Soft power – the non-military means of exerting influence – has traditionally been associated with states. However, in the new millennium soft power has increasingly been identified with individuals with a global stature. Former presidents of powerful countries like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, for instance, often established foundations as vehicles for projecting their soft power capabilities. Former African presidents have increasingly done the same. Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, for example, were able to exert their soft power capabilities, especially via foundations. On the other hand, former President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria has projected his influence outside of such a mechanism through conflict mediation and humanitarian interventions. A recent phenomenon worthy of consideration is that religious leaders, particularly in the Pentecostal and charismatic realms, are increasingly projecting their soft power as a result of their ever-growing influence at home and abroad. Prophet Temitope Balogun Joshua, better known as TB Joshua, has demonstrated that the soft power capabilities wielded by religious leaders can be leveraged to counter negative perceptions of Africa and to promote peace across the continent.
African Pentecostalism is one of the fastest-growing strands of Christianity in the world, according to several Pew research forecasts. It has been suggested that Africa is on a mission to evangelise the world for Christ; a mission which some observers today describe as reverse missionary work in reference to the work of Europeans missionaries who arrived in Africa in the nineteenth century, ostensibly to proselytise the continent. Nigeria, in particular, with multiple international mega-churches, is undeniably a prominent actor in this mission of evangelising the world.
Indeed, the recent global evangelical movement led by Nigeria’s churches is phenomenal. Some denominations, such as the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), claim to have members in over 190 countries. Another powerful institution is the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) founded by Prophet TB Joshua in 1987.
Prior to his sudden death on 5 June 2021, Prophet TB Joshua was one person who achieved global fame and perhaps attracted more world leaders to Nigeria than any other religious leader or statesman. Prophet Joshua had a worldwide effect, as evidenced by tributes from 195 countries. Celebrities, political leaders (including presidents) and other bigwigs sought him because of his prophetic and healing anointing. Most importantly, his achievements demonstrated that the influence of religious leaders can be leveraged for the benefit of the continent.
Leveraging the influence of religious leaders
Africa as a continent has been wrongly misrepresented to the world in a largely deprecating manner in contemporary times. Africa is mainly in the news for the wrong reasons. Generally, it is perceived as a continent stricken with wars, poverty, disease, corruption and political instability, among others. However, the rise of Pentecostalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s has progressively altered this perception.
With the upsurge of religion in the global south, Africa came to be reckoned as a major player in the evangelisation of the world, with positive ripple effects in the tourism sector. Increasingly, religious tourism, where people from all over the world visit SCOAN, illustrates this point. TB Joshua’s SCOAN is described as an international pilgrimage site, with more visitors than Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London put together. Such was the influence of TB Joshua that when he informed his congregation of his plans to relocate to Israel, where he was earlier granted facilities to operate his church, the move prompted stakeholders in the Nigerian tourism sector to advise the Federal government and the Lagos state government to persuade Prophet TB Joshua to reconsider his decision, citing the detrimental multiplier effects it would have on the economy. Remarkably, despite the fact that Prophet TB Joshua was shunned by Nigerian Christian leaders, who questioned his authenticity and divine calling on account of unverifiable claims surrounding his ordination and mentorship, some even going as far as characterising the late spiritualist as the wizard of Endor wielding demonic power to deceive and corrupt people, he drew a large following from the general public, who interpreted his trials as persecution and envy. The fact that TB Joshua was named Israeli Ambassador for Tourism, after leading a two-day crusade that drew congregants from all over the world in the country, shows that his soft power capabilities were not lost on the authorities of that country.
Promoting peace in Africa
The late Prophet TB Joshua also represented one of those faces of Pentecostalism on the continent that has redefined its political landscape. African presidents went to him in droves for his spiritual counselling and prophetic insights into their individual countries’ challenges. Late President John Atta Mills of Ghana, President George Weah of Liberia, late President John Magufuli of Tanzania, President Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan, former President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, former President André-Dieudonné Kolingba of the Central African Republic and former President Joyce Banda of Malawi were among the first-rate pilgrims to the SCOAN. For instance, President Banda paid a three-day private visit to the church to seek divine favour for her 2014 election bid.
TB Joshua’s followers insist that his prophecies were almost always accurate; as a result, even his comments on political issues, whether in his own country or in other African countries, they say, would make front pages of national dailies. His prophetic utterances about national affairs, particularly election matters, prompted politicians in Nigeria and elsewhere to seek his blessings.
Moreover, his followers argue that, far from abusing his influence to advance his own interests, TB Joshua contributed immensely to peacebuilding and political stability in Africa. For instance, in 2015, there was a political impasse that followed the presidential election in Tanzania, won by former President John Magufuli. Interestingly, the main actors in the election, President Magufuli and Edward Lowassa (his main rival), had visited TB Joshua’s church in the past. It took the mediation of Prophet Joshua to douse the political tension that would have engulfed the country by persuading Lowassa to accept the result of the presidential election. Similarly, his intervention in Liberia helped safeguard and ensure a peaceful transition to a new government. In South Sudan, President Salva Kiir Mayardit acknowledged Prophet Joshua’s mediatory effort that encouraged conflicting factions―the government and the opposition―to sign a peace accord which gave birth to the Revitalised Transitional Government of National Unity.
There is no gainsaying the fact that such efforts in ensuring political stability across the continent by trusted non-state actors in the mould of Prophet TB Joshua will be sorely missed. The hope is that other religious leaders who have the interests of Africa at heart will emerge and continue his work.
Chikodiri Nwangwu teaches Political Science at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Kodiri_Nwangwu.