Pentecostal Power in Nigeria

Performing Power cover

By Adefoyeke Ajao

“…Worship activities such as singing, dancing, preaching, speaking in tongues, miracle performances, hand laying, prophetic utterances, prayers, ecstatic worship, and so on were all performative. It is, therefore, worth studying these ritual activities as performance acts to understand the various rites through which people communicated with God, and how they navigated their identity as both Pentecostals and political subjects.” (pp. 1-2)

In Abimbola Adelakun’s “Performing Power in Nigeria: Identity, Politics, and Pentecostalism”, the author draws on a variety of sources, including interviews, videos and existing records, to highlight the theatricality of Pentecostal activities, and how these performances have affected the social fabric.

After establishing the book’s premise as quoted above, Abimbola Adelakun adds a caveat that this “conceptualisation of Pentecostalism as the performance was in no way pejorative or belittling of their faith practices”. She should understand the sensitivity towards her perspective after all – in addition to being an Assistant Professor whose research focuses on the politics and performances of Pentecostalism, and a Punch Newspaper columnist whose articles reach a broad audience, the author also has a Pentecostal background. But what precisely is power identity and how is it performed in society? The answer comes in the six chapters between her introduction and conclusion where she illustrates how Pentecostals have sought, proclaimed and sustained the power that underpins their identity.

In chapter one, for example, she investigates the presentation and reinforcement of “power identity,” through activities other than traditional liturgy – notably drama productions. She argues that the spiritual warfare featured in Mount Zion Film Ministries International’s drama series, “Agbara Nla” (1993) and “Abejoye” (2020) was symbolic of the people’s struggles with the “anxieties that irk[ed]” them at the time and that the triumph over evil in these works re-energised “their faith that the power of God could exorcise the most malicious of all devils” – including the evils of oppression and disillusionment that they experienced.

This theme of spiritual warfare against multiple threats continues into chapter 2 where the author maintains that Pentecostals are inclined to classify as demonic anything and everything that contests the divine agenda. But in addition to battling against spectres as in the Mount Zion’s dramatizations, the battle spills over into the physical – or to be more specific, political – arena. This is shown in the circumstances surrounding Nigeria’s 2015 and 2019 general elections, particularly in 2015 where a Muslim contender ousted an incumbent Christian president. Adelakun also describes how Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US elections was viewed as divine compensation for the crisis caused by this “loss of territory”.

Although the church is shown to be a source of communion, succour and deliverance for its followers, it is also shown as an apparatus for abuse. In a compelling analysis that spreads over chapters 3 and 4, Adelakun analyses how the Internet’s democratised quality has aided in exposing wrongdoing and in demanding accountability from Pentecostalism’s principal actors – whether for sexual harassment or for dubious doctrines. However, in contrast to the vicarious victories experienced through the drama series and the US elections, the author emphasises the personal actions – and inactions – pastors take to address competing beliefs and criticisms that threaten their power identity. Adelakun is coherent in arguing that using the internet as a means of defining, disseminating, and regulating Pentecostalism’s identity has placed interpretations of these images outside the control of Pentecostals and under public scrutiny.

In addition to acknowledging that Pentecostal activities now transcend physical locations and that imagery is vital to cementing their identity, the author also notes that the performance of power identity transcends established liturgy and consecrated/ordained personalities. In subsequent parts, she examines the roles comedy and naming play in proclaiming the Pentecostal position within society. She suggests that these methods are less scrutinised in public than the most deftly coordinated media efforts. Moreover, she argues that the use of comedy and naming better encapsulate the lived experience of many Pentecostals, creating a more profound connection with their audience.

While the research and discourse in this thesis are rigorous, Adelakun oscillates between the columnist and the researcher, especially when she assesses Pentecostalism’s practices and central characters. The focus on spectacular displays and circumstances also restricts the study of various arcs that could have given the book’s premise more nuance. For example, the link between the church’s ability to gain power by taking up obligations neglected by government – education, healthcare, employment, etc. – is understated. There are also questions about the demonstration of power within the Pentecostal hierarchy: Why did Muhammadu Buhari’s presidential campaign fail initially with one pastor as his running mate yet eventually succeed with another pastor from a different Pentecostal church? Did it perhaps have to do with the differences in stature of their churches? Also, the tropes of whiteness and darkness mentioned could have been explored as identity markers and dimensions of performance. Nigerian Pentecostalism’s early history could equally have been corresponded with contemporary practices – particularly its interactions with rival religions, the state/politics and pandemics.

In her conclusion, Adelakun discusses COVID- 19 as another issue that puts the Pentecostal identity to the test and critiques pastors’ responses to the pandemic. In this section, she laments a future where society is dominated by Pentecostal identity markers without alternative answers to pertinent questions. She concludes that “power needs to change hands from the myth-making prophets whose utterances are based on inspired visions to those who foretell based on informed and rational knowledge”. It is, however notable that the conclusion, which borrows its title from “one of the regular programs of the MFM megachurch” does not include the perspective of Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries’ General Overseer, although he happens to be an accomplished scientist who urged Nigerians to take the pandemic and all precautions seriously.Additionally, it does not include the views of other pastors who encouraged citizens to comply with COVID-19 directives and even supported vaccination campaigns.

Since its humble beginnings in the early twentieth century, Pentecostalism has developed significantly in Nigeria, meeting the spiritual, economic, and social demands of its members. By examining various contexts in which the movement has operated within society, Adelakun’s thesis does aremarkable job of presenting insights into how the Pentecostal body continues to evolve, express its beliefs and influence the values of many Nigerians today.

Performing Power in Nigeria: Identity, Politics, and Pentecostalism by Abimbola A. Adelakun is published by Cambridge University Press.