In the extant literature on African cities and urban lifestyle, one component of Lagos’ megacity makeup is noticeably absent. This often overlooked or under-represented feature is that Lagos is truly a “Miracle City” – a city sited at the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean, with a manifest peril of being swallowed up hovering over it like the Sword of Damocles. Known for its infrastructural challenges, Lagos survives and thrives on the ingenuity, pragmatism and creativity of its more than 21 million inhabitants. For its intensely pious dwellers from a variety of religious traditions, Lagos is a city where God is alive and at work making and remaking lives, shaping and reshaping destinies. For its intensely pious dwellers from a variety of religious traditions, Lagos is a city where God is alive and at work making and remaking lives, shaping and reshaping destinies. It is not surprising then that perhaps the single most popular, most pervasive product of Lagos is miracle. The miraculous is at the heart of Nigerian Pentecostalism, and Lagos, more than any other city in Africa, merits the title of being the global capital of Pentecostalism.
The unique feature of Lagos emanating from its prime location at the coast of the Atlantic Ocean has engendered the production of secondary “Miracle Cities”, or daughter cities: special prayer infrastructure built on the outskirts of the city. Some social scientists, urban planners and architects describe Lagos as a burnt out or an apocalyptic city, a city that perpetually smothers in smoke as a result of the open and unhealthy incineration of human and urban waste. However, an ‘apocalyptic city’ may also mean a city burdened with a special sacred revelation or vision about the end of time and history as we know them. This special message, many Pentecostal Christians believe and teach, is to reshape the immediate present (evil) times and prepare humankind for the future rule of God. Prayer camps are such ‘Miracle Cities’, important structures in the self-understanding and the outward working of sacred revelations about the future of the city, and by extension, the future of humankind.
Unlike the “Charismatic City” — an amorphous network of spiritual energy and space generated in the interstices between the secular and the sacred cities, as described by Nimi Wariboko – the miracle city is a place. In other words, a defined territory with special features or characteristics. It has its own scheme of life and things that work together to cultivate a subculture and the uniqueness of its world: a code of conduct, gestures, ways of greeting, sounds and music, material artefacts, liturgical costumes and routines. A Miracle City is the product of the vision and mission of the spiritual entrepreneur who produces “signal events of varying temporal durations” More than just adapting religious traditions, it fulfils its raison d’être by directing its resources towards the production, distribution and consumption of special events or interventions, frequently called miracles. A Miracle City is the product of the vision and mission of the spiritual entrepreneur who produces “signal events of varying temporal durations” (Clarke & Star 2008: 114). Nigerian Pentecostalism is personality-centred; and Miracle Cities revolve around the purported miracle-producing capacity, or reputation, of a charismatic personality, usually a popular head pastor or a visiting celebrity.
There are so many reasons why those who patronise prayer sites do so and it is hard to account for all of these in a snapshot. Some come to pray, obviously, while others come to sell. If there are sellers, there must be buyers to conclude the process. Perhaps, the most significant reason given by those who run prayer camps and many of the patrons is the search for miracles: health, success, prosperity and the connections to ensure these. Miracles, however, need locations to take place. Miracle cities make it possible for people – usually a mix of followers, organisational members, religious tourists, miracle seekers, visitors and strangers – to congregate and interact with a very specific type of environment and religious persons. Whether singing, praying, shouting, screaming, feeling, giving, donating, and viewing, their presence allows them to engage with a place, advertised as where God resides, and to be part of producing and experiencing miracles.
My fascination with Lagos as a Miracle City, and about this particular type of space and phenomenon, crystalised in an ongoing, two-year study with my colleagues, Adeyinka Bankole at the Bowen University, Nigeria and Wotsuna John Khamalwa at the University of Makerere, Uganda. A special focus of the study has been on how people in Miracle Cities make meaning through their collective activities and interactions, and how this meaning is in turn sustained and transmitted over time and space. While camps are by definition temporary and transient, Miracle Cities have morphed from temporary to permanent sites of residence, thereby changing their character and function. The attraction of prayer camps in and around Lagos is that they are organised to reflect mutual concerns and commitment of individuals. More importantly, they exemplify the entrepreneurial spirit of industrialising the production of religion as a modern consumer good in a city that was built on, and still resonates, multiple layers of religious shock waves.
This is not a new approach, but one that has been proven effective by history. Protestant missionaries in the nineteenth century changed the Lagos landscape by building churches, church-owned schools and vocational centres. The Aladura Christianity of the early twentieth century remade Lagos through its mass revival programmes and the construction of a new layer of religious structures. Indeed, the first Christian camp in Nigeria was built by the Church of the Lord Aladura in 1937 at Ogere. Like its predecessors, the Pentecostal resurgence, which emerged in the 1970s, is reshaping the Lagos landscape even further through the construction of worship and economic structures. The camp is an entrepreneurial space that makes the industrial production of religion possible.
For cities and their economies, ‘Miracle Cities’ constitute a problem. Because land is the most important and productive economic resource (after humans, of course) in Africa, the construction of prayer camps for overt non-economic purposes that occupy several hectares of land subverts the productive use of land. The Redemption Camp of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, RCCG, for example, is an expanse of more than 2,000 hectares. Other developments in the city with similarly substantial footprint, such as event centres and sports stadia generate economic and commercial value by providing some form of entertainment or amusement. They make no appeal to any transcendental purpose. Neither do they present themselves to be altruistic or charity infrastructure. Prayer Camps, however, differ as they are ostensibly created to enact divine-human relationship.
However, a critical survey of prayer camps unambiguously demonstrates that they are home to a dense and intense ritual economy or religious entrepreneurialism driven by a strong spirit of competitive enterprise and profitmaking. Competition, finances, profit are the locomotive engines driving the activities and expansions of Pentecostal prayer camps in Nigeria. Two examples will suffice: religious rent-seeking and real estate enterprise. Through ceaseless mass events such as night vigils, ‘Pastorpreneurs’ increase their personal wealth and religious capital without a visible creation of new wealth. Miracle cities are at the forefront of the development of a nascent spiritual tourism industry ostensibly attracting miracle-seekers. Prayer camps and villages are intensely monetised and aggressively marketed and modelled after touristic facilities. Within their operations and practices are convergences between spiritual engagement, tourism and urban development. The RCCG is known among admirers as “sogbedigboro”, Yoruba for “the church that turns the wilderness into cities”. Building and owning cities is the RCCG’s method of turning spiritual power into urban spectacle and power.
The Redemption Camp is no longer a camp – a temporary site of retreat – but a permanent place of residence for members of the organisation who have the wherewithal to either build their own houses or purchase from a range of pre-built houses managed by RCCG-owned real estate companies. The RCCG, through its wholly-owned financial and real estate firms, has produced thousands of housing units at the Redemption Camp, in Ibadan and Abuja for its wealthy members to purchase. What makes the camp a special place to own a property is that it is secure financially, spiritually and legally. The property can be re-sold at any time to the mortgage firms from which it was bought or the church can pay off the original owner and take possession of the property. Furthermore, the property cannot be confiscated by the state in case of corruption allegations against its owners. Ownership information is tightly guarded and protected from public scrutiny, partly because the estate is owned by the church and partly because the Camp as a whole is registered as a private property owned by a not-for-profit organisation.
Pentecostal urbanism is remaking Lagos in the 21st of century, and the RCCG, Africa’s most successful Pentecostal franchise, is spearheading this trend. It exemplifies an entrepreneurial religion that supports and reinforces neo-liberal urbanism and free-market practices. Lagos presents special challenges such as population density, infrastructural deficit, and tough terrain, but also opportunities such as resource concentration and spiritual energy, which enable Pentecostal organisations to become active players in the making and remaking of the city.
Lagos is a city in need of miracles and brings together all the key ingredients required for a city that produces and survives on miracles. While prayer camps offer avenues for hope, kinship and spectacle, their spatial impact and economic drivers are often hidden in narratives of the sacred and sublime. Rather than any perceived attack on religious beliefs, the call here is for a critical awareness of what it means to be a miracle city, and what the further planting and flowering of prayer camps will mean for a city like Lagos.
 The fieldwork for this study was carried out under the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity project on “Religious Innovation and Competition: The Impact in Contemporary Africa”, sub-project, “Miracle Cities: The Economy of Prayer Camps and the Entrepreneurial Spirit of Religion in Africa” (ID: 2016-SS350), funded by The John Templeton Foundation.
 Because owning and operating Prayer Camps is economically rewarding, off-shoots are being founded outside of Lagos, e.g. The Mount Carmel Prayer Village located at Ifewara and owned exclusively by the family of Enoch Adeboye.
 The RCCG argues that its involvement in the real estate market is to ease Nigeria’s crippling housing deficit. However, the cost and conditions for buying these properties indicate that this is not the case: the houses are too expensive for the average worker to own, and the vast majority of houses already purchased are uninhabited.
Clarke, Adele E. and Susan Leigh Star. 2008. “The Social Worlds Framework: A Theory/Methods Package”, in Edward J. Hackett, Olga Amsterdamska, Michael Lynch and Judy Wajcman (eds), The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, 3rd ed., Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press: 113-137.
Wariboko, Nimi. 2014. The Charismatic City and the Resurgence of Religion, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
About the author
Asonzeh Ukah is a sociologist/historian of religion; he is affiliated to the Department of Religious Studies, University of Cape Town. His research interests include Religious Urbanism, sociology of Pentecostalism, and religion and media. He is the Director of Research Institute on Christianity and Society in Africa (RICSA), University of Cape Town, South Africa, and Affiliated Senior Fellow of Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS), University of Bayreuth, Germany. He is the author of A New Paradigm of Pentecostal Power (AWP, 2008) and Bourdieu in Africa (edited with Magnus Echtler, Brill, 2016).
This article is part of a series on The City that Prays.