Authority, Community & Identity article

ACI Africa – Pentecostal Pastors and the Crisis of Political Authority in Africa

As part of the introduction of the Authority, Community, Identity working group, the Contending Modernities blog will feature a series posts outlining the proposed research from scholars in the ACI Africa and ACI Indonesia subgroups. 

Since January of this year, the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) Nigeria has hosted Divine Encounter and Shiloh Hour, a special monthly ministration and prayer service, in Abuja, the Nigerian Federal Capital Territory (FCT). April’s version of Divine Encounter took place in the city’s 60,000 capacity National Stadium complex against a backdrop of a prolonged fuel scarcity that virtually crippled social life and economic activities across the country. It was therefore not altogether surprising that, as he mounted the podium to address the large interdenominational congregation, the ‘fuel situation’ was the first item on the agenda of Pastor Enoch Adejare Adeboye, the General Overseer of the RCCG. Having commended the congregation for finding their way to the event against all odds, Pastor Adeboye charged them thus: “Pray that the fuel scarcity be soon over and pray that this will be the last time we will ever have such occurrence in the country.”

Pastor Adeboye’s performance at that event, and his admonition to his listeners, are telling for several reasons, reasons that, as a whole, speak directly to my main research objective of articulating the sociology of the emergence of the Pentecostal-charismatic pastor as the focal point of authority in most of sub-Saharan Africa today. I will return to this presently, but first, let me offer a few brief remarks on why I find the performance of pastor Adeboye and his admonition telling.

In the first instance, the political significance of the space in which this religious event took place should not be lost on us. After all, Abuja is not just the country’s Federal Capital; it is the territorial and spatial symbol of the endless jousting for political influence and power between those two contending blocs: Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. The RCCG’s decision to make a crowd-pulling religious spectacle in Abuja a monthly affair may be primarily economic (after Lagos, Abuja boasts Nigeria’s greatest concentration of upper middle-class business leaders, powerful politicians and state officials, foreign diplomats, and international consultants.) As well, it signals an attempt to consolidate the political success that the Church ostensibly scored last year with the election of lawyer Yemi Osinbajo, a proud pastor of the RCCG, as the country’s Vice President. Incidentally, Mr. Osinbajo and his wife, Dolapo, were in personal attendance, with the added presence of Chief of Defense Staff Major General Abayomi Gabriel Olonisakin, and Health Minister Professor Isaac Adewole imbuing the occasion with all the gravitas of a state ceremony.

This brings me to a second reason why I find Pastor Adeboye’s performance telling. By admonishing his audience to “Pray that the fuel scarcity be soon over and pray that this will be the last time we will ever have such occurrence in the country,” Pastor Adeboye was enacting a ‘play’ with deep political connotations. With Vice President Osinbajo in the audience, any allusion to the political origins of the scarcity of fuel (for instance, the fact that successive Nigerian elites have failed to invest in the infrastructure for refining oil, hence its current rickety state and the country’s never-ending distribution struggles) would have put the VP on the spot. Yet, by failing to go for the political jugular and attempting to avoid politics or political controversy, Pastor Adeboye was in fact playing politics. Directly or indirectly, he was lending his name and reputation to a reading of the (origins of) the fuel crisis as a non-political act, hence unapproachable via conventional political routines.

Doing so, that is, advancing an interpretation of events that obfuscates or sometimes outright denies their political ontology is not exactly new to a man who has been hailed as perhaps the most politically influential charismatic pastor in contemporary Africa, the spiritual godfather to countless politicians and business leaders scattered across the African continent and beyond. For example, in 2009, acting in his self-appointed capacity as a semi-statesman without portfolio, Pastor Adeboye paid a ‘state’ visit to the Ajaokuta Steel Rolling Company, and promised that its infamous history as a steel producing company with no blade of steel to its name would soon be over because “I am going to put it as a priority in my prayers and I am sure God will take control.” The situation at Ajaokuta remains the same (still no steel), and experts agree that it remains the single most potent symbol of the omnipresent economic mismanagement of the Nigerian political class.

Ultimately, Pastor Adeboye is just a single individual. But he is a member of a critical pastoral cohort that I have described elsewhere as a ‘theocratic class’. The fact that this ‘class’ is politically influential, and increasingly so, is undeniable, though that influence may wax and wane in accordance with the personal fortunes of individual pastors. What I am seeking to uncover in my Contending Modernities research, a subject still relatively unattended in the relevant literature, is the socio-economic, political, cultural, technological, and last but not least, global context for the emergence and deepening of this influence. In other words, how do we account for the growing authority of Pentecostal pastors in societies under various forms of pressure, and how do we leverage such an account for a deeper understanding of the crisis of authority in contemporary Africa?

My research posits that as postcolonial secular modernity chokes on its founding promises, and as the state becomes more of an abstraction in people’s everyday lives, Pentecostal pastors have for all practical purposes emerged as ‘consultants’ who are entrusted with the final word on a range of subjects, from the pietistic to the private. This situation, I suggest, portends serious ramifications for how we understand social citizenship in societies still struggling to a lay a foundation for participatory democracy.

Across a variety of sociological milieus, ranging from post-industrial democracies, through consolidated military oligarchies, to societies under dictatorships of various permutations, accounts of the  ‘politics of piety’ have exposed the role of the religious leaders in the manufacturing of civic consent. Building on this literature, my research situates the newly emergent agency of charismatic pastors within the void created by the retreat of the state (a process far more complicated and certainly more nuanced than the impression given in conventional accounts), the decline of ‘traditional’ pillars of authority (for instance, university academics) and the quest for stability created by constant disruptions in the global capitalist economy.

Ebenezer Obadare
Ebenezer Obadare is Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas and Research Fellow at the Research Institute for Theology and Religion, University of South Africa . His research has concentrated on the civil society-state interface, with particular interest in informal strategies of resistance under changing dynamics of rule. He has also researched and published extensively on religion and politics, civic engagement, and citizenship in Africa. His latest book is Pentecostal Republic: Religion and the Struggle for State Power in Nigeria (Zed Books/University of Chicago Press, 2018). He is the author of Humor, Silence, and Civil Society in Nigeria (University of Rochester Press, 2016.) editor of The Handbook of Civil Society in Africa (Springer, 2014) and co-editor of Civic Agency in Africa: Arts of Resistance in the 21st Century (James Currey, 2014) and four other books.

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