Blood Money

Blood Money

Wednesday, November 8, 2023 6:30 pm

Ebenezer Obadare

When it comes to wealth transfer, Nigerian Pentecostal churches prefer to keep it all in the family.

 Ebenezer Obadare

Following the selection of 36-year-old Jimmy Odukoya to succeed his late father, Taiwo Odukoya, as the Senior Pastor of the Fountain of Life Church, Lagos, a lot of social and church commentary has focused on the new pastor’s physical appearance. With bulging biceps, earrings, tattoos, and (what would seem obligatory these days) dreadlocks, the junior Odukoya is closer in aesthetics to the rapper Jay-Z than the preacher T.D. Jakes. Announcing Mr. Odukoya’s choice as the new senior pastor, the church Board of Trustees disclosed that it was the wish of the late co-founder that his son should succeed him, a wish that Jimmy would later confirm with a story about sitting at the foot of his father’s bed and being explicitly told that “this is your story now.” Significantly, one of his first acts as senior pastor was to announce the promotion of his elder sister, 38-year-old Tolu Odukoya-Ijogun, as the church associate pastor.

If Jimmy Odukoya’s appearance is precisely what one might expect of a transplant from the world of entertainment, it has not deterred a torrent of criticism from those who deem it incongruous with that of a “regular” “Man of God.” The commentator who, apparently referring to Mr. Odukoya, advised that “the young man should have a rethink to cut the true picture of a priest conforming to the priestly etiquette” appears to capture the unease among a cross section of the Pentecostal and broader Christian community about the look of the new senior pastor.

Odukoya has taken his critics head on, insisting that his appearance has “spiritual backing.” Regarding his dreadlocks for instance, he says: “If you say I’m wrong to keep my hair as a pastor, I can tell you that God told Samson not to cut his hair in the Bible. That means long hair is not a bad thing. Also, if you say the pastor is keeping a beard, I can tell you that the Bible says that when Jesus was tortured, they pulled hair from his face.” As for the earrings: “If you say this pastor is putting on earrings, I can tell you that in the book of Exodus, when the children of Israel got out of Egypt and wanted to do golden calf (sic), they collected jewelry, rings, and earrings from their sons and daughters.”

Whether or not Jimmy Odukoya’s taste in fashion has Biblical warrant seems less important than his arguable encapsulation of the mutual intertwining of Nigerian Pentecostalism and popular culture. As noted by historian Olufunke Adeboye, this coming together was initiated by the former, first with its appropriation of spaces of entertainment like movie theaters, nightclubs, and hotels, and following that, its capture of the Nigerian Nollywood elite as part of its drive to insinuate itself into every pore of the Nigerian body politic. If proof of the success of this strategy were needed, it was evident with, initially, the emergence of Pentecostalism as the default denomination among the cream of Nollywood (the recurrence of Jesus Christ as the “Executive Producer” for a profusion of Nollywood movies is far from accidental); and much later, the embrace of pastoring as a post-retirement career by many veteran movie stars, including Eucharia Anunobi, Zack Orji, Larry Koldsweat, Liz Benson, and, at least for a short period, Kanayo O. Kanayo.

The emergence of Jimmy Odukoya would seem to mark a consummation of this process. Although he is clearly not the first entertainer to embrace the pulpit, he is the first member of the generation born in the era of Structural Adjustment to be saddled with the headship of a major church in the aftermath of the passing of the founder. This development is not trivial. Insofar as Pentecostalism has had to bend over backward to accommodate the celebrity class, in the process sacrificing doctrinal rigor and, according to critics, turning the church itself into a theater of amusement more or less (theater and dance scholar Abimbola Adelakun has written quite perceptively on this) the emergence of a card-carrying entertainer as pastor, a sort of revenge of Nollywood if you will, marks a crucial sociological milestone. While it is commonplace for sundry artistes to become pastors and start their own churches, Jimmy Odukoya’s emergence is of moment both as a reminder of the convergence of Pentecostalism and entertainment in Nigeria, and an instance of the growing influence of Nollywood on the church. He is the literal embodiment of a new configuration that is half theological and half theatrical (pastor + rapper = papper), neither wholly the one nor the other, but rooted in both worlds nonetheless. (Instructively, Odukoya sees no conflict, and has vowed “not to stop acting even as a lead pastor.” Also: “Although I’m focused on the church now, that doesn’t mean I cannot act. Once an actor, always an actor.”)

Important as the demonstrated marriage of pulpit and popular culture no doubt is, it would seem secondary to the fact that the transfer of leadership from the late Taiwo Odukoya to his son is also, in the final analysis, about the need to preserve wealth within the family. Seen through this lens, the preference for Jimmy over and above his elder sister becomes understandable, especially within a cultural paradigm in which the male sibling is expected to be the successor to the patriarch, the bearer of the family legacy, and, it goes without saying, the manager and guarantor of its wealth. In her explanation of how, among the Yoruba, “fathers work for their sons,” anthropologist Sara Berry offers a convincing analysis and demonstration of this dynamic.

As many a Nigerian Pentecostal church has vaulted to untold wealth on the back of the Prosperity Gospel, the question of how to pass the accumulated wealth along has become pressing. While the question may be redundant in the case of the mainline churches with established structures and ingrained mores, it could not be more urgent for “privately-owned” churches established by “founding fathers” who have generally “overseen” and steered them along with the sheer force of personal charisma. In general, Pentecostal churches, evocative of the Nigerian state at large, are administered as personal fiefdoms of these spiritual patriarchs, who exercise unbounded control over their affairs, especially finance. At any rate, the reality that such founding fathers are invariably succeeded by a combination of their spouses and family members seems to point to a need to keep their wealth within the family. When T.B. Joshua, founder and leader of the Lagos-based Synagogue, Church of All Nations (SCOAN) died unexpectedly in 2021, his wife, Evelyn, overcame a brief leadership tussle to succeed her husband.

This development is likely to have two long-term effects. For Pentecostal churches, it will ensure, at least for the foreseeable future, a perpetuation of the ethos of personalization and governance by charisma. For individual pastors, operating within a hypercompetitive religious marketplace, the pressure of having to manage and preserve a “family inheritance,” albeit one with a patina of spirituality, will most likely invigorate the model of the pastorpreneur, one possessed and animated in almost equal measure by the religious spirit on the one hand, and the spirit of capitalism on the other.

*Professor Ebenezer Obadare is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).This article was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) as part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy:

Reina Patel contributed to the research for this article.


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