The Africa-wide phenomenon of born-again pastors fleecing their credulous congregations by promising them miracles in return for cash is now coming under close scrutiny in Uganda. New legislation to stop this practice is under consideration but opposition to it is fierce. Epajjar Ojulu reports from Kampala.
Whether one lives in the upscale Kampala city’s Kololo or Muyenga neighbourhoods, or in the wretched conditions of the city’s Kisenyi ghettos, one will always come face-to-face with numerous Pentecostal born-again churches.
According to theologians, these churches sprang from the East African Revival Movement of the 1920s, which began in Rwanda and was aimed at rekindling the Christian faith, threatened then by ‘moral decadence, drunkenness and witchcraft’.
But today, most of these churches are largely owned by conmen riding on Jesus’ name to amass wealth, fame and influence, says Pastor Elisha Oumo, formerly a scholar at Kenya’s One Faith Bible College in the western town of Bungoma.
The number of born-again churches in Uganda has grown exponentially in the last decade. Today the country is estimated to have 40,000 born-again churches across the country. Of that number, only 136 have decent premises and are registered as non-governmental organisations and allowed to conduct marriage functions. The majority of the churches dotting the country are in makeshift structures built with papyrus, or mud and wattle with grass-thatched roofs.
However, in the upscale parts of cities and towns, churches for the affluent are housed in magnificent buildings where they compete for prime space with banks, insurance firms and top local and international business enterprises. Elsewhere in the poor neighbourhoods, the churches are in ramshackle premises.
Unlike establishments owned by the mainstream Anglican Church of Uganda, born-again churches are a property of individual pastors.
“Christianity is under assault from conmen,” echoes Reverend Dr Andrew David Omona, a scholar at the Bishop Tucker School of Theology and Divinity, Uganda Christian University.
Omona argues that because of the deep social and economic troubles facing Ugandans, fake pastors have taken advantage, preaching appealing messages to vulnerable followers. These pastors claim they can bring wealth to the poor, cure the terminally ill, give children to the barren, provide jobs to the jobless and partners to those seeking marriage.
“They are told to ‘sow seeds’ commensurate with their prayer requests and those who fail to comply are shunned,” he added.
Members of the congregation are also cautioned that failing to part with 10% of their monthly income to pay a tithe is a grave sin. In addition, the brethren, as they are fondly referred to, are reminded that giving big offertory and substantial financial support to their churches is abundantly rewarded by God, says Oumo.
President Yoweri Museveni, whose government is under pressure to improve the economy and create employment for thousands of jobless youths, has criticised pastors for misleading Ugandans. “Prosperity comes through work. You cannot get wealthy by spending long hours shouting and praying for miracles,” he said recently. Ironically, the President’s youngest daughter, Patience Rwabwogo, is a born-again pastor of the Covenant Nations Church in a plush Kampala city suburb. The 39-year-old Rwabwogo has made startling revelations about her interactions with God.
Omona says pastors fleece their followers by crafting messages in their sermons that either generate fear or give false promises of great benefits if they part with large sums of money to pastors.
While most members of congregations wallow in abject poverty and misery, their pastors live in affluent suburbs, drive the latest expensive cars and their children go to schools for the rich in Europe and America. They also own property in upscale parts of the city and own large farms. Others have bought properties in Europe and America, says Omona.
The extent of prominent pastors’ wealth is not surprising considering the long list of tricks they deploy to fleece their victims. They claim to have been anointed by the Holy Spirit and that anointment gives them the supernatural power to pray for miracles. A prominent Kampala pastor often tells his congregation in televised sermons that through miracles some of them “will find a million dollars deposited in their bank accounts tomorrow”.
He claims to restore vision to the blind, hearing to the deaf and commands cripples to walk. When one of his victims, a university lecturer who declined to be named, complained that she had paid large sums of money (sowed seeds) to have demons tormenting her banished, but still continued to be tormented, the witty pastor told her that she needed to continue to pray and to sow more seeds. Above all, she was told to understand that God is not rushed into doing anything.
In addition to tithe and offertory, pastors have crafted other ways of fleecing their followers. A prominent Kampala pastor is selling ‘holy’ water for as much as sh500,000 (approximately £105) per 500ml plastic bottle. Another sells the rice he grows on his farm, branded as ‘holy’, at ridiculously high prices.
The conning of followers has continued unabated. Prominent pastors are also manipulating the media by broadcasting or telecasting, on the media channels they own, stage-managed success stories of their work.
Although some pastors have been indicted for crimes such as rape and sexual assault, their followers have stuck with them, often describing their indictment as a witch hunt. Omona says the unwavering support the pastors get from their followers is a result of fanaticism born from dogmatism towards every utterance by the pastors. The government feels it is time to take action. Minister of Ethics and Integrity, Father Simon Lokodo has proposed legislation to regulate the activities of born-again churches. He seems to be using the example of Rwanda, which last year closed down 8,000 born-again churches.
Lokodo wants pastors, who often adopt prestigious titles such as ‘apostle’, ‘bishop’, and ‘prophet’, to be trained in theology so that they stop claiming that the Holy Spirit engulfs and showers them with the knowledge and wisdom they use to preach. Lokodo also wants churches to meet basic requirements for decent church accommodation.
However, through their umbrella organisation – the 22,000 member National Fellowship for Born-Again Churches of Uganda – pastors have hit back. They claim that as Uganda is a secular state, the government of Uganda should not regulate their activities as doing so amounts to curtailing the freedom of worship enshrined in the Constitution.
Omona and Oumo disagree. They say the government has a responsibility to protect the population from errant pastors. “Why should decent servants of God worry about the proposed legislation?” asks Oumo, adding, “churches belong to communities and it is the duty of the government to protect its people from crooks dressed in pastoral robes.”
Whether or not parliament endorses the proposed legislation, it is clear that the activities of born-again churches in Uganda have for the first time come under public scrutiny. NA