By Samson Folarin
In 897, the body of Pope Formosus was exhumed and taken to trial in what became known as the Cadaver Synod. Formosus died seven months earlier and was accused of perjury by John III. His corpse was taken to court, clad in papal vestment and propped on a throne. Witnesses came forward to testify against him. Formosus, after all evidence, was pronounced guilty. Upon conviction, his clothes were torn as his pontificate and decisions were revoked. The fingers he used in blessing the congregation were cut off. Then he was re-buried.
This macabre trial, which I came across recently, ran through my mind as I watched with horror the disturbing revelations from the BBC documentary on Prophet TB Joshua of the Synagogue Church of All Nations. I wondered if TB could face posthumous prosecution for the allegations of rapes, abortions, assaults, occultism, slavery, and manipulation levelled against him by his former disciples and members, including five Britons. A South African woman even claimed she aborted three times for TB Joshua! I felt sad and angry at the same time.
Truth is, most of these heart-rending tales of abuse are not new. The late investigative journalist, Kolawole Olawuyi, unravelled this mess more than two decades ago. As a reporter on the Metro desk those days, I wrote several stories on this man, particularly the mysterious deaths and curious cover-ups in his church with the connivance of his indoctrinated disciples. Some of his former members also made videos and wrote books, desperately calling attention to the alleged atrocities of TB. Many of these stories were discredited and described as rantings of aggrieved and envious haters. Instead, heads of governments and world leaders flocked to TB’s church at Ikotun Egbe, a backwater community in Lagos, to endorse his unconventional methods that made him a pariah in Nigerian Christian circles. But now that the BBC has made this film with graphic details and testimonies, maybe there will be a push for some retribution on his estate.
I, however, have two concerns with regard to the sexual allegations. First, there are many more TB Joshuas in Africa, keeping thousands of gullible ladies in religious bondage. These are felons with specialties in sophistry and sophisticated nonsense, who have perfected a system of keeping young innocent girls in sexual servitude. In Nigeria, a few of them have been exposed. Some of their victims have spoken to local media, revealing the dirty things done behind closed curtains, far from the klieg lights of public performance. But the justice system has failed them. Their cries of pain have been drowned by the hosannah screams of followers of these powerful and untouchable pastor-preneurs, who are being protected by a complicit, enabling society that shields them from accountability and responsibility.
In 1988, Jimmy Swaggart, a popular televangelist, was accused of consorting with a sex worker at a time the church in America was rocked with different sex scandals involving top pastors. Swaggart had exposed a few. With no hiding place, he sobbed in front of his 7,000 congregation, confessing to his “moral failure” as he resigned his position. I am not sure anything like this has happened in Nigeria, the most religious country in the world. And yet, we have an unenviable record of sexual exploitation through the pulpit. In a series of investigations I conducted last year on a particular prominent pastor accused of raping at least three of his female members, I discovered these pastors blackmail and harass their victims with compromised security agents. Attempts were made to bribe me as well, but I refused. Now, the accused is facing prosecution as his naïve members and followers are made to believe their ‘papa’ is only a victim of political persecution. There are more of his ilk. The unfortunate thing is that we may never know how much havoc they have caused until they die like several pastors whose licentious relationships only came to light after their demise. For TB, it was apparent in his lifetime, but he somehow evaded justice.
My second worry is that the BBC film has a lot of ramifications and implications. But the greatest for me is the toll it could take on Nigerians and the Christian faith. TB Joshua, in his lifetime, was one of the biggest exports of Nigeria. While the country struggled to attract tourists, the SCOAN effortlessly drew thousands of worshippers from different parts of the world. At a time, eight out of 10 tourists arriving in Nigeria were said to be going to TB’s church. Many converted to Christianity because of him. But now that the lid has been blown on Pandora’s box, the Nigerian Christian community will take a major hit. Many will turn sceptics. Some will backslide. A few might even want to stop going to church. With Nigeria’s bad reputation, true Christian leaders will face increased scrutiny when they go to other countries.
But whatever happens, I am strongly convinced that miracles, as supernatural acts of God, are real. There are also true ministers of God in Nigeria and Africa. Without making excuses for monstrous rapists, a few undisciplined preachers may have fallen into sexual sins because they could not handle the attention that comes with increased fame. Pastors are not the only ones guilty of this. There are artists who sleep recklessly with fawning female fans, lecturers who abuse their position as loco parentis to rape students, and managers who sleep with recruits and younger colleagues as condition for favour and promotion. A common thread runs through them all: abuse of power and indiscipline! The only difference is that spiritual leaders are expected to be beacons of integrity and chastity.
I commend all the courageous men and women, particularly the former disciples, who spoke to the BBC after going through such horrendous and traumatising ordeals at the hands of a man they trusted. To be a victim of sexual abuse and talk about it openly can be very difficult. Now their stories have a global audience. I understand that the plan was to confront TB Joshua with these allegations, but he died while interviews were running for the two-year investigations. I urge young girls facing sexual exploitation and enslavement whether in religious or secular circles to enlist the support of reputable rights groups and journalists. Don’t suffer in silence. Confront that fake prophet like Ajoke, TB Joshua’s daughter, did on behalf of those women, despite being ostracised by her father. The government and the church failed in the handling of the grievous allegations against TB Joshua, even after his guest house killed 116 people. There must be proper accountability for these crimes. I demand apologies from those who failed to defend the victims in spite of their outcry.
And I am still wondering, can the late TB Joshua face trial like Formosus or we should allow God judge him, as Nigerians would say?
Folarin, a Chevening scholar at the City, University of London, writes via firstname.lastname@example.org
Samson Folarin In this article