Electoral Theologies: Pentecostal Pastors and the 2015 Presidential Election in Nigeria

Electoral Theologies: Pentecostal Pastors and the 2015 Presidential Election in Nigeria

Sharing is caring!Facebook0Twitter0Google+0Pinterest0 In the end, the 28 March 2015 presidential election in Nigeria was a perfect anti-climax. Not on...

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In the end, the 28 March 2015 presidential election in Nigeria was a perfect anti-climax. Not only did the widespread post-election anarchy confidently foretold by leading commentators and politicians on both sides of the political divide not materialize; the election did in fact manage to produce a clear winner, the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate, General Muhammadu Buhari. As a result, as the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) placed a tension-dousing congratulatory call to the APC candidate, the only audible noise in the public sphere was the disappointed grunt of lawyers who had hoped to profit from a widely anticipated legal stalemate. A ballot framed in generational terms as a showdown between youth and old age (Jonathan and Buhari were 57 and 72 years respectively); between a chronic ditherer and a steady hand; or, as some sections of the media would have it, between an incumbent who frequently choked on his sentences, and a challenger who doled out lengthy jail sentences in his first coming as a military dictator, ended up falling short of its classic billing.

This is not to say that Nigerians and election specialists will forget the March 28 election in a hurry. If for no other reason, the election will at least be remembered for the role played by some of the leading lights among the country’s increasingly influential Pentecostal pastorate.[1] Since May 1999 when Nigeria returned to civil rule, its ‘theocratic class’ (see Obadare 2006) has grown in absolute numbers and political strength, a development that parallels the broader numerical explosion and political ascendancy of Christian Pentecostalism across West and Central Africa. A 2006 Pew Research Center 10-Country Survey of Pentecostals puts Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia respectively at the upper end of the Pentecostal resurgence on the African continent. This theocratic class exercises increasing sway over not just strictly ‘theological’, but also personal, economic, and political matters. More and more, they circulate freely around the world- these days a private jet is the means of transportation of choice- galvanizing a global spiritual economy in which devotional principles and modalities, not to mention styles of authority, are freely exchanged.

Buhari-Jonathan-2

One role in which this theological elite has distinguished itself- and one, admittedly, in which it has been largely successful- is framing elections and the politics surrounding them in religious terms. For instance, the election that landed Olusegun Obasanjo the Nigerian presidency in May 1999 was narrativized in Pentecostal circles as the consummation of a ‘Power Shift’ from a Muslim North to a Christian South. After his successor, Umaru Yar’Adua, a Northern Muslim, passed on in May 2010 following a prolonged battle with a severe kidney condition, the rump of the theocratic class not only rallied round his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, the latter’s relatively unconventional political pedigree, especially his apparent knack for being in the right place at the right time (Jonathan was ‘promoted’ state governor and president respectively having not directly put himself forward in an election) was invoked as proof of the new president’s ‘good’ –that is, divinely sanctioned- ‘luck.’ In a characteristic apercus, the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Father Matthew Hassan Kukah described President Jonathan’s rise to the presidency as “a monumental act of divine epiphany”. He added: “This man’s rise has defied any logic and anyone who attempts to explain it is tempting the gods.”

Jonathan, a Christian from the oil-rich-infrastructure-poor southeastern region of the country milked his newfangled glorification to the fullest. Intellectually limited though politically savvy, he calculated early on that his chances of winning (which he did in 2011) and holding on to power (which he couldn’t in 2015) were best guaranteed by being and remaining in the good graces of the Pentecostal elite, the most prominent of whom controlled congregations running into hundreds of thousands, exercised symbolic authority over millions more, and boasted financial wealth in the billions. In 2015, five of the ten richest pastors in the world are Nigerians. These are, in order of estimated wealth (first being the richest), David Oyedepo of the Living Faith World Outreach Ministry (aka Winners’ Chapel), Chris Oyakhilome of Christ Embassy Church, T.B. Joshua of the Synagogue, Church of All Nations, Matthew Ashimolowo of Kingsway International Christian Center, London, and Chris Okotie of the Household of God Church International Ministries. Apart from sitting on piles of cash, these pastors also dispense influence as increasingly strategic cogs in the country’s vast machinery of political patronage.

Jonathan’s strategic courting of these ‘big men of God’ started right from the day he was sworn in as President when, with the cameras rolling, the new Commander-in-Chief knelt in front of the Nigerian coat of arms, as visible and potent a symbol of the state as any, arms clasped in a familiar posture of Christian prayer. He would soon follow with a much-advertised visit to the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG)’s sprawling prayer camp on Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, where he was symbolically- if a tad ostentatiously- blessed by its General Overseer, Pastor Enoch Adejare Adeboye, the doyen of the Nigerian Pentecostal elite and arguably the most socially significant African pastor alive today. Thenceforth, President Jonathan was for all practical purposes a Christian president.

As the 2015 election approached, all eyes were on the Pentecostal pastors, many of whom, in any case, seemed all too eager to be the focus of media attention. The reason for this is simple. A degree of constant publicity is central to their (i.e. pastors’) validation as spiritual leaders worthy of respect, if not veneration, by their immediate congregants and the political elite. It comes as no surprise that many of the conflicts involving the leading pastors have been carried out in the newspapers, whose reporters are often torn between their professional obligation to report on newsworthy events, and their barely disguised identity as Christian believers.

Apart from a desire for the oxygen of publicity, it would seem that many of the pastors also felt morally obligated to return President Jonathan’s favor. Not only had he, Jonathan, publicly backed many Christian causes, there were unconfirmed reports that many of the pastors had in fact received financial inducement for their support. For instance, in the approach to the election, several news sources in the country published reports alleging that the president had made a large donation (up to 30 million US dollars, according to some reports) to the Ayo Oritsejafor-led Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN. The purpose of the money, according to the reports, was to buy (guarantee?) the loyalty of CAN’s top echelon.

Ultimately, no financial largesse could keep CAN under the same political umbrella, and if there is one single lesson to be drawn from the 2015 presidential election, it is the validation of the wisdom that while, formally speaking, they may constitute a class, Pentecostal pastors or religious leaders are far from being politically or ideologically cogent. Thus, while some of the pastors refused to show their hand, at least at the initial stage, others came out very early in support of their preferred candidate. The point to keep in mind is that in nearly all cases, pastors’ political preferences seem to have been determined, not by some vague national interest or even denominational loyalty (not that these can be totally ruled out) but by an admixture of corporate (not excluding financial) interests, location, personal relationships, and complicated projections and permutations as to which of the two candidates would best assure that they landed on their feet in the post-election period.

At any rate, only Sunday Adelaja, founder and senior pastor of the Ukraine-based Embassy of God and Reverend Father Ejike Mbaka of Adoration Ministry, Enugu, openly- and consistently- backed General Buhari.[2] As Mr. Adelaja himself told me in an email interview, he was, in backing Buhari, answering to both his “logic and mind” which made it difficult for him to support an administration which “squandered the economy (sic) and the treasury of our country.” His being resident outside the country may have made his decision to declare his hand early on easier.

The home-based pastors enjoyed no such luxury. As I mentioned earlier, many of them were already cozy with President Jonathan, and in fact a few of them had welcomed him as a visitor to their churches, sometimes on more than one occasion. Besides, they also appear to have been constrained by the fact that General Buhari’s running mate, former Lagos State Attorney General Yemi Osinbajo, a leading member of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) and a pastor in his own right- was one of their tribe. Osinbajo was, it should be remembered, the handpicked candidate of Bola Tinubu, former Lagos State governor and arguably the country’s preeminent political broker. The choice of Osinbajo as Vice Presidential candidate was partly dictated by the imperatives of ethno-religious balance on the ticket (Buhari is a Northern Muslim); but it was also an open acknowledgment of the expanding influence of the Pentecostal community, in particular the Redeemed Church.

The division within the pastorate finally blew open in late January 2015 when, as the February 14 original date of the election approached (it was eventually rescheduled to March 28, to much public consternation), both the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) endorsed President Goodluck Jonathan. Although he never openly showed his hand (in truth, he hardly ever does), Pastor Adeboye is believed to have backed the Jonathan ticket, Osinbajo’s presence on the ballot notwithstanding, in part because of assurances he had reportedly received from the president regarding import licenses for steel and other building materials for the new 12-million capacity auditorium that the RCCG has been struggling to complete. For similar reasons, Bishop David Oyedepo may have cast his ballot for the incumbent in hopes of material support for Canaanland, his 560-acre mega church project currently under construction in Ota, Ogun State. Pastor Tunde Bakare[3] of the Latter Rain Assembly appears to have hedged his bet right till the end. Although he participated in the national conference organized by President Jonathan, he was quick to condemn both CAN and PFN for their endorsement of Jonathan.

The 2015 presidential election in Nigeria is an empirical set piece for the analysis of continuities and discontinuities between religion and politics in Africa. It is a perfect illustration of what happens when the theological meets the political, and when religious leaders (in this case Nigeria’s increasingly influential Pentecostal elite) are dragged into the cauldron of party politics even as they seek to maintain the façade of bipartisanship. Among other things, we are confronted with the sheer complexity of evangelical epistemology, and the way in which religious agents are insinuated in overlapping layers of class, location, and interest- personal and corporate.

What is now frequently referred to as ‘Pentecostal revolution’ in Africa has generated an extensive and illuminating scholarly archive. While this literature has emphasized the emergent pastorate’s ‘political role’ (see for instance Gifford 2004), its ‘relationship with the political class’ (Ukah 2008), and its role as ‘mediators of tradition’ (Meyer 2005); the question of how this pastorate, for want of a better word, ‘rules,’ and how its authority is and negotiated and exercised both within and beyond Pentecostal communities is less understood. Questions about the nature of their authority and rule remain unanswered, even though the enhanced symbolic and socio-political significance of respective Pentecostal leaders is anecdotally referenced in the literature. A closer look at cases like Nigeria’s most recent elections helps deepen our understanding of the agency of a religious elite whose growing influence increasingly transgresses various sectoral boundaries.

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