Nigeria’s ‘Pentecostal’ Presidency Ebenezer Obadare's Pentecostal Republic

In February 2019, during the heat of the campaign for the Nigerian presidential elections, several billboards for the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidates popped up at major intersections across the Abuja metropolis. The billboards riffed off Proverbs 14:34, ‘Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people,’ (NKJV). Specifically, it repurposed the central thrust of that maxim to subordinate rhetoric—the dominant, persuasive technique of political campaigns; to the innate, unquestionable and unmeasurable quality of the righteousness of its candidates.

What was even more peculiar about these billboards was the manner in which the name of the Vice-Presidential candidate, Yemi Osinbajo, was styled as ‘Pastor’, conspicuously replacing his more common designation of ‘Professor’, which he gained due to his position as a legal scholar. Beyond signalling the image of the Buhari-Osinbajo ticket as ‘God-fearing and righteous’ and how such an administration would wield the power of the state in contrast to the main opposition candidates in the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), this subtle yet clever substitution highlights the interplay of religion and electoral politics in the Nigerian democratic process. Where candidates court congregational constituencies to embellish their Pentecostal bona fides, religious agents weaponize symbolism and Biblical tropes to endorse or challenge the ruling class. More importantly, this campaign messaging documents the ascension of a member of the ecumenical cohort to the highest echelons of political power in Nigeria.

In his latest book, Pentecostal Republic: Religion and the Struggle for State Power in Nigeria, Ebenezer Obadare explores the ascent of Pentecostalism as the principal expression of Christianity in Nigeria and as a socio-political force. Obadare situates Pentecostalism in the context of the intra-elite alignment between the theocratic class and political officeholders and the blurred boundaries between these two groups. He also argues that the predilection to define the country’s socio-economic challenges and solutions to such in spiritual terms, a Pentecostalist world view promoted by both the theocratic class and political officeholders (as evidenced by the aforementioned campaign messaging), reaffirms the merging of the political and the religious, allowing opportunities for such mobilization to strengthen democratic institutions or fragment Nigerian society along ethno-religious lines.

Obadare mostly concerns himself with two key questions: what are the ways in which the Nigerian ruling class mobilize Pentecostal power to exercise and retain their control over the democratic process? And how does Pentecostalism function as a strategic instrument deployed by the political elite to capture and retain state power?

Obadare explores these questions in a survey of the religio-political contestations that manifested within the first three civilian administrations after the emergence of democratic rule in 1999. Under Obasanjo, he argues, Nigeria had its first ‘Pentecostal presidency,’ which openly courted alliances with leading Christian figures and drew heavily on the symbolism of his ‘born-again’ status to perform political Christianity. According to Obadare, this was evident in Obasanjo’s public statements and his publication of several Christian books. Moreover, it was present in his deeds, via faith-based recruitment for key political appointments and the construction of a chapel on the grounds of the Presidential villa. Without the backing of erstwhile Christian supporters, Obasanjo’s bid for a third term—framed as a ‘divine mission’—proved abortive.

Notwithstanding the succession of Obasanjo by Umaru Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim and former governor of Katsina State, Obadare highlights the various religio-political contestations during the short-lived Muslim interlude of the Yar’Adua administration, caused by the absence of the President from the country for health reasons and the resultant disorder in the polity. The struggle over the transition of power from Yar’Adua to his Southern Christian deputy, mobilizations such as the Save Nigeria Group (SNG), convened by leading Pentecostal pastors, as well as the struggle for primacy between Islamic and Christian clerics to access the ailing President upon his return from Saudi Arabia, all reveal the extended influence of the theocratic class into the democratic process of governance.

The third administration under focus is perhaps the most instructive under this lens of intra-elite alignment between the theocratic and ruling classes. Mining his biographical journey from relative obscurity to the nation’s highest office as divine intervention, Goodluck Jonathan’s performative Christianity, revealed via public displays of piety and regular visits to Pentecostal congregations (a trick repeated by Osinbajo in the run-up to the 2019 elections), was most effective at solidifying his Pentecostal power base. He supplemented these public displays with financial largesse to Pentecostal causes and pandering to cause célèbres such as the 2014 Same Sex Marriage Act. However, the failure to broaden this coalition and the heterogeneity within a Pentecostal elite that supported his elevation in 2015 left him unable to fulfil his re-election dream.

Against this backdrop of the ascent of Pentecostalism and its increasing influence in determining the viability of a political career, Osinbajo’s path to power illustrates what Obadare argues are two principal features of the rise of ‘political Christianity’ since the mid-1980s. First, Nigerian Christian leaders’ recognition of the failures within the prevailing notions of religious neutrality in secularism and their determination to ‘Christianize’ the state in response to the Islamic hegemony of governance during several military regimes; second, the relaxation of the embargo devout Christians had placed on public life due to the perceived notion of partisan politics as a dirty and corruptive pursuit.

In this regard, Osinbajo has forbears in Pastor Tunde Bakare, Buhari’s one-time running mate under the platform of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) in 2011, and Pastor Chris Okotie, a serial Presidential contestant since 2003. Furthermore, Osinbajo’s rise from Attorney General at the state level to Vice-President also fits within the incipient providential narrative advanced by religious mythmakers in favour of former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.

Pentecostal Republic is remarkably accessible, and its analyses will find purchase even among the most casual observers of the Nigerian democratic process. Particularly as the book distils various hypotheses from those water-cooler conversations, or in a more local trope, those open-air discussions held at the stalls of newspaper vendors. The result is an expedient theoretical model for understanding how religious agents have co-opted state power, and at the same time, how political leaders deploy Pentecostalism to legitimize their authority through providential narratives and attribution to supernatural forces.

Since his analysis predominantly focuses on religio-political contestations on the national stage, an extension to this study could explore the role of religious agents at the sub-national level, particularly as many Pentecostal congregations have moved into the realm of governance, setting up self-sustaining communities that operate outside of the Nigerian state. In addition, although the political centre of Pentecostal Republic revolves around southwest Nigeria, the Pentecostal elite within other regions especially the South-South and South-East are worthy of examination due to their recognition as power-brokers within their fiefdoms.

It is instructive that the APC Presidential candidate, now President-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, did not revert to the usual ‘President’ title, or even ‘General’, harkening to his military past, in the earlier mentioned campaign billboards. This either depicts Buhari as an unassuming figure in the eyes of the nation—a depiction his administration seeks to exalt—or as a flagship requiring the ‘apparent ballast’ of Osinbajo’s Pentecostal benediction. Much like how Obadare finds it is difficult to prove a moderating effect of Pentecostalism on the philosophy of governance or the machinations of the Nigerian state, he would probably contend that righteousness alone, notwithstanding the possessor of this quality, cannot possibly exalt this nation.

As the second term of a Buhari-Osinbajo administration unfolds, observers will be careful to pay attention to the (re)alignments within the political and theocratic ruling classes as they jostle for supremacy in the evolution of Nigeria’s Pentecostal republic. While it may be early to forecast for the 2023 national polls, as illustrated during the Obasanjo and Jonathan years, the Pentecostal power bloc is far from monolithic with respect to succession planning

Pentecostal Republic
Religion and the Struggle for State Power in Nigeria
Ebenezer Obadare
Zed Books, 2018.
252 pages.