Behind Africans’ Thirst for Prophecy; Confusion About the Present and Anxiety About the Future
Late last year, the Ghana Police Service issued a statement in which it warned those it referred to as “doomsday prophets” to desist from prophesying or face prosecution and a term of imprisonment of up to five years. It reminded the Ghanaian public that “it is a crime for a person to publish or reproduce a statement, rumor or report which is likely to cause fear and alarm to the public or disturb the public peace, where that person has no evidence to prove that the statement, rumor or report is true.” The statement stirred a heated debate, with not a few commentators wondering how a prophecy—an event that has yet to occur—can be shown to be “true,” and whether a threat by law enforcement is the best strategy to deal with an issue that, technically speaking, lies beyond the purview of the law. Nonetheless, many shared the authorities’ concern about growing public faith in prophetic statements by major religious figures and in the figures themselves.
Ghana is not the only African country where prophecy has ruffled the social matter. In Nigeria, where Pentecostal pastors similarly enjoy tremendous social prestige, the end of the year and the beginning of a new one, understandably a time of anxiety for many families, tends to be dominated by pastoral proclamations on what to expect in the New Year. Such prophecies typically cover the gamut: from extreme weather events to untold airplane crashes, winners of forthcoming elections and major sporting tournaments, tragedies involving members of the political elite, and the fate of the economy—domestic and global. With a few exceptions, they tend to be as broad and as ambiguous as possible. For instance, among the prophecies for 2022 released by 79-year-old Enoch Adeboye, general overseer of the Redeemed Christian of God (RCCG), Nigeria, were gems of exactness, such as, “more than 80 per cent of projects starting in 2022 will succeed;” “in spite of everything happening (sic), this year will be a year of some massive breakthroughs [in science and in finance];” “infant mortality rate will drop by at least 50 per cent;” and “the issue of migration will take a new turn in the new year.”
For his part, Daniel Olukoya, Adeboye’s counterpart at the Lagos-based Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries asked his congregation to pray against “inflation and starvation” and against “massive political instability, which will put a lot of people in disarray (sic).” According to the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics, food inflation in the country rose by 17.2 percent in November 2021. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that there are more than 3.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Nigeria, mostly victims of the yearslong Boko Haram insurgency.
The deliberate ambiguity of most prophecies is a matter of prudence, for a precise prophecy is an invitation to trouble, especially if such fails to come to pass. In 2020, the late Temitope Balogun (T.B.) Joshua of Synagogue, Church of all Nations (SCOAN) had a lot of explaining to do following his prophecy that “God has spoken to me; Coronavirus will end by March 27, 2020.” He later apologized that the Holy Spirit had misled him and that his message of an end to COVID-19 was meant only for Wuhan, China, where the outbreak was first reported. The Chinese authorities imposed a lockdown on Wuhan and continued to battle COVID-19 after 2020. The same Joshua had ended up with egg on his face following his prophecy that Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Following Trump’s unexpected victory, he reversed himself, saying that his prophecy in fact referred to the winner of the popular vote.
What explains the increasing popular fascination with prophecy across Africa, mishaps such as the foregoing notwithstanding?
In the first place, prophecies, tracking the Pentecostal explosion of the past three decades, speak to popular perplexity amid an acute and persistent hunger for meaning. For many people, prophecies regarding strange deaths, inflation, starvation, and political stability resonate precisely because these are matters of pressing and ongoing concern. In this sense, prophecies function as a kind of social text, useful for keeping track of where the shoe pinches the rump of civil society. A prophecy concerning migration makes sense in a country like Nigeria where emigration provides an out for young people who increasingly feel stuck.
Nor is belief in prophecies separable from trust in their purveyors, the ubiquitous Men of God who, as I argue in my forthcoming book on the subject, have stepped into the vacuum created by the degradation of higher education and the retreat of the intelligentsia from public life. As yesterday’s Man of Letters has ceded his authority to today’s Man of God, informed economic forecast and political analysis have given way to pastoral prognostication. To be a respected Man of God in many parts of Africa today is to exist almost beyond law or sanction. Erstwhile university academics who morphed into Men of God, Adeboye and Olukoya enjoy social respect approaching sanctification.
An intelligentsia in retreat is just a part of the problem. Historically negligent of common welfare, the state remains largely absent from many people’s lives, visible only when it mobilizes violence—a capacity that, as it happens, it can no longer claim absolute monopoly over. In varying degrees, the state’s traditional role has been assumed by sundry nonstate and religious entities, which explains why pastoral power and its announcements have become more relevant to the public than state power. One way in which the pastorate lays claim to legitimacy is through prophetic proclamations, and the scarier those proclamations, the greater the Man of God’s control of the public’s imagination. Hence Ghana’s “doomsday prophecies.”
Finally, growing uncertainty—about politics, the economy, life itself—heightens the thirst for prophecy. When the only certainty that people have is that things will get worse, prophecy can offer assurance that their situation is not beyond redemption.
In seeking to regulate prophecy, the Ghana Police Service is not so much wrong as it is misguided. The problem is not that there are “doomsday prophecies.” The issue is that the distrust of the state and other secular authorities is so deep, people would rather take their chance with prophets. They have nothing to lose but their credulity.