An 18-year-old girl is challenging the divinity of Nigeria’s super rich pastor and self-styled bishop, David Oyedepo, who a few years ago transcended to the aerial realm by acquiring four private jets.
Fondly called Papa by his congregation, Oyedepo, founder of Living Faith World Outreach Ministry, is placed on the pedestal of deities by his followers.
A fortnight ago at the Faith Tabernacle, the 50,000-capacity worship centre where Oyedepo hosts three services each Sunday, a rapid-fire prayer session was conducted against satanic forces attempting to pull down the house of God. The congregation stopped short of pronouncing a Christian version of a fatwa.
Days earlier, word had it that a little mortal had done the unthinkable.
The bishop is still reeling from the aftershock following a $1.3 million (Sh100 million) lawsuit slammed on him by a female church member whom the man of the cloth last year physically assaulted in public.
The girl’s identity is kept secret on the request of her lawyers to protect her from the pastor’s fanatical followers.
Last year, a sensational video appeared on YouTube showing Bishop Oyedepo smacking and pouring invectives on a young woman during church service, allegedly for committing what was deemed a heresy.
The video clip, a part of routine recording by Oyedepo’s worship centre popularly called Canaan Land, showed the richest preacher in Africa assaulting a bewildered teenager who had just engaged him in a drama.
In the video that was quickly pulled down from the Internet, the young woman had just joined other “witches” kneeling at the altar.
Oyedepo accuses the girl of being a witch and the young woman rejects the charge, saying: “I am not a winch (witch); I am a winch (witch) for Jesus”.
Apparently expecting the girl to tremble and submit to his authority, Oyedepo repeats “you are a witch”.
The young woman sticks to her guns. Shocked by her gumption, Oyedepo transfers the microphone to his left hand and smacks the girl on the cheek so viciously that her head snaps back. But he is not through with her.
“Do you know who you’re talking to?” he thunders.
“Foul demon! You are a foul demon… You are not set for deliverance and you are free to go to hell.”
A wave of public outrage followed, opening a floodgate of claims of abuse, quackery, and tyranny by a man who, in 1987, claimed that he got a call from God to “Get back home (from the United States) and make my people rich”.
In what was probably a damage control manoeuvre to reaffirm Oyedepo’s spiritual authority, a second video was released showing the prosperity preacher justifying his action and boasting that he would do it all over again.
“It is my ministry to slap; people now complain on the Internet that I slapped a witch. If I see another one, I’ll slap...”
Robert Igbinedion, a lawyer from Salus Populi Chambers, said he filed the lawsuit on behalf of the girl because of the violation of her right to human dignity and freedom from torture and inhuman and degrading treatment.
Mr Igbinedion is seeking an award of $1.3 million as “general and exemplary damages” against Bishop Oyedepo, He added that he hopes the suit will bring to an end violence in places of worship.
In a telephone interview with this correspondent, the lawyer said it had become necessary to keep secret the identity of his client, who is only referred to in the suit as “Miss Justice”.
He described her as “a sickly, young, disadvantaged girl” treated like a criminal while performing her spiritual obligation.
The lawyer said the lawsuit was “another landmark”, adding that he intended to use the case to prove that nobody was above the law.
He hoped that other victims of physical abuse and mental torture in churches would be encouraged to come out.
In 2006, Mr Igbinedion made a name for himself by taking on an equally revered preacher; Pastor Emeka Ezeugo aka Reverend King, who shocked the nation by dousing a female worshipper in petrol and setting her on fire.
She later died. The mullah-esquely bearded reverend, who also maintained a prison, had operated a 17th century style inquisition, sometimes invoking Mosaic law to try church members dragged before him.
He had accused the female worshipper of fornication, even as he kept a harem at his official residence within the church premises.
Emeka Ezeugo abducted other men’s wives and flogged husbands who dared to complain.
When he was in the pulpit, no member of his congregation was allowed to get up to use the toilet.
He had the last say in matters like marriage and decided if, when, and to whom any of his female church members could be married.
Reverend King, who had boasted that his action was in conformity with God’s commandments, was sentenced to death and is detained at Nigeria’s Maiduguri prison.
The suit against Bishop Oyedepo reads:
“The respondent (David Oyedepo) made the altar call for witches to come forward. He did not make a similar call for other categories of sinners like illicit drug dealers, contract inflators, fraudsters, adulterers, and fornicators in the church.”
It further says that branding the young woman a witch was illegal, unconstitutional, and a breach of Section 34 of the Constitution of Nigeria, African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
The suit asked the court to compel Oyedepo to issue a self-signed public apology to be published in two national dailies and one international satellite television station.
It also wants the respondent to issue a similar altar call for drug dealers, corrupt government officials, bribe-giving contractors, and other categories of sinners who are members of his church.
If anything, “Miss Justice” has already succeeded in demystifying Nigeria’s most capitalist pastor who once released a video showing President Goodluck Jonathan kneeling before him as he prayed for him.
Former church members are beginning to relate ugly experiences in Canaan Land, detailing years of slave labour, indoctrination, class segregation, and the mercantile instinct of a spiritual master who in matters of finance so mistrusts all his devotees that he places only his sons in charge of the London and South African branches of his church.
A few weeks ago, Bishop Oyedepo made news again by floating an airline called Dominion Air.
The flamboyant preacher is listed by Forbes — the respected American business magazine that compiles the World’s Rich List — as Nigeria’s wealthiest pastor, with a net worth of $150 million (Sh12.4 billion).
Oyedepo’s business interests span manufacturing, oil and gas, bakeries, table water factories, construction, private universities and elite secondary schools, hotels, malls, bookshop chain, internet cafes, real estate, and aviation.
Last year, the preacher added a $35 million Sh3 billion) Gulfstream V Jet to his fleet that comprises three private jets, among them a Challenger 604 and a Gulfstream IV.
Former church members say that while Bishop Oyedepo swims in opulence, he pays his workers slave wages and discards them without notice after they have served their usefulness.
Three junior pastors — Mr Akah Ikenna of Benin branch, Ifeakwachukwu Sunday of Asaba branch, and Dick Abiye of the Port Harcourt branch — who were on a monthly salary of $300 (Sh25,000) each, were returning to their respective parishes from the church’s headquarters in Ota, where they had gone for a workers’ meeting, when they were involved in a road accident
Pastor Ifeakwachukwu broke a leg and suffered a dislocation in his pelvis.
He spent months in hospital in Benin City. Ifeakwachukwu told the Newswatch magazine in 2010 that his church abandoned and that he survived through the help of “some brethren”.
Upon his return, Pastor Ifeakwachukwu was transferred to another district office.
Strangely, he got another letter on the same day terminating his appointment as a pastor in Oyedepo’s church.
Shaken, Pastor Ifeakwachukwu travelled to the church’s headquarters, Canaan Land.
He recalled: “Luckily, I met Oyedepo himself as he was coming out from the church. After I had introduced myself, he asked me what I wanted. I told him I needed money for the operation to remove the metals from my body. He directed me to one Ndubuisi, who was then the secretary. Ndubuisi asked me what it would cost and I told him I would not know until we meet the doctors. He then asked me to go and do so and get back to them. When I got the documents from the doctors, I went and submitted them to him, but the church never acted on them.”
Unrelenting, on 12 August, 2009, Ifeakwachukwu wrote directly to Bishop Oyedepo: “I had written a series of letters to you, attached with the medical bill for my surgery, but to no avail. I believe the letters did not get to you. From the time I was relieved of my service to the church, it has not been easy for me following pain from the injury. Now, I cannot stand for a period of three minutes, let alone walk. I solicit your fatherly care. I have nowhere else to turn to but this organisation I once belonged to.” (sic)
Until Ifeakwachukwu told his story to Newswatch, he had never received a response from Oyedepo.
Before he joined Oyedepo’s church, Ifeakwachukwu had been an employee of the National Fertiliser Company of Nigeria.
He was compelled to resign, in line with the church’s policy that a pastor and his wife shall not engage in any other job.
Besides being sacked, Ifeakwachukwu was ejected from the church’s house. He served Oyedepo’s church for 10 years, but was not paid any entitlements.
The world of Oyedepo Incorporated
Oyedepo owns the thriving Dominion Publishing House (DPH), which has published over four million copies of Christian and motivational books authored by the Bishop and his wife, Faith Oyedepo.
However, Oyedepo is better known for his Covenant University, where he is the chancellor.
To build the university, a special envelope marked “CUP” (Covenant University Project) was for years circulated at every church service for members to give donations.
The contributions came mostly from the poor and medium income earners who also volunteered their skilled and unskilled labour.
When the university took off in 2002, the labourers were stunned when they found out that they could not afford to take their children there.
Deaf to criticism, Oyedepo has since established another tertiary institution, Landmark University, in his hometown of Omu-Aran in Kwara State.
The $100 million (Sh8.3 billion) university was officially opened in March 2011.
It has a commercial bakery that produces Landmark Bread. Policy dictates that every student and staff member volunteer labour to the bakery as “agric practical”.
A third university will soon become operational in Abuja, the federal capital.
Located in the expansive 560-acre Goshen City, a replica of the massive Canaan Land at Ota, the university complements a multi-million dollar housing project, a 15,000-capacity sanctuary, a printing press, and primary and secondary schools.
Oyedepo’s wife runs the Faith Academy group of colleges spread across Nigeria.
She also runs Kingdom Heritage Model Schools, the nursery and primary arm located in several Nigerian cities. There are about 90 Kingdom Heritage schools scattered across the country.
Oyedepo’s church runs a factory that produces the Hebron sachet water, touted as “holy water” and sold to church members and neighbouring communities.
The water factory is a money spinner for Oyedepo’s Canaan Land that boasts a bakery, a gas station, a restaurant, an internet café, a bookshop, supermarkets, and a microfinance bank.
Besides the Faith Tabernacle in Nigeria, Oyedepo has hundreds of missions in 63 countries in Africa, Europe, The Caribbean, Canada, and USA.
In 2004, his Ghanaian pastor, George Adjeman, revolted and threatened to seize the church in Accra.
The Ghana parishes were then said to be repatriating to the Nigerian headquarters about $60,000 (Sh5 million) in monthly revenues.
In apparent reference to David Oyedepo, Catholic Cardinal Anthony Okogie condemned pastors who fleeced the poor to build their own heaven on earth.
He said: “They claim to be a pastor looking after souls. I wonder what kind of pastors they are. That shows really that they are not shepherds of the flock. They have been skinning the flock, taking out of the milk of the flock.”
Tunde Bakare, a fiery preacher and vice-presidential candidate of opposition CPC Party, was so piqued by Oyedepo’s opulence that he once publicly tore a book authored by Oyedepo, claiming that its contents were anti-Christ.
“They are apostates, only interested in the gospel of wealth,” he charged.
Miss Susan Ajayi, a former member of Oyedepo’s church, says it is unacceptable for pastors to target only the poor as witches.
“Even if the lady was a witch, why slap her? Did Jesus slap Mary Magdalene? Christianity is not a religion of violence. Oyedepo is a businessman, and nothing else. Big business, that is.”