Africa's New Big Man Rule?: Pentecostalism and Patronage in Ghana

African Affairs

January 2013

Author Names
John McCauley


The concept of "big man rule", conventionally invoked to refer to a kinship-based relationship between patron and client, is now finding application in the charismatic Pentecostal movement in Africa. This article explores why new Pentecostalism emerges as an alternative to traditional clientelism, and how well the analogy of big man rule applies. It traces the Pentecostal form of big man rule to four socio-economic transformations: ongoing weakness in the state's ability to provide social welfare; a change in social values in the wake of the global financial crisis; expanding state control over customary activities; and urbanization. Drawing on data collected from both patrons and clients in Ghana, the article shows that Pentecostalism mirrors traditional big man rule by encouraging members to break from their past, to trust leadership, and to commit exclusively to their religious social network. Among church leaders, Pentecostalism also encourages internal competition and the provision of social services. Most importantly, the movement creates pay-off structures that replicate the exchange of resources for loyalty central to big man rule. The implication is that Pentecostalism's success as an alternative informal institution is not a function of Weberian ethics or occult spiritualities, but rather its ability to fill voids left by the state and to provide new social networks.
McCauley, J. F. (2012). Africa's new big man rule? Pentecostalism and patronage in Ghana. African Affairs, ads072.

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