How a Pentecostal Law Professor Has Helped Reshape Nigerian Politics

I met Yemi Osinbajo, Nigeria's vice president-elect, two years ago, during the annual convening of the mammoth Holy Ghost Congress at Redemption Camp near Lagos. Back then, Osinbajo—a law professor and former attorney general of Lagos State—was supervisor of social responsibility projects for the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Nigeria's largest and wealthiest Pentecostal denomination.

At the end of May, Osinbajo will be sworn in as the second highest-ranking public official of Africa's most populous country and its largest economy. What prognostications can I make about his potential contributions to the new administration, based on my impressions from that meeting?

The theme of that year's Holy Ghost Congress—"Signs and Wonders"—threaded through sermons, healing services, ecstatic prayer sessions and an altar call that stretched to half an hour to allow time for would-be converts to make the kilometer-long trek from the back of the main Redemption Camp structure to the enormous stage at the front. Like many other homegrown Pentecostal denominations in Nigeria, RCCG preaches personal prosperity and promises supernatural intervention in the lives of people suffering from poverty and illness—powerful enticements for citizens of a troubled country whose population has swollen from 45 million to 170 million since 1960 and where the median income is about $500 a year.

When I was introduced to Osinbajo in Redemption Camp's air-conditioned and opulently appointed VIP area, I was prepared to be unimpressed. President Goodluck Jonathan was scheduled to appear on the last night of the Congress—a capstone event that would be attended by roughly 2 million people—to receive a blessing from Enoch Adeboye, Osinbajo’s spiritual father and the General Overseer of RCCG. To my mind, an organization that encouraged the multitudes to pray for riches and anointed a politician who embodied Nigeria’s status quo was tacitly accepting the country’s dysfunctions.

“Our most important task is winning the lost for Christ,” Osinbajo told me at the start of our brief meeting. He was lean, quiet and professorial—quite unlike many of the robust, glad-handing pastors I had met elsewhere in Nigeria.

When I asked him how that imperative squared with the need to work for peace in a country that is often riven by sectarian and inter-religious strife, he replied that RCCG’s commitment to social responsibility was reshaping the idea of “winning the lost” as something other than conventional evangelism.

“This means reaching out to the poorest members of our communities,” he said, “even if they are not Christians. The point is trying to touch those in need in real and positive ways.”

Projects sponsored by Osinbajo’s division of RCCG included insurance schemes to provide healthcare for poor children as well as the “Excel” reading program, which has implemented and underwritten new teaching strategies to promote literacy in dozens of public schools in the Lagos area.

In Nigeria, El Salvador, Indonesia and other parts of the developing world, this shift in the notion of what constitutes the core imperative of the gospel marks a subtle but encouraging evolution in some strands of global Pentecostal culture. Churches are moving from simply amassing converts to promoting primary social goods like healthcare and education, regardless of the religious affiliation of the beneficiaries.

Back in January, during a supposedly secret meeting with leading Pentecostal supporters and cadre of political advisors, Goodluck Jonathan is alleged to have remarked, “Osinbajo is my problem.” One might reasonably have replied that a raft of corruption charges and a feckless policy toward Boko Haram were his problem.

In any case, the comment neatly summarizes the incoming administration’s winning strategy. Muhammadu Buhari, a former army general and onetime military dictator, is viewed as a law-and-order hero in Nigeria’s Muslim north, where Boko Haram’s predations are most acutely felt. But to win the election Buhari needed a respected running mate from the Christian south who, in addition to attracting non-Muslim votes to the ticket, would also bolster a potential Buhari administration’s anti-corruption bona fides.

As this week’s election results proved, Buhari’s choice of Yemi Osinbajo was arguably indispensable to his success.

I sincerely hope that Buhari’s inclination toward iron-fisted rule has mellowed over the decades—or that it is at least susceptible to the tempering influence of his mild-mannered vice president.

On the other hand, I believe Osinbajo’s evident commitment to clean governance and fair-mindedness won’t get much traction in Nigeria’s brash, complex and chaotic governing culture unless Buhari is willing to put some of his own political muscle behind his vice president’s ideas.

The two men proved to be a successful team on the campaign trail. May their like-minded collaboration continue well beyond inauguration day.