At about 8:15pm on 8 September, Bishop David Oyedepo, founder of Living Faith Church Worldwide, alias Winners’ Chapel, was in Abeokuta to meet with Governor Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun State. The meeting was facilitated by former president Olusegun Obasanjo, whom Oyedepo contacted to reach out to Amosun. The governor was said to be seething over the latest controversy involving Oyedepo and his church.
Two days earlier, some members of the church assaulted a team of officials of the Ogun State Ministry Of Urban and Physical Planning, who had gone to the church’s headquarters in Ota to serve building inspection notices, as well as two journalists attached to Ogun State Television.
Peter Falomo, a reporter, and Lekan Egunjobi, a cameraman, were the worst hit. A statement issued by Yusuph Olaniyonu, Ogun State Commisioner for Information and Strategy, said the journalists were savagely beaten, their camera seized, the recording deleted and the camera damaged before it was released. Olaniyonu alleged that Oyedepo was present, watching the assault as though it was a spectator sport. “The assault was witnessed by the Head Pastor of the Church, Bishop David Oyedepo, who equally was visibly angry at the decision of the officials to attempt to carry out their statutory duties in his church premises,” said Olaniyonu. The commissioner added that Oyedepo repeatedly spewed insults at the officials and asked why they imagined they had the licence to regulate building of structures for commercial purposes in his church premises.
Aside from the journalists, two officials of the ministry were also wounded by church members, who denied the team access to the church premises. The victims were taken to the General Hospital in Ota, where they were treated and subsequently discharged. The church authorities are said to have severally ignored invitations to meetings of the Stakeholders Forum, set up by the government, for organisations in the state to discuss with the government issues like physical planning and taxation regulations.
General Manager, Ogun State Urban and Physical Planning Board, Mr. Stephen Adewolu, who led the team of officials, accused the church authorities of acting as though they were above the law. “No organisation can carry on as if it is above the law. We have information that the people in that church are just building structures indiscriminately without building approval, without necessary environmental impact assessment reports and they are violating planning laws and regulations,” Adewolu said.
It was the second assault on government officials by Oyedepo’s followers in as many days. A day before, officials of the Ogun State Internal Revenue Service, OGIRS, who visited the church premises to effect the payment of outstanding taxes were similarly attacked. According to officials of the agency, the outstanding taxes, which cover a seven-year period, are owed by Kingdom Heritage Nursery School, owned by Oyedepo’s church and located within its headquarters. The tax owed is put at less than N2 million. “What they owe is below two million naira. It is from 2003 to 2010. We have sent several notices to them. The first one was in 2010, followed by that of 2011 and the last was in May 2013. Our men were explaining to them when some personnel, including their legal officer and accountant, came out and in the course of discussion, our men were beaten blue black and our equipment were destroyed,” explained OGIRS Chairman, Mr. Jide Odubanjo.
At a press conference a day after the assault, the state government showed a video of the attack on OGIRS officials and subsequent detention of journalists for three hours by staff of the school. The video was recorded on the sly by a government official with a mobile phone and later downloaded on DVD. The detained staff were released following the intervention of the Divisional Police Officer of Onipanu in Ota Division. Odubanjo said the service is legally empowered to access and inspect financial records in the premises of any business located within the state. He explained that the recent inspection was part of the government’s drive to ensure compliance with tax laws and enforcement efforts. Odubanjo added that the visit to the church’s headquarters became necessary in view of the fact that the authorities of the church had ignored reminders to pay up.
Muyiwa Adejobi, Public Relations Officer of the Ogun State Police Command, said the matter will be investigated. Ogun State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Mrs. Abimbola Akeredolu, said her ministry is studying the facts on the two incidents with a view to fashioning an appropriate legal response.
Before the meeting with Oyedepo, Amosun was said to have met with some key officials of his government, including heads of law enforcement agencies, and taken a decision to seal off the premises of the church last Monday. The decision was, however, leaked to the church, a development that pushed Oyedepo to seek Obasanjo’s assistance in getting through to the governor.
At the meeting with Oyedepo, said sources, Amosun did not conceal his disgust at the conduct of Oyedepo’s followers. A source at the meeting said Oyedepo pleaded for leniency, but the governor said the church must pick the hospital bills of the victims and replace all the damaged equipment. The governor was also said to have insisted that law must take its course in the matter.
Sources told TheNEWS that five of those involved in the attack on government officials have been arrested by the police and may be slammed with charges based on their statements to the police.
“Without prejudice to the facts on ground and with the video evidence we have just watched, they may likely be charged for false imprisonment and assault,” said Akeredolu, Commissioner for Justice.
When TheNEWS visited the church’s headquarters, a pastor that refused to give his name confirmed that Oyedepo met with the governor. He explained that the preacher agreed to pick the medical bills of the victims and pay for the damaged equipment. He also said church officials involved in the violence will be sanctioned on release from police detention. The pastor, however, denied the government’s claim that Oyedepo was present when government officials were being molested and branded the authors of such claim as mischievous.
But a regional pastor, who prefers to be anonymous, told this medium that church officials that attacked OGIRS officials did so based on the conviction that the church has been sensitive to the needs of its host community and is thus entitled to a tax-exempt status. He said this was conveyed to OGIRS officials who, rightly, were unimpressed.
Just like the Ogun State government, the British authorities have also developed an interest in Oyedepo, whose church in Britain has received an estimated £16 million in tithes from followers between 2008 and 2013. Of this sum, according to a recent report in The Guardian of London, over £1 million has been funnelled into the church’s operation in Nigeria, the reason for which the Charity Commission of England and Wales is scrutinising the church’s finances. The commission is a non-ministerial department that functions as the regulator and registrar of charities in England and Wales. Last month, The Guardian reported that the Charity Commission was investigating allegations that charitable funds that accrued to Oyedepo’s church have been misapplied.
The commission is looking into two Christian charities connected to Oyedepo, estimated by Forbes to be worth $150 million, over concerns about misapplication of charitable funds and conflicts of interest.
World Mission Agency, the church’s charity vehicle, registered with the commission in 2001 and lists its objectives as the proclamation and advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Its 2011 accounts list Pastor David Oyedepo Jnr, the preacher’s son, as its chief executive.
World Mission Agency – Winners’ Chapel International, which shares the same trustees and website as World Mission Agency, registered in 2010 and lists among its objects the advancement of education and the relief of those in need.
The latest accounts on the commission’s website show that World Mission Agency had an income of £224,000 in 2011, but spent almost £7.5 million. World Mission Agency – Winners’ Chapel International had an income of £11.9m in 2001 and spent £3.4m, according to its 2011 accounts.
The World Mission Agency annual accounts for 2011 state that its net assets, valued at £8.5m, were donated to World Mission Agency – Winners’ Chapel International. According to World Mission Agency’s accounts, the sum £663,532 was contributed in 2011 by the congregation “for onward transmission to the world headquarters in Nigeria”. The year before, payment to the Living Faith Church totalled £324,683. In 2009 £149,000 was sent “for charitable activities in Africa”.
Other payments from the cash donated weekly by the congregation include £192,000 in 2009 and 2010 as “welfare assistance” for unspecified “certain members of the church”. Identified charitable donations were discovered, however, to be considerably smaller. These include £10,500 to Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London, £9,000 to Christian Aid–an international charity that attends to emergencies worldwide–for the Haiti earthquake appeal and £2,500 to charities in Lewisham, East London.
Joel Edwards of Micah Challenge, which runs Exposed, a global anti-corruption campaign aimed at churches, business and government, praised the generous spirit of congregations such as that of Oyedepo’s church, but called on church leaders to be more transparent. “All of us have a growing concern about any kind of mercenary response that puts cash at the centre of Christian faith. I challenge any movement, including Winners, to be open and account for its money wherever it goes because it comes originally from hard-working, faithful people,” said Edwards.
The seed of the scrutiny of the church’s finances was sown last November, when Paul Flynn, a member of the British Paliarment, accused Winners’ Chapel of cynical exploitation of members. “They [Winners’ Chapel] are making clearly spurious claims and it seems to be a cynical exploitation of the gullible,” he said.
Donations to Oyedepo’s church in England almost doubled from £2.21m to £4.37m between 2006 and 2010. A hefty £794,000 or 73 per cent of the charitable donations by the British Winners’ Chapel between 2007 and 2010 went to the headquarters in Nigeria. The registered charity has spent £6.81m on evangelism and ‘praise, worship and fellowship’.
Oyedepo’s teaching, which puts the accent on ceaseless giving of tithes and offerings (Kingdom investment), is followed and reviled in equal measure. He and other prosperity preachers have been accused of milking the passion and emotion that Christianity commands to give themselves Hollywood lifestyles of jets, pricey autos, sumptuous wardrobes and unfettered adulation.
This combination of fame and fortune in superstar preachers, especially in Oyedepo, is considered by critics as having filled them with breathtaking conceit towards the less fortunate and indifference to the law. Two years ago, an online video went viral when it showed Oyedepo viciously slapping a young girl, who claimed to be a witch during a church service. The violent conduct provoked joy in the congregation. He was later shown in a separate video, lustily saying: “I slapped a witch here last year!”
When criticism erupted online, Oyedepo’s followers defended his use of violence by citing the Biblical account of Matthew 21:12, which records Jesus throwing out traders from the temple, but conveniently ignoring the fact that the account has no evidence of Jesus slapping or punching any of the traders. “Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves,” reads the verse. In May 2012, Oyedepo was sued over the alleged assault. The case was struck out, a decision that has since been appealed.
Oyedepo’s diary of controversies reads like a rap sheet. A report in the Newswatch edition of 7 July 2010 detailed his alleged ill-treatment of three pastors of his church–Akah Ikenna (Benin), Ifeakwachukwu Sunday (Asaba) and Dick Abiye (Port Harcourt)––who were involved in auto crashes that left them with disabilities. According to the magazine, the pastors, who earned N45,000 monthly, were on official assignment for Winners’ Chapel when separate accidents occurred.
Sunday, ordained a pastor of the church in 2001, was serving at Umunede, Delta State, when the accident occured. One of his legs broke into two and he also suffered severe pelvic dislocations. At a hospital in Benin, Edo State, he underwent several surgeries, including one through which steel braces were inserted into the leg and the pelvis. He was then discharged and asked to come back for a second operation to remove the objects. But, as he claimed, the church abandoned him at the hospital in Benin, “but through the help of some brethren, I came back to my station”, bed-ridden.
Sunday was redeployed to the church’s district office at Asaba. But he got another letter the same day terminating his appointment. He went to the headquarters to appeal to Oyedepo for a re-consideration of his case. “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 then directed me to one Ndubuisi, who was then the secretary. Ndubuisi asked me what it would cost and I told him I did not know till 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.”
Desperate, Sunday said he wrote to Oyedepo on 12 August 2009: “I had written series of letters to you, attached with the medical bill (N230,000) for my surgery, but all 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 pains from the injury. Now, I cannot stand for a period of three minutes, not alone walk. I solicit for your fatherly care. I have nowhere else to turn to but this organisation I once belonged to.” He never got a response and claimed not have been paid his entitlements.
Sunday resigned to fate. So did Abiye, his colleague. But Ikenna, the third pastor, hired Lagos-based lawyer, Festus Keyamo and went to court. They won the case at the Ota High Court. But Oyedepo and his church headed to the Appeal Court, where the case has remained since 2009.
The church’s spokesmen denied that they were abandoned. In a statement, the church said: “They were not abandoned. They were treated on moral ground and in demonstration of good Christian character. The church (Winners’ Chapel) has the right to review its workers’ performances and release from service any staff it feels his or her services are no longer needed.” It was in the 11 November 2011 edition of Newswatch that Oyedepo publicly commented on the issue. “I almost cursed them (i.e. the three pastors). If there is any case that is serious to take to the court, you go to the court and lawyers will take charge,” he said.