CFR Fellows' Book Launch Series: Pastoral Power, Clerical State: Pentecostalism, Gender, and Sexuality in Nigeria by Ebenezer Obadare

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, Pastoral Power, Clerical State: Pentecostalism, Gender, and Sexuality in Nigeria


Vice President, Deputy Director of Studies, and Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; @shannonkoneil 

In Pastoral Power, Clerical State: Pentecostalism, Gender, and Sexuality in Nigeria, Ebenezer Obadare examines the overriding impact of Nigerian Pentecostal pastors on their churches, and how they have shaped the dynamics of state-society relations.

The CFR Fellows’ Book Launch series highlights new books by CFR fellows.

O’NEIL: Great. Well, good evening, everybody. Thanks for coming out here. Those in person, it’s great to see you all. And for those online, hello, we’re glad to have you too, and look forward to joining us in the robust conversation that will follow our conversation starting up here.

For those of you who I haven’t met before, I am Shannon O’Neil. I am vice president of studies and deputy director of studies, as well as the Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin American Studies.

We don’t do short titles here at CFR, so that’s mine. And I’m joined by Ebenezer Obadare, who’s also got a good title. He is the Douglas Dillon senior fellow for Africa studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations. And as all of you know, we are here to talk about and celebrate his new book. It is, Pastoral Power, Clerical State: Pentecostalism, Gender, and Sexuality in Nigeria. This is an on-the-record meeting, for those who don’t know. And we will start here with a conversation for about half an hour, and then I will open it up to your questions. So please be ready as we get going.

So if you haven’t had a chance to take a look at his book, that’s what we’re going to talk about. But it is really a fascinating sort of description and analysis of the power and role of Pentecostalism, and particularly the pastors, in Nigeria. But before we dive into that and all the personalities therein, I wanted to sort of take a step back and talk a little bit about the history that got us to the moment that Ebenezer is analyzing in his book. And, you know, for those who follow this, Nigeria wasn’t always so, in what we’re going to talk about. And so you have in your book what I thought was a quite interesting and quite good distinction between men of letters and men of God, and there’s a tension between these two. And, you know, the story you tell is that once upon a time in Nigeria, not so long ago, men of letters were the ones that were powerful and influential, and that people looked up to. So why don’t we start off, tell me what happened to these men of letters? Of which you are one, so what happened?

OBADARE: OK. Thank you. And good to be here.

So in order to answer that question, which I think is a good question, I think you have to back up a little bit and talk about—so, Pastoral Power, Clerical State is the second installment in the project that I’m writing. I need—I’m not trying to sell my book, but I need to talk about the first book before this in order to sort of set the context. So in Pentecostal Republic, the first book, I argued that in order to make sense of politics, of life, of culture, of the economy in Nigeria since 1999, the beginning of the first republic, that you have to understand the power of Pentecostalism. That on the cusp of the transition of 1999, Nigeria experienced a transition. There was a power shift from the north of the country to the southern part of the country.

But at the same time, there was also a very interesting and a different power shift after, within Christianity itself, that the Pentecostal denomination muscled its way to the front of the line and became the dominant social movement, the dominant paradigm, you know, in the country. So that—the argument in Pentecostal Republic—or, the claim of Pentecostal Republic is that the republic itself can’t be understood without attention to the power of Pentecostalism, hence Pentecostal Republic. Now, in Pastoral Power, Clerical State I’m arguing that you can’t understand Pentecostalism itself without attention to the power of the Pentecostal pastor, the man of God. And the argument I’m developing is that the man of God, the religious, you know—you know, come down from ether, that is the product of a particular set of circumstances. So it’s the sociology of that that I elaborate in this book.

And my argument is that it’s because the man of letters sort of was degraded, gave way, was delegitimatized, it was the vacuum created by the disappearance—not literal disappearance; it’s still there, you know, staggering along—but the fact that its evacuation of the public space from the dominance that the man of God has taken advantage of. So it’s that transition from what I call the man of letters to the man of God that this book is all about.

O’NEIL: So tell me a little bit about what happened to the man of letters? Because I can’t imagine that they let it go easily or flippantly. So give us a little sense of the last, you know, thirty, forty years, or perhaps up until this transition. What happened to that focus?

OBADARE: Thank you. So there was a time when if you—and I said in the book—that if ask someone, you know, in the ’60s or ’70s, you know, up to maybe the mid-’80s, what would you like to become? You know, I think most people would say I would like to become a professor, such was the prestige, you know, of the academy and the people who taught and researched within the academy. My argument is that something happened beginning from the early ’80s up to—you know, and I think it’s a process that is continuing up till now. And I’m talking about the impact of military rule on Nigerian universities.

And the argument is that not only was the academy itself delegitimized in public estimation, professors themselves suffered a tremendous loss in their social prestige. Such that they no longer had the respect that they used to have. So in the ’60s and ’70s—so this is just one of the examples I cite in the book. In the way people think about the future, when people think about the economy, so who do you go to? You go to the professor. Is the economy going to perform next year? You go to the professor at the university, and he will bring out the maps and say: Here is the way the economy is going to pan out.

Today, you go to a prophet. It is the prophet who is going to say: Next year, this is what is going to happen. My interest is in explaining why people have shifted their attention away from the professor to the pastor. You know, from the man of God—from the man of letters to the man of God. And the argument is that due to, you know, this combination of factors, or look at in the fact of military rule and the attack not just on the academy but on the academy as one of the institutions—one of the pillars of civil society. The academia, the professoriate, the man of letters suffered a considerable loss of prestige so that, you know, people started leaving the universities, and the universities are no longer what they used to be.

As I’m speaking to you, Nigerian academics have been on strike since February 14th. And the strike continues. In 2020—

O’NEIL: 2014?

OBADARE: No, no.

O’NEIL: Oh, February 14th, this year. OK. (Laughs.)

OBADARE: February 14th, Valentine’s Day, yeah. So they’ve been on strike for nine months.

O’NEIL: For nine months.

OBADARE: Two years ago they were on strike for the entire year. And so—(inaudible)—strike. But it’s just one index of the whole crisis within the system, all eventuating in the degradation of the man of letters, leading to his substitution by the figure of the man of God.

O’NEIL: So in this—so, you know, there are ties to the military rule, to the way the military treated them, to the sort of falling apart of the university system and wages—and I imagine that’s what they’re striking about—and other things. So then you have this vacuum. I see that. Why pastors? Why are they the ones who fill it? I imagine there was a vibrant civil society. There were probably other people who were trying to fill that role. What was it about Nigeria that this was who came in and filled that space?

OBADARE: So people are always looking for an explanation. And people are always looking for somebody who can provide the explanation. One of the strengths of Pentecostalism, you know, among its many other strengths, is that it has developed—it has a very almost convincing theory of the state and of the crisis of the state. And this is not just in Nigeria, but I think across Africa. The question that I think boggles the mind, you know, for every Nigerian is, why are we in this situation? Why did God allow this crisis to happen to us? Why is that young people do not have jobs? The power of Pentecostalism is to say: I have an explanation. It’s because of, you know, the theory of sin. And that theory means that there’s an explanation, and that explanation is, if you change your ways, if you, you know, discontinue some of the things that you’re not supposed to do.

It’s a very convincing story for people who used to see development and economic stability and prosperity around them, and waking up, you know, almost overnight and finding that, you know, there’s—(inaudible)—there’s decay. You know, young people are no longer comfortable. You know, the future is very gloomy. Pentecostalism has this convincing story that the professoriate, you know, have struggled to match. In any case, the professoriate can’t do that, because nobody trusts them, as a corporate entity, to provide that account. So that’s the reason why people are drawn towards the figure of the pastor as opposed to the figure of the man of letters.

O’NEIL: And while, you were saying, in the 1990s that you saw sort of Pentecostalism rise above other—you know, other Christian groups or other—perhaps other groups, why is that, do you think? What was the—

OBADARE: It’s a question I’ve always—and among many—two things, among others. Pentecostalism is a religion of—it’s a denomination of the mood. I will—

O’NEIL: What does that mean?

OBADARE: Yeah. It’s a religion of the senses. You have to go to the church to understand what I’m saying. There’s something all-enveloping and sweeping about it. The music is very powerful, the dance is very visceral. It just sweeps you off your feet. And there’s a sense to which that appeals. Compare with it, you know, Protestantism is very—it’s not boring, but it’s too sober, right? And the sobriety is no match for just the power and the way in which Pentecostalism just takes hold of the senses and does not let go. So that’s more reason, you know, for its appeal.

I think the other reason for its appeal is, frankly, it’s—the fact that in terms of doctrine it’s extremely deregulated, right? So if you want to become a Catholic priest, for instance, oh my God. First degree, second degree, masters, and you get the Ph.D., and then (you’re flexing ?), and all of that. If you want to become a Pentecostal pastor, you just have to speak it into being. I’m a pastor, I’m a pastor, I’m a pastor, until you become a pastor. What do you think people will choose between the two? One is easier. The other one is, you know, quite, you know, more rigorous. And I think that’s at least two of the reasons why I think Pentecostalism is such a—is such a powerful force and continues to attract many young people to it.

O’NEIL: Mmm hmm. So let’s turn to the pastors because they’re the center of Pentecostalism. And it does seem like an individual, charismatic figure. So who are these people? Where do they come from?

OBADARE: So let me give you—so there’s an anecdote in the book. Let me relate it because I think this clinches the story about who pastors are. So I was going to—I was in London. I was going to Nigeria. And, you know, I entered the terminal and I saw this long line. And I was curious, because I saw the headgear and I saw the dress and I said, oh, these are my people. These are Nigerians. (Laughter.) But I was curious, like, what’s in front of the line? Why is there such a long line? You know, like these people are not in the regular place where they should get—so I, of course, the journalist in me took over. I was like, I want to see what’s going on.

So of course, so I saw the—easily the leading pastor in Nigeria, Pastor Adeboye, he was in the front of the line. I mean, so in Nigeria, you would not be able to approach him. You know, there is always a wall of security men, and all of that. But in that space, people had the opportunity to approach him. And there are people who are curtsying, or shaking hands, or touching. But I want I relate in the book is just the power that people believe he emanates. Like, if you touch his clothes. People have spoken about hearing his voice on the radio and being healed of their particular disease. When he gets up from the chair, people—you know, there’s a melee. People try to touch the chair. And there was that opportunity.

So the line just went on and on and on. And people—and I thought that was really—that was one of the first moment that I thought maybe I was in the wrong line, in the wrong profession. Maybe I should really become a pastor. But—

O’NEIL: I’m a CFR fellow. I’m a CFR fellow. (Laughs.)

OBADARE: He is actually a very interesting character, because—so he has a Ph.D., right? He has a Ph.D. in mathematics.

O’NEIL: So he is a man of letters.


O’NEIL: He was.

OBADARE: He was a man of—yeah. We’ll go into that. (Laughter.) He has that as part of his repertoire that he’s able to mobilize. And you believe him more because he can say, look, I did that thing in the academy. You know, it didn’t work. This one is superior. This one is better. So it’s interesting because it’s coming from a particular place sociologically. You know, somebody who’s trained, you know, in the natural sciences, and then flipped, and then is, you know, pushing this other particular paradigm that is almost the—that is the very antithesis of the other one.

In a way, that’s part of what gives him, and people like him, legitimacy. So if you look at the doyen of—you know, like the main figures of the Pentecostal class, they are all either they are Ph.D.s, or they are lawyers. You know, they are highly successful people in their own professions. So that’s one class, right? But the other class, there are people who have some of come up in that who do not have that kind of training, who do not have the polish, who do not have the transnational connections, but who have also tapped into—you know, the general attractiveness of pastoralism and have sort of moved into that space.

So you have all kinds of figures, you know, who have come to population this space, all united by the fact that the agents—you know, the professoriate that used to occupy that space, has evacuated that space. And there is this—there is this vacuum, and all these other guys. And the advantage that the pastor has—and I think this—you know, I think I should say this—is that the pastor is also taking advantage of a context—a cultural context in which people’s frame of reference is very spiritual, right? So it’s even if you—so you’re a senator, for instance, or you’re the governor of a state. And you have certain powers, you know, according to the books. People believe that behind you there’s always these other unseen forces that you are relying on.

The pastor knows that. And the pastor is able to mobilize that. So as a matter of fact, it is this frame of reference that unites state and civil society. The fact that everybody believes that it’s what you are saying is not what is, that there is that other thing behind you that is antecedent to me, that is superior to me in terms of spiritual power. So this is the simple explanation for many of the instances that you’ve read in the papers about politicians going to, you know, perform rituals in some places, you know, donating blood, you know, making all and say this is what they’re going to do. The whole idea there is that there is a frame of reference, you know, of this ubiquitous supernaturalism, that is at the—that people believe in, and that Pentecostalism, and true Pentecostalism, Pentecostal pastors, also mobilize.

O’NEIL: So let’s talk a little bit then about—so we have that milieu, when you have that spiritualism and way of thinking about the world that opens up the space, so how do these pastors interact with politicians and political parties? How do they interact with economic elites? Where do they fit into sort of the society, but also the power structures, of Nigeria?

OBADARE: So there’s an anecdote in the book, or maybe it’s in Pentecostal Republic. I think it’s there. So the governor of—the current governor of one of the northern states, Kaduna state, was going to run for office. He needed money. So didn’t have enough. So he didn’t go to the bank. He called one of his friends, a pastor, Pastor Tunde Bakare. So he calls Tunde Bakare himself, who actually narrated his story. He was basically saying, look, so influential and so well-resourced I am, this is what I did. So he gave him 100 million naira. I don’t know what that is in dollar, but that’s a lot of money. And he gave him as a loan, like, go run your campaign, basically.

So Pentecostal pastors perform major roles. I call them in the book—I describe them as existential micromanagers. They are celebrities. They are donors to politicians. They are the people you go to if you have problems with your husband or your wife, your spouse. If you want to travel, they’re the people who tell you where you should go. Is it Australia, or the United States, or the U.K.? They’re the ones people turn to for the most fundamental questions of their existence.

So they have their fingers in every pie, basically, right? So it’s not just—they’re not just political actors. They are political actors, right, but they are more than that. They are cultural actors. They are socially ubiquitous. They’re the best dressers, right? (Laughter.) And this is one of the points I’m making, that for a young person, you know, growing up in Nigeria and thinking of their options—I mean, never mind someone like me, who’s not that young. It’s like, what would you like to be?

Pastor is very attractive, because not only in the context of what I call the prestige economy in Nigeria, that is the very apex of the prestige economy, there are no—yes, but you really do have—so, in your normal position, you are the CEO of a company, for instance. And you are responsible too. Like, questions are asked, and all of that. The pastor does not have to deal with those things. There’s so much power but very little in terms of moral accounting from the rest of the society, because, you know, one, what I described earlier as the spiritual, you know, that frame of reference.

But also, it’s because of the power of calling, like, what I describe in the book as—because many people believe that pastors are not just there. They are there because God has chosen them, you know, to be there. They are part of the elect. And so people give them, you know, the—you know, people sort of concede that to them. Anyway, that’s—so, pastors are—they perform, you know, a number of roles. And those roles are economic, they’re spiritual, you know, they’re political. But the fact that the pastor—the agency of the pastor is instantiated in different spaces with the society is what I—you know, is what—is my point. And that in terms of that pyramid that you can call, you know, the prestige economy, the most prestigious thing right now in many African countries is being a pastor.

O’NEIL: Let me ask you one question about that. And I do see how they’re up here at the apex. And you have interesting stories in the book where, you know, there’s many pastors that seem to get away with bad behavior, whether it’s taking the church’s funds or perhaps not treating women the way that one should. But then there’s a case or two that you go into where they don’t survive that, right? And how would you know which ones are going to, you know, rise above it and actually have—you know, get above the kind of law or the rules that would—that would weigh down mere mortals, and which ones get caught?

OBADARE: It’s difficult—so the individual entrepreneurship of the pastor. The charisma of the pastor. The training of the pastor. The capacity to use social media. You know, all those things are extremely important. So the chapter I think you’re referring to is a way to talk about, you know, the four useless women against the figure of the pastor. Useless for not honoring the established norms of, you know, masculinity/femininity. So these woman took on—you know, very brave woman, who stood up to the figure of the pastor.

So I salute their heroism, which is why I wrote about them in the book. But I also say, in the end, that in all the four cases, they failed, right? They failed not just because—and this is interesting—not just because, you know, the pastor is just up there and is untouchable. But also because of the complicated nature of women’s agency. In many of those instances, it was a woman within those churches who came to the rescue of the pastor and who defended their patriarchal power against the challenge of this several times. So it’s always very difficult to—as a conflict involving a pastor, the student of the phenomenon in me is always saying, ah, I know how this is going to pan out. The pastor is going to win.

Now, sometimes there’s an individual pastor who does not win. And it requires an explanation. So the one I give in the book, and it has to do with class, right? So this is Pastor King. Downtown Lagos, not particularly educated, just a regular guy. The—I wanted to say clientele, but that’s—the congregation, not really educated. So somebody died in his church. And according to investigations, he was the one responsible for that. He was jailed. As I’m speaking to you, he’s on death row.

The argument I make in the book is that he would not have been on death row, he would not have been arrested if he had the sort of social capital that—so I juxtapose him, for example, with the late T.B. Joshua, right? Who also wasn’t terribly educated but was attentive to his social limitations and used generosity very strategically. So he had pastors among—he had friends, you know, among the top hierarchy of politics, in Ghana, in South Africa. So that when there was a tragic incident within the premises of his church, and the building collapses and 120 people died, he had sympathy visits from politicians. He was not held accountable.

So a guy who technically was responsible for the death of one person is on death row. A guy who was responsible for the death of 120 people got away with it. So class is important. Mobilization of social media is important. How you deploy your social capital and how you mobilize all those things is extremely influential—is extremely important. But at the end of the day, if the pastor does things he gets away with it.

O’NEIL: So let me take us back just a little bit to CFR land. And pretty soon I’ll open up to questions from you, so please be ready. And I want to talk a little bit about what this all means for the Nigerian state, right? And we know there’s lots of challenges to the Nigerian state. You know, our former colleague here, John Campbell, wrote a book about—he doesn’t even believe there’s a nation-state in Nigeria. It’s something else for him. And so as you see this movement, the rise of Pentecostalism, the power these pastors has, is, as we think about trying to strengthen state capacity to deliver, to make life better for these people, is this part of the solution? Is it just one more problem that you have to get through to get a stronger state, to be able to sort of have the more capable, you know, economy in place? Or where does this fall in?

OBADARE: I think the—for me, it’s always about—so, there are two things. It’s about religion and public policy. It’s about religion and foreign policy. I think there’s always the tendency when we think about religion to turn up our nose and say, eh, you know. But I think there if there is anything—you know, and this is not just, you know, about Nigeria or other parts of Africa. Increasingly you see that even in the United States, that you have to pay attention to religion, you know, broadly speaking, but also to religious agents.

I think one inference from, you know, my two stories, from my work generally, is that it’s extremely important, you know, in developing, you know, policy, whether at the level—I mean, just think about policy towards elections, it was strengthening civil society, you know, empowering women. In every respect, the figure of the pastor rises up, and you can’t escape the conclusion that in developing policy it becomes extremely important to pay attention to religious agents. Paying attention to religious agents does not mean you endorse their spirituality. It does not mean endorsing religious agents as agents. But it involves taking their agency seriously as part of the socio-political therein in which you’re trying to develop policy.

O’NEIL: So obviously pastors are a big different, but how do they fare on these things? How do they fare in empowering women, in bringing transparency, in building civil society, and some of the things that we think about in a stronger state? Checks and balances. Where do you see them falling?

OBADARE: (Laughs.) I fear they be on the other side. I don’t see pastors standing up for—I mean, because part of the problem is that their power is so considerable. And the conventional powers that would ordinarily challenge them have been absorbed within the orbit of the power—the media, right, economic actors, universities. The people who ordinarily challenge the power of the pastor want to become pastors.

O’NEIL: If you can’t beat them, join them, right?

OBADARE: Exactly, yeah.

O’NEIL: Great. Well, I would like to invite you all to join in the conversation and the questions. Remember, this is a hybrid meeting. It’s on the record. I’m going to turn first here to the room, but then I will ask if there’s questions virtually. We will get to those as well. So let me start right over here, please.

Q: Hi. Fascinating topic.

O’NEIL: Yeah, and please introduce yourself.

Q: Adedayo Banwo, U.S. Treasury.

So I have two questions sort of related. But first I’ll start with an anecdote. I was at—ten years ago, I was at a Pentecostal church service in D.C. where Pastor Adeboye showed up. And I had the same epiphany as you did because he showed up with diplomatic plates. And I was thinking, how does a pastor get diplomatic plates? So I had the same kind of awakening.

My question has to do with the sort of dichotomy between the man of letters and the—

OBADARE: Man of God.

Q: The man of God. Because in the U.S. sort of there was a similar kind of legacy. You know, to be taken seriously in the civil rights movement, you had to kind of either have a grounding in a church or some kind of relation to it. Jesse Jackson used to be called the Reverend Jesse Jackson. He doesn’t go by that much anymore, but he used to be. And we still see effects of it, like the Reverend Al Sharpton, for example, to get that kind of credibility.

And so I guess the question is, sort of, is it sort of, in Nigeria, is this sort of pastoral power more just sort of an element of credibility? For political power, to gain political power, economic power you need to have either a relationship or you need to have that title yourself? And then a related question is, the enigmatic figure of the vice president, who is, of course, a professor and man of God, and actually the vice president. And I guess, sort of related to my first question is, it sort of seems like he is more of a man of letters, but he’s just taken on this sort of clerical title as a way to kind of give himself some political legitimacy. So would be interesting to get your thoughts on that.

OBADARE: Yeah. I’m not trying to sell the book, but—(laughter)—I’m conscious of that tension. And the argument—I try to explain in the book that I’m using this for heuristic purposes, that declines are not—(inaudible). So I admit, one, that the era that the man of letters, right, invokes, that era is dead. You know, 18th, 19th century Europe, the man of letters as landed gentry that is able to rule, that era is gone, right? There are very few, quote/unquote, “men of letters,” you know, around now, right? They’re not anywhere.

So but I’m basically talking about—so I quote William Ellery Channing, right? And he says, you know, it was drawing on Coleridge; the intelligentsia, the people who do the thinking, the people who followed Dahrendorf’s calling to challenge, you know, those are the people I’m talking about. They are in the universities. They are in—you know, sometimes they are public intellectuals. At other times, you know, I state in the book that I’m nervous about saying Nigerian journalists, you know, given what has happened to journalism in Nigeria, but they too are there.

And the other thing is that I’m not necessarily suggesting that you can’t be man or God and a man of letters at the same time. What I’m saying is that in the Nigerian context, we’ve gone through a process in which one’s power waned perceptively, and the other’s power has waxed considerably. And it’s the juxtaposition that I’m interested in, and the way in which even for—so I will call on whoever read the book, please, always go to the back because there is a lot, you know, in the footnotes. So there is a story I tell there about, so I got a letter from someone. I’m not going to name him now, but very important man of letters. And he signs it as professor reverend, right? And I thought, ah. That’s really interesting.

And then I discovered there are so many people who are calling themselves professor pastors, right? Which I thought was really interesting. That for people who are ordinarily within the ivory tower, the fact that, you know, they are, wink, wink, you know, eyeing—you know, going outside and thinking: You know, what? It’s not a bad deal. That’s the—that’s the situation I’m interested in. So to that extent, I think you can sort of explain, you know, the Nigerian—the vice president, you know, Yemi Osinbajo.

I missed the—what was your first question? (Inaudible.) OK. OK, thank you, sir.

O’NEIL: Manjari.

Q: Thank you. This was fascinating. I’m Manjari Chatterjee Miller at the Council on Foreign Relations.

So, Ebenezer, my question was really about this tension that exists between the intelligentsia, right, the men of letters and the men of God, because, you know, listening to you the country that comes to mind is India, because I work on India. And India is a deeply religious country, where men of God, like God—in fact, they’re called godmen—hold massive sway. Godmen hold massive sway in India. And, you know, you have astrologers. And that’s actually we—the Indian term is jyotisha. And we translate that as astrologer, but it’s incorrect because in India jyotisha is also a religious figure, right? And so they have massive sway.

So politicians, bureaucrats, you know, ordinary people, they go to godmen and these jyotisha all the time to decide, well, when should we get on a train? When should they, you know, campaign? They get funds from them, right? However, there is a dichotomy between the intelligentsia and godmen. So the intelligentsia still influence policy, right? Godmen do not influence policy, unless they themselves become politicians. They might dictate when Narendra Modi decides to step out and have a visit with the American president, but they would not dictate what the content of that visit would be.

Now, it seems to me like what you’re saying is one rises and the other falls in Nigeria, right? That’s the nature. So my question is, why is that the case? Why is it that you had the decline, so to speak, of the intelligentsia, I mean, this vacuum created where these men of God rush in to fill it?

OBADARE: Yeah. Thank you. It’s a great question. So I think the key chapter in the book—I think this will be chapter two—is what I call the social origins of clerical authority in Nigeria. I think it’s about eighty pages, the chapter itself. Because I really went into detail in, you know, regarding what you said. So I trace the ascent of the—so the ascent of the man of letters goes back all the way to the nationalist era. It was the intelligentsia, it was the man of letters, who determined the parameters of disengagement from the British. And that’s why, you know, up till—you know, starting from 1960 up to the ’70s and ’80s, everybody wanted to become—people wanted to become, you know, the man of letters.

What happened? I think the most—I mean, perhaps the most consequential event—not a single event—but event in the history of Nigeria is military rule, right? And I don’t—it’s something that I think—you know, I don’t believe in, like, certain long-term trauma, but it’s something that I think the country has not fully recovered from. One of the things that the military did, in order to stay in power and perpetuate itself in power as an institution, was to go against every pillar within civil society. The media suffered. You know, I used to be a journalist in Nigeria, an underground journalist. So I got a deeper—you know, I got some of that treatment from the military.

In the universities, everybody who sort of raised their hand against the state was gunned down. So over time, all the people who wanted to do research, who needed to do serious work, began to leave Nigerian universities. So over time the institution itself, the academy, was hollowed out. As it was hollowed out, the prestige, the respect that people had for the professoriate suffered. So that what you have right now—so, even though—so if you—I was looking at the—so the president of academics at Nigerian universities, so they’ve been on strike since February, as I said. He says—one of the statements he made recently said: I think people look at us and realize we are not the best. Like, the best have left. And I thought, oh, that’s really—the mentality is really interesting.

So, anyway, that’s the long and, you know, short of it. So a combination of factors contributed to the delegitimizing of the professoriate in Nigeria. At the very center of that—of those factors is military rule, and some of the long-term consequences that we’re still suffering. Thank you.

O’NEIL: OK, I’m going to take a call—or—take a question from our online members.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Michelle Gavin.

Q: Great. Thank you. Can you hear me? Ebenezer, this is completely fascinating.

And I wanted to go back to something you said earlier about the unseen, right, and people’s perception that there is—there’s more than meets the eye going on there, explanations that are not immediate obviously and tangible. And could you talk a little bit about how sort of the trajectory of the Nigerian state has led to this kind of thinking, that they’re—in some ways, it reminds me a little bit of conspiratorial thinking, right? There’s something else at play here that the authorities are telling us—it’s different, in some ways, and related. But what is it about the experience that Nigerians have in their daily lives that convinces them that the sort of obvious explanations are insufficient?

OBADARE: Yeah. Thank you. That’s a great question. So you have to—in order to really understand that, you have to go back to the sociology of the emergence and, you know, the history of the Nigerian state. So I’m going to go to Boko Haram. It’s a very interesting—(laughs)—you know, group to mention in this context. But one of the legitimate grievances of Boko Haram—the, you know, Western education—(inaudible)—Islamist group in the northern part of the country—is that the Nigerian state is illegitimate. It’s a sentiment that even if you don’t like Boko Haram, that most Nigerians share, right?

And where the leader is illegitimate, they’re saying, you know, several things at the same time. They are questioning, among other things, its genealogy. They are saying, it’s not our state. It’s a state that was imposed on us. So keep that—let’s keep that on the left hand. So on the right hand, there’s another discourse, you know, going on within Nigeria. And it’s this tension between what is real and what is not real. The state, within that paradigm, is perceived as what is called a pretend state. So the people—according to that formulation, leaders pretend to govern, the led pretend to be led, right?

So there is that—within that framework there is this common understand then that the state is an apparition. That it’s not real. And it’s interesting, we even talk to politicians or statesmen or stateswomen themselves, who say the same thing, right? That this is not—yeah, the state is not—you know, because do whatever you have to do. And I think that over time that—and the fact that over time people are sort of seeing several generations- successive generations of politicians promise one thing and do another. It has led to this very—you know, very negative perception of the state. That it doesn’t work for us. It’s not real. And by the way, we never owned it. Its genealogy is dubious. If you combine all of those things with the frame of reference I was talking about earlier, in terms of a power always being behind what you see, it makes for, you know, the constellation, you know, that I’m describing.

O’NEIL: Let’s take one more online, and then I’m going to come back to the room. So go ahead and do the next one.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Irving Williamson.

Q: Thank you. Irving Williamson, former commissioner, U.S. International Trade Commission. This has been fascinating.

Of course, you know, Nigeria has a large Muslim population. Many of its leaders have been Muslims from the north. How does that Muslim-Christian dynamic that’s been going on for years—how does that affect—or how is the role of the pastors and all affecting that and, shall we say, the future politics of Nigeria?

OBADARE: Yeah. Thank you, sir. That’s a good question. So two answers. One is, in terms of the historic competition between the north and the south, the success of Pentecostalism since 1999 has sort of put Muslims (under a light ?). So if you look at, you know, the configuration since 1999, so there is what I call Pentecostal presidency one. So between 1999 and 2007, there was a Christian at the top of the ticket. And then Yar’Adua succeeded, you know, Obasanjo. He had a Pentecostal vice president. And Yar-Adua died, and then you had the Pentecostal become president. So Pentecostal presidency two.

And then Jonathan left. And then right now you have Buhari in power. But the vice president is a Pentecostal. So if you Muslim you’re looking at it, like, you have to ask, what is it that they’re doing well, and how do we need to change, you know, to also wake up so that we can, you know, master the new political territory. So that’s going on. And you can see some of that now in the tension around Muslim-Muslim ticket, you know, by—you know, by one of the leading, you know, political parties. That is what is behind that. You know, the fact that for Christians, for the first time since 1999, they’re looking at a situation where, you know—(inaudible)—the vice president is Muslim. The vice president is Muslim, and there is no Pentecostal. So that’s—so, anyway, that’s one strategic question.

The other part that I think is really interesting from the point of view of, you know, just cultural production in general—and I’ve written about this—is the emergence of what I call charismatic Islam. Charismatic Islam is Islam that mimics and tries to be like Pentecostalism. So you find this in the western part of Nigeria, Muslims going to church—not church—Muslims going to the mosque to pray on Sunday, Muslims doing night vigils. I’ve written about this.

So you have that—so, one of the very interesting things about Pentecostalism is that it’s not just that it’s ruffling the social matter in the way I’ve described. It’s that it’s having very serious impacts on other Christian denominations, which are rapidly Pentecostalizing. It’s also having an effect on the competition. One, in terms of political struggle, which you mentioned. But, two, also in terms of their own, you know, devotional repertoires, those repertoires are changing in response to what seems to be the commanding position of Pentecostalism in the religious marketplace.

O’NEIL: I’m going to right back here, this gentleman.

Q: Well, thank you so much. Ryan Kaminski from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Could you speak to the intersections with LGBTQI+ issues in Nigeria and LGBTQI+ Nigerians, in what already is a very challenging context? And, you know, appears to be getting more challenging with, like, the proposed cross-dressing law. Are there any opportunities for bridge building? Any examples of constructive positive outreach? Thank you very much.

OBADARE: Thank you. I’m going to take the glory here that I was one of the first people in Nigeria to start writing in defense of LGBT rights. And I took a lot of flak for it, which you understand if you come from where I come from. People questioned me, like, are you crazy? What are you talking about? And I’ve written about this, you know. I’ve published articles on this. There’s a book chapter I’ve written on sexual struggles and democracy dividend, which I can send to you if you like. But I think one of the interesting things about the last twenty years is that you can say that the opposition to the whole LGBT movement is still there. But something has shifted. And you just sort of know that just a little bit people are—I won’t say if you go to—you know, if you go to where I come from and say you are a gay person, that you’re going to get a very warm reception. But that you can sort of see that things are beginning to change.

So let me give you an example. During the last End SARS protests, one of the iconic images from that protest, on the streets of Lagos, were young, you know, gay men, lesbian women, whatever, who came out and said: What about us, right? You’re talking about police violence, police brutality on ordinary people, but you’re not talking about politic brutality towards LGBT people, right? And I’ve interviewed some of these people. That the way the search goes, if I’m a man and if the police find a condom in my pocket, they assume automatically that I’m gay, that I’m up to something nefarious, and they double the violence on me. They throw me in jail. You know, I don’t get any kind of—so that’s there.

The fact that part of the civic space now—so you have all kinds of NGOs that have focused almost exclusively on LGBT rights and, you know, sexual rights. You wouldn’t have that. So when we were all campaigning for democracy, when I was a journalist, and all of that, the leading organization was the civil liberties organization, and the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights—CLO and CDHR. Neither of them had anything related to sexual freedom or—you know, on their books. Ever Nigerian civil society organization has that now. So there’s movement. So the way in which people now think about the expansion of the public sphere, sexuality as become one of the things in part of the expansion of that sphere. And people are beginning to question how you think about Nigerian citizenship. And that thinking about LGBT people as authentic Nigerians is part of how you also think about, you know, the complications of Nigerian citizenship.

O’NEIL: So you have a question right here. Yeah.

Q: Thank you. Hello, everyone. My name is Kedenard Raymond. I’m with the State Department. And I want to echo everyone’s comments that this is a fascinating conversation.

I have so many questions, but I’ll stick to one. And this sort of continues the trend of the previous question, which is the viability of pastoral power in light of civil rights and the youth. And I want to know in your perspective, and in your research, have you found that, you know, you mentioned earlier young people, young men, see this apex of the privilege economy, and they aspire to be to it. But is there also a dynamic of the youth or a dynamic of civil society that pose a threat to this power because of its intolerance or because of what it represents?

OBADARE: Yeah. So let me give you—I don’t know if it’s a message of—well, let me give you the—(inaudible)—right? So I’m doing research and I go to a church. The service starts at 9:00 p.m. And at 4:30 a.m., you know, the first cock has crowed and it’s 5:00 a.m. And then the pastor leaves and goes into his SUV. And then the rump of the congregation, you know, looks for, you know, the random—(inaudible). People start dropping away. And I’ve seen that play out several times. And I keep asking myself—(inaudible)—and leaves, right? And (it’s not wrong ?) that what will flip that—what will make people stop venerating him, to start with, and come into—(inaudible)?

And my answer to that is: Unless the fundamental sociological particulars change, like the economy, the market, you know, like jobs for young people, security—so in the—I think the BBC—(inaudible)—I covered this in one of my recent blogs. You know, you know, 90 percent of every young African between the ages of 18 to 24 wants to leave the continent. Why? Jobs. Security. Infrastructure. And, wait for it, internet, right? They say if those four things are available, they’ll stay. But if those things continue to be absent, they’ll go to places where they are.

So for young people—so there is a game to be played in, look, if I can’t—so, the classic formulation by Hirschman, you know, exit, voice, and loyalty. You know, one of the ways in which people are showing voice is by saying, OK, how can I survive in this environment? Maybe a life of crime, maybe become a politician, or I can become a pastor, right? So I think until you get to that point where ordinary wanted to become a pastor—people, young people especially, see other opportunities within the social economy, pastoring will continue to be attractive. So long-term, you want policy that will address—directly address those four things, you know, I mentioned. Security, extremely important. Infrastructure, right? Jobs and, you know, you can talk about internet, which is also part of infrastructure.

O’NEIL: We’ll take another question from our virtual members.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Timothy Andrews. Timothy, please unmute your line. It looks like we’re having some trouble with that line. So we’ll take the next question from Mahesh Kotecha.

Q: Sorry about that.

OPERATOR: Mahesh, unmute your line, please. It looks like we’re having some difficulty with our virtual questions at the moment, sorry.

O’NEIL: We’ll take this one right here in the front.

Q: I’m Mora McLean. And in this capacity, with the Africa-America Institute. Again, I echo this is a fascinating conversation. I look forward to reading your book.

I want to go back to your comments about the hollowing out of men and women of letters and academia and your reference to the military. What about structural adjustment and its collusion with the military? I mean, I recall being in Nigeria during the Babangida era, when much of the hollowing out that you were describing took place. So a lot of people had dirty hands, no?

OBADARE: Absolutely. You are reminding me of what’s in my book. See, I haven’t read it in a while. (Laughter.) But I give—I mean, I devote several pages to structural adjustment. I did. So structural adjustment program was the program, you know, implemented by the military under the Babangida regime in Nigeria, at the insistence of the World Bank and the IMF. And the argument is that the policy devastated, you know, Nigerians. It basically—it was a well-aimed saw, you know, at the very root of civil society. It caused considerable distress.

I remember, I mean—I was pretty young there. I remember this—one of the many harrowing stories that we all exchanged. I remember my parents just—you know, you just sort of realize that the configuration of the kitchen has changed. The kind of food you are eating, you know, has changed. And I remember at this point that we started using wash soap to bathe. I said, that one hasn’t left my mind. Like, wash soap was, like, you just kind of, like, OK, this is what it—and many people, ordinarily of means or—like, the middle class basically collapsed, right? And if you’re talking about the middle class, you’re talking about, you know, the intelligentsia. So thank you for reminding me. You know, structural adjustment, you know, extremely crucial and extremely painful, and still something that many members of my generation still do not like to recall. Thank you.

Q: Hi, Ebenezer. Oops, sorry. Hi, Ebenezer. Thank you. Jessica Harrington with the Council on Foreign Relations.

If I may, I have a two-part question. First, touching on your comment about the possibility of a Muslim-Muslim ticket, do you see—you know, has the wave of Pentecostalism peaked? Is it over? Has the influence—is it starting to wane after sort of building this groundswell since the 1990s? And then second—my second question is: If you can talk about sort of the intersection that we’re seeing where young folks around the world, there’s a decline in religious participation. But you talk about in Nigeria that pastorism is sort of the peak career. Are we seeing a similar decline in religious participation in Nigeria, or is it still holding strong?

OBADARE: Let me quickly address the second one. No. The numbers I’ve seen do not suggest that we’re seeing a decline. Whether people who are then, you know, turning to religion just on account of, like, strict, you know, belief and genuine conviction or they are being strategic, you know, as I’ve sort of described, that’s a separate matter. But, no, the numbers are not declining.

But I think the first question, whether, you know, we are seeing peak Pentecostalism is interesting. I don’t think we can conclude on the basis of a single electoral cycle. So it’s entirely possible that, you know, there’s a Muslim-Muslim—the fact that there is a Muslim-Muslim ticket does not mean that, you know, Pentecostalism does not, you know, continue to exert an influence. So one of the things that the man that—Tinubu, the man at the top of the Muslim-Muslim ticket, has going for him, is that his wife is a Pentecostal pastor, right? So maybe it's going to be Muslim-Muslim, then just slightly behind, you know, there’s, you know, Pentecostal. So there’s still somebody there.

But the other thing is, it’s important not to reduce the influence of Pentecostalism to politics. And so this is the argument I develop in Pentecostal Republic, that if the way it’s worked itself in the tissue of state-making, of the culture, of the economy is what is important. Let me give you an example about this influence. So there was a—one of the northern states, a predominantly Muslim state, denied something that—so the governor was accused of something. And the governor ordered one of his aides to deny it. So they put out a public statement. And—(laughs)—in denying, they said: This thing is not true. It’s a lie from the pit of hell. (Laughter.)

Only Pentecostals say that. But that was a Muslim governor, and that was a Muslim—so it tells you how, you know, Pentecostalism, especially in terms of language, is woven into the fabric of the society. So, yes. You know, something seems to be doing on with the politics. But I don’t think we can conclude on the basis of that that Pentecostal power itself has peaked.

O’NEIL: So, Ebenezer, I’m going to do something very unfair to you. I’m going to ask you one last question. And given that we’re coming up against the hour, I’m only going to give you sixty seconds or ninety seconds to answer.

OBADARE: OK. I will do my best.

O’NEIL: But since we have Treasury, and USAID, and State, and all these people here, what does all this mean for U.S. policy? What should we be doing, given this very rich environment that you’ve described to us?

OBADARE: I think we—one thing we’ve done successfully over the last twenty years, over the course of the Fourth Republic, is invest in civil society. I think we should continue to do that. But in doing that, we should be cognizant of the variety of actors operating within that space. There is not just—so, when we think about civil society, for instance, it’s not just your conventional organizations. It’s not just those who are registered. It’s not just that—it’s important to think about actors like the people I’m talking about, because they may not have formal power, they may not have formal authority, but they are very, very influential. And it’s not surprising that oftentimes the people who have the actual authority actually defer to them. So I would think about that. It’s interesting.

O’NEIL: So Pastoral Power. It’s a great argument. There’s a lot of great stories in here. I highly recommend it. But for now, please join me in thanking Ebenezer. (Applause.)

OBADARE: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

O’NEIL: Thank you to our virtual members. And for those who are here, please join us for a reception in the back of the room.




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