a large part, the citadel of charlatans. Clerics who stage resurrection miracles or ask congregants to eat grass, starve to death, be spiritually cleaned with a burst of insecticide on their faces, or receive healing through physical and sexual abuse of both adults and minors are pervasive. Now we have a horde of lay charlatans who enable the quackery of these fake men of God, often for profit.

Dr Enenche is well aware of this, and his brash dismissal of the woman was supposed to clean his church of that reputation. He could have handled it better, I guess. But the dangers of these twin charlatanisms in religion and education will serve only in the production of a class of dogmatic, mentally enslaved, half-literate Nigerians and lock the country in a cycle of use and abuse. Considering how powerful these institutions are, we will therefore continue to make bad decisions collectively and individually with the mindsets this charlatanism is enforcing. No country is going to develop that way.

Beyond the banter and social media gbas-gbos, this is why the incident at the church should matter. It should make us reflect on charlatanism in these important institutions in the country and how we must break the vicious chains they are throwing around our ankles.

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