Three complementary things happened when Nigeria returned to democracy in May 1999. First, the ascendance of Olusegun Obasanjo as president saw the lever of federal power shift from the northern to the southern region. For Nigerian Christians, it signaled a deeply symbolic transfer of power from Islam to Christianity, the long-awaited answer to their earnest prayers for spiritual and political relief from perceived northern Muslim domination. Finally, and consistent with the larger structural transformation then taking place within Nigerian, nay African Christianity broadly, 1999 marked the political ascendance of Pentecostalism, on its way to becoming the dominant Christian movement of Nigeria’s democratic era. Significantly, Obasanjo, the newly elected president, had become born-again while serving a prison sentence for his alleged involvement in a conspiracy to overthrow the regime of the late Sani Abacha (1993- 1998).
The Obasanjo administration was the start of an era of Pentecostal domination of Nigerian politics, a reflection, it bears repeating, of the creeping incursion of Pentecostalism into every facet of social life in Nigeria. Obasanjo himself was, as I have argued elsewhere, Nigeria’s first bona fide Pentecostal president, a leader who conceived of his (rise to the) presidency in divine terms and often spoke (his actions were a different matter) accordingly. After a brief Muslim interregnum during the short-lived tenure of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (2007- 2010), Pentecostalism returned to prime time under Goodluck Jonathan (2010- 2015) and would continue to have a place at the table with Yemi Osinbajo, a Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) pastor, as Vice president to Muhammadu Buhari (2015- 2023).
In a nutshell, since 1999, Nigerian Pentecostals and Christians more generally have become accustomed to seeing one of the tribe either at the top or bottom of the presidential ticket, with other strategic appointments and accommodations strengthening the belief within the community that the current dispensation was a manifestation of God’s “agenda to resurrect Nigeria.”
With the Tinubu presidency, this excellent run in the vicinity of power or thereabouts would now appear to have terminated. Not only is Tinubu a Muslim, but his vice president, Kashim Shettima, is also a Muslim, and the propriety or political wisdom of having both on the same ticket in a country so evenly balanced between Muslims and Christians was a sticking point during the presidential campaign. While Tinubu’s eventual victory proved yet again (Moshood Abiola had won the June 12 1993 election with a Muslim running mate) that a Muslim-Muslim ticket is not necessarily tantamount to political suicide, and that, in fact, Tinubu may have prevailed because he picked a Muslim running mate, this has done nothing to pacify Christians who see a Muslim-Muslim ticket as adding insult to injury after eight years during which Christians across the country suffered untold attacks on their communities and places of worship. According to the Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law, approximately 30,250 Christians were killed in attacks by Muslim insurgents during the Buhari presidency, with an estimated 18,000 churches and 2,200 Christian schools destroyed within the same period.
Because of this, it is hardly surprising that, during the presidential campaign, Peter Obi, the Labour Party (LP) candidate, sought to exploit Christian animus toward the Muslim-Muslim ticket, or that, as we later learned from the leaked audio recording of his conversation with Bishop David Oyedepo of the Faith Tabernacle church, mobilization of the Christian vote across the country was an important plank of his strategy to win what he saw as “a religious war.”
In response, Christians gravitated toward Obi, partly on account of the stated hostility toward the Muslim-Muslim ticket, and partly because many (and not just Christians) saw Tinubu as a deeply flawed candidate who, politically speaking, stood for more of the same. Accordingly, some of Obi’s earliest support came from Pentecostal pastors, among them Paul Enenche of the Abuja-based Dunamis International Gospel Centre, Chibuzor Chinyere of the Omega Power Ministry, Chukwuemeka Ohanaemere (aka Odumeje) of the Mountain of Holy Ghost Intervention and Deliverance Ministry, Johnson Suleman of the Omega Fire Ministries (OMF), and Chris Oyakhilome of the Believer's Love World, aka Christ Embassy. While it is not impossible that some of the aforementioned pastors, being of southeastern extraction, may have had other reasons for backing Obi, it should be remembered, first, that Pentecostal support for Obi was by no means ethnically circumscribed. As shown by the outcome of the presidential election, Christian-Pentecostal support for Obi was widespread, and appears to have played a key role in his stunning victories in Lagos State, Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), and Plateau and Nasarawa States, while making him competitive in others.
Furthermore, the nature of the pro-Obi coalition was always such as to make it difficult to separate the “ethnic” from the “religious,” albeit either one was totally legitimate in its own way. In any event, it is interesting to speculate on the extent to which the intensity and intermittent obstreperousness of the “Obi-diency” was due, particularly in a place like Lagos, to the conjoining of Pentecostalism with Nigerian popular culture, one of whose many effects has been the emergence of a multi-ethnic infotainment elite with common ideas about Nigerian politics. With a few exceptions, this, shall we say, Nollywood Industrial Complex, stood firmly for Obi and against Tinubu.
It goes to show why Pentecostals and Christians more broadly are still smarting from the outcome of the election, with some Pentecostal pastors taking the unusual step of declaring that, while Tinubu may be the president of Nigeria, he is “not their president.” While all share a disgust at the election of a man they see as beyond the pale morally, not a few are confident of divine intervention through the courts to overturn what, to them, was a massively rigged election. Pastor Sarah Omakwu of the Family Worship Centre, Abuja, could not be clearer on Tinubu’s perceived illegitimacy: “It is not over yet. God is still at work, and we will have the final laugh. The triumph of the wicked is short.” Also: “We the people want to state clearly, that Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu is not our president-elect… He is the president-elect of Professor Mahmood Yakubu, of INEC, and of APC. The president-elect of Nigeria will emerge through a free, fair, and transparent process as stipulated by the guidelines and rules of INEC.” Similarly, Pastor Tunde Bakare, Serving Overseer of the Citadel Global Community Church, Lagos, is insistent that “any public lecture anywhere, before this mess is cleared off, I will address Asiwaju (Tinubu) as a President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, but I will never call him my president.”
Consistent with this, old anxieties about a northern “Islamization” agenda have reemerged. Vice-President Kashim Shettima, who, as Governor of Borno State (2011- 2019) once faced accusations of negligence by the state’s Christian community, was acknowledging the existence, if not the legitimacy, of these fears when he explained recently that his selection of Christians as his chief security officer and aide de camp, respectively, was meant to assuage Christian fears of Islamization.
While such fears may be understandable given the harrowing experience of the Christian community during the Buhari presidency, many have pointed out that Buhari had a Pentecostal-Christian vice president (one who, tellingly, did everything to avoid being seen as a Christian first), which means that, at the very least, blame for what transpired cannot be placed exclusively on the former president’s shoulders. Besides, to a section of the Nigerian public, the fact that Pentecostalism’s leading lights have more or less merged with the Nigerian ruling elite, one consequence of its political success over the past decades, delegitimizes Pentecostal criticism.
Pastor Tunde Bakare, mentioned earlier, personifies this steady blurring of the lines between the “Man of the State” and the “Man of God.” Since bursting onto the scene in 1999 with a prophecy about Obasanjo—“Obasanjo is not your messiah. He is King Agag, and the prophetic axe will fall upon his head before May 29”—that, incidentally, did not come to pass, Bakare has become one of the most prominent players in the Nigerian public sphere. In 2011, he was Buhari’s running mate on the platform of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) and last year, after telling his congregation of God’s promise to him that he would succeed Buhari as the country’s 16th president, he bought the nomination forms and participated in the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential primary. The point is that, paralleling the political inculturation of the Pentecostal movement in Nigeria, Bakare, very much instantiating the pastoral class, has transformed from a “mere” pastor to an all-purpose political agitator, a figure seemingly more suitable to the soapbox than the pulpit. If his declamations or prophecies increasingly carry less weight, it is because he is widely, and perhaps accurately, seen as more partisan than clerical.
How Tinubu reacts will determine the trajectory of the nascent insurgency. One possibility is to use his wife, Remi, a RCCG pastor, and his close relationship with Pastor Enoch Adeboye who, significantly, did not pick a side during the election, to enhance the impression that the Church is not united against his presidency. Another possibility is to exploit a longstanding suspicion of Pentecostals by mainline Christians under the aegis of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). The interactions and conflicts of interest among these forces will determine the shape of spiritual politics during the Tinubu presidency.