Nigeria: Sabotage and the ‘man of God’

2014-09-21 15:00

Religious ‘cults’ and charismatic preachers in Nigeria keep thousands of people enthralled and seem to have a say in politics in the country

One night in January 2009, a convoy of vehicles with their sirens blaring drew up outside the presidential suite of the Synagogue Church of All Nations, depositing John Evans Atta Mills, the 68-year-old law professor who had been sworn in as president of Ghana four days earlier.

Mills was there to visit prophet TB Joshua, the founder of the church. At the service the following day, Mills, standing next to Joshua on the stage of the sprawling auditorium, said: “I am no stranger to the synagogue. Indeed, I’ve been coming here very regularly, and I’ve known the man of God for more than 10 years. I first met him when I was the vice-president of Ghana, and I’ve continued to maintain the relationship ever since.”

He went on to tell the crowd that Joshua had accurately prophesied the tumult that accompanied those elections, as well as his eventual victory.

Towards the end of his speech, he said he would “continue to come here whenever the opportunity offers itself, because there is strength in fellowship”.

Mills is just one of several powerful African politicians to visit Joshua at the church in Lagos.

Former Malawi president Joyce Banda, her predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika, Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and former Zimbabwean prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai have all been there at least once. These high-profile associations have helped seal Joshua’s reputation as an influential preacher.

Oil versus religion

Nigeria is one of the world’s biggest exporters of crude oil. Arguably the closest rival – and not many Nigerians would dispute this – is religion.

Joshua is just one of a generation of wildly successful Pentecostal preachers who have garnered national and global fame over the past two decades.

Enoch Adeboye, who took over the Redeemed Christian Church of God in 1980, was on Newsweek’s Top 50 Most Influential Persons list in 2009.

The church has more than 2?000 branches across Nigeria, and hundreds more abroad. Every month, it holds a miracle service at its “camp” on the outskirts of Lagos, drawing, by most estimates, hundreds of thousands of people.

Lagosians know to steel themselves for the traffic jams unique to the first Friday of the month, as pilgrims make their way to the church grounds.

David Oyedepo’s Winners Chapel in 1999 commissioned the 50?000-seater Faith Tabernacle in Sango Otta, just outside Lagos. Oyedepo owns a fleet of private jets.

Matthew Ashimolowo built one of the biggest Pentecostal churches in Britain. Between November 2006 and April 2008, congregants at its London headquarters donated £9.5?million (R171.6?million at the current exchange rate) in tithes and offerings.

Sunday Adelaja founded the Embassy of God Church in Ukraine, which has become supremely influential in the country. One prominent member was Leonid Chernovetskyi, a former mayor of Kiev.

Ayo Oritsejafor, the flamboyant chair of the Christian Association of Nigeria – the most influential union of churches in the country – is believed to be the owner of the private jet from which South African authorities seized $9.3?million (R102.5?million) in cash on September 5.

Every one of them has a compelling personal story. Ashimolowo is a former Muslim who converted to Christianity in the 1970s. Adelaja went to the old Soviet Union as a scholarship student in 1986.

A Forbes list of “five richest pastors in Nigeria” has Oyedepo, Chris Oyakhilome, Joshua, Ashimolowo and Chris Okotie on it.

The prophet

But Joshua stands out for his seeming obsession with morbid prophecy. It has now become a pattern, after a major global incident, for the Synagogue Church of All Nations to claim that its founder foresaw the event and forewarned the world.

In February 2012, Joshua told his church that an African head of state was going to die soon. Zimbabwean opposition members assumed it concerned President Robert Mugabe, until Mutharika died of a heart attack in a South African hospital on April 12.

After the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine in July, the church released a video, dated weeks earlier, in which Joshua told the congregation “about Russia, that you should pray for the young man, very charismatic leader, that he should take note of his airspace?…?it could be in form of aircraft crash or whatever?…?but it will be?…?just to rubbish the wonderful country. But they should take care of their airspace…”

These predictions have not endeared him to many. Following the death of Mutharika, Zimbabwean politician Jonathan Moyo called Joshua a “false prophet”.

A decade ago, Okotie, yet another one of Nigeria’s controversial preachers, made the headlines when he accused Joshua and Oyakhilome of practising shamanism, not Christianity. The police had to step in after Okotie claimed his life was being threatened.

A website now exists devoted to countering his claims of having prophesied major African and global incidents.

TB Joshua Watch describes itself as a “comprehensive resource on TB Joshua and Synagogue Church of All Nations” and denounces him at every turn.

It’s Facebook page has 2?300 likes, a far cry from the 1?343?324 “likes” on the TB Joshua Ministries’ official page.

His followers

But for his followers, these signs, alongside the acts of healing that the “man of God” – as they refer to him – regularly carries out every day, are further proof of his divine calling.

They have been vocal in their defence of him on the internet.

My friend Onyeka Nwelue, a novelist who divides his time between Europe and Nigeria, has met Joshua twice.

At their first meeting, Joshua told Nwelue his my father was ill. It was true, Nwelue’s father lay bedridden at home, suffering from complications with diabetes.

Nwelue says that not even the senior member of the church, who he had accompanied to see Joshua, knew about his father’s health.

That day, Joshua gave Nwelue a bottle of anointing oil to hand to his father, as well as an envelope containing cash.

“I got the sense of a man who really cares about people around him,” Nwelue tells me. “Unlike other preachers, he takes money from presidents and gives it to the poor.”

Synagogue collapses

The collapse of the church guesthouse on September 12 can make a real difference in Nigeria in two ways.

The first is by helping shine much-needed light on building standards in Nigeria, where incidents of collapsing buildings occur with disturbing regularity.

Now that the most controversial preacher in town is implicated, and foreign citizens – and by implication a foreign government – are involved, Nigerian authorities will hopefully be unable to sweep this under an already crowded carpet.

The second way in which this tragic incident could mark a turning point is by helping bring some demystification to an industry – Charismatic Christianity – long defined by its secrecy, and by the penchant of its overlords to live above the law.

Critics of Pentecostal Christianity in Nigeria say it is no more than an assemblage of personality cults that have no qualms lashing out when the reputation of their leaders are threatened. Attacks on journalists are common.

Journalist Adedayo Ademuwagun was one of those at the scene of the disaster. He wrote: “The church people on the ground were very aggressive and refused to attend to us or let us do our job. It was clear that they didn’t want journalists and the rest of the world to know what was going on in there.”

On Thursday, a few hours after the rescue operations were formally closed, Ibrahim Farinloye, the spokesperson for of the Lagos Emergency Management Services, told me: “We were obstructed for 72 hours, until the governor of Lagos state intervened. They were so aggressive and harassing everybody, until Governor Babatunde Fashola came and threatened them.”

Farinloye says the building collapsed shortly after noon on Friday, September 12. Rescue operations didn’t commence until Sunday. This sort of behaviour needs to be penalised.

The South African government will need to keep the pressure on Nigeria to ensure that the cause of the collapse is ascertained, and whoever is responsible is punished, regardless of their status.

The church has suggested it was a terrorist attack, and released video footage allegedly showing a “strange aircraft” flying low over the building several times shortly before the collapse.

“I want to assure you that our God will get back to them – the agents of Satan,” Joshua told the church on Sunday.

The truth might be much simpler. We now know that another three storeys were being added to an existing two-storey building without approval from the authorities.

That, and not a strange plane, might have been the real act of terrorism that killed, at last count, 84 people and injured 131 others.

Ogunlesi is West Africa editor for The Africa Report

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