The endorsement last Saturday by the Court of Appeal in Lagos of the death sentence passed on Chukwuemeka Ezeugo (also known as Reverend King), the General Overseer of the Christian Praying Assembly, has stirred public debate about the credibility of pastors in Nigeria and in particular the relationship between pastors and members of their congregation. Justice Joseph Olubunmi Oyewole of the Lagos High Court (Ikeja Division) had on 11 January 2007 sentenced Ezeugo to death by hanging for the murder of Miss Ann Uzoh, a member of his church.
Ezeugo was alleged to have sprayed petrol on Miss Uzoh and set her on fire, along with five other persons for what he allegedly described as “acts of fornication”. Miss Uzoh died on 2 August 2006, a week and four days after the incident.
Ezeugo went to the Court of Appeal in Lagos to challenge the judgment of the Lagos High Court. On 5 November 2012 he argued his case before the Appeal Court. However, the Appeal Court justices unanimously upheld the death sentence passed on Ezeugo by the Lagos High Court.
More tellingly, Justice Fatima Akinbami of the Appeal Court who delivered the judgment criticised the behaviour of some pastors toward their followers. She said: “The ingredient of this case is so bizarre. It is so devastating how some men of God will give out to their congregation scorpion instead of fish, and stone instead of bread. It is indeed sad and unfortunate.”
Nigeria is a nation of pastors. Some of them are authentic. Others are impostors who preach the gospel of instant wealth in the name of God. These are the conmen and women who prey on gullible members of our society. They are the dubious pastors who defraud the vulnerable members of their congregation of their hard-earned income.
In a nation flooded with pastors who belong to all kinds of religious denominations, you are always going to find some dishonest preachers whose activities are not only at odds with Christian religious principles but also those whose sermons fly in the face of reality and common sense. Increasingly, the nation is beginning to question the credibility of the swindlers who claim to be engaged in the service of God but who actually commit crimes against humanity. To be clear, not all pastors are criminals or are involved in criminal activities. But the illicit adventures of the fraudulent ones have cast aspersions on the character and sincerity of all pastors.
The difficulty we have as a nation is how to distinguish the authentic pastors from the charlatans, those who preach that they have in their possession the register of the select few who are ordained to enter the kingdom of God. In every nation, you have to contend with counterfeit men and women who use religion to defraud the weak members of the society. But we have a major problem on our hands. It is not only the vulnerable members of society who regularly fall victims to the firebrand preachers on the streets. Men and women who hold positions of responsibility, men and women who are highly educated, even the affluent members of society unthinkingly turn over their wealth and their souls to the false prophets.
Consider the case of Sam Edem, the former chairperson of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) who was suspended in 2008 by the Federal Government owing to various allegations of misconduct. On 3 October 2008 I published an article that analysed his nightmarish experience at the hands of a dishonest pastor. I will draw largely on his case to illustrate how some men in positions of authority are fooled by fake pastors. At the time he started experiencing difficulties at the NDDC, Edem attributed his problems to people he described as his enemies. The origins of his anguish, he said, started with a prayer proposal forwarded to him by a man whom, he said, described himself as a pastor.
Edem told journalists at a press conference he held in Abuja on the last weekend of September 2008: “It all started with a strange prayer proposal sent to me by a man who introduced himself as a pastor… The supposed man of God came with a bible, a cross and a holy oil. Never in my widest imaginations did I know that I was dealing with a dangerous native doctor and fraudster until the bubble burst.” He continued: “One prayer session led to another. One prophesy led to another. Before I came to my senses, like any other victim of 419, I had been swindled a huge sum of money running into millions of naira.” Edem did not reject outright the likelihood that he might have been hypnotised before he authorised the payment of a large amount of money to the pastor.
It is unthinkable that a man of Edem’s calibre and high educational qualification, a man who held such an important position could be so easily swindled by a pastor to whom he said he gave incredible amount of money and a number of cars on several occasions. However, stories like this abound in modern Nigeria. There are many unreported cases of people who were successfully fleeced by smart thinking pastors.
Edem’s case illustrates the extent to which fraudulent pastors have tunnelled themselves and their schemes (through deceptive means) into the hearts of many Nigerians. They not only extort money from their victims, they also seek sexual gratifications from members of their congregation. Some of the pastors behave like sexual predators. The other day, a man in his 60s, who parades himself as a pastor, was arrested for raping an innocent young girl under the age of 10.
In the rollcall of those who have been lured by the sweet talk of phony pastors are people afflicted by various ailments, those who suffer from economic deprivations, those in search of jobs, and women who are in desperate search of husbands. It is surprising that men and women who claim to be the anointed children of God should engage freely in sharp practices designed to take advantage of gullible men and women. These pastors stroll through our streets freely. They set up private business premises which they tag prayer houses in their living rooms and elsewhere. They preach in the day and in the middle of the night, disturbing the peace of the night because they see themselves as special citizens who are above the law. They are emboldened by awareness that they are residing in a country in which people live lives as if they are in a jungle.
Could it be that there are no laws in Nigeria that could be used to restrain or apprehend these criminals in white robes?
When people talk about corruption and kidnapping and insecurity as the main national security threats, it seems to me they have underestimated the impact that fake pastors are having on our national psyche, and on the economy of the nation owing to their rapacious appetite for quick wealth.
Proliferation of pastors of various religious faiths has caused all manner of problems in Nigeria. But this abundance in the number of men and women who claim to be spreading the word of God has its shortcomings too, one of which is the difficulty of distinguishing between genuine and fake religious leaders – pastors, prophets and prophetesses. Poverty, ill health, suffering and personal misfortunes have driven people to the point where they use religion as a form of opium to help them to relieve their pain. A distressed soul just wants to experience miracles. Confronted with personal problems, they run to their pastors who pray for them and at the same time command God to honour their requests instantly. That’s why these impulsive preachers are known as “digital pastors”.
We must tell our pastors some uncomfortable truths. No industrialised nation achieved socioeconomic development through pastors and their prayer ministries. Let me be clear here. Prayer is uplifting. It cleanses our soul. It is ennobling. But people in developed countries did not fold their arms in the expectation that pastors and prayers would transform their society. As I argued in a previous essay, a country that relies on pastors and prayers alone is a country of lousy people. No country in modern history relied solely on pastors, prayers and fasting to overcome its problems.
The idea that pastors and their magical powers would solve all of Nigeria’s problems is misleading. The rise in the number of pastors in Nigeria might inform the ecclesiastical transformations across the Christian south and the incessant search for God in every part of the country.
Part of the reason why Nigeria has continued to float like a ship without a captain is that the Presidency has not shown much concern about the crimes that sham pastors commit in the country. Much worse, the National Assembly has never deemed it fit to pass laws to empower law enforcement agencies to confront counterfeit pastors and other criminal groups. We live in a country in which everyone wants to get rich quick but no one wants to work hard to earn a living.