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Nigeria: The rise and (what?) of prosperity preachers

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Nigeria: The rise and (what?) of prosperity preachers

What a year it has been for Nigeria. But on the religious front, a torrent of scandal makes 2014 a terrible year for the country’s globally renowned evangelism. Peter Ezeh reports on how even divine intervention fell short in one of Africa’s most religious countries.

Nigerian evangelism has been reshaping Christianity in this part of the world for some decades now.  But this year has been one of tribulation, almost of biblical proportions. The clergy of the new Pentecostalism and their miracle-centred brand of prosperity theologies had managed to bring the majority of Nigerians under their thumb, but 2014 will now be recorded as their annus horribilis, to use Her Majesty’s famous Latin phrase. No year since the ascendancy of this brand of Christianity in Nigeria’s public space, have things fallen so much apart for the men of the Bible.

Two events in particular stand out. Firstly, there was the collapse of a six-storey guest house belonging to one of the most publicised of these churches that goes by the curious name of Synagogue Church of All Nations. Belonging to the flamboyant self-proclaimed prophet TB Joshua, a household name across Africa and its Diaspora, the collapse led to the death of at least 115 worshippers, some of whom had come from as far afield as South Africa.

The second event was the seizure in South Africa of an allegedly leased private aircraft of Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor’s, whose Word of Bible Church is based in Warri in the Niger Delta. The aircraft was taken on the suspicion that it contained over 9 million illegal dollars on board.

As both events involved South Africa, they were picked up by the international media. After President Jacob Zuma said that 85 of his citizens were among those that died in Pastor TB Joshua’s guest house, the Youth Wing of the ruling African National Congress demanded that their government ban TB Joshua from visiting South Africa. TB Joshua (full name Temitope Balogun Joshua) had said that he would go to South Africa to meet survivors of the tragedy. About

200 kilometres further east from the site of the calamity in Lagos, a church house under construction in Benin City, belonging to a different group known as the Christ Chosen Church of God, also collapsed. One person died and several others were injured. The governor of Edo State where it happened, Cambridge-trained trade unionist-turned-politician, Adams Oshiomhole, in a prompt reaction promised to investigate and sanction all those found culpable.

After the church houses came down, the Senate debated cases of collapsing Nigerian high-rise buildings but commentators in the media were angry that nothing specific was said about the events that had led to the debate. One of the senators, Ben Ayade, argued that Nigerian churches behaved as if they were above the law, thereby creating problems for the efficient functioning of relevant state institutions, even on extremely risky matters like the quality of high-rise buildings.

“Religious organisations over time have assumed celestial heights in a way and manner that most of the time, it is difficult for those who are responsible for enforcing regulations to be able to enforce them on churches,” he said, without mentioning any churches by name.

Newspaper columnists angrily blamed the uncritical theocentric attitude held by some Nigerian high officials, who patronise the churches for their much-touted thaumaturgical ability.

One writer, in Vanguard, summarised the evolution of relations between Nigerians and Christianity since its introduction in the 19th century up until the present like this: “When the white man came to Africa to preach and spread the gospel, he was altruistic, truthful and selfless…They set up schools which many attended without paying anything or just [paid] a token … So we became educated, learnt the art of preaching … Many left the early believers behind as old school, those born before … The born-again knew the way to wealth. The message changed from salvation to prosperity.”

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Written by Peter Ezeh

Peter Ezeh is one of New African magazine's longest serving correspondents. He began his career in Nigeria and rose to the position of news editor of the Punch; served as Lagos chief correspondent of the Satellite newspaper group in Enugu and edited The Point in Port Harcourt. He he is an alumni of the University of Cambridge’s (Wolfson College) Press Fellowship programme.

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