Is Pentecostalism appropriating state power in Nigeria? Ebenezer Obadare, author of Pentecostal Republic: Religion and the Struggle for State Power in Nigeria responds to this and other questions from our editors.
Q: The title of your book, Pentecostal Republic: Religion and the Struggle for State Power in Nigeria, suggests a dominance of the Pentecostal movement over politics and governance in Nigeria, is that the case?
A: I believe so. In fact, I would go out on a limb and say that this dominance is by no means restricted to the mutually related spheres of politics and governance. What we observe over the course of the Nigerian Fourth Republic (1999- ) is the creeping pentecostalization of every facet of social life in Nigeria, including culture, entertainment, higher education, the economy and, based on recent reports on the use of “spiritual intelligence” by the Nigerian army’s top echelons, even military operations. No perceptive student of the Nigerian society would argue this dominance. Nor is the ubiquity noted in the Nigerian case limited to the country alone. Literature on religious movements in Ghana, Zambia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, to name a few key African countries, more or less takes the pervasiveness of Pentecostalism for granted.
Q: What gave rise to the ‘triumph of Christianity’ in Nigerian politics?
A: It seems to me that the triumph of Christianity (properly speaking, its contemporary ascendance, since the ‘triumph’ we are talking about is by no means definitive or irreversible) is bound up with the success of an exuberant form of Christianity worldwide. Within Nigeria, it is shown by a ‘power shift’ that saw a candidate from the South West step into the presidential saddle in 1999. The position I take in the book is that the political success of the South West was at the same time a moment of success for Christianity, since the pulpit was one of the major battlegrounds for the campaign for the reversal of the annulment of the June 12 1993 election. The role of the church as one of the most vocal voices within an implacable civil society that fought the military to a standstill has been acknowledged in many academic analyses. What is often overlooked, however, and a shift that my book calls attention to, is that, while it was the mainstream church (most prominently the Catholic Church) that joined in the campaign to overturn the June 12 annulment, it was Pentecostalism that stepped forward to be garlanded after victory had been won, having moved into pole position as the dominant expression of Christianity (in the country, if not elsewhere in Africa and globally) in the last decade of the 20th century.
As a result, while the Yoruba electorate embraced Olusegun Obasanjo (1999- 2007) as a co-ethnic and symbolic ‘compensation’ for the theft of June 12 and the death in detention of M.K.O. Abiola; and Christians in general embraced him as divine answer to their prayers for a Christian president, Pentecostals (touting the story of his being ‘Born Again’ in prison) claimed him as one of their own. Long story short: the ‘triumph of Christianity’ in Nigeria was fashioned in June 12’s overcoat, belonging as it is to the unforeseeable chain of events unleashed by the abrogation of the June 12 1993 election.
Q: One of your main arguments is that Pentecostalism became more influential with the emergence of democracy in Nigeria, why is that so? Is there a particular relationship between Pentecostalism and democracy in Nigeria?
A: One of the driving arguments in Pentecostal Republic is that the emergence of democracy in Nigeria is tied up with the ascendance (different from emergence, which dates to an earlier period) of Pentecostalism. The subsidiary argument is that we cannot fully grasp democratic practice in Nigeria since 1999 without a corresponding attention to the power and influence of Pentecostalism. Of the four presidents that the country has had since 1999, two [Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan (2010- 2015)] were card-carrying Pentecostals, who needed no invitation to drape state occasions and ceremonies with the insignia and apparels of the church. The current Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo is a Pentecostal pastor and member of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), easily the most politically influential church in Nigeria today. The influence of Pentecostalism on Nigerian democracy manifests in many other ways, the most profound of which is the ascendance of a mentality that renders moot any kind of distinction between fact and fantasy.
Nigerian Pentecostalism is, on balance, a reactionary and anti-intellectual force with a real capacity to undo the very idea of critical deliberation without which a democracy is bound to atrophy.
Q: From reading your book, it appears there is a struggle for influence between Christian conservatives and Pentecostals, how is the struggle impacting politics in the country?
A: There is definitely a struggle for influence between “Christian conservatives” (broadly speaking mainline Christians who resent the dominance and perceived recklessness of Pentecostalism and advocate a return to the “old” Christianity) and Pentecostals. No less real is the struggle within Pentecostalism itself, between Pentecostals who are uncomfortable with its romance with politics and accommodation of popular culture, and others who do not necessarily see anything wrong with Pentecostal praxes. On current evidence, the “conservatives” do not seem to have had any real impact, as the version of Pentecostalism that has managed to assert itself in the political sphere, the exuberant one, is the dominant one.
Q: Generally, international media reports seem to suggest that Muslims and Boko Haram have more political influence in Nigeria, what are your thoughts on that?
A: It would be interesting to know how such reports measure “political influence”. Boko Haram can be easily dismissed since it is an Islamist insurgent group that seems to have come into existence, ab initio, because its members, among other grievances, felt politically marginalized. As things stand, it is because Boko Haram has no political influence (not to be confused with causing political agitation) that its members continue to attack state targets and ordinary civilians, Muslim and Christian. As for Muslim political influence, there is a plausible argument to be made. For instance, it may be pointed out that the incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari, is a Muslim, one who has been accused of loading the dice of political appointments in favor of the predominantly Muslim North. But that observation, credible as it sounds, undercounts the extent to which Buhari, whose deputy is a Pentecostal pastor, relies on the continued support of powerful Pentecostal pastors, and the role of Pentecostalism in the shaping of political choices by state officials at all levels.
Q: In most African countries, politicians seek support from Pentecostal leaders, who have power to instruct their followers to support certain politicians, in your book you seem to suggest that it is Pentecostal leaders seeking more influence through politicians, what exactly do the Pentecostal leaders want?
A: I think it is a bit of both. While politicians ingratiate themselves with Pentecostal leaders, seeing in them the most direct routes to their (i.e. pastors’) vast congregations; at the same time, pastors, no doubt conscious of the fact that the muzzle of arbitrary political power can always be turned against them, cozy up to politicians. Which is why Pentecostal leaders (not all of them, to be sure) want more. They desire the prestige, paraphernalia, and dare I say, unaccountability, of political office, which is why many of them already behave like politicians. For instance, having orbited power for so long, and having failed once as a vice-presidential candidate, Pastor Tunde Bakare of the Lagos-based Latter Rain Ministries recently declared his intention to run for the presidency in 2023.
Q: If Nigeria is a ‘Pentecostal Republic’ as you suggest, why has corruption and abuse of power continued?
A: Your question assumes that Pentecostalism and corruption are mutually contradictory. That is not what the evidence shows. What the data from Nigeria and other African countries seem to suggest is that Pentecostalism has very little to do with ethics. For one thing, Pentecostal churches themselves are hotbeds of corruption. For another, Pentecostal leaders are regularly implicated in the abuse of power. For example, many of the high profile cases of sexual harassment in Nigeria and other African countries have involved Pentecostal pastors. Finally, Pentecostal advocacy of the Prosperity Gospel (according to which the how of wealth acquisition is irrelevant) essentially boils down to a justification of ill-gotten wealth. The conclusion is difficult to avoid that Pentecostalism in Nigeria is both a vehicle and driver of corruption.
Q: How do you see the future of relations between different religions and politics in Nigeria?
A: It is difficult to tell, since both religion and politics are dynamic phenomena, no more so than in their interrelation. One cannot say in what ways the existing religious formation will change, whether as a response to internal or external, local or foreign stimuli. Nor can we confidently predict the trajectory of politics. Nevertheless, it seems certain that, for the foreseeable future, Pentecostalism will continue to exercise an outsize influence on Nigerian politics, and that Pentecostal influence, were it to continue at the same pace, and given the perennial struggle for political hegemony in the country, would trigger a reaction from Muslims. No matter the nature of that reaction, and especially if it is one of imitation and appropriation as we’ve seen in Western Nigeria, the student of religion and politics in Nigeria can look forward to an interesting future.
Ebenezer Obadare is Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas, USA, and Fellow of the Institute of Theology, University of South Africa.