A King and His Subjects

Ebenezer Obadare 600

The relationship between a Nigerian pastor on death row and his congregation offers a timely glimpse into the nature of devotion and social obedience across African Pentecostal churches.

Ebenezer Obadare

On February 26, members of the Christian Praying Assembly (CPA) Church Worldwide, a Lagos-based Pentecostal church, took out paid advertorials in a Nigerian daily newspaper to celebrate the birthday anniversary of their pastor, Chukwuemeka Ezeugo, aka His Holiness Dr. Reverend King. This has been their practice since January 2007 when Reverend King was convicted and sentenced to death by the Lagos High Court for the murder of a congregant, Ann Uzor. Ms. Uzor had tragically died in 2006 after Reverend King doused her and five others with petrol and set them on fire for allegedly “committing fornication.” In 2015, the Nigerian Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the High Court and Appeal Court, more or less sealing Reverend King’s fate.

While King appears to have exhausted all legal avenues, the mood across his congregation has remained, if not upbeat, at least defiant, a long-shot campaign for his pardon on the one hand being balanced with a vigorous insistence on his divinity. The congratulatory messages offer ample illustration. One refers to Reverend King as “the man of the moment, every moment and the final moment,” while another, noting that “Nothing is beyond the bounds of possibility to our G.O. when it comes to divine work,” boldly credits him with such accomplishments as “Salvation of souls, healing of sicknesses and diseases of all kinds, freedom from bandages (sic) including freedom from poverty.” Cutting to the chase, another advertorial describes Pastor King as “the resurrected Jesus-Christ of Nazaret (sic) our Lord. God-in-black-skin.” In what seems like a coded warning to Mr. King’s jailers, the same advertorial adds: “For there is nothing we can add to you, because you are God, neither can the world or imprisonment take anything away from you.”

Other messages similarly allude to Pastor King’s apparent transcendental qualities, either describing him as “The literal God we are witnessing,” “the Messiah of the whole world,” or “God’s divine solution to the problems of mankind” since “The problem that you cannot solve does not actually exist.”

According to media reports, Reverend King’s congregants have been backing their confessions of adoration with action, turning the location of every prison where their Hosanna has been kept into a pilgrimage site, thereby forcing the authorities to move him constantly.

What explains the “till death do us part” leader-follower affect between Reverend King and his congregation, and what are the sociological circumstances behind its emergence? How are such bonds strengthened or nurtured as the case may be? Contrarily, how, if at all, can they be weakened or dissolved?

It is impossible to do justice to these key questions without full attention to the abdication of the state across postcolonial Africa, and the ensuing social vacuum into which numerous agents have stepped, from powerful, if unaccountable, nongovernmental organizations on the one hand, to charismatic churches and sundry spiritual authorities and directors on the other. Where the state once held sway, these secular and spiritual institutions now reign largely unchallenged, the former deploying the resources and invoking the moral approval of various transnational organizations and forces, the latter wielding supernatural sanction and providential authority. It is hardly a coincidence that the Pentecostal boom in Nigeria and other parts of Africa parallels the loss of faith in the state and its institutional paraphernalia.

Where the state is not completely absent, its authority tends to be weak, and its institutions suspect. The ensuing generalized distrust creates and deepens a moral environment favorable to the emergence and sustenance of personal rule. Reverend King is one of many examples across the Nigerian Pentecostal landscape, and perhaps there is something fitting about the fact that his current predicament owes to a moment in which he was trying to dispense personal justice to a gaggle of alleged fornicators. The contemporary African Pentecostal pastor, standing in for a variety of institutions long absent, is nothing but an existential micromanager, tasked with assignments as hard as picking political winners and losers in a hotly contested election, and as delicate as resurrecting the inert manhood of male members of his congregation.

While the vulgar deification witnessed in the case of Reverend King may be cutting edge, the truth is that most pastors live in a “Touch Not My Anointed” state of exception, a secular place of grace normally claimed by none but the most powerful politicians and individuals of high status. This protection from accountability, technically a form of spiritual outlawry, is one reason (access to fame and flesh being not too far behind) why a growing number of young men are increasingly drawn to pastoring as a profession.

If pastors typically live in a state of exception, why is Reverend King on death row? Although all pastors are equal, experience argues that some are more equal than others, and status, education, and social connection can be crucial in determining how much latitude a particular pastor enjoys, and whether or not a particular infringement attracts commensurate legal penalty. If Reverend King’s followers are to be believed, things might have turned out differently had he been able to mobilize the same kind of social relationships available to, say, the late T.B. Joshua of the Synagogue, Church of All Nations (SCOAN). In September 2014, after a guesthouse located within the premises of his sprawling church suddenly collapsed, leaving at least 115 people dead, Joshua, rather than being chastised, received “condolence visits” from key political personalities, including the then-president Goodluck Jonathan, and the church did not face prosecution even after a coroner appointed by the Lagos State government had found it “criminally negligent.”

Inasmuch as the central insight from the previous examples is that absolute devotion to charismatic pastors derives in part from skepticism about social institutions, it is worth noting that, within the political sphere, a similar distrust explains the mass appeal of charismatic anti-establishment figures who promise to bring the system down and rewrite the rules of political engagement, presumably in favor of the downtrodden. In the most extreme cases, such figures manipulate popular ardor to induce cynicism about democratic principles, especially the idea of rule by the consent of the governed.

Whether it is the charismatic Man of God or the mesmerizing (wannabe) dictator, the best way to loosen their grip on the public mind is through strategic investment in social and political institutions that command the trust of all and sundry.

*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: https://www.cfr.org/blog/king-and-his-subjects