- Pentecostal Republic: religion and the struggle for state power in Nigeria by Ebenezer Obadare
Nigeria is widely seen as one of the global hotspots of contemporary Pentecostal Christianity; indeed, its largest city, Lagos, is frequently referred to as the Pentecostal capital of the African continent, if not of the world. Several studies have foregrounded the deeply political nature of this vibrant and energetic form of Christianity, and its manifestation as a highly public form of religion in contemporary Africa. Yet few studies have done this in a way as astute and accessible as Ebenezer Obadare in Pentecostal Republic. The book offers an incisive analysis of [End Page 990] and critical commentary on the profound impact that popular Pentecostal-Charismatic forms of Christianity have on the political landscape in Nigeria. While it is widely acknowledged that religion and politics in Africa are closely interconnected spheres, Obadare’s book provides a fascinating if not unsettling insight into what this truism actually means for political practice and the public sphere in a country where the religious terrain has been dramatically reshaped in recent times.
Focusing on the past two decades, the book takes as its starting point Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999, and advances the thesis that this coincided with the triumph of Christianity over its historical rival religion, Islam. Obadare explains this triumph with reference to the spectacular growth of Pentecostalism in the preceding years. He captures these two complementary theses succinctly in the somewhat homogenizing notion of ‘Pentecostal republic’ in order to acknowledge ‘the profound impact of Pentecostalism and Pentecostal forces on politics and the social imaginary in the Nigerian Fourth Republic’ (p. 1). Offering a historical-sociological account, Obadare chronologically discusses successive administrations, in particular of the first openly Pentecostal president, Olusegun Obasanjo (1999–2007), and of Goodluck Jonathan (2010–15). Although both these administrations were succeeded by a Muslim presidency, Obadare argues that Pentecostalism, regardless of the religious affiliation of the president, remained a major political factor, as it has effectively ‘enchanted’ Nigerian democracy through a ‘socio-political demonology’ (p. 19).
The account offered in this book is based on a wide range of primary sources, such as popular writings, media reports, press statements, published interviews and personal correspondence. Scholars with a more ethnographic methodological inclination may wonder to what extent these sources give an insight into Pentecostalism as a lived religion shaping political subjectivity at a grass-roots level. Yet Obadare’s focus is on the emergence of a new ‘theocratic class’ of born-again Christian leaders and their influence in the reshaping of political culture (p. 34).
In spite of the monolithic notion of the Pentecostal republic in the title, the analysis in this book is more nuanced, as it acknowledges that other religious movements – in particular Islamic reform – demonstrate similar fervour; that the triumph of Pentecostalism is by no means irreversible; and that the precise political effect of Pentecostalism on politics is difficult to assess. Nevertheless, discussing Nigeria as a ‘test case’ for the impact of religious revival on democratic practice and political culture in Africa, Obadare distances himself from the rather positive appraisals of the socio-economic and political effects of Pentecostalism that can be found in some of the literature. He offers a more sceptical, if not pessimistic, assessment, arguing that Pentecostalism ‘has a tremendous potential to be a reactionary force with a demobilising effect on civil society’ (p. 30).
Let me conclude with some questions in order to open up the debate about Obadare’s analysis and argument. First, several studies have demonstrated that, theologically, Pentecostalism is far from unified and stable – it represents a belief system that is highly adaptable to changing circumstances; institutionally, Pentecostalism is highly fragmented, with many different denominations and pastors competing for public visibility and political power; spiritual authority in Pentecostalism can never be taken for granted but is unstable and in flux, precisely because it depends on individual charisma rather than institutional structures...