“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 really knows.”
As the churches have charity status, they have no obligation to open their books, and certainly don’t have to fill in tax returns. The National Bureau of Statistics 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.
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. 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. 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. Oyedepo other “blessings” include a Gulfstream V jet and several BMWs. 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. The church employed more than 18 000 people in Nigeria alone. 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.
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. 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.
TB Joshua, pastor of the Synagogue Church of All Nations, at the centre of the recent diplomatic storm over the collapse of its guesthouse last month, killing 115 mostly South African pilgrims, , was thought to have $10-million to $15-million. 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. Joshua also runs a TV station.
A former banker at Nigeria’s United Bank for Africa 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. Nigerian churches do often invest large amounts of their congregations’ money in shares and property, at home and abroad, he and another banking source said.
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 and charged with laundering $35-million of contributions to his church in foreign bank accounts.
Like US televangelists, these churches 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 causes.