October 5, 2006

Spirit and Power - A 10-Country Survey of Pentecostals

Overview: Pentecostalism in Africa

Pentecostalism has become an increasingly prominent feature of Africa’s religious and political landscape. The movement’s growth has been particularly dramatic since the era of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s. According to recent figures from the World Christian Database, pentecostals now represent 12%, or about 107 million, of Africa’s population of nearly 890 million people. This includes individuals who belong to classical pentecostal denominations, such as the Assemblies of God or the Apostolic Faith Mission, that were founded in the early 20th century, as well as those who belong to pentecostal denominations or churches that have formed more recently, such as the Deeper Life Bible Church in Nigeria. Charismatic members of non-pentecostal denominations, who in Africa are drawn mainly from Catholic and Protestant churches and African Instituted Churches (AICs), number an additional 40 million, or approximately 5% of the population. As recently as 1970, pentecostals and charismatics combined represented less than 5% of Africans.

Pentecostals are not the only Christian group in Africa to have experienced significant growth in recent decades. According to the World Christian Database, Christianity as a whole increased from about 10 million adherents in 1900 to about 144 million by 1970. Today the continent’s Christians are estimated at around 400 million, or 46% of the population. Catholics grew from 13% of Africa’s population in 1970 to 17% in 2005. Protestants, including Anglicans and independents, constituted about 15% of Africa’s population in 1970 but nearly doubled, to 29%, by 2005.
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Even by African standards, the pentecostal boom stands out, and many of Africa’s most populous and politically significant countries reflect this trend. In South Africa, for example, the pentecostal Apostolic Faith Mission is now as numerically strong as the Dutch Reformed Church, the traditional mainstay of the country’s Protestantism. In Zimbabwe, the Assemblies of God has almost as many adherents as the Catholic Church. In Ghana, the largest Christian church is the Church of Pentecost. A survey of Nairobi, Kenya, in the early 1990s showed that the Assemblies of God was the fastest growing denomination (Maxwell 2000). More recently, The Economist noted that nearly one million Kenyans – one out of every 30 people in the country – attended a revival conducted by American preacher T. D. Jakes in Nairobi (The Economist, July 20, 2006). And recent reports suggest that in Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, pentecostals now equal the combined numerical strength of its long dominant Catholic and Anglican churches (Murphy 2006).

Though pentecostalism’s dramatic expansion has left almost no part of sub-Saharan Africa unaffected, the extent of its growth varies across the region. At the upper end, according to the World Christian Database, are Zimbabwe, South Africa, Ghana, Congo-Zaire, Nigeria, Kenya, Angola, Zambia and Uganda, in all of which pentecostals and charismatics represent more than 20% of the national populations. At the lower end are Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Madagascar and Sudan, where pentecostals and charismatics make up less than 10% of the population. Countries where the pentecostal and charismatic population is between 10% and 20% include Congo-Brazzaville, the Central African Republic, Malawi, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia and Mozambique.

With pentecostalism’s demographic explosion has come the sudden expansion of its efforts to shape politics and public life. While nationalist movements drove African politics during the era of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s, and mainline church leaders were deeply involved in the continent’s efforts at democratization in the 1980s and early 1990s (Gifford 1995), pentecostals have become increasingly important political actors in the last 15 years. This political awakening is becoming increasingly visible, as illustrated in the following:

  • In 1991, Zambia became the first former British colony in Africa to change a president through democratic multiparty elections – and the winner, Frederick Chiluba, was an avowed pentecostal who claimed to have received the gift of tongues at a crusade conducted by pentecostal evangelist Reinhard Bonnke. After taking office, Chiluba invited a group of pentecostal ministers to “cleanse” the presidential palace of evil spirits and publicly dedicated Zambia and its government to “the Lordship of Jesus Christ” (Freston 2001: 156-59).
  • In Nigeria, pentecostals and other evangelicals began a concerted effort beginning in 1993 to field candidates for political office at all levels. In 1999, an Assemblies of God member, Anyim Pius Anyim, was elected to the Senate and later became Senate president, the most powerful political position in Nigeria after the president and vice-president. In July 2006, Jerry Gana, a pentecostal layperson and former information minister for President Olusegun Obasanjo, announced he would compete in Nigeria’s presidential elections scheduled for May 2007. Gana, who hails from northern Nigeria, immediately attracted considerable pentecostal support (see Nigeria profile).
  • In Kenya, pentecostals actively campaigned against and helped defeat President Mwai Kibaki’s draft constitution in November 2005, largely because it provided for the establishment of Muslim personal law courts (Ranger forthcoming).

Beyond electoral politics, pentecostalism has penetrated important sectors of African public life. In Uganda and Kenya, for example, pentecostals and other evangelicals control numerous radio and TV stations (Bengali 2006). In Nigeria, the pentecostal Redeemed Christian Church of God produces Christian-themed movies that have beaten secular rivals at the box office (Murphy 2006). In 2003, Ghana’s national airline, Ghana Airways, invited a Ghanaian-born, London-based pentecostal evangelist to conduct a “deliverance service” to save the organization from its recurring financial failures (Asamoah-Gyadu 2005).

In addition to the movement’s sheer demographic growth, several factors have stimulated pentecostalism’s recent surge of public activism:

  • DemocratizationAccording to Freedom House, in 1976, only three African countries were considered free, while 18 were considered partly free and 28 not free. By 2006, the number of African countries considered free had nearly quadrupled, to 11, while 24 are now considered partly free and 14 not free (numbers compiled from Freedom House 2006a and 2006b). Although the democratization process has been decidedly uneven, it has given many Africans – pentecostals included – a greater opportunity to organize politically and influence their governments. In eight of the 11 countries Freedom House classifies as free, pentecostal and charismatic communities represent more than 10% of the national populations.
  • “Top-down” mobilizationAs some African heads of state have faced deepening political crises and increasing criticism from mainline church leaders, they have turned to pentecostals for religious and moral legitimation – which some pentecostal leaders have been eager to provide. In the early 1990s, for example, as Gerry Rawlings of Ghana and Daniel arap Moi of Kenya faced criticism from abroad as well as from their countries’ mainline churches, pentecostal and other evangelical church leaders helped make up the legitimacy deficit by praising their “godly leadership” and urging followers to support them (Gifford 1998: 86; Freston 2001: 146-47). More recently, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, despite being a Roman Catholic, has sought closer ties with some pentecostal and evangelical leaders, in which he has been assisted by the fact that his second wife and sister are members of the Zimbabwe Assemblies of God Africa (ZAOGA). On June 26, 2006, Mugabe presided at a Zimbabwe National Day of Prayer in Harare. The event was boycotted by prominent Catholic and Anglican leaders but it featured members of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, which both include pentecostal members.
  • Muslim activismActivism by Muslim politicians and groups in parts of sub-Saharan Africa has proven another stimulant to pentecostal and evangelical public involvement. For example, Nigeria’s entry into the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1986 and the spread of Sharia law in northern Nigeria in the late 1990s prompted greater pentecostal and evangelical participation in national debate and decision-making (Ojo 2004: 6; Amadi 2004: 3). As noted above, Kenyan pentecostals joined other Christians in 2005 in opposing a draft constitution because it provided for personal law courts for Muslims. In several countries, including Nigeria, Zambia, Kenya and Uganda, pentecostals have organized public evangelistic campaigns to counter the perceived ascendancy of Muslims. For example, a pentecostal minister in Zambia is organizing an effort he dubs “operation checkmate” to promote Christianity and contain Islam in the eastern part of the country (Kristof 2005).

It is clear that pentecostalism is a growing force in Africa at a time when foreign policymakers in the United States are becoming more conscious of the strategic importance of the continent (Council on Foreign Relations 2006). If pentecostal churches continue to grow in numbers and activism, the long-range political impact of Africa’s vibrant pentecostal community will become increasingly difficult to ignore.