Pentecostalism and Politics in Nigeria: Responses to the Lekki Massacre by Creighton Coleman

October 30, 2020

Over the last several weeks, growing protests in the West African nation of Nigeria have driven many young people both in and outside the country to organize online. Recently, this online activism has even spurred celebrities in the US, such as Dwyane Wade, to tweet in support of Nigerian protestors. The country drew even more international attention on October 20th, when Nigerian security forces opened fire on a group of protesters at Lagos’s Lekki toll gate, killing at least twelve people and wounding many others. President Muhammadu Buhari, a former general from the predominantly Muslim North, responded by disbanding the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), the policing unit that sparked the protests, and cracking down on the protests.

The government’s attempt to restore order was inevitable, but the Lekki massacre also elicited responses from another source of power in Nigeria: high-profile Pentecostal leaders, whose spiritual authority is recognized even by non-Pentecostals, as Ebenezer Obadare and other Nigerian scholars have noted. Witnessing the shape of this influence can give insight into potential futures in Nigerian politics while also giving a glimpse into the manifold ways that religion and politics might interact beyond secularisms familiar to readers in the US and Europe.

The Nigerian #EndSARS campaign began online in 2017 against the widespread corruption and lack of accountability in the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a police unit created in 1984 to combat rising crime. SARS has become known for extorting Nigerians on the streets as well as extrajudicial killing and torture. On October 3rd, after a Twitter user reported the SARS killing of a young man, the mostly online movement exploded into the streets with protests throughout the country. Nigerian Armed Forces responded to these peaceful protests with the horrifying attack on October 20th. President Buhari’s sweeping crackdown, which included a nationwide curfew, may have brought this round of #EndSARS protests to a close, but police brutality remains a prominent national issue.

Nigeria has the largest population in Africa and exerts considerable international influence through its diaspora and budding music and film industries. Religious groups play a central role in the culture and daily life of Nigerians. Increasingly, Pentecostals in the southwest have played a larger political role. Pentecostal churches have become necessary pilgrimage sites for those seeking political office because of the massive memberships of Pentecostal churches as well as the perceived spiritual authorizing power of Pentecostal pastors. Even Muslim leaders regularly find themselves seeking out blessings from Pentecostal congregations. While the ultimate result is uncertain, statements by Pentecostal pastors, such as Tunde Bakare, condemning the actions of the military at Lekki toll gate show one possible direction of Pentecostal influence that may bear on the #EndSARS movement.

Pastor Bakare has a history of political activism. His sermons regularly address issues of good governance and he has published a collection of writings on the topic. Bakare serves as convener of the pro-democracy Save Nigeria Group (SNG), which seeks to mobilize civil society and Nigerian youth. In 2011, Bakare was selected as Buhari’s vice-presidential running mate, and while their bid for the presidency eventually failed, it marked a shift in electoral strategy:  northern Muslim candidates had previously chosen running mates from the Igbo ruling class in the southeast, but now hope to capture the influence of Pentecostal pastors in Lagos by partnering with leaders like Bakare. Despite his relationship to Buhari, Bakare issued a strong condemnation on of the violence at Lekki toll gate the morning after the attack on Twitter:

Such a statement is not odd for Bakare, who has issued especially harsh criticism of politicians, such as former President Obasanjo. Bakare followed up his tweet with a “State of the Nation Broadcast” from his church, The Citadel Global Community Church. Bakare’s speech, “The Building Blocks of Nationhood: A Blueprint for the New Nigeria,” is worth reading. Notable is his consistent recognition of systemic failures of governance at the root of the #EndSARS movement. Here, Pentecostal authority moves in a reforming direction as Bakare names corruption and violence against protestors as longstanding enemies of Nigeria’s destiny. Bakare has stated an interest in running for the presidency in 2023, and these statements might point to one potential future for Pentecostalism’s influence on Nigerian publics.

Other reactions to the Lekki Massacre have not leveraged authority for reform in the same way. The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) is easily the largest Nigerian Pentecostal fellowship, with an average of 100,000 worshippers in attendance on a given Sunday. The church’s General Overseer, Enoch Adeboye, is known for taking a more hands-off role to Nigerian politics. His statement following the massacre at Lekki toll gate condemned the violence while pushing youth to avoid “any form of action that would give the Military any other form of excuse to attack.”

Adeboye, while offering a clear condemnation, did not go on to analyze causes of the #EndSARS movement. Several high-ranking government officials, including the current vice-president, Yemi Osinbajo, are pastors in Adeboye’s RCCG. However, it is unclear if and how Adeboye’s statements will influence the high-ranking members of his church.

The role of Pentecostal pastors in shaping the future of the Nigerian Fourth Republic is only growing. Bakare’s statements, and even the less forceful statements of figures like Adeboye, can lend spiritual authority to movements calling for police reform. Pentecostal influence is strongest in the southwest of the country, where #EndSARS protests were strongest, and does not necessarily translate to influence in the majority-Muslim north. Given the size of Pentecostal congregations, the perceived spiritual authority of Pentecostal pastors, and the capacity to mobilize Nigerians, however, statements from Pentecostal leaders are potentially important for the undetermined future of the #EndSARS movement, and the role of Pentecostal Christianity in Nigeria, and beyond.

Creighton Coleman is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

Photo by Tobi Oshinnaike on Unsplash