A Republic of Extraverted Pentecostals: A Response to Ebenezer Obadare
Ebenezer Obadare’s Pentecostal Republic: Religion and the Struggle for State Power in Nigeria masterfully captures the troubling intersections of state politics and religion in Nigeria, staging vividly Pentecostalism’s unabashed appropriation of political power in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. What Pentecostal Republic accomplishes the most is how it makes intelligible the transformation of the political by the forces of religion. The author tracks and solidly analyzes the ascendancy of a brand of Nigerian Pentecostalism that impacts the performance and discharge of official power in Nigeria, arguing that an “enchanted democracy” (15) is the outgrowth of “the social visibility and political influence of a Pentecostal ‘theocratic class’” (23) whose grips on Nigeria’s democracy further consolidates a vexing desecularization of the country. As a participant observant of the Pentecostal dynamics Obadare writes about, I find Pentecostal Republic to be a magisterial account of the way in which certain vectors of Pentecostalism renders visible an enthronement of hegemonic totalities that stress a theocratic imaginary both in the processes of governance and in public discourses.
That said, the brilliant analysis of this book, and this position comes from critical and ethnographic encounters with Pentecostalism in Nigeria, is contingent on the assumption that Pentecostalism in Nigeria and Prosperity Christianity (based on the so-called prosperity Gospel) are the same. They are not. Obadare’s framing of the Pentecostal in the context of Nigerian politics appears to be an essentialist categorization that hardly captures the full spectrum of the Pentecostal experience in the country.
Prosperity Christianity has as its chief aim a morbid desire for the accumulation of capital, which provides an ideological imaginary for the rituals of Christian behaviour and the performative excesses that have come to be associated with a large section of Christianity in Nigeria in recent decades. Its major impulse is the practice of Pentecostalism as a response to the privations and deprivations of the postcolonial moment in the country. The condition for the existence of this brand of the Pentecostal is the desire to transcend the precariousness of economic hardships and failed sociopolitical experiments through an uncritical reliance on the benevolent spectacles of a self-made and ever-present Deux ex machina by which many Christians interpret meaning and reality. Yet, it is upon this premise that Obadare appears to construct his most enduring argument — the belief that state power in Nigeria is burdened and overdetermined by Pentecostal inflections that shaped the politics of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. This thesis is true, but only to the extent that the mode of Pentecostalism that has been intelligently and vigorously analyzed is, in fact, a manifestation of only one of several valences and temperaments of Nigerian Pentecostalism.
Although it is a work that offers a compelling narrative brilliant and gripping in every sense, Pentecostal Republic also ignores a huge swath of the Pentecostal population in Nigeria, a section of Nigerian Pentecostalism that constitutes an alternative strand. There is a sense in which this group might be seen as a puritanical subculture of mainstream Nigerian Pentecostalism, but it should be more appropriately defined as an Introverted Pentecostal culture, as against the extraverted Pentecostalism which Obadare lucidly writes about. Introverted Pentecostalism is marked by a strict insistence on holiness and missionary activities, rather than position itself to perpetuate the “deflection of theological emphasis from holiness to prosperity” (22) as does most of the Pentecostal actors and leaders Obadare’s work examines in the context of the struggle for political dominance in the Nigerian state. Introverted Pentecostals are likely to be given to Christian apologetics as well as an intense focus on Christian discipleship, theological domains that are peripheral mostly in practice among mainstream, extraverted Pentecostals, who, ironically, are more visible in the public arena.
While the extraverted Pentecostal appears to shape the explicit discourses and narratives of Nigerian Christianity, it is the introverted Pentecostal that implicitly embodies the quintessence of biblical morality. There could be the argument that this latter group is too reclusive to compel any meaning changes in the politics of state; this is a similar argument that may be made on behalf of moderate Islam which equally seems to stand at the margin of the ascendancy of political Islam on the cusp of global terrorism. To that charge, I will offer an example, noting the obvious imbrications in the ritual expressions of both the Introverted and the extraverted. For instance, Gbile Akanni’s Peace House in Benue State gathers thousands of Nigerian Pentecostals to its campground in the city of Gboko every year, and among them may be found some of the most prominent actors of the Fourth Republic that is the focus of analyses in Obadare’s book. This fact is in addition to the numerous times Gbile Akanni himself speaks in several meetings organized by state governors and state parliaments across the country. The aim of this evangelical effort is not to seize political power, but to have Christian disciples who quietly live out the principles of the doctrine of Christ in the corridors of power.
This example is not a rare singularity or an exception; there are many other groups that may or may not be visible in the way their practice of Pentecostalism shapes national politics, although we can also acknowledge the recent emergence of an urban middle-class Pentecostal culture (such as Poju Oyemade’s church in Lagos) that is savvy in its use of social media, seeks to shape national conversations through secular-rational platforms, and which is highly critical of the crass materialism of prosperity Christianity. I imagine that sequels to Obadare’s Pentecostal Republic will attend more critically than I could ever attempt to do to these other groups. Without any intention to romanticize this group, I would suggest that any argument that imagines introverted Pentecostals as a mere conservative bloc of other Pentecostals that may also surrender to the enticing allure of material gains dangled by members of the ruling class that interact with them will be shown to be a misreading of what Introverted Pentecostalism signifies.
I close by reiterating that the vision of Pentecostalism presented in Pentecostal Republic foregrounds prosperity in a manner that departs from the biblical morality of Introverted Pentecostals which, rather than ‘demonize’ them and all of reality as extraverted Pentecostals do, accepts and celebrates social problems as a necessary and an essential component of the Pentecostal experience. At the unconscious of this paradigm of Pentecostalism that explains every socio-economic malady in spiritual terms, therefore, is a quest for survival that surrenders agency to that which is empirically untenable. The Nigerian political space has a character informed by the capitalist cooptation of state resources. The diversion of public funds for private gains is something that has perennially undermined economic progress in Nigeria. With religion thrown into that mix, what is produced is not only a wanton display of avarice but also a mélange of the impulses of prosperity Christianity and the accumulative propensity of a thieving political class. In other words, both prosperity Christianity and the politics of the Fourth Republic, and indeed most of the Nigerian political space, are driven by the same ideological impulses — the will to capital. It goes without saying that in this framework, religion is not just a mechanism of escaping precarity, it is the means by which state power and resources are distributed, and with prosperity Christians in the locus of this, there is an intensification that assaults common sense.
Unfortunately, the summation of prosperity Christianity is its attainment of political significance and the rendering of reality solely through a logic of spirituality. The problem of the critic is, therefore, not Nigerian Pentecostalism. It is with the practice of prosperity Christianity in Nigeria. In Obadare, the slippages and contradictions produced by this theological project that brazenly insinuates itself into politics are excellently charted. There is so much to learn from Pentecostal Republic. I enjoyed reading it.
— James Yeku writes from Saskatoon, Canada.