Pentecostal Republic: An excursion into Nigeria’s pentecospolitica milieu
But for the title, Pentecostal Republic, an engaging book by Ebenezer Obadare would have easily passed for a documentary on Nigeria’s democratic experiment in the last 20 years.
Though the author tries throughout the 200-page volume to justify the title; there are ample submissions in the book that places it beyond the banal label.
From the first word in the book to the last, the reader is treated to an all-engaging treatise on the dialectics of governance and faith in the emerging phase of Nigeria’s democracy. The reader is also served a menu of the complexities and intrigues that have characterized the political cum religious template of governance in Nigeria.
But then there is a consistent fall back on the Pentecostal strand in power as the author advances in his thesis. Also constant in the entire collection is the rather dramatic and informed presentation of facts and figures. Every line breathes details and statistics with credible and informed sources.
The book runs through seven chapters, with one chapter a day to span a week for an avid but careful reader. But the fluidity of the collection makes it an easy read; capable of being devoured in less than 48 hours.
Obadare employs an enchanting literary style using the lecture mold to take his reader through the recesses of Nigeria’s political history. The introduction gives the reader an overview of the book. But reading the intro is perhaps just a tip; as the entire volume offers something far more exciting and more revealing.
Chapter one opens with the title: Pentecostal Republic, enchanted democracy. Here the author starts with the rather controversial Aso Rock piece titled the spiritual side of Aso Rock by Mr. Reuben Abati, spokesman of the former President of Nigeria; Goodluck Jonathan.
Obadare dwells extensively on this piece giving it some life of its own while also linking it with the rather superstitious posture of the average Nigerian.
Though Abati in that celebrated piece painted a rather obtuse and satanic image of Aso Rock, Obadare asks, “If Aso Rock is a place of danger, why have successive Nigerian heads of state shown desperation in their attempts to cling to power.” He answers, “Nigerians unique resolution at this contradiction is that the mechanisms of the same dark forces creates the leaders’ fatal attraction to power.”
Chapter two begins with the information about the mosque former President Olusegun Obasanjo built close to his widely acclaimed presidential library to mark his 80th birthday in 2017. An indication of his tolerance for the other faith you would say. But the author notes almost immediately that the former president has not been “shy about flaunting his Christian born-again credentials adding however that the building of a mosque by the ex-president was viewed in “some quarters as a political sop aimed inter alia, at pacifying Muslim residents of Ogun State”.
Obadare who practiced journalism in Nigeria before traveling to the US to pursue a teaching career carefully traces the historical angle to Obasanjo’s presidency. Apart from situating the June 12 in proper light he takes an excursion into the emergence of the Christian community and the growing of its political wing. We are made to understand for instance that the General Secretary of the Baptist Convention, Dr. S.T. Ola Akande ran for the presidency under the banner of the defunct National Republican Convention. He notes also that there was the assertion that Obasanjo’s ascent to power were heavily steeped in Christian “Pentecostalist symbolism”
The exciting part of this chapter are the quotes ascribed to Obasanjo. But for the fact that the quotes are lifted from Obasanjo’s book (My watch, early life and military), one would have disputed the ex-president actually penned those words or that they were his experiences while he was in prison.
One of the quotes reads “…I could pray for hours unending particularly while I was also fasting. I normally had two days, three days, five days and even seven days of fasting with prayers. The more I fasted and prayed the stronger I seemed to feel and the more spiritual I became.”
While noting that Obasanjo was not shy of going public about his spiritual rebirth, the author notes yet another of Obasanjo’s landmark quote from his book, My watch, early life and military. It reads, “…But for me, God made the prison next to heaven because he used the hardship, deprivation and the tribulation to draw me closer to Him in faith. Obedience, worship, prayers, fasting, study of the word of God, praises and thanksgiving. For me it was all a humbling and chastening experience with God in charge and in control. He granted me His peace and joy out of his love and grace. He gave me satisfaction and contentment and kept my spirit high, my conscience free and clear, and my hands clean.”
Many other quotes from Obasanjo’s books, This Animal Called man and the Guide to Effective Prayers would make a theologian green with envy. The author is able to establish Obasanjo claims to being born again. The point is, a reader who perhaps has read or heard much about Obasanjo especially from the uncensored media; perhaps would wonder if those traits are still a feature of the retired general.
The prophetic dimension to Obasanjo’s ascent to power and how many Christians view his tenure as being ordained by God also came to the fore in the chapter. Obadare however noted that a person like Chris Okotie, Pastor of Household of God Church, Pastor Tunde Bakare and Felix Oluyemi known as baba Olomi now now were “against the evangelical grain” But according to the author, The Pentecostal elite latched greatly on Obasanjo’s presidency to get favour and expand their territories.
The author, a professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas, US in chapter three writes on: 2007-2010: a Muslim interlude? This chapter x-rays the two-and-half year reign of Umaru Musa Yar’adua. Here, Obadare who is also a research fellow for Theology and Religion, University of South Africa traces the theatrics that culminated in Yar’adua’s election as Nigeria’s president, the drama that attended his death and the struggle for Nigeria’s number one seat.
The writer tells us a bit of a history of the Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunna Ludda ‘awati wal-Jihad (Boko Haram) sect quoting Linguist Paul Newman who had noted that the word Boko “is an indigenous Hausa word originally connoting sham, fraud, deceit, or lack of authenticity.’
He is also able to establish that the sect predates the Yar’adua era adding however that the first full scale uprising of Boko Haram was recorded in Yar’adua’s tenure. The strength of the chapter however lies in its portrayal of the drama that attended the death of Yar’adua, the activities of pressure groups like the Save Nigeria Group led by Pastor Bakare, the strategic roles played by Islamic clerics and then Christian leaders in Yar’ Adua’s last days.
The author’s description of the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Pastor Enoch Adeboye’s attitude during the crisis “as an established attitude of radio silence in moments of national crisis” is worth mentioning. Obadare is also able to establish in that chapter that Adeboye is the most politically connected cleric in Nigeria.
The story of the cash-for-arms deal during which the then president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Pastor Ayo Orisetjafor was mentioned kicks off chapter 4 under the title: 2010-15 pentecostalism re-ascendant. The jet used for transporting money to South Africa for purpose of purchasing ammunition to prosecute the horrific Boko Haram war by the then Federal Government was said to have been owned by Pastor Oritsejafor. One is regaled with the tales that surrounded the arms deal and the way the then President Goodluck Jonathan wormed his way into the hearts of theocratic leaders in the country. The author sheds light on the dilemma of Jonathan while being caught between the Northern elite and the Pentecostal elite.
It is instructive that the author draws largely from the article of Father Mathew Hassan Kukah titled the “patience of Jonathan.” The article is about the incredible rise of Jonathan to power. The author without fear of being misinterpreted garnishes the chapter with the piety of ex-president Jonathan. For instance while describing the first Federal Executive Council meeting that was chaired by Jonathan, the author writes, “Preparing to take charge of his first FEC meeting as the country’s substantive president after Yar’ Adua’s passing, Jonathan no doubt conscious of the symbolism of the moment and the intense gaze of the press camera, removed his trademark fedora hat, clasped his hands, and closed his eyes in prayer.”
The author then goes on to remark, “This was a calculated performance of piety and humility, an overture to the Pentecostal constituency signaling that he, as “one of them” was “in charge” (behind him, strategically positioned, was the crest of the Federal Republic of Nigeria). At the same time, it was a gesture of ostentatious humility choreographed for the consumption of Nigerians more widely.” He adds, “Jonathan would often repeat this pose of gratuitous modesty and pornographic piety.”
Chapter 4 continues with the story of how Jonathan frittered his political capital, the celebrated kidnap of about 276 girls of Government Secondary School, Chibok in Borno State and how he became the butt of joke of many Nigerians. The author notes that his failure to balance his romance with the Northern political elite and the Pentecostal power brokers accounted for his poor performance in government. The editorial of The Economist on Jonathan as employed by the author which described him as “an ineffectual buffoon” seems to sum up the descent of Jonathan to a political abyss.
One beautiful thing about Obadare’s book is the engaging opening of each chapter. He does that perfectively in the entire collection. He starts chapter five, titled, Electoral Theologies with the story of Jonathan’s quest for a second term and his romance with royal fathers in the southwest of Nigeria. This time, he picks on the celebrated picture which shows Jonathan sandwiched by a number of royal fathers with their staff pointed at him. The chapter progresses to dwell on the intrigues and interest that characterized the 2015 elections. The author then extrapolates on the faith elements prior to the 2015 elections and how the political actors latched on this for political gain.
He notes, “The 2015 elections in Nigeria 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 Pentecostal praxis, and the fact that religious agents are insinuated in overlapping layers of class, location and interest-personal and corporate-that seems to dictate how they act and what they say in changing social circumstances”
He concludes the chapter by noting, “the fact that there is a Pentecostal laity does not imply there is a Pentecostal vote” This is drawing largely from the obvious outcome of that election.
Chapter six titled, “Kill them before they kill you”-on violent Pentecostalism” does not start on a killing note as indicated by the screaming heading. Rather, it starts on the role of Pastor Adeboye in Nigeria’s political milieu. Here, Obadare brings to the fore the strategic role of Adeboye in decision making among the political elite. The author describes Adeboye as a revered political broker citing the consultations of the former governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu with the revered cleric when making critical political decisions. The author also notes in the chapter that “there is a sense in which the Redeemed Camp on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway is regarded as political mecca of the fourth republic. If the Redemption Camp is the spiritual mecca of the fourth republic, Pastor Adeboye is the political lodestar’
The chapter dovetails to a narrative on Pastor Daniel Olukoya, General Overseer of Mountain of Fires and Miracles where the author notes the invocation of spiritual violence in the fending off of ubiquitous evil in the land; stretching the point that Olukoya is champion of such brand of Pentecostalism.
The author wonders at the violence dimension to spiritual warfare. He brings up the story of the 21-year old undergraduate at the Redemption Camp who hacked his father, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria to death on July 3, 2014. The young man was said to have been miffed by his father’s frustration at his not responding positively to the family prayer points. The author finds it interesting that such violence could take place in a prayer mountain (redemption camp) sort of.
Chapter seven, the concluding chapter of the book makes a striking note about the romance between political and the theological elite. He reasons that the relationship between these two phenomena makes it practically impossible for a political implosion. He writes, “…Pentecostalism is a ballast that gives Nigeria democracy stability. The real question is whether it is stability or rupture that the system requires and my answer is that rupture is highly unlikely for as long as the entente between the ruling class and the theological elite remains in place.”
The author uses the fraternity between the governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir El Rufai and Pastor Tunde Bakare as an example of the larger romance in the political space between politicians and the men in collar. He however notes in this chapter that despite the seeming influence of the Pentecostals in power, it is still not clear if the faith body has a clear political ideology that can make it continuously relevant in the political arrangement.
The beauty of Obadare’s effort lies in his ability to throw up a thought line in a seemingly awkward direction. Ordinarily one would have thought the enactment in Nigeria’s political space has little bearing with the subject matter. But he successfully weaves a narrative around the Pentecostal motif. The depth of research and inquisition that are evident in the work are quite instructive.
Pentecostal Republic is an assemblage of divergent themes and thoughts put together in a seamless manner. It is no doubt a classic. It will endure for many years to come and serve as a reference point for coming generations who seek to know the starting years of Nigeria’s most enduring political experiment.
One minus, perhaps, in the entire work is the little space given to Rev. Chris Okotie founder of the Fresh Party and a serial presidential aspirant. Anybody conversant with the political trajectory of Nigeria in the last twenty years would appreciate Okotie’s involvement in politics except that the author may well be making a statement that the musician turned pastor is inconsequential in Nigeria’s political milieu.
But the work is no doubt an excellent collection that will always attract generous review and applause from both academic and theological circles.
Author: Ebenezer Obadare
Reviewer: Gbenga Osinaike