Why are some Nigerian pastors so rich

Pentecostal Republic of Nigeria

A third of the population of the West African country is a member of an evangelical church

by Anouk Batard

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Pentecostalism is giving evangelicals a boost around the world. In Africa, Nigeria is the epicenter of Pentecostals, who like to refer to themselves as “born-again Christians”.

The West African country, an economic heavyweight with almost 200 million inhabitants, has produced a number of pastors who have achieved fame and great fortune worldwide. These include David Oyedepo, Bishop of Living Faith Church, also known as Winner’s Chapel, whose fortune was estimated at $ 150 million in 2015, and Christ Embassy's Chris Oyakhilhome, whose property is said to be between $ 30 million and $ 50 million.1

Tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of believers regularly gather in their “mega churches”, “redemption camps” and “holy cities”. These multinational religious corporations not only have gigantic places of worship, but also theological training centers, hospitals, media, schools and even universities.

In Nigeria there are roughly equal proportions of Muslims and Christians, but a public discourse shaped by the Pentecostal movement has established itself. This can be observed in popular culture (cinema, music, stand-up comedy and talk shows) as well as in the business world, in education, in public administration and in the highest spheres of the state. The political importance of the pastors and Christian institutions is so great that the sociologist Ebenezer Obadare even calls the country a “Pentecostal republic”.2

This "prosperity fundamentalism" (white-collar fundamentalism)3 , as Obadare calls the phenomenon, arose in the 1970s as a result of the great oil boom. As if by magic, some Nigerians became millionaires at the time and remained wealthy despite the deep and long-lasting economic, social and political crisis that followed. The next wave of the Pentecostal movement, also known as the neo-charismatic movement, mainly affected developing and emerging countries. By accusing the political and economic elites of witchcraft, it offered an explanation of how a minority could have gotten so rich.

In the face of numerous corruption scandals, the doctrine of sanctification and asceticism fell on fertile ground and was combined with a rhetoric of the moralization of public life. Born again Christianity thus fitted into the general disenchantment with politics and criticism of the elite. At the same time, another religious movement that was also committed to moral renewal was gaining ground: Salafism.

The neo-charismatic movement was particularly popular in the universities. It was carried by young, educated people from the urban middle class, whose studies and career entry were accompanied by the withdrawal of the state, privatizations and praise for entrepreneurship.

At the end of the 1980s, this wave of Pentecostalism picked up speed again by preaching the doctrine of prosperity instead of the doctrine of sanctification, following the American example. The scientist Ruth Marshall-Fratani describes this “gospel” as a mixture of Bible quotations and American popular psychology in the style of self-help and personal empowerment. It promises social advancement where degrees alone are no longer enough.4 In the classical doctrine of Protestantism, born-again refers to the search for a renewal of the ego. However, it could easily be transferred to the Nigerian nation, where many felt betrayed by the corrupt military who have ruled the country since independence.5

The Christian elite supports Muslim candidates

The chance of a return to civil government opened up in 1999 with the election of the former head of state Olusegun Obasanjo. Even though a member of the army, Obasanjo was the only Christian who had ruled the country since the civil war (1967–1970) (1976–1979). In 1999 he relied primarily on the revival movement to win over the Christian electorate, including Anglicans, Protestants and Catholics, and to reinforce his authority as president. During the election campaign, he said that he had his spiritual awakening experience in prison, which he was imprisoned under dictator Sani Abacha (1993-1998). Many Christians saw Obasanjo's return to the presidency as a sign of divine will. His successors later used the same strategy to mobilize the Christian electorate, especially evangelicals.

The democratization process offered favorable conditions for the spread of the new Pentecostalism in state and society. The leaders of born-again Christianity were courted by politicians, advised those in power or held government offices themselves. Religious affiliation became a decisive criterion for filling state posts at all levels - despite the official separation of church and state.

This “pentecostalization of the presidency”, to take up another formulation by Ebenezer Obadare, continued even during the term of office of the Muslim president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (2007-2010), who bestowed state medals to famous pastors. It should curb the fear of Islamization of the country, which is widespread among Nigerian Christians. After independence, they had felt excluded from power for decades by the Muslim officers from the north.

The ongoing discussions about the introduction of Sharia law in some states, Nigeria's accession to the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1986 and the recurring outbreaks of interdenominational violence have further fueled this fear. In addition, there is a historical trauma that is deeply anchored in the collective memory: In the 19th century, the caliphate of Sokoto based its wealth on the exploitation and trade of slaves, most of whom came from what is now central Nigeria; at that time these ethnic groups worshiped an animistic faith and later the majority converted to Christianity.

Nevertheless, one cannot speak of a Christian or even Pentecostal core electorate. With each election, different camps also form within the evangelical elite, some of which sometimes also support a Muslim candidate. For example, the Muslim applicant Muhammadu Buhari was able to refer to a number of well-known pastors in the 2011 election. His strategy did not work and he lost to the Christian Goodluck Jonathan, who was supported by other evangelical preachers. But four years later, Goodluck lost to Buhari - despite his continued strong support from Christian interest groups and Pentecostal preachers.

After his election, Muhammadu Buhari appointed Pastor Yemi Osinbanjo as vice president. Osinbanjo belongs to the most powerful church in Nigeria, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, but also has good connections to the former (Muslim) governor of the state of Lagos, the still very influential Bola Ahmed Adekunle Tinubu. Osinbanjo is also a former attorney general, business attorney, and law professor. He graduated from the prestigious London School of Economics - like him, many pastors of powerful churches have an academic background.

The Christian Association of Nigeria, umbrella organization of the various Christian churches in the country, which also functions as a political lobby, attaches great importance to representing the “true” born-again Christians who are “filled with the Holy Spirit ”.6 This leads to stigmatization or even “demonization” (as it is called in the born-again jargon) of all others, whether they are secular Christians or - even worse - Muslims; and not to forget those accused of witchcraft.

However, similar to the presidential election, Nigeria's Christian elites are still interested in forging broad alliances, possibly with high-ranking Muslim clergy. Homophobia is always used as a putty.7 The increasingly severe criminal prosecution of homosexuals is met with loud support from the press and from religious leaders of all denominations. Lawsuits against pastors for sexual assault or human trafficking8 on the other hand, received a much lower response.

1 Mfonobong Nsehe, "Les pasteurs les plus riches du Nigéria", Forbes Afrique, November 28, 2015.

2 Ebenezer Obadare, “Pentecostal republic: religion and the struggle for state power in Nigeria”, London (Zed Books) 2018.

3 Ebenezer Obadare, “White-collar fundamentalism: interrogating youth religiosity on Nigerian university campuses”, in: The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 45, No. 4, Cambridge 2007.

4 Cf. Ruth Marshall-Fratani, “Prospérité miraculeuse. Les pasteurs pentecôtistes et l’argent de Dieu au Nigeria ", in: Politique Africaine, Vol. 82, No. 2, Paris 2001.

5 See J. D. Y. Peel, “The Politicization of Religion in Nigeria: Three Studies”, in: Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 66, No. 4, Cambridge 1996.

6 Afe Adogame, “The politicization of religion and the religionization of politics in Nigeria”, in: C. J. Korieh and G. U. Nwokeji (eds.), “Religion, history, and politics in Nigeria”, Lanham (University Press of America) 2005.

7 See Elnathan John, “The Mansir Case,” LMd, January 2015.

8 Nellie Peyton, “Nigeria has #MeToo moment after popular pastor is accused of rape,” Reuters, July 1, 2019.

Translated from the French by Sabine Jainski

Anouk Batard is a scientist and journalist.

Le Monde diplomatique from 09/10/2020, by Anouk Batard