After nearly 10 years of struggling to extricate himself from the proverbial long arms of the law, Chukwuemeka Ezeugo, who goes by the religious title of ‘Rev King’ got the final words from the Supreme Court last Friday. In the wisdom of the justices of the highest court in Nigeria, the clergyman is not only guilty of the murder of his church member but deserves to be executed by hanging.
There was nothing dramatic about the Supreme Court judgment, although the justices referred to the entire incident as one from a horror movie. The nearest thing that comes to mind is the old television series entitled Hammer House of Horrors. I consider the judgment undramatic because all the three courts, starting with the High Court of Lagos State through the Court of Appeal and terminating with the Supreme Court held that the religious leader was a murderer.
I couldn’t agree more with the courts. I have always held that a crime is a crime and must be treated as such, no matter who committed it and under what canopy and in furtherance of whatever cause. This is because, over the years, I have seen many crimes excused and criminals exculpated simply because the facts of the crimes were imbedded in descriptions like ‘political violence’, ‘ethno-religious conflicts’, ‘domestic violence’ or even seen as carried out in furtherance of a group or movement’s ideology or ‘self-determination’.
I am always pained that whenever we do the above and excuse criminality, we fail in our application of the law to achieve the famed three-ways for which the ends of justice are meant to meet. They include justice to the accused, justice to the victim and justice to the society. One must, therefore, commend the Lagos State Ministry of Justice for doing an excellent job of marshalling the facts enough to nail the criminal pastor. Some other agencies in some other states may have had such opportunities but bungled it, either by incompetence or by succumbing to sentimental pressures and blackmail.
The conviction of Ezeugo must become a watershed for how society responds to future acts of criminality coming from religious bigots and sanctimonious religious leaders whose mental stability could sometimes be suspect. Many of them carry a larger-than-life swag, invading the private spaces of their adherents, many of whom have been perfectly bring-washed to seeing these leaders as gods. It, no doubt, gives credence to the famous words of Karl Max that religion is the opium of the people.
Reverend King was known to his followers as ‘his holiness’ and to some of them, he could do no wrong. In fact, some members took out adverts in a national newspaper that Friday to extol the sterling qualities of the man, apparently as they awaited the Supreme Court to free their leader. It is not only among the adherents of King’s Christian Praying Assembly that we see this blind adherence. It is commonplace among many religious groups, even if the immediate outward effect may not always amount to physical assault or occasion death.
In accusing his church members of the sin of fornication, King and his gang of adherents took it upon themselves to physically punish the alleged sinners. By the very nature of sin as a wrong against a divine being, means that only that divine being (God) has the power to punish. Even the state cannot punish sinners, unless the sinful act also offends a law, properly enacted. But our religious leaders and bodies seem to have taken over the power of God to mete out punishments for sins, as it suits their whims. In the instant case, the punishment had to be by burning and sadly, it resulted to death.
Since such act amounts to crime in any modern society, the state cannot watch and allow zealots take the laws into their hands.The duty of religious leaders and bodies is one of moral persuasion, not physical deterrence. The worst they can do is to excommunicate or otherwise dismiss or suspend members who have derailed from their beliefs. The resort to physical sanction is one that could amount to assault.
Sadly, what has been happening in the religious arena reflects the vulnerability and laziness of the followers who often do not commit to learning enough about their faiths including studying their holy writs. Thus, any demented fellow could claim knowledge and powers over spiritual matters and deceive them. We have in recent times seen several cases of sexual crimes (rape and assault) by so-called ‘men of God’ upon their followers or those who seek their spiritual blessings.
It is for the same reason that some poor citizens, especially infants are being tortured by or on the orders of some spiritualists on allegations of being possessed of evil spirits. At other times, religious leaders direct their members to carry out obviously harmful tasks, including not accepting medical attention and use of appropriate medication to address life-threatening conditions. In some parts of the country and among some religious groups, pregnant women have died of complications related to childbirth due simply to the fact that some charlatan had decreed that their followers must come to the place of worship when they are in labour, for them to be guaranteed safe deliveries. Some of them even go to the extent of directing pregnant women not to even attend ante-natal clinics.
While one is at liberty to sign up to faith healings, there is a problem if the decision affects minors and persons who cannot freely give the consent to being subjected to such. Here comes a time for the state to assert itself more, in the interest of the vulnerable members of the society against the teachings of religious leaders, if such teachings are evidently repugnant to natural law, equity and good conscience, as the legal cliché goes.
It is obvious that there are several other ‘Reverends King’ out there in different religions, faiths and even traditional, cultural groups and movements and they must all be made to account for their excesses. First, the leadership of the organised religions must clean their houses internally rather than take the stance of avoiding a confrontation. This is no time to claim that one must not speak up against a clearly delinquent religious leader, merely because the person carries on the toga of ‘religious leader’.
Finally, the state, through its law enforcement and justice administration agencies must take up the challenge of sanitising the society by ensuring that every breach of the law is investigated and prosecuted, even when committed by religious leaders or groups.
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(Published in The Punch newspaper of February 29, 2016 http://www.punchng.com/the-pastor-and-the-law-2/)