Almost ten years ago I wrote the first part of this article. I told there my meeting with the introduction of the book of Bruce Barton of 1925 entitled, The Man Nobody Knows: A Discovery of the Real Jesus Christ.
In the book, Bruce Barton assessed the ministry of Jesus on Earth using the eye of an advertising executive and concluded that it followed modern corporate structures. The author highlighted how Jesus used today’s marketing tools and advertising strategies to build a formidable business empire. An overlooked aspect of the play was Barton’s assessment of Jesus’ ministry of how he chose his workers and how he appointed his successor.
Ten years later, as the leaders of the second generation of Pentecostal churches in Nigeria face an inevitable retirement, how church leaders choose their successors is now front and center for these churches. Sometimes this spills over to the front office, as we saw recently during a schism in the Redeemed Christian Church of God led by Pastor Enoch Adeboye (RCCG).
In the article, I also looked at the then outrageous statements of Bishop David Oyedepo regarding how he independently built Covenant University and other allied investments in Living Faith Church Worldwide (aka Winners’ International Chapel) without using the tithes, offerings, donations and money of the members of his church. The article also referred to Oyedepo’s boast of not receiving any salary from the church since 1987 and his wife not receiving money from him for food since 1988. The man of God did not reveal how he supported himself and his way of life. The play showed how the whole operation of the Chapel of the Victors fit well with this new commodification of the ministry of Jesus.
After publication, the reaction of Nigerian readers to the article was quite predictable. They condemned him and condemned me and predicted that I was heading for instant hellfire and certain, sudden death. They regurgitated the standard lines of “God cannot be mocked”, “judge not”, “touch not my anointed”, and “use not the things of the world to judge spiritual things”. In fact, some have even argued that churches are private businesses and that people outside a church should not question the activities of a church and its leaders.
As Easter approached, I re-read the article. I wanted to know where the men and women involved in Jesus’ business were at. Instead of things getting better, I fear they will get worse.
Since publication, we have seen more and more establishments of these opaque organizations and churches like the Victors’ Chapel explode. Now there are figures like Apostle Johnson Suleman swimming in and out of the most sordid scandals imaginable. It can be the subject of a week, of a scandal novel. Some emerging churches have despicable leaders like Onyeozi Jesus operating out of Nkpor in Anambra State. There are artists like Prophet Chukwuemeka Ohanaemere aka Odumeje or Indaboski Bahose operating from Onitsha. In addition to muddying the waters, these figures found across Nigeria and Africa have enormous influence on traditional churches that must compete with them to retain their members. We have seen Catholic and Anglican churches and their leaders adopt traits that these Jesus-mongers have normalized. To compete with these charlatans, some bishops in the Catholic and Anglican churches in Nigeria have become quirky gangsters.
Ten years ago when I wrote the original article, I was unaware that Bishop Oyedepo had hired Business Centrum Limited in London to help him set up a company in the tax haven of Jersey to hide money for his wife and children. Little did I know that Trident Trust Group, described as “one of the world’s leading secrecy facilitators and one of the most notorious providers of offshore corporate and financial services”, was already working with Bishop Oyedepo. Trident established Zadok Investments Limited for Oyedepo on August 20, 2007. The company started with 50,000 common shares, each valued at $1.00. Zadok had Bishop David Oyedepo and his two sons, David Jr. and Isaac, as trustees. Other family members were the shareholders. David Jr. held 10% of the shares, Isaac another 10%. While David Jr. is a pastor at the church headquarters at Faith Tabernacle, Isaac leads a church in Maryland, USA. Love and Joy, the two daughters of Bishop Oyedepo, also received 10% shares each. According to Premium Times, which reviewed the documents as part of the global Pandora Papers project run by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), “the documents did not reveal the exact activities and transactions for which the offshore company was created. The entity, however, appears to be the family’s investment vehicle under which the family’s wealth is stored for offshore management.
Last year, when the Pandora Papers story broke, we knew very little about how much money the Oyedepos had hidden in these offshore accounts and where he got the money from. Despite the embarrassment felt by those involved in the Pandora Papers, Bishop David Oyedepo has not attempted to clear his name and that of his family. He thought it was one of those scandals, like his slap in the face of the young woman who said she was a witch for Jesus, and all the other controversies and questions about his ministries, that would go away and life would go on as usually. And to a large extent it died out even though the damage it did to the ministry of Jesus will be evident in years to come.
Ten years ago, I feared that schools established by churches did not belong to those churches but to the leaders of those churches and their families. I was worried that most church members who thought they would contribute financially to building these schools would not be able to send their children to these schools. Things have changed so much that these questions have become old questions. What is important at this time is that corrupt money from all sectors of Nigerian society is channeled to these churches through tithes, offerings and donations. Without question being raised, the children of the amazingly corrupt members of our society are sending their children to these expensive schools in a fantastic money laundering scheme that no one notices. And while they do that, children of the poor are herded into collapsing public school systems where they could spend up to two more years before graduating while their age mates in private universities would have completed and taken up the very few desirable jobs available. Within a generation, the gap between rich and poor would have widened so much that there would have been little or no interaction between them. When the government completes Lekki Airport, these “fantastically corrupt” batches would pass through Lekki Airport and straight into their Banana Island mansions, while the rest of us would continue to choke in the old country where Jesus is the answer.
Ten years ago when I wrote the original article, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor was still buzzing with his full-throttle romance of President Goodluck Jonathan and Jonathan politics. Most people didn’t see the dangers, even when the man of God rented his private jet to security guards to fly money to South Africa to buy weapons for the government. Proponents of all-will-let-God-judge-
Advocates of absurdity in Nigerian churches today are definitely afraid to look within and ask the very question they often tout: What would Jesus do? They should ask this pertinent question in all things. They are afraid to look at what Benson Idahosa left behind when he died in 1998. They are afraid to remember the fights that followed after the man of God died and who owned the schools, businesses and other investments. left behind. It is the same story when Samuel Oshoffa, the founder of the Celestial Church of Christ died in 1985. If they dare to look, what they will see is worse than what will happen ten years from now when the current harvest of leaders, like the Oyedepos, the Kumuyis, the Adeboyes, the Okonkwos, the Olukoyas, give in. When Benson Idahosa walked this world unchallenged and unaccountable to anyone, at least vehicles for hiding money in offshore tax havens hadn’t become commonplace like they are today. When Benson Idahosa marketed prosperity preaching, greed was still just greed. Now that’s obscene.
Ten years ago, I ended the article by saying: “We must do the politics of religion well if we ever want to do the religion of politics. I argued that we are part of any group to which we belong. And there is a responsibility that comes with being part of it. This means that we must hold accountable those who manage the affairs of our institutions. We cannot wash our hands like Pontius Pilate.
Our nonchalant attitude in politics, our churches, or our personal lives sets the stage for the inevitable scandals that ultimately cripple the very institutions to which we lend our names, fortune, and honor. We can cowardly escape the responsibilities associated with being a stakeholder, but we cannot escape the inevitable judgment associated with the failure of our institutions. Abandoning our responsibilities is a form of abuse. And the abuses we don’t report come back to haunt us and generations yet unborn.
Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo teaches post-colonial African history at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He is also the host of Dr. Damages Show. His books include “This American Life Sef”, “Children of a Retired God”, among others.