In late April, scores of giant billboards and thousands of wall posters all over Lagos proclaimed the first of three days of divine miracles and healing for at least six million Nigerians – but at the end of the third day, there was more bickering over money than praise to God for mercy received.
The vehicle of the expected wonders of the Holy Spirit was American evangelist Benny Hinn, who flew into Nigeria in a Gulfstream private jet with a large retinue that included his bodyguards.
He was received at Lagos airport in a motorcade of Hummer jeeps and other expensive cars.
The deaf would hear, the blind would see, the lame would jump and walk, barren women would conceive, the jobless would gain employment, and the enemy – both seen and unseen – would be vanquished. Mention any problem – physical, spiritual, economic – Hinn had come with the instant solution.
But things did not go well.
About 300,000 people attended the event each night – a modest congregation by Nigerian crusade standards. It is estimated that about 1 million worshippers attend the monthly Holy Ghost Congress service organised by The Redeemed Christian Church God (RCCG) at the same venue.
Whatever disappointment he felt on the first and second days of the miracle crusade, Hinn kept to himself – but he opened up with anger on the final day.
“Four million dollars down the drain,” he shouted into the microphone from the huge rostrum.
He said that he had been assured by the local organising committee that at least six million people would attend the crusade – but the total turnout was only around one million. As a result, he realised that all the mega public address equipment he had flown in from the US was not needed.
He also complained about some claimed expenditures, the charges imposed on pastors who attended his day-time seminar, and journalists who sought to cover the crusade.
He then announced publicly that he would not provide any more funds, and that the local organisers should pay all outstanding bills from the collections they made on the first two days.
Hinn’s complaints instantly overshadowed the spiritual context of the event. Some people from the congregation came out to declare that they received healing and other miracles after the prayers, but they were hardly audible.
The Nigerian head of the local organising committee, Bishop Joseph Olanrewaju Obembe, accused other Nigerian Pentecostal preachers of sabotaging the crusade and pedalling false information to Hinn and his aides out of envy, and to discredit him.
Soon after the crusade, a committee was set up by the leadership of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) – the umbrella body of Pentecostal churches nationwide – to investigate the funding controversy.
The Pentecostal faith in Nigeria is a veritable goldmine, judging by the opulence of most of its pastors.
It is made even more attractive because incomes of churches are tax-exempt. Nearly all the churches are the private property of their pastors or founders and their immediate families.
In an economic environment in which the majority of Nigeria’s estimated 130 million population has been impoverished by unemployment, lack of basic social infrastructure and rising inflation, the church has become the last refuge for many people.
The favoured churches are the new-generation Pentecostal assemblies, that are owned and managed solely by fast-talking American-style pastors.
Rich and powerful Nigerians run after the pastors for “spiritual protection” from imaginary ‘enemies’ who, they are convinced, are lurking around the corner to pull them down.
These are the big spenders in the churches.
The attraction, perhaps, lies in the often-quoted biblical injunction that “givers never lack” and the fact that most pastors don’t ask the donors how they make the money they give.
In March 2003, a cashier at a five-star hotel was arrested for allegedly stealing nearly 40 million naira (then about US$400,000) from his employer.
His colleagues were shocked because there was nothing to suggest that he was living above his means – he had no car and he lived in a rented flat in a non-fashionable part of Lagos.
The man confessed that he gave all the money to his Pentecostal church in cash and equipment.
In another case a bank clerk stole 40 million naira from his employer and gave 10 million to his church as ‘seed money’ in the belief that the seed would germinate and yield several fold as promised by his pastor.
Many Nigerians believe that a large number of pastors are honest and devoted to the service of God and mankind.
But they readily take umbrage under the Yoruba saying that “only God knows who serves Him truly.”