The country’s massive cathedral project sheds light on the deep links between Pentecostal, Evangelist leaders and the political elite.
In March 2017, during his speech celebrating Ghana’s 60th anniversary of independence, the Ghanian President Nana Akufo Addo revealed a project: building a massive national cathedral in the heart of the capital city, Accra.
The initial reaction from thousands of Ghanaians who filled the capital city Accra’s Black Stars Square was excitement punctuated by ‘Amens’ throughout the crowd.
In order to create space for the cathedral, the government has recently demolished the country Passport Office and houses of the court of appeal judges in a 70,000 square piece of land next to the parliament in the capital city Accra. The construction will officially begin in March 2020.
The cathedral’s design has been entrusted to the Ghanian-British architect David Adjaye, who unveiled a plan consisting of landscaped gardens, multiple chapels, a baptistry, and a 5,000-seat auditorium as well as Africa’s first Bible Museum.
But the initial elation sparked by the project quickly turned to confusion and opposition.
Sparking heated debates, the controversial project has left many Ghanaians with an ethical dilemma.
Many are questioning the political motives behind the project and whether spending $100 million on a massive cathedral when the people are already navigating high rises in taxes, and a drastic decline of the local currency, the cedi, and a crisis in its entire financial sector.
Defending his government’s stance, President Akufo-Addo said: “The interdenominational national cathedral will help unify the Christian community and thereby promote national unity and social cohesion.”
However, despite the financial burden of the project on the country’s already fragile economy, the issue goes beyond the economy, touching upon the role that Christianity plays in modern Ghana.
Politics of religion
Christianity has been a dominant force in Ghana since the United Kingdom’s colonisation of the country, acting as the moral foundation of Ghana’s state structure.
Political and economic power is concentrated around southern Ghana which provides the bulk of the country’s political elites - a region that is predominantly Christian.
But despite this, with its 70 percent Christian and 20 percent Muslim population, modern Ghana is a secular republic.
Since independence, the presidents have been cautious in their attempt to remain neutral towards specific religious communities to preserve and maintain religious diversity and harmony in society.
Hence, Ghana has never faced and suffered inter-religious violence in its history. But in recent years, Ghana’s secular image has been eroding.
The Coalition of Muslim Organisation criticised the government’s involvement to the cathedral project, saying it is an interference in religious matters for a secular state.
In its statement, the organisation said: “Just as the Government of Ghana has not been involved in the construction of religious edifices for Muslims, Traditionalists, Hindus etc., it should not be involved in the efforts by Christians to build themselves a cathedral.”
As the lines between church and state fade, the cathedral project sheds light on the deep links between charismatic Christian leaders and the political elite in Ghana that aims to consolidate power, capital and legitimacy.
Men of God
President Nana Akufo built his 2016 election campaign around a biblical story with the catchy slogan “Battle is the Lord’s”, which has spearheaded the rise of religious rhetoric in Ghanian politics.
Since he came to power in 2016, Nana has built and strengthened alliances with influential Pentecostal and Evangelist leaders - who have direct access to the masses.
One such leader is Archbishop Nicholas Duncan-Williams. From the beginning, the Archbishop has been a fierce supporter of the construction of the cathedral, quick to furnish religious legitimacy to critics wary of the project.
Likening the cathedral to Solomon’s temple from the Old Testament in an interview, Duncan-Williams said: “When Solomon built the temple in Israel, the nation prospered, it rested from war and bloodshed for over 400 years… So, it has a lot of spiritual significance and prophetic benefit for us as a nation.”
But it’s not just in words, he has shown support through action too.
Duncan-Williams plays a vital role in the project as the chairman of the cathedral’s fundraising committee.
Known as the father of Charismatic Christianity in Ghana, with enormous wealth and power, Archbishop Duncan-Williams has succeeded in establishing alliances with powerful American Evangelist leaders, drawing their attention to Africa, a potentially huge and profitable religious market.
African-American Pentecostal Bishop TD Jakes is referred to as “one of the best preachers of our times” by Duncan-Williams. Jakes, invited by Duncan-Williams, gave a speech at the Africa Business and Kingdom Leadership Summit where participants would “receive divine impartation.” But his visit sparked debate as tickets for the event ranged from $100 to $10,000.
In fact, Duncan-Williams led the US Inauguration Day Prayer for US President Donald Trump after the presidential election in 2016. A traditional prayer that every US president attends before being sworn into office.
His circle stretches beyond powerful Evangelist leaders. Duncan-Williams has built close relationships with many prominent political figures across the continent and justifies his involvement in politics on religious grounds.
He claims that “dealing with presidents or politicians is part of my calling” in an interview which he said: “Jesus categorically gave us the command to disciple nations and to win souls… so when it comes to governance, leadership, giving direction, it is supposed to come from the church…we should rule in corporate, politics, the marketplace, everywhere.”
The “we” Duncan-Williams refers to in his statements is reserved for those who believe in the Pentecostal dream of the construction of a Christian nation, the dream that Evangelical leaders in the US like Steven Green share.
Another well known charismatic church leader, Isaac Owusu Bempah, often makes headlines with his prophecies, which in most cases polarise society along religious and political lines.
He is also a big supporter of the cathedral project.
Bempah publicly threw his support behind Akufo-Addo in the 2016 general election, claiming: “[I] had a vision of John Dramani Mahama [the arch-rival of Akufo-Addo] in chains – on his neck, legs and on his hands and the seat of the president has been turned upside down.”
Not too long after the victory, Akufo-Addo visited his supporters to show gratitude, saying: “The victory could only have come through the power of prayer and intercession by Owusu Bempah and other spiritual leaders.”
Last January, the controversial pastor’s claim almost triggered religious violence in Accra. Bempah claimed that God revealed to him that Ghana’s Chief Imam, Sheikh Usman Nuhu Sharubutu and current Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia, would die this year.
“The cathedral doesn’t reflect our national unity in any way since it is specifically for one religion”, Muslim activist Bashiratu Kamal told TRT World.
However, the alliance between Pentecostal and Evangelical leaders and Akufo-Addo seems only to be growing.
The cathedral project embodies the ambitions of both religious and political elites in Ghana.
While the Pentecostal elite sees the cathedral as the symbol of their Christian nation of Ghana, Akufo-Addo sees it as his legacy project and an important boost for the 2020 elections.
Kamal said: “In a country where minority religions have been suffering discrimination, building a cathedral with tax-payers money only goes to confirm the superiority of the said religion.”
Kamal also confirmed that the government’s involvement in the building of a cathedral is part of the rising trend.
She said: “[It is] reflective in how Muslims and children of other faiths are subjected to attending compulsory church services in schools, Muslim women and girls are also forced to remove their hijab and government has not said a word about this act of discrimination.”
The fact that a secular country is building a cathedral as a symbol of unity prioritises Christianity in public space, positioning it as a vital part of the country’s national identity and can have a negative effect on the already fragile harmony of the religiously diverse Ghanian society.