Pentecostal republic

Christian Pentecostalism has crept to the center of public life in Nigeria.

Image via Max Pixel.

Late last month, Pastor Tunde Bakare, founder of the Lagos-based Pentecostal church, The Latter Rain Assembly, and indisputably one of Nigeria’s most popular Pentecostal pastors, visited Glasgow, Scotland, at the invitation of the African Forum Scotland and Association of Nigerians in Scotland. Fielding questions from the audience after his address on “A New Nigeria Re-engineered: The Role of Diaspora,” (sic) Pastor Bakare disclosed a previously unknown fact about his otherwise well-documented relationship with Kaduna State Governor, Nasir el-Rufai; “When he was contesting for the governorship of Kaduna State, I contributed N160 million [about US$450,000] to his electioneering campaign and he later paid me back,” said Pastor Bakare.

After several Christian villages in Southern Kaduna were sacked and hundreds of villagers killed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 2016 in attacks believed to have been orchestrated by Fulani herdsmen, Pastor Bakare was strangely conciliatory. Temporarily repudiating the truculence that had become part of his persona, he could only vaguely assure that “peace will return to Southern Kaduna” based on “some other things that I know that made me say peace will return there.”

What did Pastor Bakare know, and when did he know it? Why did he offer only to pray for the return of peace in Kaduna State following the massacre of fellow Christians when, on a different occasion, he would, in all likelihood, have taken to the streets in protest? To what extent did the fact that he had extended a line of credit to his “younger brother” Governor el-Rufai, as he disclosed to his audience in Glasgow, factor into his unusual conciliatoriness? Was he perhaps motivated by a desire to protect his financial investment by not risking his friendship with the governor, a risk that a robust denunciation of the Christmas Day killings might have triggered? Beyond Bakare, how have the affinities, networks, and alliances of the sort typified by the pastor and his Muslim governor “brother” shaped politics and political modalities in the Nigerian Fourth Republic?

Answers to these and corollary questions go to the heart of the intriguing imbrication of the theological and the political in contemporary Nigeria. It is also the subject of my forthcoming book, Pentecostal Republic: Religion and the Struggle for State Power in Nigeria (Zed Books/University of Chicago Press, 2018). Insisting that the kind of inter-religious political bromance between Bakare, a Pentecostal pastor, and Governor el-Rufai, a Muslim politician, is imperative for an understanding of the theo-politics of the Nigerian Fourth Republic (1999- ), the book advances two complementary theses as follows:

First, I argue that the return to Civil Rule in Nigeria in 1999 also coincided with the triumph of Christianity over its historic rival, Islam, as a political force in the country. Second, I suggest that the political triumph of Christianity happened in tandem with Pentecostalism’s creeping domination, not just of Christianity, but of popular culture, politics, and the entire social imaginary. Hence, it would seem logical, as I proceed to do, to name the Fourth Republic after Pentecostalism and place it under its sign, the idea being that the entire democratic process since 1999 is in fact inexplicable without appeal to the emergent power of Pentecostalism.

While my book focuses primarily on the interplay of faith and politics in Nigeria, populated by personalities and events known to scholars and students of Nigeriana, the nature of the subject matter means that, sociological minutiae notwithstanding, it speaks to scholars of religion and politics, and specifically Charismatic politics, both in other parts of Africa, and other regions of the world.

However, while it contributes to literature on Pentecostalism and politics in general, Pentecostal Republic, contra the largely laudatory tendency seen in the same literature, takes a dim view of Pentecostalism’s effect on politics. Based on data from Nigeria over the span of the Fourth Republic, the conclusion is difficult to avoid that, although it has deeply affected the socio-political order in Nigeria, Pentecostalism, being more apologetic than critical, has largely shied away from challenging it.

To be sure, the Nigerian scenario as analyzed in this book is best approached as one model of the various unpredictable ways in which, globally, and in contrast to the certitudes of secularization, religion and religious agents and factors continue to affect politics. I say unpredictable because, even in a Nigerian context in which Pentecostalism has been undeniably dominant, it does not always yield dividend for those seeking to cash in politically. For instance, and as I analyze in my book, for all his witless genuflection to the leading lights of the Pentecostal elite, former president Goodluck Jonathan still failed to secure a second term in office, raising the question of how much actual influence the leading pastors wield over their congregants, whether indeed there is a “Pentecostal vote” to mobilize, and the extent to which serious personal divisions between members of the Pentecostal elite disturb the wisdom of assuming their coherence as a class.

Coherent or not, we might legitimately expect them to continue to exert some measure of sociopolitical influence so far as Pentecostalism remains the most ebullient movement within the Christian tradition.

Further Reading