Issues is a new NT series in which academics and policy experts write on their areas of expertise. If you would like to contribute to the series send an email to Olumide (his email address is on the page under the link).
The columnists this week are sociologist Ebenezer Obadare and cultural theorist Akin Adesokan
Video footage of Bishop David Oyedepo, founder and leader of the Living Faith World Outreach Ministry (aka Winners Chapel), angrily slapping a hapless female congregant sparked the usual emotional outburst from a large section of the Nigerian public. The anger is necessary and justified. But experience from other societies, especially the mature democracies, teaches us that anger, even when justified, is never enough. Instead, in order to progress as a society, our anger needs to be mobilized for appropriate social action, and for that to be possible, we need to fully understand and internalize the social ramifications of empirically specific events. It is a task that demands careful and remorseless interrogation. This essay is one attempt at such a dissection, and since fairness demands that we start at the very scene of the crime, we reproduce verbatim, the exchange between Bishop Oyedepo and the young woman in the YouTube video:
Bishop Oyedepo: You’ve been there [a witches’ coven, apparently] for how long?
Young woman: I am not a winch (sic) I am a winch for Jesus.
Bishop Oyedepo: You are what?
Young woman: My own winch (sic) is for Jesus.
Bishop Oyedepo (perplexed, voice rising): You are foul devil. Do you know who you are talking to? Foul devil! (Delivers a snap slap, cue loud applause from the congregation).
Bishop Oyedepo: Where are you from?
Young woman: I am from Imo state.
Bishop Oyedepo: Where did you get ‘witch’ from? (Sic).
Young woman: I am not a winch (sic).
Bishop Oyedepo: Who are you?
Young woman: But I am winch for Jesus.
Bishop Oyedepo: Jesus has no witches, you are a devil!
Young woman: (mumbles, keeps protesting her innocence…)
Bishop Oyedepo: You are not set for deliverance, and you are free to go to hell!
Obviously frustrated, Bishop Oyedepo moves on to the next person, another young woman- cowering in front of him is a huddle of young boys and girls, all haggardly looking- but there was to be no joy for him. Queried as to the ancestry of her alleged witchcraft, the second young woman insisted: “I am not a witch, but I used to dream that I was with them.” In a second video, apparently recorded a year later (and this time with the dissident young women from the first video conveniently out of the way), Bishop Oyedepo declares victory, informing his congregation that: “I slapped a witch here last year…the witch came back in February to come and apologize.” Now, we have no means to establish whether or not the “witch” actually came back to recant, as Bishop Oyedepo claims. But it matters very little to us anyway, since what we are interested in is the social meaning of the brief encounter, and what it tells us about the state of things in our country.
For us, the most critical question was actually posed by Bishop Oyedepo himself when, unsettled by the young woman’s unexpected stubbornness, he asked her: “Do you know who you are talking to?” The answer to that simple question is the hub of our analysis. Many Nigerians will answer that Bishop Oyedepo is a successful “man of God,” and they will be right, for the evidence is hard to dispute: named one of the five richest pastors in Nigeria by the influential Forbes magazine; owns at least one private jet, owns a university (who doesn’t these days?); and is worth an estimated $150 million.
But other than his material worth, Bishop Oyedepo represents something even more profound- and definitely sinister: he is the very epitome of the steady emergence in our country of ‘the anointed’ as someone set apart from moral reckoning or common criticism. Strictly speaking, this “Big Man” whose word is law, is a sociological throwback to the recent military era. Historically speaking, we have seen that figure before, only in a different garb. He has been a constant presence at the scene of repeated violations of Nigerians’ dignity by men (and the occasional woman) who fancy themselves as unaccountable to neither man nor political artifice. In 1973, in what must now go down as the infancy of the military era in Nigeria, this figure was typified by Alfred Diette-Spiff, the overzealous Milad of the then Rivers state, who had the journalist Minere Amakiri’s head shaven with broken bottles for daring to publish a report that was “embarrassing” to him, i.e. Diete-Spiff.
But there is a crucial difference. While the military Big Man drew his power from the authority of the gun, his civilian incarnation draws his authority from an invisible “word of God.” This is what Bishop Oyedepo was hinting at. “Listen up;,” he seems to have been saying, “I am not here by my own authority, but the authority of the divine.” The real tragedy is that he did not have to verbalize those words. It was already implied, and the proof of its uncritical acceptance (and the sad fact that Nigerians have somehow allowed themselves to be constituted as pliable subjects) can be seen in the thunderous applause from the watching congregation.
Let’s be clear: by no means does this incident number among some of the worst things that transpire today in the bizarre and often phantasmatic circles of Nigerian Pentecostalism. For instance, juxtaposed with other known instances of willful degradation and unashamed pastoral exploitation, it may not even deserve half of the publicity it has received. But it has ruffled the social matter all the same, partly because of the name of the ‘man of God’ at the center of the affair; and partly because of the other narratives which are embedded in their exchange- rich versus poor, man versus woman, rich man versus poor woman, elder versus youth, power versus powerlessness; all of which, by the way, reminds us of the extraordinary courage shown by the two dissenters who resisted their being labelled as witches. Indeed, but for that moment of sheer bravery- without which, interestingly, the slap would not have been necessary- the footage and the outrage that has greeted it would have not have been considered newsworthy.
There is a subtle lesson here about ordinary people’s power. The most important damage that the unnamed young women’s denial of witchcraft did to Bishop Oyedepo was to puncture his (and fellow Pentecostalists’) grand superstitions about witches and their purported culpability for Nigeria’s economic woes. A powerful fiction, it has gained traction even as visible social agents continue to help themselves to Nigerians’ common wealth. To draw the sting of characters like Bishop Oyedepo, we must, as a people, reject all talk of politics that does not emphasize its human genealogy. We must denigrate ‘special prayers,’ ‘deliverance sessions’ and ‘white fasting’ as what they are- acts of desperation that are ultimately flights from politics and the political origins of Nigeria’s problems. If there are witches at all (and we are not holding our breath), there is no reason to believe that they have singled Nigeria and/or Nigerians out for punishment. Deep down, Bishop Oyedepo knows this. He is merely betting that Nigerians will not.
Obadare and Adesokan teach Sociology and Comparative Literature respectively in the United States.