By Mario Giro
9 March 2014: Live on Emmanuel TV the controversial Pentecostal “prophet” from Nigeria T.B. Joshua is working a miracle. In front of the usual audience of thousands of people in his Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) of Lagos, he discovers a young man in the audience – says Joshua – that was sent by Boko Haram to place a bomb in his church. Mustafa, as his name is called, falls on the ground and vomits something, while the prophet is over him, pushes him, and cries to Satan to come out of him. The man gets up, makes it a few meters towards the exit as if to escape, then falls. Joshua comes close to him and continues shouting. The scene repeats itself several times for many minutes until the exhausted man lifts up his hands and says that he feels better, that Satan left him. “He is free in the name of Jesus”, says the prophet. Loud contemporary music plays in the background for the event, with a play of lights of many great reflectors in the room. Quickly, the able assistants of T.B. Joshua take away the supposed Boko Haram member while the public applauds, singing praises to God who once again has worked through the “prophet”.
The place is not trivial: the SCOAN is a rich Pentecostal denomination with its own satellite TV, large financial resources and offices in London, Accra and Athens. The majority of the faithful are part of the new middle class of the largest African country: despite its contradictions, Nigeria leads the continent and has recently overtaken South Africa. The success of the local Pentecostal and neo-Christian churches is one of the hallmarks for such success: Nigerian prophets now run the continent and beyond, aggregating a large number of followers. There is no more need for "white" Pastors (American or European): Nigeria is self-imposed and its model of prosperity and religion has merged together.
The religious awakening of contemporary Africa is this: newfound wealth, pride and African religion a la carte, not to mention a reference to the native prophetic tradition, which at the beginning of the last century had found fertile ground in Nigeria. The religious movement Aladura ("praying people" in the Yoruba language) of Western Nigeria, is the source of many denominations in Africa and has millions of members. Some Aladura are involved in Pentecostalism; other Afro-Christian churches remain independent. From such strains arise the Cherubim and Seraphim or Celestial Christians scattered throughout West Africa, similar to other continental religious movements, some with their own indigenous tradition as Harrists or Kimbanguisti, others much more borderline between independent and Pentecostal Christianity. Elements are always present: prayer and healing, the fight against fetishes and black magic but also the refusal of European traditions, "white sorcery", as is referred to in French-speaking Africa with reference to technology or modern medicine. The coupling of Afro-Christian universe and independent Pentecostal revival took place almost naturally, as can also be seen in southern Africa with the "Zionist" or "etiopiste" churches.
At the heart of the African religious vitality is the "prophetic" and the figure of the "prophet," the man of God (as well as the mystery of the afterlife) who interprets the times, announces another world, indicating a road in crisis. In an era of confrontation between worlds - as it was during the arrival of European colonists in Africa - in which a millennial balance was broken, an ancestral world ends and a new one is born, arise "prophets" that fall between the two ages and seem to be able to quell the fracture by transporting their peoples over the abyss. Thus the new world imposes but does not kill all of the old: the prophet points to a path of survival. This is what Harris claimed in the first decade of the twentieth century: the end of charms and adherence to a single God was the price to pay to upgrade to the "new world" but also to bridge the gap between Africans and Europeans. In possession of the Bible, the "blacks" will not be outdone by "whites", and will find their identity. When it is about to be swept away, traditional Africa receives with its prophets its first "martyrs" – as with Simon Kimbangu – those of African authenticity, even before those of secular independence. Religious agitation leads towards the invocation of a different future than this incomprehensible present one. The “African prophets” are interpreters of such a future, thus converting even passers-by towards modernism. Their ability to innovate, adapting old beliefs and new faith to combine different elements, demonstrates their ability to understand and deal with modernity. African Christianity is marked: in spite of making spectacles of superiority, official churches will be challenged, and some infected, with the presence of such independent denominations. African leaders will often use the opportunity to manipulate the religious, in the sense of the autonomy of hierarchical churches. Finally, certain Protestant people tied to the church of the "awakening", will be drawn until they become confused.
About a century after the first generation of prophets, new imitators have sprung up everywhere in Africa. Again there is the mixture of ancient and modern, African and Christian elements albeit in a much more sophisticated way, both in speech and in the methods used. They are born in a new transitional era, a time of crisis, as the continent enters into globalization. After failed dreams of an era of independence – blackness, the African humanist socialism, pan-Africanism and Afromarxism – that led to a brief period of African secularism, society comes into a crisis of meaning, in which a global wave that resembles a tsunami soon destroys the little that is left of the African personality, without even having solved the economic inequalities as promised. Such crisis comes at a time in which the historic churches (Catholic and Protestant) are bent in bureaucratic conservation and its limited missionary self, strong in the successes of the previous decades, but still too tied to old ideas on enculturation of the Gospel on an African civilization that is about to be wiped out. Old ideas, such as fear of fundamentalist Islam and pride in their own traditions, blind many religious leaders who are not aware that Africa has changed.
In this context, the new "prophets" preach "awakening", like many Latin American and North American Pentecostal preachers, but they add a specific African touch that has impacted their society and causes even imitative influence of Islam in the continental universe. Again, looking for answers not to die, religious Africa finds itself among "Babel and Pentecost." TB Joshua is one of the new "prophets" of this Africa that enters into modern globalization. Though continuing in the African prophetic tradition, Joshua has modernized his speech: he rails against corruption, calls for "calm" on the ruling class, and offers healing and prosperity to all. He cites the Christian Bible and continues to fight fetishism. But his greatest weapon is claiming to cure AIDS and other diseases. Speak to the powerful people of his continent and he is considered one of the 50 most influential Africans. Many African personalities esteem him and listen to him since he predicted the death of President Bingu in Malawi. The successive leader, Joyce Banda, would often visit, as well as the former President of Ghana, John Evans Atta Mills, of whom he had predicted victory, Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai or South African Winnie Mandela and Julius Malema. Recently Joshua predicted the release of the kidnapped girls in April 2014 by Boko Haram in the north of the country, monopolizing newspaper headlines.
(Mario Giro is an Italian politician, trade-unionist and peace mediator who is the current State Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in Italy. He has participated in several peace mediation missions across Africa, being recognized with the ‘Fondation Chirac Prize for Conflict Prevention’ for his extensive diplomatic work. He also serves as the ‘Head of International Relations’ for ‘Community of Sant'Egidio’, a Catholic movement spanning 70 countries known for its humanitarian work and peace initiatives.)