In this conversation with Toyin Falola, renowned scholar, author and professor of Social Ethics at Boston University, United States, Nimi Wariboko, speaks about his books, Nigeria at 60, the Christian faith, poverty in the Niger Delta region and other sundry issues.
Nimi Wariboko, the Walter G. Muelder Professor of Social Ethics at Boston University, United States, is a globally renowned scholar of economic ethics, social ethics, philosophy, African Christianity, and Pentecostal studies. For years, he worked as a strategy consultant to top investment banks in the world when he worked on Wall Street, New York City.
Before going over to New York he was a banker in Lagos. At one time in his life in Lagos he worked as journalist and editor in three news organisations, including the now defunct Concord Newspapers owned by Moshood Abiola. Though today he counts himself as an academic, he still acts as a management consultant to governments and corporations. Wariboko has demonstrated uncommon brilliance and excellence in all his chosen careers.
He is the author of 20 books and co editor of six—and has published a vast number of essays in academic journals. Let me capture—at least, minimally and quickly— something about the incredible wide range of his thoughts. His first and second books published in 1993 and 1994 were on accounting (financial statement analysis) and on valuation of banks (corporate finance). His most recent two books—his nineteenth and twentieth published in 2020—are on the inherent imbalances of capitalist economies and the global financial systems, and on the epistemological orientation of Pentecostals. In between these poles, he has published in areas such as economic history, anthropology, demographics, political theory, and psychoanalysis, just to name a few. He has a transdisciplinary bent of mind.
Professor Wariboko is regarded as one of the most original and creative thinkers in the world today. He has the rare ability to work in many different fields and to be acclaimed as a leading scholar in all the fields that he works in. His scholarship focuses on economic ethics, ethics of the global monetary and financial systems, the intersection of business and religion, economic development, political philosophy, philosophy of religion, and social theory.
He holds a B. Sc (economics, first class honors), MBA (finance and accounting), and PhD (ethics, with specialization in economic ethics, summa cum laude).
Q: You have published widely in so many subjects, each of which represents a discipline. You can work in so many departments including economics, finance, accounting, social ethics, history, sociology, theology, philosophy, literary criticism, and cultural studies. You have also written 20 major books and so many essays. People wonder, why are you so eclectic? How do ideas come to you? And where does your muse come from?
Wariboko: Yes, I have published in many areas of study. Thank you for that question. I guess there are two parts to the question: Why do I work on so many fields at the same time? And also, where do I get the inspiration? Where does my muse come from? The first thing about working in several fields is that I work only on those things that excite me. I let my passion decide what I have to do. If something doesn’t catch my interest, if it doesn’t move me, if a book does not write itself in my head, I don’t try to do it. This is one reason why I’ve never signed a book contract before I complete a manuscript. I don’t want somebody’s pressure or somebody’s timetable to derail my passion. I always work out the book first before I submit the proposal. This makes the publishing process longer, but I like to be left alone to think through an issue without somebody pressuring me to follow his or her agenda or timetable.
So, I work in many academic fields simultaneously because of my passions, ideas come and grab or shake me.
There is another dimension to my preference to work in many areas at the same time. Historically, I am a product of a deliberate experiment done in Nigeria. In the 1980s, I went to a university, the University of Port Harcourt, that emphasized a multidisciplinary approach to knowledge production. At the time, the head of the School of Social sciences was Professor Claude Ake. He emphasized that if Africa was going to develop economically, we needed to produce graduates that were not one-trick ponies. He and his colleagues argued that university education was too expensive, and Africa’s need to conquer underdevelopment was too urgent to only produce narrowly specialised graduates. So, Ake, Ikenna Nzimiro, Kimse Okoko, Eme Ekekwe, Walter Ollor, and many others came up with a school system whereby in the first two years of college, all students in the School of Social Sciences take courses from all the disciplines of social sciences. So, I took courses in geography, economics, sociology, political science, and anthropology though my major was in economics. I did all that and also took courses in science and technology, history, and Nigerian language as part of the university-wide general studies program. The goal was that a graduate working for the government would not be so narrowly focused that he or she could not define Africa’s problem in its complexity and diversity. They poured this idea into us, undergraduates, and we imbibed it. They also encouraged us to read very widely, to engage ideas from multiple sources.
These foundational ideas and goals have followed me to this point in my life, setting me up to search for truth wherever I can find it. And if I happen to be walking on the path of a truth and I find that I need anthropology, history, or political theory to understand things better, I go for it in multiple ways. So, it is the quest for the truth, the quest to engage Africa’s problems, whether at the theoretical level, at the abstract level, or the concrete level that is responsible for my working in many fields. So, there is the response to the first part of your question.
The second part of the question is, where do I get my ideas from? What kind of inspiration drives me? First, for decades now, since I left banking and went full time into academics, I read about eight to 10 hours daily. The way to get ideas is to read other people voraciously. I read up at least 200 or 250 pages of text every day. I’m always buying books and engaging with people’s ideas. Second, I pay attention to my environment, what is happening around me. I pay attention to details, everyday things. Third, I have personal morning devotion every day. In the morning, when I wake up, I don’t just jump out. I would take time to collect my thoughts, to pray as a Christian, and seek the face of the Lord. After praying, I will read before I leave my bedroom. That way, even if for some strange reason I don’t get the chance to read again, I already deposited something into my mind for the day.
Fourth, that level of devotion and discipline tend to bring ideas to me any time of the day or night. One needs a certain practice or habit to harvest its fruits. I always have a notebook and pens at my bedside. Anywhere I am during the day, I have a pen and paper in my pocket. There are always two pens somewhere on my body because when an idea strikes me, I will need to write it down and I do not want to be hindered by a dry or malfunctioning pen. If someone mentions a book reference in a conversation, I don’t want to forget it.
My inspiration comes from a lot of reading, studying other scholars’ ideas, having the discipline to pay attention to details, to everyday things in the environment. When I read I “listen” closely to people’s ideas and not just read them. I read them closely so I can learn something from them. For me to generate ideas I must be open to receiving ideas. Because if you are not open to receiving ideas, if you think you have known everything, ideas will not come to you. I am always open to receiving both from the best, the most brilliant persons in the world, and from the person everybody considers as the village idiot. When I listen to people, I am always looking for what I would learn from them. I consider everybody smarter and brighter than me. With this mindset, I can learn something from every human being.
Q: That is very wonderful. It shows some aspect of your humility as well. You have a body of work on Pentecostalism. I’ve been privileged to read many of them. Pentecostalism today is under some criticism in Nigeria. Sure, regarding tithe and the wealth of major leaders like Adeboye, Oyedepo, and Joshua some Nigerians were saying that the government should clip their wings given the amount of money they control. So I think we have to ask you this practical question: people are questioning the practices and messages of the Pentecostal leaders, framing them as part of the Nigerian corrupt system, how do you respond to that criticism?
Wariboko: I think my response would be in two ways. First, we have to approach it at the level of systems. Nigerian Pentecostalism, as a system, has shown itself not to be very helpful to Nigeria. It has shown itself to be part of the corruption in the country. As a religious movement, it is not above the mess that is in the country in many cases. So, at the level of the system, people have a right to question the movement. And by definition, also question those who lead the movement.
But at a personal level, some people have acquired stupendous wealth. If I were to lead a church in Nigeria this would not be my style because I don’t think that massive wealth accumulation by spiritual leaders reflects what Jesus Christ would do. One has to be very careful here. I am not saying that wealth is bad. But if you are a leader trying to emulate Jesus Christ, you have to be very careful that money or wealth is not the primary image people see when they see you. When people begin to associate or define the religious movement by money, it is not good. I was discussing this with my family this morning and we looked at chapter eight of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. There we have Peter rebuking Simon who wanted to trade the power of God for money. Peter said that the gifts of God could not be bought with money. When Pentecostal leaders display wealth in the ways they do, they might be unknowingly leading some of their followers to associate holiness with money. That is, the more money you have, the holier you become. And if you are holy, it translates into wealth. No, it doesn’t always work that way.
This problem of associating holiness or religion with money or prosperity is deeply rooted in Christianity, although some people want to deny it. I can easily give you two examples. When the missionaries came to Africa, one of the ways they sold Christianity was this: look at what our God has done for us. We have better technology; we are more powerful than you. Over time, that kind of mindset could lead to a fraudulent association of holiness with stupendous wealth. I am not saying that there is a direct causality between the evangelistic message of the missionaries and what is happening today in Nigerian Pentecostalism. My point is that what we see today is deeply rooted in history.
Second, if you look at even Max Weber’s book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism you get some of what I am talking about. He started from the foundation of Calvinism that taught that some people are destined or predestined to be saved, but no one knows exactly who those people are. But from their commitment to work, the pursuit of rationalization, success in establishing capitalism, and so on, we can get some indication. Though the correlation between salvation and prosperity or economic well-being is not as strong as you find in the Pentecostal prosperity gospel, the connection is there.
There a third example I would like to give. I tell people, even in the mainline churches in America or elsewhere, those we put on church boards are often the wealthy or successful members, I ask the question: How many of you will put on your church board a homeless man or a poor woman? Anytime you look for people to be on your church board, financial board, you always pick successful men and women. By that implication, you are making the assertion implicitly that those who are rich occupy higher positions in the church or spirituality. This is a problem common in all churches. This is not to excuse what is happening in Pentecostalism. I am only saying that if we are aware of this kind of conditions or this kind of temptation in Christianity, then our Pentecostal leaders need to take more precaution so that their lifestyles would not induce people to make the fraudulent connection between wealth and spirituality.
Q: In 2014, you wrote a book, Nigerian Pentecostalism published by the University of Rochester Press. One of the key characteristics of Pentecostalism that you identify in that book is what you call spell of the invisible. Can you explain what it means? And why is this a key to understanding Pentecostals?
Wariboko: By spell of the invisible, I mean the drive of Nigerian Pentecostals to understand reality beyond the pale, beyond the ordinary contact with reality. We have the phenomenological world, the physical world that coordinates our reality, but this is not enough for them. They are propelled to understand what is behind the phenomenological veil or wall. They believe that what is happening to us in the physical is always controlled by the invisible, what we don’t see. And so, the role of the pastor, the role of a good Christian is to crack that wall and know what is behind it. If you are poor, it is not so much about your hard work or systemic oppression, it is what some enemies, some spiritual forces have done to block your material progress. If you cannot have a baby, it is not because your husband is impotent or has a low sperm count, or you have other problems. Always, the issue is that somebody has caused the problem. Pentecostals are always moving from the physical to the non-physical, to the spiritual realm to make sense of their visible world.
The problem with Pentecostalism in this respect is a carryover from Africam traditional religions. But there it was not so much of a problem. Pentecostals have run with an inherited African worldview to a different level. Robin Horton, a British-Nigerian anthropologist in the 1960s or early 1970s propounded a theory about first or second-order levels of explanation. At the first order, Africans employ the rules of the plain physical world to explain what is going on in their lives. At the second-order level of explanation, they generate explanations beyond the ordinary and the obvious. This is a spiritualistic model of explanation. Daily, in every society, they use first-order explanations to go about their business. If an accident or something untoward happens to you the first time you might still explain it by first-order causation. But if it happens to you repeatedly, you begin to ask if there is something more to it. At this point you are going over to the second-order explanation, which is at the invisible level or at level that is not ordinarily obvious to everybody.
Let me quickly add that the two levels of explanation hold not only in African society. Let us say in America, an accident occurs at 10 O’clock at a particular junction of I-95 that passes close to my house here. We will not think about it beyond saying that people drive recklessly. But if the accident happens repeatedly, at the same hour, engineers will conclude there is something about the spot—maybe bad construction—causing the accidents. They may then decide to reconstruct the road at that junction. You see that they have moved to the second-order level of causation. They moved from the commonsense idea that accidents do happen, people drive too fast or badly, to bad road construction, which is the “something more.” Notice something here; the “something more” is still lodged in the physical realm.
My point is that generally people don’t automatically jump to second-order condition. The first order is dealing with the physical laws as all of us understand it. In African traditional religions they have the first-order causation and if that does not produce a satisfactory answer, they move to the second-order level of explanation. Our ancestors did not permanently live in the second-order world, which draws its explanatory power from the invisible realm. For instance, they knew that if a man sleeps with his wife, she will get pregnant. They did not need a spirit to tell them that. They knew if you climb a tree and let go of your hands, you will fall.
African Pentecostalism is changing this inherited wisdom. Pentecostals now jump straight into second-order explanation. Everything is about the second-order. There is no longer the physical world to deal with, you jump headlong into the second-order as everything becomes an event in the second-order world. Even if there is no fuel in your car and you know this at the first order level that you didn’t put enough gas in your tank or that your tank is leaking, you blame spiritual causes when your car stops on the highway. This is a deadly form of irrationality, a very dilapidated form of rationality.
This is what I was trying to get at with the notion of spell of the invisible in that book. I am saying that if you really want to understand Nigerian Pentecostalism, you have to pay attention to the spell of the invisible. It is not just enough to say, well this is something that we have in African traditional religion or that we have a spiritual dimension to life. Where the Pentecostals have taken the concern for the spiritual dimension does not make sense anymore. Nothing is real anymore. Yet they are rooted in the physical and have to deal with the laws of physics or the laws of nature. I was trying to capture all these contradictions in the book. I was using this commitment to the invisible to explain a lot of their practices, ideas, and doctrines.
Q: Thank you very much. That’s a wonderful answer. Is your next book on Pentecostalism, or what would that be?
Wariboko: Well, two of my books will be coming out this month. One is called The Split Economy: Saint Paul Goes to Wall Street. In this book, I am looking at capitalism and the history of what causes imbalances in economic performance. And from there, I go on to examine why there is so much imbalance in the financial world. My research shows that some of these imbalances started before the capitalist era and Karl Marx wrongly thought they were a result of capitalism. I then offer some insights on how we can deal with the fundamental imbalance of any economy.
The second one is called The Pentecostal Hypothesis: Christ Talks, They Decide. In this book, I am trying to understand everyday Pentecostal epistemology. I got the idea for the book from an African woman in New York, Pastor Elsie Obed. She has this saying: It does not make sense, but it makes spirit. She is saying that certain actions of Pentecostals do not make sense at the realm of the physical or at the phenomenological level, but they have meaning in the spiritual realm that is based on a different kind of knowing. So, this lays out a form of epistemology.
The book is about unpacking the nine words in her saying. I wrote a book of over 200 pages just to extract the wisdom, the epistemological idea, embedded in her saying. While doing this I had at the back of my head the thought that an African woman, a pastor who was not a philosopher, not a scholar has formulated a philosophical thought that is provocative.
I was reminded of what Giorgio Agamben, the famous Italian philosopher, did with the first ten words of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Agamben wrote a philosophical book, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans and in it he unpacked the first ten words. In this vein, as I deeply meditated on Pastor Obed’s nine words, I wrote a whole philosophical book.
Let me turn to my work-in-progress. It is a book on economic philosophy. I am trying to craft a viable economic philosophy for African economic development. The philosophy will be based on indigenous religious and philosophical thought. This is my next project. Actually, I have already written the book in my head. I just need to find the time to type it out on the computer. The process of transferring the book from my head to the computer will not be difficult. Once I have finished writing a book in my head, it takes about a month or less to write a 200-page manuscript. It is a lot easier for the book to jump out of my head than trying to create and nurture it in the thinking process of my head.
Q: Thank you very much. Your country Nigeria, also my country, just turned 60. Throughout the various reflections on the occasion, you can see expressions of our agonies and disappointments. Can we not argue that we are at a critical point, that the country is no longer young at 60 years? Or can we say that we have lost many lost opportunities? Or can we say that we are the victims of self-destruction. A friend always says to me that if you had paid somebody, a contractor to destroy Nigeria, that contractor would not have done a better job as the citizens are doing themselves, destroying their own country. Well, what are your own reflections as Nigeria attains 60 years of age?
Wariboko: We are doing this interview on October 4, so our independence celebration was only three days ago. I want to reflect on the country with the aid of an image. There is a painting that captures where Nigeria is at this moment. Nigeria is like what the German-Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin, calls the “Angel of History” (Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus). Nigerians as a people have their backs turned to the future, facing the ruin, the wreckage of history. In Paul Klee’s painting, you have an angel, about to fly off, his wings are stretched out, it has caught the wind, but he is backing the future, and is ever unable to take off. His gaze is cast on some debris, ruin of history. He is so fascinated by the debris in front of him that he is caught in that moment of immobility. Everything is ready, but he cannot fly.
So, your observations about Nigeria are right. We have destroyed our country. There is so much debris of history, debris of our heritage, and debris of our missed opportunities. So much of missed developmental changes that they are piled up and we are not able to look at our future. And we are backing our future instead of turning away from the debris and asking how we can move forward. But the wind to take us forward is there. It is caught in our wings.
This is the story of Nigeria. There is always the wind, the potentiality in the country, and our wings are always stretched. Yet, we cannot look away from the debris, the corruption, ethnicity, irrationality. We cannot look away from all the things that we do that have imprisoned our gaze. We are ever ready to fly, but then we are backing the future scene.
We need some citizens to arise and slap the face of our angel of history and turn him around to see the future. I think there will arise a class or group of citizens that will play that revolutionary role. And that is why I wrote my 2019 book, Ethics and Society in Nigeria: Identity, History and Political Theory to express this optimism. When I said in that book that there is a generation that needs to come, some of the critics said I was too optimistic. But what else can anybody do in Nigeria? You have to be optimistic. Or do we just assume that Nigeria is like any other civilization or country that fails and disappears from the map? This is an option. But it is not mine. Citizens in countries that look like they are about to disappear at any moment in time can still have hope that one day their societies might be turned around.
I believe a new seed of Nigerians will arise to initiate the turnaround of the angel of history that represents Nigeria. They will turn his face that is transfixed on the debris of history. This is the reason for my hope. This is not to say I am not conscious of the impossibilities or the obstacles that face us as a country. I am only impossibly hopeful. Nigeria is a possible impossibility. We have to hold to that.
Q: Thank you very much. I have been to your house for the investiture ceremony of the Walter G. Muelder Chair in Social Ethics. It was a glorious moment that people come from far and wide. Some even came from Nigeria. So how do you balance your teaching, administration, research writing, and family activities?
Wariboko: The way I find time for my family in the midst of all that I do is to sacrifice many activities outside the house. I hardly have time to go to the movies. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. And I don’t socialize much. So many things that people do or take for granted, I don’t enjoy such pleasures. Because if I try to do all that, with my academic work, or my family, I’m not going to go very far.
I deliberately made the choice that there are certain lifestyles or certain things that I would just have to give up. I came to this country as a student in 1990, but I don’t think I have ever been to the beach even though I grew up near a river in Nigeria. There are many things that one has given up to create the time to do academic work and also stay close to the family. The good thing about my academic work is that I do it mostly at home. When my children were growing up, I was at home when they came back from school or left in the morning. I could stand with my son to take the bus to school. But the real story here is that I have a very supportive spouse. To be a successful academic, you need the kind of family or spouse that will let you have the space to work. It is a blessing and grace of God that I am an integral part of my family life and have nicely attended to my academic work.
Q: Thank you for your patience. This will be my last question and is about the Ijaw people in an area (Niger Delta) that I think is one of the richest in the continent. And it has always been so historically, right from the time of the Atlantic slave trade. The slave raiders traded so many people, that area produced over 2 million slaves shipped to the Americas. When the slave trade stopped, they began to trade in raw materials and that form of trade was named by historians as the illegitimate trade. The area became the source of palm kernel, palm oil. In the mid-20th century it was one of the world’s leading suppliers of palm oil. In that same area, Nigeria discovered oil. And since 1967, it has been the live wire, the main revenue source of the country. At one level, it is a very rich area, very blessed, very endowed. I call it a geologic abnormality, in terms of what we have been able to get from it. Then comes the other side. It is one of the poorest areas in the country. I’ve been there many times. I once visited the region, some places have no modern means of transportation, and this is the place the former president of Nigeria came from. The area is difficult to access. I wanted to attend the funeral ceremony of your mom. I knew how to get there, but I did not know how to get back quickly because of the poor flight schedule. I was to fly from Cameroon to Abuja to attend the funeral and go back. It was not easy to set up the flight arrangement. Unfortunately, I had to cancel. One time I went to the market in Port Harcourt with a friend of mine and we wanted to make soup and garri. The garri was very expensive, and the okro was expensive too. It was as expensive as buying gas for your petrol for your car. I said to myself, how can people live like this? The farmlands are devastated. The environment is polluted. So this is a story of Nigeria regarding distribution of power, federalism and abuses of federalism. Then this year, you have the news of how the corporation, the Niger Delta Development Commission, created to redress some of these balances has also become an agency of corruption. Overall, you have the foreign companies creating their own problems, the Nigerian states creating their own problems, governors stealing money and creating their own problems, and some local chiefs creating their own problems too. When we combine all these, do we say a curse is imposed on that geographical region that they will never make it? Is this a straightforward political economy problem? Or is it a function of restructuring the country and creating the Niger Delta as a separate country? Oh, should we not be bothered by this?
Wariboko: Thank you. This is an excellent question on the issue. The problem of the suffering of the people on the Niger Delta in general is something that touches me very deeply. I remember when I was doing my PhD work just before my comprehensive exam. I had gone to Port Harcourt with a friend from America to do some charity and also share knowledge and experience with some of the pastors in the area. What I saw at that time, shocked me. Before then I had not been to Port Harcourt for seven years or so. The level of poverty and injustice that I saw made me nearly abandon my PhD. I said what is the point of studying for a doctorate when your people are suffering in this way? I felt that studying at Princeton was a big luxury while people were dying. What is the point of the sophisticated knowledge that I was acquiring when there is an urgent task to be done? It took me a lot of time to come out from that despondency and continue my studies.
There is something about the poverty of the Niger Delta that deeply touched me. I grew up in that setting. In fact, oil was drilled not far from the town I grew up in. But then there was no electricity, no good drinking water, and the rivers were polluted. Everything was very expensive. Life was difficult. Those circumstances were created by Nigerian leaders and multinational corporations. It is never a matter of curse. It is the nature of the political economy that we are where we are yesterday and today.