LAWRENCE — Religious divisions have famously plagued Nigeria throughout its history. However, the triumph of a charismatic Christian movement, coming on the heels of the restoration of democracy in the West African country in 1999, has changed the terms of interreligious and political engagement.
The power of the ascendant Pentecostal movement is such that a University of Kansas researcher of civil society and politics and religion in Africa suggests the country's Fourth Republic, which is about to mark a 20-year milestone, should be termed the "Pentecostal Republic."
"You can't really understand what has happened in Nigeria since the beginning of the Fourth Republic without paying attention to Pentecostalism," said Ebenezer Obadare, KU professor of sociology and former journalist in Nigeria.
In his new book, "Pentecostal Republic: Religion and the Struggle for State Power in Nigeria," published by Zed Books, Obadare chronicles how leaders of the Pentecostal movement have appropriated state power and transformed religious dynamics and political contestation in the country.
The charismatic Protestant Christian movement that began in the United States in the early 1900s became more popular in Nigeria in the 1970s, just as the era of an oil boom gave way to economic stagnation.
"Just about the same time Nigeria was inaugurating the Fourth Republic, that is the same time Pentecostalism was moving into the forefront as a dominant force," Obadare said.
The religious movement and the democratic movement in Nigeria grew parallel alongside each other.
"The effect is that Pentecostalism has significantly affected politics and political understanding," Obadare said. "Not only that, it has changed the intrinsic nature of the state itself."
As leading Pentecostal preachers moved closer to politicians in Nigeria, the two groups have become more dependent upon each other. The outcome, policywise, has been far from desirable, he said.
"Both forces constitute what you can call the power elite now," Obadare said. "It just sheds light on the role that religion plays in politics, in a particular context. It helps us understand that relationship. It also gives a lie to the assumption that the impact of religion on politics and sociality is fixed and can be known in advance."
On the contrary, he said, religion's effects are always predicated on the interplay of forces in the immediate environment.
"Pastors also have their own elite interests and their own personal interests, as well as differences among themselves," Obadare said. "But in general, there is more collaboration between pastors and politicians than between pastors and congregations."
There are some parallels to evangelicals influencing U.S. politics, but there is a major difference in that. Recently, at least, American evangelicals have become almost completely identified with a single party — the Republican Party — while Democrats typically expect little to no support from evangelical voters.
In Nigeria, on the other hand, and perhaps because the party system is not as cohesive and ideological boundaries are blurred, Pentecostal leaders are not exclusive allies of a single party.
"You could argue that the Pentecostal elite in Nigeria is much more nimble," Obadare said. "It will always find a way to find an accommodation with the existing regime, party identity notwithstanding."
Other religious groups and other Christian denominations in Nigeria have also had to adapt their own practices in light of Pentecostalism's success.
"The argument I make is that, faced with the sheer ebullience and sheer force of Pentecostalism, every other Christian denomination has had to make adjustments," Obadare said.
One key dynamic to watch is the likely effect of Pentecostal domination of politics on civil society. If the church can rekindle the spirit of the early 1990s when it formed alliances with civic groups for an expansion of democratic space, that could be a more positive sign, he said.
Photo: A 2010 image of Enoch Adeboye, a well-known Nigerian Pentecostal pastor, via Wikimedia Commons.