The Social Media Influencer and The Freezing of Pentecostal Power in Nigeria

Nigerian Pentecostalism is currently witnessing the surveilling and disciplinary gaze of the netizen. This has not always been the case in a country that has been rightly described as a Pentecostal Republic by the Nigerian sociologist, Ebenezer Obadare. The wide-reaching colonization of everyday life in the country by the forces of Pentecostalism is so pervasive that the ruling class in the country both jostle for the attention of the clerical elite and has itself at various times been constituted by pastors and politicians who publicly affirm a born-again identity. As Obadare makes clear, a Pentecostal understanding of society, culture, politics and historical dynamics in Nigeria, as well as the values and normative commitments that result from that understanding constitute a Pentecostal imaginary that accounts for much of Christian attitudes and explanations of the Nigerian condition. To put it simply, the Nigerian mind has to grapple with a Pentecostal culture that significantly structures and constrains its agency.

However, this imaginary is also intensely complicated by another kind of image, namely that of the digital subject who deploys social media as a means of entering the space of public discourses. This is not the place to rehash the politics of data extraction and the neoliberal fantasies which shape the liberty to appear in the arena of public communication. While some go as far as pointing to reasons why social media cannot be a public sphere, or to the various nefarious uses that proceed from it, the real question is whether it has enabled more people with access to the Internet to become more visibly involved in the public sphere. The situation in Nigeria shows it has, and one major area in which ordinary citizens without any connections to state power or hegemonic culture emerge to challenge power is in the realm of religion.

In particular, an expressive and highly extraverted iteration of Pentecostalism — the Gucci type that the performances and sole authority of a star or mega pastor — is now being constantly pilloried by the watching eyes of Nigerian netizens for whom social media exists for commentary discourses. For the political class, the online expressions of dissent might be a mere slacktvist gesture that only bears illusory traces of resistance; for those in the theocratic class, though, the resistance to pastoral excesses appears to be ruffling feathers, even as it simultaneously reinscribes, as I shall later note, the hegemonic hold of the pastor figure.

What many in the Nigerian theocratic class have refused to appreciate is that with social media, it is no longer business as usual. Scrutinizing the pulpit is not just a heavenly eye that from above disavows the uncritical marriage of the profane and the sacred that is quite common in the spectacle of the Nigerian tradition of Pentecostalism I write of here; now pertinent is also the eye of the smartphone, that defiant symbol of citizen power which potentially disrupts authoritarian regimes globally. From Nigerian Twitter feminists who scrutinize the patriarchal contents of sermons to even Christian apologists who decry how the interpretation of scripture is made ideologically to serve the monetary interests of some pastors, pastoral authority now goes viral because of this digital gaze. It bears repeating, the dramas of Pentecostal existence in Nigeria are inflected by an inexplicable indifference to a culture of accountability and self-censure. The Nigerian netizen on Facebook would not have this, even if their mode of expressing speech and agency is undermined by obvious faultiness.

Enter the social media influencer. While many ordinary netizens use social media to represent themselves and challenge cultural orthodoxies, it is the figure of the social media influencer that appears to offer the most vexing distraction to those in authority. The Nigerian social media influencer has social capital and is a netizen who has established some level of credibility based on their prestige, fame and their huge audience who are often easily persuaded. There are many social media influencers in the Nigerian social media space, with many of them migrating online from traditional celebrity zones such as Nollywood and Nigerian popular music. Also, in this cohort are common heavyweights such as Linda Ikeji, Jaruma Empire, Japheth Omojuwa, as well as the many talents producing Instagram comedy. The power of the social media influencer is visible in what some media scholars refer to as the attention economy, which extends to the followers of those who follow the influencer. Like the Nigerian Pentecostal pastor, of the spectacular tradition, the social media influencer also wields power over multitudes and generate capital and influence from the performances of power. We may argue that some social media influencers like the infamous, alleged internet fraudster, Hushpuppi (Ramon Abass) are even involved in the same performance of luxury and ostentatious wealth that has become the signature of some Nigerian Pentecostal pastors.

In some cases, a social media user such as controversial popular broadcaster, Ifedayo Olarinde (Daddy Freeze) — potentially an influencer himself — has more YouTube and Twitter followers than some Nigerian pastors on the same platforms. Some may argue that pastors have more impact on the lived experiences of people and that social media following does not matter. Although arguable in some contexts, that is generally true, even if my point here is precisely that for a pastoral class that traffics in the power of numbers and figures, the Nigerian social media influencer possibly embodies a disruptive presence and is an important pointer to the emergence of a competitor online.

The online debates involving Daddy Freeze and some popular pastors prove that the uncontested power of the pastor to shape culture is being reconfigured by netizens. I am not suggesting that Daddy Freeze or some pastor is right or wrong. There is no need for that. Again, the excesses of some pastoral figures in Nigeria and the materialist spectacles of the pulpit self-exhibitions are obvious to all, despite the uncritical touch-not-my-anointed shrieks of their followers. For Daddy Freeze who calls out pastors on social media, his association with Hushpuppi speaks volumes. Although he retains the right to public speech like anyone else, that he is affiliated with a social media influencer whose trade is cybercrime is delegitimizing. His imperfections aside, Daddy Freeze symbolizes how social media can be used to rally followers who speak truth to normative culture in Nigeria. As we see in the political landscape, religious discourses online show more citizen participation which is often critical of pastoral excesses. This is what I think is important in the recent discussions involving Daddy Freeze and some of Nigeria’s darling pastors. Rather than the zeal to defend itself hastily, the pastoral class is being challenged to return to being the conscience of the nation; to re-invest in the pulpit its sacred calling. Rather than the emphasis on prosperity Gospel and the extremities of decontextualized scriptural exegesis, the Nigerian hill needs a church to be a light that shines uncompromisingly bright. Not that the church will ever eradicate voices such as Daddy Freeze’s — and I don’t see why pastors would want the secular voices that hold them accountable to society drown out — but a sensible expression of pastoral power, one not regulated by the calculus of capital will, at least, shift the focus of the scrutiny.

Let me close with two ironic implications, one of which is already hinted. The first is that the pastors who have responded to Daddy Freeze so far do not even realize how their rebuttals legitimize the social media user’s impulse to critique the pastoral class. Whether it’s through an animated speech or the violence of silence, Nigerian pastors respond to social issues that involve them in a manner that validates the need to hold them accountable in the first place. The second irony is that resistance to Pentecostal power actually reinscribes it. The Daddy Freeze debacle revealed an army of supporters who would go to any extent to speak for a man of God who implicitly threatened another citizen. That the first tendency of many Nigerian Pentecostals is to speak in support of pastoral overindulgences signifies the pervasive power of the pastor figure in Nigeria. This idea comes from Ebenezer Obadare and he is right on the ball. We may conclude that social media, despite its many limitations, facilitates efforts by some netizens to freeze and suspend the operations of Pentecostal power, but ultimately the Nigerian man of God appears to prevail. After all, it’s in the nature of power to fight back and co-opt resistance. In Nigeria, that which is frozen soon melts. Such are the workings of Pentecostal power in Nigeria’s Pentecostal republic.

James Yeku is an Assistant Professor of African Digital Humanities at the University of Kansas. He writes on digital cultures and African popular media.

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