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Nigeria's Millionaire Preachers

Ram-raiding the gates of heaven in their brand new yellow Hummers.
Jamie Clifton
London, GB

Filmmaker Seyi Rhodes (left) and Dr. Sign Fireman with the pastor's bright yellow Hummer v2.0

On the whole, being a pastor usually entails living a quiet life devoid of any lavish possessions, and spreading the word of the Bible to those who attend your sermons. In Nigeria, it's increasingly beginning to mean taking 10 percent of your entire congregation's earnings, owning a fleet of yellow cars with personalized license plates, being flanked by an entourage at all times, and essentially becoming a nationwide celebrity. That is, if you're one of the many prosperity preachers who are appearing all over the country. Prosperity preaching, in case you didn't know, is basically when the congregation is told that spiritual growth has a direct link with financial prosperity, so sermons tend to focus on stuff like buying Bentleys, rather than helping your neighbor. Seyi Rhodes recently made the documentary Nigeria's Millionaire Preachers, which follows Dr. Sign Fireman, a Nigerian prosperity preaching pastor.


Pastors like Fireman claim to possess powers handed to them directly by God, powers that allow them to exorcise demons and heal the sick just by shouting at them "in tongues" and shaking them around a bit. As God is a pretty big deal in Nigeria, no-one really questions those claims. I called Seyi to talk to him about Nigeria's prosperity preachers and the film he made about them.  VICE: Hi Seyi. What made you want to make this film?
Seyi Rhodes: Traveling around Africa, I noticed churches like this popping up all over the place. Africa has a kind of Wild West feel to it at times—loads of unexplored areas and migratory, transitory people. With that comes the preachers, who move around and set up little buildings all over the place. So, wherever you go, you're always coming across different preachers. I noticed quite a few of them were Nigerian, and there was a lot of this miracle and prosperity preaching going on. Also, I have family in Nigeria and they told me stories about the big name pastors and how they love to flaunt their money. You know, being in the magazines, driving nice cars, and cruising about in big yachts.

The church has bought some old Lagos State buses and uses them to transport people from all over the city to church. On Sundays, Lagos roads are filled with church-run bus services.

Yachts? I can't imagine someone like Rowan Williams even having a car, let alone a yacht.    
Yeah, there's a marina in Lagos with a few private boat clubs that some of the pastors are members of. Unfortunately, because the clubs are private, I couldn't get in and have a look. That has generally been the main problem. There's never any accounting in any of these churches. It's very hard to find out what they're spending their money on.


Fleets of yellow cars, by the looks of it. Christianity has been big business in the States for ages, how does the Nigerian situation differ?
It differs and it doesn't. There are a lot of similarities between Africa and how America was when this sort of preaching first started, which was in the 1890s. Prosperity preaching had a big boom in the States around the 50s, when TV became popular. The main difference, I guess, is that the Nigerians take it on with all the enthusiasm that they have for everything else. So, the churches are louder, more colorful, and more charismatic.

And it's that charisma that turns some of these preachers into megastars, right?
Yeah, pretty much. Nigeria has a very conservative culture and society. Nobody ever questions a pastor. It's a very hierarchical culture, so there's a lot of respect for people with a titles, which includes pastors.

Dr Fireman's "protocol officers."

In the film you say that style is a very important element of that too. What does that usually involve?
It's important to look the part, which is quite an African thing, but even more so in Nigeria. It basically involves looking rich by wearing expensive clothes and having an entourage with bodyguards, nice cars, and everything else that one imagines a wealthy person might have. But with Fireman in particular, if you watch the film, it is quite funny fashion-wise. It's similar to areas like Hackney or any other place with a large African population, where you see everyone on a Sunday on their way to church looking sharp as hell.


Yeah, wearing the shiny suits and snakeskin shoes.
All of that sort of stuff, yeah. Then, on top of that, you've got people who can't afford suits so they go in for the color coordination, which is Fireman's big thing. Because yellow and red is the color of his church, you see people wearing red fake crocodile-skin shoes with yellow jeans, a red T-shirt, and a yellow hat.

That is true dedication to color coordination. Seeing as all of the preaching is about becoming rich, do those poorer members of the church still try to project wealth?
Definitely, because it's such a social event—people do everything at church from find husbands and wives to business. You would think that there's a wedding going on once a week from the outfits people wear.

Members of the House of God security team.

Do you think these pastors actually believe what they're preaching?
Of all the pastors out there prosperity preaching in the same vein as Fireman, I think there is a mixture of straight-out con men, people who've made themselves believe because they can't live with being con men, and people who are just slightly deluded. Despite that, you can't help but think, "He's running a thriving church here, hundreds of people are coming every Sunday. Isn't that a good thing?" But then you think, "Where's all the money going?"  Just as I'm conflicted, I think Fireman probably is, too. What about when he says in the film that Jesus "had an accountant"? Surely he knows he's bull-shitting?
What they tend to do is take certain biblical references and skew them. Because people in the congregation maybe haven't read that exact line in the bible before, they tend to just go with the interpretation of whoever taught it to them. There are two or three lines referring to Judas Iscariot being the keeper of the purse, and Fireman and pastors like him take that to mean he was Jesus' accountant. What's your take on that?
I read it to mean that Jesus and his disciples were given gifts, food, and money as they went around preaching. Judas, being a taxman, was good with numbers, so he kept stock of all of their inventory. I don't think it meant that Jesus with massively wealthy and needed someone to balance his books.


An advert for Dr Fireman's exorcism service.

That sounds more believable to me. Did you meet anyone out in Nigeria who questioned these churches and the truth behind the exorcisms and 


? A little bit. The main criticisms come from the Anglican church. The Catholics aren't big fans either because they're losing customers to these churches. Because the Catholic religion is based a bit around miracles, they can't really counter what the new pastors are saying. Whereas the Anglicans can because they've never gone for any of the miracle stuff anyway. Other than that, people sigh about it in private, but because it's "all for God," there's not too much bad-mouthing that can be done openly.

But the people being healed and exorcised are quite clearly plants, right?
It felt like that to me, yeah.

So, do you think preachers are using con artist tactics like that to help raise their profiles and ultimately make more money?
This is the difficult part. I certainly can't prove any collusion, but I will say that I can see why people would play along in those situations. If you turned up as a junior member of the church and went along with the supposed exorcism, it's definitely a good way of moving up the hierarchy within the church and proving to the pastor that you're someone they can rely on.

Hey look, advertising works!

You point out the huge amount of tiny churches popping up everywhere. Are a lot of them veering towards the prosperity preaching in an effort to make money now, too?
Yeah, for sure. What's most worrying and dangerous is that all the new churches popping up tend to be prosperity-focused and have taken a huge amount of that reading of the Bible into their ethos. They tend to go in for the miracles and that kind of thing, which is a very good way of convincing people to give them more money.


They believe the more money they pay to these churches, the more likely they will be the subject of a miracle and looked after by God?

Are you Christian yourself? Did you go in to this with any prior feelings about what these pastors are up to?
I suppose I'm a bit more religious than the average, but still pretty average. I went into it knowing roughly what I was going to get, but I didn't realize how angry I was going to be about it. You've got to think about the kind of person who does this. Fireman surrounds himself with all these guys in shiny suits, encouraging them to generate as much income as possible. Considering that, you can't help but think, "You're really not a nice bunch of people."

Photographs always go blurry when Satan's getting fucked up in them.

Yeah, some of the stories are awful, like the woman who gave all of her belongings to the church and was left with nothing because her pastor told her it was God's word.
That kind of thing isn't uncommon either. In England, there's been similar cases of churches convincing people with HIV to stop taking the drugs because God's supposedly going to heal them—those people died. Jesus, that doesn't sound very Christian. Have you investigated the churches being set up in England?
Yeah, I've looked a lot into the English side and there's definitely a story there. These churches are all over the place now. There are Nigerians who brought the American ethos to Nigeria, and now they are bringing it back to the States, preaching prosperity in old 19th century churches. They're also going to places like the Ukraine and Thailand. How are they being received in Ukraine?
Wherever there's a Nigerian population, they're being received pretty well, which is almost a scary thought.

You can watch Nigeria's Millionaire Preachers in full, here.