Pastor Chris Oyakhilome/Photo: pmnewsnigeria.com
Who needs the God of the bible with his promises of trials and tribulations, crosses and paths of repentance? Yemisi Ogbe listens to the sermons, counts the money, watches the high-flying life of Nigeria’s mega-preachers and wonders.
I had been a member of my church for four years when I began to feel a need to write about Nigerian men of God. The need was overwhelming. It crawled up the back of my neck when I tried to sleep at night. It glued me to my seat in church when the Pastor said ‘turn to your neighbour and say…’
I turned not. I said nothing. I froze, provocatively waiting for the neighbour to find someone else to play-act with. I did not come to this local assembly to play neighbours, to be indoctrinated through the repetition of bizarre mantras in an American accent: ‘Tell your neighbourrrr Neighbourrrr you’rrrrre the man, you’rrrr the man…’
The pastor stalks the stage, his long legs spanning the lilac-blue carpeting; his destination is the glass pulpit at the centre. He is tall and good-looking, neat as a pin, and at least a head taller than most of his congregation. He is 42 years old, with his head clean-shaven. He is always meticulously groomed and his clothes are expensive. Some of his shirts are monogrammed. He wears a diamond-studded watch, a gold tie pin and bracelet. Some of his suits have been custom-made by Ermenegildo Zegna, the fourthgeneration Italian designer famous for dressing Hollywood superstars for the Oscar ceremonies.
I google Ermenegildo Zegna. I want to understand what sort of person wears Zegna. The search yields interesting results: Adrien Brody, Kiefer Sutherland, Ted Danson and Valery Gergiev, among others. The problem is, these people are nobodies in Nigeria. They are incongruous parallels to our men of God, our superstars: TD Jakes, Chris Oyakhilome, Bishop Oyedepo, Chris Okotie, Paul Adefarasin, JT Kalejaiye, Ayo Oritsejafor.
The pastor speaks with an American accent; which may very well underscore the obsession with which he relates with his American spiritual father and role model, TD Jakes, or a legacy of his student years in the US. He is intense, charismatic and flamboyant. His wife, an attractive woman in her early 30s, sits elegantly to his right on the stage. She is nodding ardently, a silk scarf spread across her knees to modestly hide her legs. She has created a fashion trend. Two other pastors’ wives are similarly dressed, down to the scarves covering their knees.
Why is appearance so important that it should be the first point of description for the Nigerian man of God? It is especially so, because in the intriguing world of godly superstardom, appearance is everything. The Nigerian man of God is not in time-honoured garb like Rowan Williams, Desmond Tutu or the Pope.
He is more like Pierce Brosnan, not as himself, but as the suave James Bond. Nelson Mandela, in his generously patterned shirts, would be in danger of looking shoddy beside the Nigerian superstar man of God. Thabo Mbeki, in neat pin stripes might pass, but then again, he might be too sartorially modest.
‘If you know that He woke you up this morning… He took you outa’ yo’ bed… Some people died in their sleep… Some people couldn’t get up to walk to their cars… He put food on yo’ table… Clothes on yo’ back…’
The pastor’s congregation calls him Baba, freely conceding his God-appointed role as head, spiritual leader, and general overseer of his ministry and the souls of all who call the church theirs. Sometimes, the church is more aptly called ‘his church’. The congregation is readily cued by his opening words. People are on their feet, in acknowledgement of his presence. They clap and cheer fervently. The title of his sermon is ‘Give Me My Daily Bread’.
‘Give me my daily bread…! Want you to help me and look at three or four people and say: “I want my bread.”’
The congregation choruses obediently: ‘I want my bread,’ each person turning to the people closest to them.
‘I wanna talk about bread and get out of your way really quickly… Jesus said in the third declaration, when you pray, ask this day for this day’s bread. You’re gon’ need bread to stay strong for life, and by bread I’m talking about natural bread. You need a car so that you ain’t worn out and fatigued by riding that Danfo.’ The congregation cheers loudly.
‘Oh you ain’t listening to me tonight! You need a husband so that you don’t have to cry yourself to sleep at thirty-seven every night of your life and drench your pillow like as if it was a washing machine. You need some money, some money in your pocket so that you don’t have to die in a para-para face-me-I-face-you. You need some BREAD to survive! How many of you need a car right now?’
The response is enthusiastic.
‘When Jesus talks about bread, he talks about bread, and he is not going to drop a car out of the sky for you. That means if you are going to get a car, you are going to get it in a spiritual dimension first, and the spiritual dimension ain’t going to look like a car. It’s going to be my words that I speak to you… All the time you are listening to a preacher, you think it’s the preacher preaching but you didn’t know it was Jehovah… Thank God for this preacher. It would have been a lovely experience to hear the Master preach-uh.’
The pastor has the habit of exhaling audibly on the last word of some of his sentences. Perhaps this is for emphasis, or maybe it is just another trait of the Nigerian man of God’s whole-hearted adoption of American Christianity. The nature of his sermons might suggest that he is grooming an emotional congregation; that he does not appropriately de-emphasise his role in relation to that of the Almighty, but they do not suggest that he is carried away by his own spirituality.
His intelligence and clarity of purpose are not in question, even if obscured in the song and dance of his church services. He can get the responses that he wants from his congregation because he knows it intimately. He knows it as a cohesive unit, in its disparate, individual constituent parts and as an organic part of the larger Nigerian community.
He knows for example that students make up about 70 per cent his congregation. They have no income, but are nevertheless the life of the party. These youngsters believe that there is a job somewhere with their name on it; that the car and the house will materialise out of wherever; that, in general, life will somehow work out. Mortality is a distant subject. They are happy, loud, optimistic, fundamental to an upbeat church environment, and crucial to attracting the more mature membership.
The elders occupy the first few rows in the church. They are an indistinctively categorised group of older members or major founders. They make up about 2 per cent of the membership, and own real estate in Nigeria, Europe, the US and, lately, in South Africa. They have more than two cars, possibly more than three, stocks, deposit accounts and substantial savings in foreign currency.
About 15 per cent of members of the congregation are identifiable by their hardworking shoes and Sunday best. They are faithful church attendees, who give their offerings, however little, faithfully. They tithe if they work. Sometimes they come to church without the means of getting back home. The people in this group take every word the Pastor says to the bank.
The remainder is the face of the church, or what has in recent times been termed the strategic target market: Christian male, married or unmarried, about 35 years old, driving the clean secondhand car, or, if he has the heart for monthly hirepurchase payments, the latest Volkswagen Passat or Bora.
He makes a taxable income of several hundred-thousand naira a month, is able to afford a few middle-range suits and TM Lewin or Thomas Pink shirts, rents a home on Lagos Island, or not too far across the Third Mainland Bridge at Magodo, Gbagada or Ikeja GRA. He is able to travel to Europe or the US once a year. He speaks English well, sometimes with a carefully-cultivated English or American accent. He understands his place.
He might have a European or American university degree. He might have a job at the bank, in an oil company or in the telecom sector. He might at some point stumble on the odd government contract or into oil speculation and be promoted to de-facto elder in the church. He might change the wife of his youth or forget his parents in the village, but he won’t forget his church and his pastor. His potential is his major selling point.
Even if he never amounts to much more than the slow corporate climber, he has the steady income, the attractiveness of youth, eligibility for marriage and the capacity to father children. With just the right balance of cynicism and ambition, he is the archetypal well-adjusted Nigerian, successfully managing the Nigerian environment. He is in no danger of losing his religion.
If the congregation lags in their shouts of ‘Preach it Pastor’, whistle blowing, hand clapping or random whooping, the pastor eggs them on. ‘Oooh, you don’t wanna help me up in here!’ he urges.
The congregation picks up the end of his sentence and draws it out in a long interlude of clapping and cheering. He calms them down again, teasingly reprimanding that there is no need to get excited. ‘We just talking!’ he declares.
As a rule, as the sermon progresses, he becomes more insistent in tone and analogies. It is necessary to conclude in a way that leaves everyone concerned satisfied. The analogies that he employs do not significantly change from one Sunday to the next. The state of the Nigerian economy has not improved in the past 20 years.
The hardships of the Nigerian environment have undoubtedly driven Nigerians to an increasing fervour in the practice of religion. The progression from there is often downhill to the loud boisterousness of a marketplace dominated by large numbers of self-regarding and mechanical devotees.
The hagglers are aggressive because they are convinced the stakes are high. Some say it’s about rescuing the souls of men from hell, and showing the way to a God-appointed prosperity here on earth, prosperity of the soul, mind and body.
Sceptics, on the other hand, say the whole business is about money. Even if this were true, it would only be so for the leadership, because the money does go up, but rarely comes down. Still, religious leadership is not only about money.
It is also about influence, power, the allure of being God, or at least being idolised and made comparable to God; about having otherwise intelligent people hanging onto your every word, believing that you have the delegated power to bless and curse, to define who they are, who they will marry and if they will succeed.
Another motive is the anticipated prosperity bestowed by a Father Christmas figure, whose answer to every question and every request is a resounding ‘Yes’. Yet, this prosperity is not freely given. Father Christmas demands love, time, tithes, offerings, building funds and allegiance to the representative man of God.
Most importantly, the Nigerian Christian is obliged to help build the numbers in his church. He has to obey the laws and demands tied to his well-being, good health, survival and prosperity in the precarious Nigerian environment.
Nigerian Christianity in all its aggressive insularity may be largely about money and power, but it is also about the fear of God and his representatives, about the need to understand the surreal contradictions of living in a country that imports tooth picks, Swiss lace and leg of lamb, where a good number of the citizens cannot afford N800 worth of drugs for malaria fever. It is more fundamentally about the need to make sense of Nigerian life.
‘How will you, good fathers, if your son asks you for bread, give him a stone? Pay attention to that! How will you, fathers, if your son asks you for bread, give him a stone! When Jesus says something obvious, hmmm, pay attention because he is not trying to be obvious, he is trying to give you revelation.’
The sermon is drawing to a conclusion. The role of God as a father who provides his child’s needs is an image that cannot be easily flawed in our country. ‘The World in 2005’, a special edition of The Economist, which rated countries for quality of life, placed Nigeria in 108th place, three from the bottom, only higher than Haiti and Zimbabwe. Nigeria’s current GDP is US$214 billion, most of it from crude oil.
It has a per capita income of $1,600, vast numbers of underemployed and an inflationary rate of 9 per cent. Against this background, men of God are highlighted; they present the success stories of ambitious and charismatic men from ordinary backgrounds, bringing together groups of other men and women as churches, generating tax-free fortunes, comfortable homes, luxury cars, paid utilities and full expense paid trips overseas. No wonder the prosperity doctrine has turned out to be an extremely profitable product.
‘I know that if my son asks me for bread I’m not going to give him a stone, but that means pay close attention to what the Master just said. What is a stone? A stone is hard! When you ask God for bread, he might give you something that looks and feels like a stone, but it is not a stone!
In other words, when I give you the bread, it may feel hard, life may seem HAAARD, life may seem impossible, the bread coming into your life may seem like it can never happen… How can you tell me with my janitor job, I’m going to get a Mercedes, it’s hard! It’s HAAAARD!
How can YOU tell me that maybe with five or six or seven thousand people who are mostly under 35 that we’ll be able to put down $76,000 every week to pay for the [church] building… It’s HAAARD! It’s a stone… that means you are going to have to acquire discernment to know bread when it looks like a stone…’
The pastor preaches three out of four services on most Sundays. His sermons can be charitably defined as mollifying, a safe balance between the truth of the bible and what will keep the congregation coming back. Most Nigerian Christians understand well the contradictions in the lives of their men of God, especially in terms of what is professed, the lifestyle and the tenets of the bible. In exchange for looking the other way and not touching the anointed of God, the flock must also be allowed their failings, their comparatively moderate flaws in integrity; a little sin here and there.
‘But I don’t want you to be only earthly in your requisition. I want you to be spiritual and recognise that everything that is physical is born from the spiritual. So I want you to be so hooked up to the bread of life, the bread of life, the bread of life… You are an executive. Executives don’t ride around in Danfos.
You are part of the board room of the Master’s ministry. You are part of his head honchos, his senior counsel, and if you start walking in your place with him, he is going to make sure that all that you need on a daily basis you have. One car!
The car needed to go into the shop today and they told me they needed to keep it overnight, but I have daily bread [other cars]. If I didn’t have daily bread, I wouldn’t be able to find a way to get to church tonight… and you have to appreciate what is called executive time… Executives can’t waste time, that’s why they have drivers, that’s why there’s got to be leather on your seats and not sardine. That’s why the fellow sitting beside you is supposed to be your personal assistant and not four other people who pay N10 to squeeze on a three-person bench. You need bread… Look at somebody and say I WAN MA BREAD. Do you know that a husband is included in bread?’
In 2004, the Charity Commission in the UK placed a Nigerian church in London, the Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC), in receivership. The Commission gave its reasons as a lack of financial transparency on the part of the church and possible misapplication of funds by its trustees. An investigation was launched after the head of the church, Pastor Matthew Ashimolowo, allegedly took 10 per cent of the church’s annual income of £7,4 million.
The most telling response from the church was from one spokesperson who said: ‘Unless the Charity Commission is prepared to remove KPMG without delay and take account of our church culture, we feel that we will have no other course of action than to walk away from the charity so that we can run our church without compromising our Christian beliefs.’
When, allegedly, KPMG would not round up its investigation quickly, because it had found a cash cow that could be milked endlessly with the permission of the Charity Commission, KICC moved from London to Ghana, then to Nigeria, abandoning its then £25 million in assets.
Perhaps the spokeswoman was unwittingly validating the fact that the Nigerian church culture compels Nigerians to give large sums of money to a money doubling God, in the belief that he will make them rich, and that the man of God is the physical guarantee of just how rich they will be made.
A more implicating inference from her statement is that Nigerian culture allows men of God to do as they wish with money given by church congregations. In Nigeria, there is no Charity Commission to act as watchdog over the actions of religious leaders and dissenting voices are easily silenced by an enduring threat of bad things happening to people who question representatives of divinity.
In March 2005, Pastor Paul Adefarasin overseer of The House on the Rock Church, gives copies of a book, Loyalty and Disloyalty, to a small group of men that he meets before dawn on Thursday mornings. They are a type of caucus that allows him to keep his finger on the pulse of that very important group in his congregation; the upwardly mobile thirtysomethings.
On first sighting, the book is harmless enough. It is written by a Ghanaian medical doctor and church overseer, Heward Mills, whose congregation at some time showed signs of a loss of confidence in his leadership.
He came to the conclusion that a church must be run in a strict and hierarchical manner in order to be successful. Mills’ church, Lighthouse Chapel International, boasts of branches in more than 25 countries in Africa, Europe, North America and Australasia.
In his book, Mills lists ways of identifying rebels in the church for the purposes of excommunicating them. He defines the spirit behind this initial symptom of rebellion as ‘the spirit of Lucifer… the spirit that tries to replace and take over rightful authority… I want you to learn right here, that all these things are impossible. You cannot replace God. And you cannot succeed in fighting your own father [the overseer of a church]. God will not help you and, in fact, he will fight against you. All nature, including the wild ravens and eagles of the air, will fight against you.’
He concludes the section on identifying a rebel by declaring ‘rebellion is as witchcraft. The biblical punishment for witchcraft is execution: “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Exodus 22: 18.’
Words such as traitor, insurrectionist, mutineer, rebel, separatists and refractory anarchist are commonplace in Mills’s book. Actions that might be considered rebellious toward the overseer of a church are defined in the book as challenging the overseer, suggesting that he might not be right, not taking down notes as he is preaching, not buying his recorded preaching on tape, not smiling, clapping, shouting or saying amen when he is preaching, not being happy with the overseer’s wealth and blessings.
Pastor Paul guards his Thursday group jealously, and is particular about the material that he gives them. The defence, made on his behalf by members of the group, that he might not have read Mills’s book before presenting it to the group comes across as completely implausible.
This is a group that he is cultivating into the backbone of his vision, a Millennium Temple with facilities for social welfare programs and seating for his 7,000 and growing congregation. It is significant that Mills’s book or its distribution is not at all extraordinary in the context of the Nigerian church. It is, in fact, emblematic of the relationship of the shepherd and the sheep that exists between pastors and their congregations.
The Nigerian Christian congregation, especially the ambitious thirtysomethings, who are not only precious to the church agenda but are also eulogised as the hope of Nigeria, have to be psychologically won over.
Otherwise, the wheels upstairs would be turning with questions about a fascinating kind of superstardom: pastors wearing the most expensive clothes and driving the most expensive cars; flying in private airline jets; riding in security convoys; purchasing the highest number of first class tickets; offering themselves attractive honorariums for visiting each other’s churches; demanding travel management contracts reminiscent of Jennifer Lopez; making prolific media appearances; and living with family scandals, dirty politics and extra-marital affairs.
The Nigerian congregation does not seem to be asking why the Nigerian man of God remains elitist. If God means to bless all of us as he has blessed pastors, why is it taking so long? And what is the possibility of it happening to us when we are so busy paying for the life of the man of God?
In April 2005, after Benny Hinn Ministries sponsored an evangelistic crusade in Nigeria, it was alleged that Hinn left the country disheartened by the worship of men of God by churchgoers. Bishop (Dr) Joseph Olanrewaju Obembe, the Nigerian co-ordinator of the crusade replied sarcastically: ‘Well, it was not the first time Benny Hinn would leave Nigeria in anger.
When he was brought here 15 years ago by Archbishop Benson Idahosa, he also left in anger. He was so eager to leave Nigeria that he even flew economy class.’
In 2003, Reverend Chris Okotie, leader of the Household of God declared that God had ordained him President of Nigeria. According to the January edition of Source Magazine, he demanded Nl0 million respectively from specific members of his church to fund his political aspirations.
He was defeated at the polls and further disgraced by accusations of extramarital affairs with members of his church. When the tabloid, City People, accused him of lavishing a flat, a Mercedes Benz, jewellery worth millions of naira and cash gifts on a particular member of his church, he was alleged to reply that he was just helping her out.
Reverend Okotie drives in a convoy of three SUVs; the one he rides in, a Hummer, was given as a gift by his congregation. In a three-page interview in ‘The Glitterati’ column of ThisDay, a Nigerian daily, he declared: ‘I know that Reverend Chris Okotie would eventually emerge as the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, so that Nigerians would breathe a sigh of relief. I want them to know that the names that they hear being touted back and forth are ordinary names… I am an endowed Nigerian, gifted, and Nigerians know what I am capable of doing. On a good day, on a level playing ground, none of them can compare with me in terms of popularity and the love that I have for this country.’
The interview was Reverend Okotie’s way of announcing his intention to campaign for presidential election.
Chris Oyakhilome of Christ Embassy, one of the most popular Pentecostal church leaders in Nigeria, renowned for huge televised crusades and miracle services and probably a more plausible candidate for the Nigerian presidency, spent the better part of 2001 in a media battle with Reverend Okotie. The Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria unsuccessfully attempted to make peace between the two, or at least to get them off the media.
Christians and non-Christians expressed disgust at publicly aired arguments between the two leaders. Many Christians felt that neither of the parties accurately represented the Christian. Many non-Christians felt both parties very accurately represented the Christian, especially leaders of Nigerian Pentecostal churches.
In 2004, a member of Oyakhilome’s 10,000-member church, a cashier with the Ikeja Sheraton Hotels and Towers, donated millions of naira to the church – perhaps an everyday event in the context of a Nigerian church, until it was suggested that the church was under no obligation to query the members of its congregation on the sources of suspicious money.
It was also suggested that even if there was a possibility that it was stolen money, the church was under no obligation to return the money to its rightful owner. The 2004 attempt by the National Broadcasting Commission to ban the advertisement of miracles on television would have damaged Oyakhilome’s ministry substantially.
He is really best known for a hit programme on Nigerian television called Atmosphere for Miracles, a serialised documentary on the miracles he has performed.
The examples are endless and increasingly routine. Nigerian Christians, and followers of men of God, are described as stupid and gullible; their reaction to blatant manipulation by men of God, knee-jerk, naive, lazy or obtuse. This is a simplistic statement made without reference to the uniqueness of our upbringing and training to defer to authority figures and rich people.
If the typical Nigerian church is essentially a personality cult, then one must look beneath simplistic generalisations at the underlying dynamics now prevalent in our culture; the existential issues, fear and intimidation maybe. We must look beyond plain stupidity.
Almost a Basket Case
Deji Thomas provides an insight into some of the dynamics of the relationship between pastors and members of their congregations. Thomas is one of those people whose reputation seems to contradict his real-life persona. He is known to be uncompromising and vociferous and people are usually taken aback by his fearless and confrontational nature, because he is diminutive.
For three-and-a-half years Thomas worked as personal assistant to Pastor Paul Adefarasin, of the House on the Rock Church. There was no avoiding the fact that his personality had made him completely unsuitable for the job.
He was too strident in his protests, too independent in his thinking, much too non-conformist in his views. His father is a university professor and had allowed Thomas and his siblings the freedom of expression in a time when their Yoruba peers were being taught by their parents to be submissive and unobtrusive in the presence of authority figures.
Bizarrely, Pastor Paul had hired him without a formal interview. In fact, he had been so excited about hiring him that he had peremptorily rounded off interviews that were then being conducted to find him an assistant. If at the end of three years Pastor Paul was dissatisfied with Thomas, he didn’t express as much. He even seemed reasonably satisfied with the quality of his work. Thomas, on the other hand, was at the end of his rope.
His health was suffering. He was desperate to resign. Perhaps a major issue was that he had got close enough to a Nigerian man of God to see the contradictions. Thomas admitted that men of God need to be allowed their humanity.
He spoke from experience that the Nigerian congregation needs a visual god, in a very literal way. He described people who would lie, bribe and physically assault aides to get close to a pastor. The fawning, the daily adulation, the gifts of money, houses, cars, all unsolicited, all apart from the free access to God’s money that these pastors have. It would be hard for anyone in their position not to morally compromise themselves.
Thomas resigned from his position in January 2003. Pastor Paul arranged an inquest, which reviewed a four-page document containing charges, and listened to testimonies against him by several witnesses.
It was claimed that other resignations from the office at the same time as Thomas’s showed that there was an attempt to ‘break away’ a segment of the church.
The main charge was rebellion against the church. Pastor Paul believed that Thomas should have informed the leadership that the other people resigning were preparing to do so. Thomas maintained that it was not his business to inform on anyone else’s intent.
The inquest took place in Pastor Paul’s office and lasted more than six hours. Members of the church leadership were in attendance. It ended with the determination of Thomas’s guilt and Pastor Paul carrying out the symbolic act of washing his hands in a bowl of water; washing his hands of Thomas. As punishment for the alleged rebellion, Thomas was forbidden from attending any of the House on the Rock church services worldwide and select members of the Church were advised to cut off all contact with him.
Thomas claims that as the inquisition was winding up, Pastor Paul reiterated a threat he had made on several other occasions: no one who leaves House on the Rock succeeds after leaving. Thomas described the way that statement psychologically affected himself and his wife, Bukola: ‘We would panic when basic things that virtually everyone experiences at some time or the other, like flat tires, illnesses, happened to us. What broke that terror hold for us was reaching the place of realisation that our lives were not in the hands of any man, but in God’s.’
The months following the trial defined the end of the relationship between Pastor Paul and Deji Thomas, and a battle of wills that disrupted relationships with friends and family. It would seem that Pastor Paul had followed Heward Mills’s recommendations to the letter. Idiosyncratic people just did not have a place in the House on the Rock, and there was no place for insubordination or contradiction of the man of God.
It has been said that former US president George W Bush is a quintessential born-again Christian. This could simply be because during his term he was one of the most visible Christians in the world. Newsweek of March 2003 asked and answered the question: would Iraq be a ‘just war’ in Christian terms, as laid out by Augustine in the fourth century and amplified by Aquinas, Luther and others? Bush satisfied himself that it would be.
It was interesting to hear Bush’s name mentioned in the same sentence as Augustine, Aquinas and Martin Luther, and to hear his categorical declarations of war in the name of Jesus. Bush’s presidency has been defined as the most resolutely ‘faith-based’ in modern times, and an enterprise founded, supported and guided by trust in the temporal and spiritual power of God.
Here perhaps is the perfect comparison for the superstar man of God: well-dressed, supported with an articulate public relations infrastructure, rich, powerful, lord over the most powerful constituent entity in the world, with a God agenda dangerously ensconced in personal ambition. Eugene H Peterson’s warning resonates: ‘The moment a person (or government or religious organisation) is convinced that God is either ordering or sanctioning a cause or project, anything goes. The history, worldwide, of religion fuelled hate, killing and oppression is staggering.’
The city of Lagos has most visibly developed along a 15km artery of the Lekki-Epe Expressway. It is representative of the movement of money in Nigeria: housing estates, outlets and office complexes as physical manifestations of mergers and acquisitions in oil and gas; malls, supermarkets, fast food outlets, private schools, university campuses and possibly the first private cemetery in Africa.
It is possible to drive the 15km in a reasonable 20 minutes, and in that time literally drive past 50 churches. Some of these churches are known to generate several million naira in revenue every Sunday.
Nigeria is one of the most religious countries in the world. Every Sunday, millions of Nigerians fill innumerable churches. Every Friday, half of the country shuts down in observance of the Muslim Sabbath. Nigeria is also number two on Transparency International’s list of most corrupt countries.
Many of my fellow Christians express no alarm about Nigerian churches as prototypes of the Nigerian system and feel that it makes no difference that there is an agenda to make a few people rich through the contributions of many. They believe that if an intelligent Christian is pushed far enough, he will assert his right to individual worship and that there is no lasting harm in manipulations by the men of God.
At the risk of losing my faith in the Nigerian church, I have begun to ask what the real relevance of Christianity is in Nigeria, especially the unglamorous Christianity of carrying crosses, following paths of repentance, seeking a God of love, and endlessly turning the another cheek. Will Nigerian men of God and congregations cease deceiving themselves and do the millions of Nigerians who profess Christianity make a difference to a precarious economy?
Will the biblically proscribed need for integrity in our relationship with God and other human beings gain its rightful place in the church? Is there a danger in giving more and more power to men who believe it is their Godgiven right to determine the course of other people’s lives? What will happen if it becomes difficult to continue to control people with the threat of a God who avenges insubordination to his representatives?
Will men of God then find ‘more effective’ means of keeping people under control and keeping themselves relevant? It is hard to predict which way the church will go, especially if its leadership continues to drive it in the egocentric, live-the-American-dream direction that it has for the past 20 years.
It seems that for as long as Nigerians remain chronically superstitious, as long as the economy teeters and as long as Church is ‘good business’, we will have our superstars, our Big Men, embodying the essence of our desires not only to thrive, but to live the good life, not through merit, but through spiritual favour.
For as long as superstar men of God can promise us the ability to master our environment, live well, marry well, and afford good health, then they will have satisfied all the parameters for our belief in them.
Who then needs the God of the bible with his high standards, his promises of trials and tribulations, crosses and paths of repentance? Who will want Him?
Yemisi Ogbe is a writer and poet based in Calabar, Nigeria. She is a former columnist at Next Newspaper and blogs at www.longthroatmemoirs.com