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12 Oct 2014 10:37
Bishop David Oyedepo, founder of the Living Faith Church, conducts a service recently in his auditorium in the Ota district about 60km outside Lagos. (Akintunde Akinleye, Reuters)
When a guesthouse belonging to one of Nigeria’s leading Christian pastors collapsed last month, killing 115 mostly South African pilgrims, attention
focused on the multimillion-dollar “megachurches” that form a huge,
untaxed sector of Africa’s top economy.
Hundreds of millions of dollars change hands each year in these popular
Pentecostal houses of worship, which are modelled on their counterparts in the United
Some of the churches can hold more than 200 000 worshippers and, with their
attendant business empires, they constitute a significant section of the
economy, employing tens of thousands of people and raking in tourist dollars,
as well as exporting Christianity globally.
But exactly how much of Nigeria’s $510-billion GDP they make up is difficult
to assess, since the churches are, like the oil sector in Africa’s top energy
producer, largely opaque entities.
“They don’t submit accounts to anybody,” says Bismarck Rewane,
economist and CEO of Lagos consultancy Financial Derivatives. “At least
six church leaders have private jets, so they have money.
How much? No one
When Nigeria recalculated its GDP in March, its economy became Africa’s
biggest, as previously poorly captured sectors such as cellphones, e-commerce
and its prolific Nollywood entertainment industry were specifically
included in estimates.
There was no such separate listing for the megachurches, whose
main source of income is “tithe”, the 10% or so of their income that followers
are asked to contribute.
As the churches have charity status, they have no obligation to open their
books, and certainly don’t have to fill in tax returns—an exemption that is
increasingly controversial in Nigeria, where poverty remains pervasive despite
the oil riches.
The pastors argue their charity work should exempt them.
“We use the income of the church to build schools, we use the income of
the church to serve the needs of the poor,” David Oyedepo, bishop of the
popular Winners Chapel, told Reuters in an interview.
Pastors on Forbes list
Nonetheless, the surging popularity of the megachurches among the Christians
who make up half of Nigeria’s 170-million population has propelled their
preachers into the ranks of the richest people in Africa.
In 2011, Forbes magazine estimated the fortunes of Nigeria’s five richest
pastors. Oyedepo topped the list, with an estimated net worth of $150-million.
He was followed by “Pastor Chris” Oyakhilome of Believers’
LoveWorld Incorporated, also known as the Christ Embassy and popular with
executives and politicians, on $30-million to $50-million.
TB Joshua, pastor of the Synagogue Church of All Nations, at the centre of the
recent diplomatic storm over the deaths in its guesthouse, was thought to have
$10-million to $15-million.
The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) declined to comment on how churches
fit into their GDP figures, but a source there said they were included as
“non-profit”, which falls under “other services” in the
latest figures. In 2013, the category contributed 2.5% of GDP, the same
as the financial sector.
A former banker at Nigeria’s United Bank for Africa, who declined to be
named, recalled being approached five years ago by a church that was bringing
in $5-million a week from contributions at home or abroad.
“They wanted to make some pretty big investments: real estate,
shares,” he said. “They wanted to issue a bond to borrow, and then
use the weekly flows to pay the coupon.”
In the end, he said, the bank turned down the proposal on ethical grounds.
Yet Nigerian churches do often invest large amounts of their congregations’
money in shares and property, at home and abroad, he and another banking source
One pastor bought three billion naira ($18-million) worth of shares in the defunct
Finbank, which later merged with FCMB, after it was rescued in a bail-out in
2009, a fund manager who handled the deal told Reuters. The pastor used a
nominee trust account to keep his name off the books.
In 2011, Oyakhilome was investigated by the Economic and Financial Crimes
Commission (EFCC) and charged with laundering $35-million of contributions to
his church in foreign bank accounts. He denied all wrongdoing and the case was
dismissed for lack of evidence.
Oyakhilome was not available for comment and Joshua’s media team declined a
request for an interview with him.
Oyedepo’s headquarters, “Canaanland”, is a 4 250-hectare campus in
Ota, outside the commercial capital Lagos. It comprises a university, two halls
of accommodation, restaurants and a church seating 50 000 people, with a total
overflow capacity of five times that.
“You can see that everything this man touches turns to gold,”
Nigerian Agriculture Minister Akinwumi Adesina said in a speech at a reception
for Oyedepo’s 60th birthday at Canaanland last month.
“May the grace of God abide with you,” he added, to a rapturous
“Amen!” from the guests in a marquee.
Other dignitaries present included twice-president Olusegun Obasanjo and
former military ruler Yakubu Gowon. A choir sang gospel songs as the guests cut
an elaborate six-tiered cake and popped fizzy grape juice out of champagne
bottles in golden wrapping—alcohol is banned in Canaanland.
The next day, he delivered four Sunday services in a row to tens of
thousands of cheering followers, his white-suited figure projected on to large
flat-screen televisions all around.
“From today, no evil spirit, no demon will survive the Almighty!”
he shouted, and the crowd roared “Amen!”.
A spokesperson said the church has 5 000 branches across Nigeria, and 1 000
more in 63 other countries across five continents. But Oyedepo’s empire also
includes two fee-paying universities that he built from scratch, a publishing
house for Christian self-help books, and an elite high school.
Other pastors have similarly diversified ways of getting the Gospel of
Christian salvation out.
Oyakhilome owns magazines, newspapers and 24-hour TV station, and Joshua
draws miracle-seekers from all over the world with claims that the holy water
he has blessed cures otherwise incurable ailments such as HIV/Aids.
Before Joshua built his 10 000-seat headquarters at Ikotun-Egbe in outer Lagos,
the area was part swamp, part abandoned industrial estate.
Now, it is a boom town with shops, hotels, eateries and bars catering
largely to the travellers who come not only from West Africa but also from all
corners of the globe to hear his sermons. Joshua also runs a TV station.
Guests entering Oyedepo’s birthday marquee in Canaanland would have seen a
picture of the poor household in south-west Nigeria where he grew up, testament
to a rags-to-riches story that many Nigerians would love to emulate.
Like US televangelists, Winners Chapel preaches the “prosperity
gospel” that faith in Jesus Christ lifts people out of poverty, and that
message partly explains the explosion of the Pentecostal movement in sub-Saharan
Africa, where misfortune and poverty are often seen as having supernatural
“We see giving as the only way to be blessed. Blessing other people is
a way of keeping the blessings flowing,” said Oyedepo, whose blessings
include a Gulfstream V jet and several BMWs.
Giving to support the church and its work is something the faithful are
encouraged to do, a Christian tradition that was a pillar of the Roman Catholic
church in medieval Europe, just as it has been a major money-spinner for US
Aneke Chika, a business analyst in an oil services company, told Reuters on
the steps of Oyedepo’s church that she set aside 20 000 naira of her 200 000
naira ($1 218) salary every month.
Asked about Forbes’ estimate of his fortune, Oyedepo told Reuters: “For
me, to have fortune means someone who has what he needs at any point in time. I
don’t see myself as having $150-million stacked up somewhere. Whatever way they
found their figures, I am only able to say I am blessed by the Lord.”
He said he could not estimate the church’s total revenues or expenditure on
items such as salaries because the various departments, including education,
were too diverse.
The enterprises on the Canaanland campus, from the shops selling cold sodas
and bread, to a woman boiling instant noodles and eggs for breakfast in a
lodge, to pop-up book stalls hawking Oyedepo’s prolific literary output, are
owned by the church’s estate, which employs their staff on its payroll, workers
at all the outlets told Reuters.
Winners Chapel’s Corporate Affairs department said the church employed more
than 18 000 people in Nigeria alone.
Oyedepo says the wealth the church gathers is invested in expanding it, and
that if he did not use a private jet, he would be unable to oversee its many
foreign operations and still return to Ota every week in time for Sunday’s
Britain’s Charity Commission says it is reviewing potential conflicts of
interest in his finances, and last month the Home Office barred him from Britain, though it declined to say why.
Oyedepo said he knew nothing of the commission’s review, nor had the Home
Office explained to him why he was barred.
A national conference to debate Nigeria’s Constitution this year proposed
that the megachurches should be taxed.
But with an election coming up in February, it is debatable whether
President Goodluck Jonathan, who is close to several megapastors, would risk
upsetting these influential men and their hefty congregations with a fat tax
“There is no single government input on
this premises,” Oyedepo told Reuters in the interview. “We supply our
water, we make our roads, then you ... say: ‘Let’s tax them’. For what?” -
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