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Nigeria pastor abuse claims spotlight divisive church leaders

By AFP
Nigeria The legacy of influential and controversial Nigerian pastor TB Joshua still deeply divides people.  By Pius Utomi EKPEI AFPFile
JAN 31, 2024 LISTEN
The legacy of influential and controversial Nigerian pastor TB Joshua still deeply divides people. By Pius Utomi EKPEI (AFP/File)

When he was alive, Nigeria's influential pastor TB Joshua had tens of thousands of followers at home and from overseas who flocked to see his claims of miracle working.

But the televangelist, who died suddenly in 2021 at the age of 57, was also accused by critics of abuses and even scamming worshippers.

Now his grey stone church The Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) in central Lagos is again caught up in allegations of abuse during the years he was based there.

The BBC, in an investigative documentary released earlier this month, reported allegations from more than 20 former members of physical and sexual violence inside the church and claims that the ministry faked miracles.

A SCOAN church representative told Nigerian media it dismissed any claims as "propaganda", saying none of those who appeared in the documentary were part of the church.

The church later denied issuing a statement, according to local media.

Despite repeated attempts, AFP was unable to reach SCOAN for comment and there was no immediate answer to an email request.

Still, the case illustrates how powerful some evangelical ministers are -- and how divisive they can be -- with little oversight into how their ministries operate, experts say.

"The mistake we don't want to make is focus on TB Joshua here," Ebenezer Obadare, a fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP.

"It's about the pastoral influence and the way that it is mobilised," Obadare, also author of "Pastoral Power, Clerical State: Pentecostalism, Gender and Sexuality in Nigeria", said.

"What you find is that the male figure stands pre-eminent and every other congregant is subordinate to the Pentecostal pastor. He has so much power, political, economic and also erotic power."

Nigerian social media erupted after the BBC series aired, leaving people deeply divided over both the documentary and the legacy of a man whom many defended.

Some dismissed the claims as propaganda meant to sully his reputation -- his appeal remains strong.

"So many wonderful deeds," singer Victor AD wrote on X, formerly Twitter, with the hashtag #tbjoshualegacyliveson, referring to how TB Joshua helped his family.

Powerful figures

In religiously conservative Nigeria, almost equally split between a mostly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south, pastors are hugely influential.

But Temitope Balogun Joshua, or TB Joshua, often referred to as "the Prophet", never seemed far from controversy.

In April 2021, YouTube deleted his channel after he claimed to cure homosexuality, which is outlawed in Nigeria.

He boasted of having cured people of AIDS and entangled himself in the Covid-19 outbreak, saying the pandemic would end on March 27, 2020.

But other church leaders in Nigeria had long warned about him.

In 2009, the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), one of the largest Christian blocs, publicly dissociated itself from TB Joshua's church, urging him to "repent" and "convert" to Christianity.

Ayo Oritsejafor, the leader of the group at the time, insisted TB Joshua had no formal training to enable him to pastor.

But the cleric maintained he needed no training to lead his huge church, which he founded in 1987.

Until his death, TB Joshua and two engineers were also facing charges of criminal negligence in a Lagos court after a six-storey guesthouse under construction within his church premises collapsed in September 2014, killing 116 people, most of them South Africans.

The spokesperson for Lagos State Ministry of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the status of the case.

Lack of oversight

Researcher Babatomiwa Owojaiye, founder of the Centre for Biblical Christianity in Africa, said that despite the allegations against him, many Africans believed in TB Joshua's miracles and his ministry.

But he said that oversight of self-appointed prophets and religious leaders was a problem, especially for ministries not associated with a formal structure.

"In many such churches, a lot of abuses go on unchecked and anyone who speaks up is either bullied, blackmailed, maltreated, ostracised or silenced," he said.

"But these allegations are not enough to dub all evangelists in Nigeria fake or abusive."

PFN's spokesman Emmah Isong told AFP that the group had consistently warned about TB Joshua, but its attempts to act as a watchdog were rejected by the weight of public support for the pastor.

"We were accused of being jealous of the man's ministry," he said.

"We should not be castigated again for standing for the truth."

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