/ 21 November 2020

The president, the preacher and the great escape

Bushiri Followers Vow To Support Him Throughout
Diplomatic incident: Followers of self-proclaimed prophet Shepherd Bushiri and his wife Mary after their fraud and money-laundering case was postponed after an appearance in court. (Gallo Images / Phill Magakoe)

At first, Lazarus Chakwera’s visit to South Africa, the regional superpower, was going really well. Malawi’s newly elected president had a good meeting with his counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa, in Pretoria last Friday, and signed an important economic co-operation deal.

At about 1pm, Chakwera returned to the Sefako Makgatho presidential guesthouse to rest before his flight home on a chartered Malawi Airlines Bombardier Q400.

The Mail & Guardian had accompanied Chakwera on his flight into South Africa, and was at Waterkloof Air Force Base with Malawi’s advance delegation when things started to go wrong. 

Chakwera’s excitement, and that of his entourage, turned first to anxiety and then to outrage as they learned that the advance delegation had been accosted by policemen at the airport, and denied access to the plane.

The police were looking for controversial self-proclaimed “prophet” Shepherd Bushiri, reputed to be among the wealthiest religious figures in Africa. Bushiri and his wife were charged in South Africa with fraud, but were released on R200 000 bail. They had disappeared that morning

Bushiri is one of Malawi’s most famous sons, and the police thought that Malawi’s president might be helping to smuggle him out. They were willing to break diplomatic protocol to check if Bushiri was on the plane. 

As it happened, the police were wrong. At that point, the Bushiris were already in Lilongwe; later, they would announce their escape to the world. “Our coming to Malawi … is a tactical withdrawal from the Republic of South Africa, solely meant to preserve our lives,” said Bushiri in a statement. “We have to be alive to testify.”

After a delay of nearly 10 hours, Chakwera and his team were finally allowed to fly back to Lilongwe. Chakwera was furious. His diplomatic triumph had turned into a major diplomatic incident; and, once again, he found himself at odds with Bushiri, despite their shared background in Malawi’s evangelical community.

Shepherd Huxley Bushiri was born on 20 February 1983 in Malawi’s northern district of Rumphi. Growing up, he was an average student, but he was always driven by his Christian faith. 

(John McCann/M&G)

One of his former teachers at the Moyale Barracks community day secondary school said that Bushiri did not pass his high school exam at the first attempt. “He was too much into SCOM [Students Christian Organisation of Malawi] activities,” the teacher recalled. “He was staying with his brother Misheck and was a member of the CCAP [Church of Central Africa Presbyterian] church. How he became a prophet is a mystery.”

A childhood friend, who asked not to be named, said that he remembers Bushiri as being secretive, creative and prone to prayer.

“Of course, Bushiri was always a prayer man, such that he can leave you concentrating on books and he goes out for a prayer arrangement. You could tell he was so much into religious things. Behaviour-wise I don’t think I remember him picking a fight with anyone, apart from if friends provoked him. However, you could not trust him fully because he appeared very secretive,” said the friend.

Bushiri began his ministry in Mzuzu, the country’s third-largest city, and he made a name for himself among university students for his spiritual counsel on love and relationships. Even then, however, he seemed to attract scandal, and was accused of impregnating a woman in his congregation. These accusations were later dismissed by a court.

From these beginnings, Bushiri built one of the largest, most influential and most lucrative ministries in Africa — the Enlightened Christian Gathering. This growth was fuelled by the “miracles” he claimed to perform: curing people of HIV, making the blind see, uplifting the impoverished and, on at least one occasion, walking on air.

Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. (GCIS)

At the same time, he was accumulating enormous wealth, investing the tithes from churchgoers into everything from hospitality and real estate to transportation and mining. Bushiri’s net worth is thought to be more than R1-billion, and, unlike Malawi’s president, he has his own private plane.

But controversy was never far behind. Bushiri was in the headlines in 2017 after the Botswana government imposed visa restrictions on him, because the local branch of his church had failed to submit audit accounts. He has been repeatedly implicated in adultery, and in 2019 he was accused by two churchgoers of rape (allegations that he strongly denies).

Question marks also surrounded how he was able to grow his fortune so quickly. One notable critic is Lazarus Chakwera’s son. In 2017, Nick Chakwera sharply criticised Bushiri on social media for exploiting his congregation to make a profit. 

Both Chakweras are major figures in Malawi’s evangelical church movement, and Bushiri did not take kindly to the rebuke. “My warning is going to [Lazarus] Chakwera because I expected him, as a man of God and also a politician, to realise that his son has made a mistake,” said Bushiri at the time. “He should tell his son to leave me alone.”

It was in South Africa that Bushiri’s controversial commercial activities appear to have finally caught up with him. After a years-long investigation, the Hawks — the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation —  arrested Bushiri and his wife Mary last month. They were charged with fraud and money-laundering worth more than R100-million.

In a statement, one of Bushiri’s alleged victims, Felicia Sibeko, said she had invested R130 000 in Bushiri’s gold, forex and commodities scheme. “I got the money from selling my taxi, which used to put food on the table for my family. Ever since the investment, my life has been ruined. He has made me and many others promises with huge returns, something which didn’t happen,” she said. “Instead, I got nothing but lies and promises day after day with the last excuse from him being that money was frozen. I invested to better my life and that of my family. Instead I have become a laughing stock in my community. When people see me they laugh, and say I believed and prayed with Papa Bushiri and he took my money.”

Bail for the couple was posted at R200 000 each. Apparently, it should have been even higher. Undeterred by losing R400 000 between them, Shepherd and Mary Bushiri fled the country last Friday. It is still not clear how exactly they were able to cross South Africa’s borders — although we can rule out Chakwera’s jet.

But if Bushiri was expecting a warm reception at home, he may have miscalculated. On Monday, Malawi’s police issued a warrant for the arrest of Bushiri and his wife. On Tuesday, they raided their house, but did not find them. On Wednesday, having run out of options, the Bushiris turned themselves in. They will oppose South Africa’s anticipated request for extradition, although have not yet stated on which grounds they intend to do so.

“We don’t know which treaty they will use. For now, it will be preemptive to cite the grounds [on which] we will challenge extradition, but we will definitely challenge it,” said their lawyer, Wapona Kita.

This means the case could drag on for some time, if the example of another high-profile extradition saga is anything to go by. It took six years of protracted legal battles before Malawi was able to extradite Misozi Chanthunya from South Africa; the case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Appeal. In the end, however, justice was served, and Chanthunya was convicted of murder.