It is an often repeated norm in social sciences that as the human race makes giant strides in science and technology, the tendency is to shift away from religion. However, the massive and uncurtailed growth of Pentecostalism in Nigeria and many parts of Africa, has defied this much extolled view. Pentecostalism with its unapologetic emphasis on the acquisition of wealth at all costs (as part of a spiritual salvation), the shameful deception of the materialistic preachers with their openly-displayed affluence and the seeming indifference of a government that remains insensitive to the needs and yearnings of its people, have all combined to distort our value systems as a nation. The sad news is that untold damages may have been caused to our social, religious, economic and political landscapes.
Pentecostalism is a modern-day commercial enterprise garbed in the cloak of a religion with deception and exploitation as its foundation; its goal being the complete monetisation of the ignorance of its multitude of adherents. It is nothing short of liberal market Christianity heavily prospering from merchandising the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Worldwide, it remains the only legally and politically accepted movement completely based upon systematic fraud, deception and cheating. It is the theology of the dollar (or Naira, if you so prefer). It is also very clear that our unflinching bond with Pentecostalism would ultimately lead to the straining of social, traditional and cultural boundaries. A ready example is that of the Brotherhood of the Cross and the Star of Olumba Olumba Obu. Here was a sect that started as a prayer-cum-Bible study group in the 1950s but which today means different things to different people, Christianity probably being the least.
While the Brotherhood of the Cross and the Star propagates a bizarre form of religious belief that holds that God is pantheistic, pluriform, evil and bisexual, two facts are undeniable. This monstrosity grew out of Pentecostalism and secondly, despite its odd beliefs, it retains or shares a lot of Pentecostal attributes (which stem out of traditional African beliefs) including:
– Recognition and Acceptance of the existence of Witchcraft and Sorcery
– Death or Misfortune demands specific explanation – often times attributed to the handiwork of enemies
– Efficacy of charms in causing harm or hurt without actual physical contact
– Oracles or divinations can reveal the truth when other means fail
– Belief in the efficacy of talismans, amulets, rings, etc.
Pentecostalism (and the Olumba Olumba Obu cult, for that matter) thrives on the age-old emphasis on and the amplification of the potent powers of witchcraft. Cross River state is perhaps a very fertile land for the spread of the cult of Olumba Olumba Obu, being a state notorious for its submissive belief in witchcraft and sorcery. This particular attribute is currently being massively exploited by another religious charlatan masquerading as another Pentecostal, in the person of Helen Ukpabio. This self-centred modern day conqueror of witches and wizards has caused untold social upheavals and hardships in Cross River State and environ, leaving a legion of homeless and abandoned children stigmatised with the tags of being witches and wizards.
Many Nigerians, both rich and poor, run after pastors for spiritual protection and fortification from known and imaginary enemies. This is a typical African syndrome which education has failed to influence. The bottom line is the wholesale embrace and exploitation of the people’s fear by modern-day Pentecostalism and hence the multitudes of crusades and revivals to free adherents from the yokes of witchcraft and other forms of sorceries. Belief in the efficacy of charms and amulets was substituted with the introduction of holy oil and holy water. This is psychologically attuned with the prevalent cultural belief; something magical that can work in the supernatural. And since oracles and divinations have to be substituted, prophecy filled the void perfectly. Thus in a way, Africans remain Africans with traditional beliefs substituted with pseudo-Christian formulas amply provided by the mostly educated and suave American-influenced Pentecostal pastors. This is perhaps the secret behind the monumental success of Pentecostalism as compared to missionary Christianity which came to Africa with contempt for traditional African belief and customs.
Asonzeh Ukah in his seminal paper: African Christianities: Features, Promises and Problems, explained that while many of the founders of these churches claim divine authorisation for establishing what now seems more like an economic empire than a religious organisation, they unabashedly look to principal prosperity preachers and televangelist in North America as their mentors, often clearly copying what they think to be responsible for the “successes” of these American godfathers. Many African proponents of prosperity gospel such as Benson Idahosa, E. A. Adeboye of the RCCG and Oyedepo of Winners’ Chapel clearly state their indebtedness to their American mentors. Adeboye frequently cites the influence of Kenneth E. Hagin on his orientation towards prosperity message. Oyedepo also cites the influence of Hagin, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland as well as T.D. Jakes on his thinking and ministry.
It is thus obvious that from this well contrived base grew a huge enterprise with unmistakable features that made it such a success, borrowing heavily from its American influence and amply modified by its sensitivity to the African culture, temperament and inherent materialistic expectations from whichever God is worshipped. These features include:
(1) Preaching of the Prosperity Messages
(2) Faith Healing and performance of miracles (combined with prosperity messages become the “Wealth and Health Gospel”). This area of Pentecostalism, because of the proliferation of Pentecostal churches and the keen competition to carve, cultivate and maintain adherents, has led to specialisation of products. Specialisation enables these churches to cultivate and maintain their respective niches. There are general practitioners and specialists.
a. General Practitioners: those who can heal all diseases without exception. Examples include Christ Embassy and The Redeemed Church of Christ.
b. Specialists: [i] Liberty Gospel Church of Helen Ukpabio specialises in witch-hunting, especially amongst children. [ii] The Laughter Foundation provides barren women with the “fruits of the womb”. [iii] Synagogue of All Nations Church of Pastor T B Joshua is especially specialised in the healing of al those suffering from HIV/AIDS. [iv] Mountain of Fire and Miracles specialises in casting out demons of all specifications.
(3) Company-like Organisational Structure: Asonzeh Ukah explained that these Churches are organised as firms or commercial enterprises engaged in the production, distribution and pricing of religious and non-religious commodities with primary motives of making satisfactory profit and maintaining a market share. They are founded and owned by one person who claims a special divine authorisation with a specific mandate with global ramification. Although there is a Board of Trustees (BoTs) appointed by the founder and registered with the appropriate government agency, the locus of control of the organisation is the chairman of the BoTs, who doubles as President/Chief Executive Officer (CEO). He is a “bank of grace”, a repository of charismata, and a special bridge between his followers and God. He controls both charisma and cash and is the only one who holds a special privilege of interpreting the will of God to his followers. While resources such as money, time, and expertise are mobilised aggressively from followers and the general public (believers and non-believers alike), the control of these is wrested from the contributors and rested solely on the founder/owner of the Church and his/her spouse. In Nigeria the three wealthiest religious organisations are Pentecostal mega-churches: the Christ Embassy owned by Chris Oyakhilome, Winners’ Chapel of Oyedepo and the RCCG of Enoch Adeboye, in that order.
(4) Increased visibility and greater roles for women: Women are often times integrated in the decision making processes and exercise a certain degree of power and authority. Some Pentecostal pastors/founders are females and cases abound where the husband is the founder with the wife usually the second-in-command in the hierarchy of power. Wives of deceased founders often times succeed their late husbands. It has turned out that wives of pastors also serve another purpose in the spouses’ ministries: they protect the family’s estate and control most financial dealings in the church. Knowing the power of women to attract men into religious organisations, some churches deliberately exploit this in giving women pastoral duties so that men would be drawn into the fold.
(5) The Economic Character of Pentecostal Churches: The tendency is for Pentecostal churches to have educated, media-savvy leaders. These tend to introduce commercial practices into their organisation in the production of religion and other goods. It is now a common feature not only among the mega-churches, but also medium-sized Pentecostal groups, that they produce a huge array of videos, magazines, CDs, DVDs, books, booklets and pamphlets, stickers, key-holders and other religious memorabilia or ritual paraphernalia (handkerchief, olive oil). The Redeemed Christian Church of God produces and markets all over the world well over half a million copies of its leader’s sermons on DVDs, VCDs, VHS and audio tapes. The church has a media empire called Dove Media which is involved in satellite and Internet television and radio broadcasting as well as the production and sales of home videos. Helen Ukpabio, founder/owner of Liberty Gospel Church, is also the Chief Executive Officer of Liberty Films and Music Plaza, which has produced nearly twenty home videos many of which achieved record sales of nearly 1.2 million copies. In addition to the production of media materials, many of the new churches are proud owners of banks, insurance companies, business schools, bookshops, and other profit- oriented enterprises.
(6) Marketing Strategies: Especially religious advertisements poster and handbills, billboards, branded vest, caps, pens, etc. Some mega-churches own television and radio broadcasting stations; others place advertisements on these electronic media as well as in print media of newspapers and magazines. Pentecostal advertisement serves multiple functions of creating and managing positive social visibility and image for church owners in addition to creating public awareness for church events.
(7) Reconstruction of religious geography: Churches buy up large expanses of land and construct a range of facilities such as auditoriums, schools, guesthouses, dormitories, presidential villas (for VIP guests such as politicians), banks, gas stations and hospitals. These camps, which often constitute an “alternative city”, function to showcase a Pentecostal leader’s charismata, authenticate the claim to divine authorisation, and produce his brand of Pentecostalism through a series of weekly or monthly and yearly ritual activities. The camps provide the physical venues for commercial companies to patronise the churches by sponsoring some of the religious programmes in exchange for marketing their products and services during the events. Similarly, regional and national politicians pay frequent visits to the camps to demonstrate their religiosity, consult the pastors and solicit for votes or public sympathy. These camps are a veritable structure of Pentecostal subpolitics. They represent attempts by Pentecostal pastors and their followers to influence the dynamics of national politicking and to achieve mutually beneficial ends for both pastors and politicians.
Coming so far, it is obvious that Pentecostalism in Nigeria is nothing short of modern-day fraud. It is a business enterprise – plain and simple, the greatest beneficiary being the founder and his family. Stealing is a big problem in present day Nigeria. People steal in various forms – government ministers who misappropriate funds and receive kickbacks, the ordinary messenger who collects bribes before performing his assigned duties, the governor who converts state funds into private use, and so on. However, it is doubly worse when stealing is perpetrated in the name of the Lord. Pentecostalism has not advanced the cause of the black man. The presence of these ever ubiquitous churches has only served to further perpetuate ignorance, tyranny, political misrule, oppression and suppression. And it is still astonishing that a goldmine business with billions in yearly returns and that can comfortably provide unimaginable opulence for its proprietors remain tax-free to date.
Nigeria is gradually dying because of religion. Useful energy is not being expended on meaningful and relevant activities that can free our nation from the yokes of political oppression and suppression. Nigerians will rather gather in their thousands to listen to the earthly messages of religious fraudsters in the name of religion. Our citadels of learning have become mere extensions of the passivity that has befallen the Nigerian nation. The stupor that has kept us in bondage and economic under-development for decades. Gone were the days of vibrant and active student unionism. All we now get is active student fellowship-ism. The sheepishness has equally befuddled the populace who would rather wait for heavenly blessings rather than fight for their rights on earth. Of course, the pastors are not befuddled; they are smarter!
While this great disservice to mankind in the name of Pentecostalism continues, it is perhaps quite relevant to remind ourselves of the words of Leo Igwe. Writing on the controversial Benny Hill Crusade in 2005, he stated, inter alia, “Africa needs science, not superstition; critical thinking, not dogma; open mindedness, not blind faith; reason, not revelation; and industry and technological advancement… Africa needs scepticism, not Pentecostalism.” On this note, I rest my case for a while.