THE NEWS, MARCH 24, 2016
On Friday, February 26th, the Supreme Court of Nigeria gave a ruling in the case of the ‘Reverend’ Kingsley Ezeugo, Founder and General Overseer of the Christian Praying Assembly. The Supreme Court upheld the rulings of the lower courts and found the ‘Man of God’ guilty of the murder of Ms Ann Uzoh. He is to die by hanging.
On 2nd August 2006, Mr Kingsley Ezeugo poured petrol over Ms Uzoh, a live-in adherent of his church, and she died a horrible death. It is gratifying to note that after ten long years, justice has finally been done, and the family of Ann Uzoh can now have some closure, even though it will not bring back all they have lost. My concern is that there are far too many ‘Reverend’ Kings out there, with many Annes in their clutches. What are we all prepared to do to save these Annes from a similar fate? The issues I am about to raise here apply to all the major religious faiths. However, since the King case happened in his own version of a Christian church, I am restricting my discussion to the practice of Christianity by certain religious leaders today.
Five Lessons From The ‘Reverend’ Kingsley Ezeugo Saga:
1.Our religious leaders should prioritise the need to address violence perpetrated against people in their congregation. The majority of cases we get to hear about concern women and children, though we have also heard cases of men used as slaves in the business empires of their leaders and sometimes estranged from their families who get taken over by leaders of the church. ‘Pastor defiles 13 year Old’, ‘How my Pastor raped me’, ‘ How my Pastor had sex with me to drive evil spirits from me’, ‘“It is the work of the devil”, says Pastor who raped 5 year old’, the headlines now seem to be endless. It is not enough for our religious leaders to say ‘This can never happen in my church’.
When they adopt that kind of attitude, what happens is that when such a case is indeed reported in their church, they do all they can to cover it up. When confronted with a case of sexual abuse in his church, a famous church proprietor allegedly said,’ What happened to you happened in the house of God, which means God is aware. If it had happened out in the world, it would be very bad, but because it happened in the house of God, it is ok’. Perhaps this particular church leader reads some versions of the Holy Bible not available to the rest of us. 2 Samuel 22:3 reads ‘My God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my saviour. You save me from violence, and I am saved from my enemies’.
People go to church to seek refuge in God’s grace and love. They ask for God’s protection from the travails of life, and to be strengthened in the spirit to be able to face all their challenges. When the men and women who God has entrusted with the responsibility of caring for his flock become the abusers, then we have a serious crisis. It would be helpful if religious bodies could develop self-regulation policies to address questions such as ‘How do people become Pastors’? ‘What modalities are in place to deal with complaints from the congregation’? ‘What happens when the leader is the alleged perpetrator?’ ‘We have many progressive, dynamic male and female Christian leaders. They need to break the culture of silence around these issues and speak up more.
2. Religious leaders should stop preying on vulnerable women and children
A lot has been written about how many of our ‘big’ churches have become serious business conglomerates. One of the key strategies here is a simple ‘bums on seats’ one. The more the flock, the greater the profits. However, competition for flock is fierce. Like business enterprises who thrive ‘in the world’, branding, innovation, entertainment and ‘shock and awe’ feature regularly. So we set the scene for a grand revival/deliverance event, an average ‘Angela’ starts to convulse in front of the Man of God, and as if on cue, gasps out certain details of what she has done and who she has done it to. She is a witch! The confession takes place, she is ‘delivered’ of her demons and the audience is convinced not only of evidence of her witchcraft, but that they have made the right decision to worship there.
Everyone is reminded of all the witches in their family, village and workplace who are holding back their progress. Maybe if they pray hard enough, those witches too will pitch up here and confess. More prayers are needed. Followed by more donations. This exploitation of vulnerable, gullible women plays out around the world. In Kenya, a deranged ‘Pastor’ sucks the breasts of his female followers to ‘take away all their troubles’. In South Africa, another demon in a cassock feeds his followers live snakes. On a beach somewhere, another ‘Pastor’ is pictured kissing the naked backsides of spinsters in his church searching for husbands!
A few weeks ago, there was a report about Anja Loven, a kind Danish woman based in Akwa Ibom State, who saved a little boy from certain death. She runs a charity to save children rejected by their families for being witches and wizards. Apparently, scores of children roam the streets there, having been pointed out as demons, usually with the help of a ‘Pastor’ somewhere.
Which reminds me of the self-styled female ‘witch hunter’, preacher, cum movie producer from Cross River State. She needs to be under the watch of the State Security Services. Freedom of religion and expression should not include endangering the lives of women and children. Her so-called movies and preaching galvanized a superstitious populace and the result was dozens of children tortured and abused to extract confessions of witchcraft from them. Many of them ended up as street children, with all the dangers that entails. This woman obviously has bibles which omit Jesus’s position, ‘Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for theirs is the Kingdom of God’. Perhaps she did not read beyond ‘Suffer little children’. Thanks in part to the legacy of this notorious female preacher, as well as others like her, we have now been reduced to seeing images of our starving, half-dead children being saved by a white woman who has taken it upon herself to care for them. This is 2016. Didn’t Mary Slessor die 101 years ago?
3. We need to address our capacity to manage mental health issues in this country. Our healthcare systems are always overstretched. For many years now, there has been occasional reference to the dearth of qualified personnel and institutions to provide a range of services to ensure mental health needs are addressed. What we have now is a system that classifies people into two categories – the ‘mad’ people (the ones roaming the streets or those in designated mental health institutions) and the ‘normal’ people, which is everyone else! Experts in mental health issues have told us consistently that these classifications are very dangerous and unhelpful, but we do not seem to be listening. For those who do not understand (or are in denial) about mental health issues, or those who simply cannot afford any other kind of care, they turn to religious institutions for ‘deliverance’. This only tends to further stigmatise and traumatize victims. Of course faith has a key role to play in healing, but it should not be at the expense of orthodox medical advice.
When we consider the levels of poverty, desperation, predisposition to superstitious beliefs, levels of education and the inability of our governments at local, state and Federal level to maintain their own end of the social contract with the people, we should not be surprised when people create alternative avenues for succour. We should also understand how the faithful in some churches often get confused about who God really is – the one in heaven or the one here on earth who they can see?
4. People need to be more careful in their quest for salvation. I do not want to blame those who turn out to be the victims, but we need to be more vigilant in our choice of how and where to worship. Many a charismatic leader has led their congregation straight to hell – the 1978 Jonestown massacre in Guyana of 908 church members led by Jim Jones and the 2000 ‘mass suicides’ led by Joseph Kibwetere and Credonia Mwerinde of the Movement for the Restoration of the Commandments of God (MRTC) in Uganda are just two examples. The challenges of religious indoctrination and brainwashing are of course universal as seen from the examples above.
In our own communities here, when we consider the levels of poverty, desperation, predisposition to superstitious beliefs, levels of education and the inability of our governments at local, state and Federal level to maintain their own end of the social contract with the people, we should not be surprised when people create alternative avenues for succour. We should also understand how the faithful in some churches often get confused about who God really is – the one in heaven or the one here on earth who they can see? In their religious institutions and leaders, some of them find the employment, healthcare, education, counselling and support that they need. And sometimes it comes at a very high price. I am aware that discussing these issues with friends and family members can be problematic, but we should try and use whatever platforms we can to warn people of the dangers of blind faith in man and not God.
5. Our law enforcement officers, and the judiciary, have a key role to play in protecting citizens. They first of all need to be congratulated for seeing the ‘Reverend’ King case through, arriving at a verdict that is just. It took ten long years, and it is a miracle that the case did not ‘disappear’ like so many allegations of homicide have at one stage or the other. We however know that there is a tendency for our law enforcement officers to baulk at the thought of bringing a ‘servant of God’ to justice. For all you know, the officer concerned might be a member of the congregation, or his wife, his brother and so on. There are those who will remember the famous ‘Jesus of Oyingbo’, who was untouchable for many years, in spite of many allegations brought against him by members of his commune, hidden away in plain sight in the heart of Lagos. I hope that the King case will strengthen these systems so that we can truly believe that no one is above the law.
There is a sad truth that has emerged in the ways in which we worship God in contemporary Nigeria and to a large extent, the rest of the world. Today, our places of worship as Christians have become deeply polarized, with class, poverty, ethnicity, desperation, levels of education, and greed playing a key role. A religion that was built on values such as humility, simplicity, honesty, love and compassion has now spurned places where impunity reigns and the vulnerable are manipulated, abused, raped, beaten, ridiculed and even burnt to death. Let us all remember the day of judgement. We will be judged by a God who created all things in his image and not in the image of man.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com