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Pentecostal Pastors in Nigeria Are Rolling in Money — and Political Power

Recent scandals involving pastors have prompted calls for greater oversight of their churches, but critics are cynical about the likelihood of reform.

by Samuel Oakford
Oct 17 2014, 4:04pm

Photo via Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye

A series of scandals involving prominent Pentecostal pastors in Nigeria has shed unwelcome light on a powerful and unregulated force in Africa's largest economy — one that critics say preys on the aspirations of the poor and wields undue influence over its politicians.

On September 12, a guesthouse inside the preacher T. B. Joshua's Lagos compound collapsed and killed 115 visitors, among them 84 South Africans. Joshua, a multimillionaire who claims his powers extend to healing AIDS and cancer, blamed the tragedy on a mysterious plane that he said flew over the property just before it caved in. It later emerged that the structure was undergoing illegal construction.

Many of the South Africans were poor and on their first trip abroad, having saved more than $1,700 to visit the church of the charismatic pastor. Some spent days trapped under the rubble, and one woman spoke afterward of being forced to drink her own urine to stay alive.

Rescuers said that members of Joshua's Synagogue Church of All Nations impeded their attempts to pry the dead and injured from the rubble.

It wasn't until this week, after a month of outrage in both Nigeria and South Africa, that a coroner in Lagos began an investigation into the collapse.

"They are so powerful, the government doesn't want a confrontation with these preachers," Jibrin Ibrahim, director of the Center for Democracy and Development in Abuja, told VICE News. With elections only four months away and President Goodluck Jonathan — himself an Anglican but with close ties to the Pentecostal community — under fire for his handling of the conflict with Boko Haram, "they are being treated with kid gloves," said Ibrahim.

As charities, the churches do not pay taxes, nor does the government require them to provide a detailed accounting of their holdings in Nigeria and overseas.

At the time of the tragedy, a separate and much more bizarre scandal involving a Pentecostal pastor was unfolding thousands of miles away, in Johannesburg.

On September 5, South African authorities impounded a private jet belonging to the head of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) laden with $9.3 million in cash upon arrival. Along with the seizure, two Nigerians and an Israeli were arrested and accused of illegally attempting to buy weapons. Two weeks later, South African officials froze another $5.7 million in Nigerian funds destined for a separate arms deal.

That the initial transaction involved a plane belonging to Ayodele Joseph Oritsejafor, the first Pentecostal leader of CAN, raised questions about the Niger Delta pastor's ties to Jonathan, who is regarded as a close ally.

Oritsejafor denied involvement in the arms deal, and this week an aid to Jonathan also denied that Oritsejafor had been involved.

"Oritsejafor is the president of CAN and head of all Christians in Nigeria, representing at least 50 percent of people in this country," said Doyin Okupe, senior special assistant to the president. "When it comes to a man like that, people should be cautious and circumspect."

Okupe said Oritsejafor had merely rented out the jet as a way to make money.

"If I have many cars at the airport and decide to give one to car hire service, and he decides to pick somebody having Indian hemp, will you link it with the man who gave it out?" he asked.

As for the deal itself, Okupe said he couldn't share information because it would endanger military operations, but assured the Nigerian press it was official government business.

"I am surprised that Nigerians want to discuss security issues openly and publicly when a war is still going on," he remarked. "These are very serious national security affairs and running a government is not the same thing as running a shoprite, where everything is on the table and on display."

Graphic video implicates Nigerian military in war crimes while battling Boko Haram. Read more here.

Other Nigerian officials have claimed in vague terms that US interference has forced them to revert to clandestine arms deals — a notion that arms experts whom VICE News consulted called far-fetched and conspiratorial, particularly considering the eagerness of countries like Russian and China to sell arms to Africa.

Other theories have circulated linking the arms to militants in the Niger delta or to military officials attempting to skirt taxation and turn a profit.

Oritsejafor isn't alone among Nigerian pastors in owning a private jet. He described the one he owns as a gift from "members of our congregation and ministry partners worldwide."

Not only are many Nigerian Pentecostal pastors rich, but their earnings have made them big economic players in the south of the country, tying them inextricably to the local political class.

Pentecostalism, which traces its contemporary roots to early 20th Century America, is today one of the fastest growing Christian movements worldwide. Followers stress the direct experience of God and the Holy Spirit in their lives. Through "gifts of the Spirit," the devout can be imbued with the ability to speak in tongues, heal disease, and prophesize.

According to Pew Forum researchers, some 280 million people identify as Pentecostal worldwide. That number doubles when including all followers of "Charismatic" Christianity — those belonging to other denominations that incorporate elements of Pentecostal beliefs and spiritual practices. There are more than 100 million Pentecostal worshippers in Africa. In Nigeria, more than quarter of the population and roughly half of all Christians identify as Pentecostal or Charismatic.

Underpinning Pentecostalism's rapid growth in both the developing world and the US is the appeal of "prosperity gospel": the idea that material and financial betterment reflects God's approval.

For many Africans, Pentecostalism's materialism coheres with a conception of the spiritual world as manifest in everyday life.

"Forms of Christianity that were brought to Africa in the 19th Century tended to be very Western in their worldview, concerned with the dualism between mind and spirit, between this world and that world, between matter and spirit," Teresia Hinga, Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and an expert on African religion, told VICE News. "In African understandings, that dualism is not there."

'They have put their money in all kinds of investments. They have become major economic players because they serve as employers.'

The promise of wealth and good health from Pentecostal pastors has filled their coffers with money from some of the world's poorest faithful.

"New Pentecostals are saying poverty and misery do not belong to the people of God," explained Hinga. "Somewhere down the line there are distortions, a twisting of this to commoditize religion and take advantage of people who are keen to get out of poverty."

Pastor David Oyedepo, founder of Living Faith World Outreach Ministry, also known as Winners Chapel, is the wealthiest of Nigeria's Pentecostal pastors, with a net worth estimated by Forbes at some $150 million. The Faith Tabernacle, Oyedepo's 50,000-seat church, is Africa's largest. It sits inside a roughly 10,000-acre campus near Lagos that includes a university and various businesses.

Winners Chapel says it employs nearly 20,000 people in Nigeria. Oyedepo, meanwhile, maintains a fleet of four private jets.

Festivities for Oyedepo's 60th birthday last month included former President Olusegun Obasanjo and military dictator Yakubu Gowan. "You can see that everything this man touches turns to gold," Nigeria's Agriculture Minister Akinwumi Adesina told revelers.

Chris Oyakhilome, founder of Believers' LoveWorld Incorporated and a suspect in a $35 million money laundering case involving tithes and donations from his parishioners, is said to be worth as much as $50 million. In Forbes' 2011 ranking of the wealthiest Nigerian pastors, T. B. Joshua was third, worth a paltry $10 to $15 million.

As charities, the churches do not pay taxes, nor does the government require them to provide a detailed accounting of their holdings in Nigeria and overseas.

"The income generated through tithes and offerings is enormous, and much of this money is put in banks and invested," Afe Adogame, lecturer of world Christianity and religious studies at Edinburgh University, told VICE News. "In fact, some of the Pentecostal churches have set up their own banks. They have put their money in all kinds of investments. They have become major economic players because they serve as employers."

Pastors like Oyakhilome and Joshua also oversee vast media empires that include newspapers and TV stations. Their reach extends far beyond the confines of Nigeria's borders, and has given rise to a new religious class of tourist visiting the country's ever-expanding mega-churches — and providing the local economy a much-needed economic boost. Among those tourists were the 84 South Africans killed in September.

'No one knows what Nigeria's government is doing to rescue our kidnapped schoolgirls.' Read more here.

Pentecostal money, as well as spiritual practices filtered through decades of African worship, have in recent years begun flowing back into the US. Enoch Adeboye, pastor of Redeemed Christian Church of God, dedicated a 10,000-seat, $15.5 million religious center in north Texas earlier this month. The organization says it has 720 churches in North America, and some 15,000 followers in the US alone.

Some American Pentecostal churches are now incorporating the once unheard-of practice of laying cash offerings at the feet of pastors, Anthea Butler, professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a researcher of Pentecostal trends, told VICE News. Critics say the spectacle resembles idolatry.

"There's an idea of 'don't touch the lords anointed,' which is really a spiritual cover meaning don't ask the pastor about anything he's doing because he's God's man or woman," said Butler.

But Butler says many who observe Nigeria from afar fail to appreciate just how integrated the pastors are in society.

"It's about capitalism," she said. "They are no different from the banker in Europe or the guy on Wall Street."

The scandals involving Joshua and Oretjafor have prompted calls for greater oversight of pastors, and it appears that some in the government are listening. Nigerian officials have tentatively begun to consider some kind of taxation scheme to capture their profits. In August, British authorities reportedly barred Oyedepo from entering the United Kingdom and said they were investigating his church's charity status in the country.

But observers who are accustomed to political expediency trumping transparency in Nigeria are cynical about the likelihood of reform.

"When Goodluck Jonathan goes to see T. B. Joshua after he blocked government officials from digging people out and made an international incident, but he doesn't see the parents of over 300 girls who get kidnapped by Boko Haram, it tells you that Pentecostal and prosperity pastors wield a lot of power," Butler said.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford