The news media, print and electronic, were awash with the news of the acquisition of a Private Jet by Pastor Ayodele Joseph Oritsejafor, the current President of the Christian Association of Nigeria founding Pastor of Word of Life Bible Church, Warri, Delta state. The news had it that the special occasion, which had President Goodluck Jonathan in attendance, was a double-header- birthday and 40th anniversary on the pulpit. We were also told that it was a hugely exhilarated Pastor Oritsejafor that informed his congregants, for which they danced and sang for several minutes, that their money had given him a Private Jet, a 10-seater bombardier/challenger 601 plane. Unconfirmed reports put the cost of the aviation bird (excluding fuelling, hangar charges and pilots’ fees) as ranging between N2Billion and N8Billion, depending on the age, model and fittings. The report further had it that this effectively put the flamboyant Pastor as a member of the crème de la crème of super rich folks in the nation’s polity. However, what was not clearly stated was whether, as the case with many Nigerian Pastors, there is any difference between the church funds and Oritsejafor’s personal money.
I met Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor for the first time in 1981 as a student of University of Ife. A Christian musical group had invited him to preach at its campus-wide outreach program. First, he asked if we knew how to get excited. He went on to jump up a few times before settling down to preach. He told us about his escapades with the ganja-smoking gangs in Lagos Island before his conversion.
That day, Pastor Oritsejafor made such great impression on our young minds that we clapped excitedly. Later, in the late eighties, I read about the relationship turned sour with his erstwhile Mentor and Spiritual Father, Late Arch-Bishop Benson Idahosa. This unmanaged disagreement ultimately led to his exit from Pastoral work at the Warri branch of Idahosa’s Church of God Mission.
Indeed, Pastor Oritsejafor’s jet is just another statistic in the fad among Gospel preachers in the materialistic lusts that bear no biblical basis. These avaricious desires have often been explained away as necessary to facilitate the movement of the founding pastors for the work of evangelization. Time and again, this argument has often been defeated by the fact: the Queen of England and the British Prime Minister, the heads of government of Britain – where most of the missionaries that brought the gospel to Africa came from – do not even have official private jets! It is part of the behavior of man to rationalize obscenity. It does not occur to these pastors that, with a burgeoning army of unemployed youths and deliberate government policy to pauperize the citizenry, the only place of succor for the people should be the church! There is hardly any church with sustained and sustainable welfare program to cater for the peasants that form the preponderant population as congregants. It is incredibly callous to imagine the level of inequality that is cultivated and sustained in most Nigerian churches. In his speech at Stanford University in 2005, the late co-founder of Apple Computer said: “I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it” That aptly explains the indelible impression that a devoted, selfless and well-entrenched welfare program of religious bodies can have on peasants. When the Nigerian Pastor adorns himself with the most expensive garment from famous designers, he deludes himself with the same worn-out rhetoric: only the best is good for my God! The unfortunate thing is that this mindset is at variance with the biblical principles. From the Old Testament scriptures, the LORD had firmly established the principle of the-strong-helping-weak as a basis for continued national blessing. Of course, it is diametrically opposed to the world’s economic system – predicated on the ‘strong devouring the weak’. In the book of Deuteronomy chapter 15, the LORD, having established that the poor would always exist at any instantaneous time, went to establish their sustenance by the rich, as a basis for continued blessings. The LORD reasoned that, by this mindset in HIS people, poverty would, inexorably, be banished in the Land. Also, this was the principle that the early believers showed in ‘Acts of the Apostles’ that distinguished them and caused such mighty miracles that was the magnetizing basis for numerical growth!
James ‘Jim’ Bakker is an American Tele-evangelist, former host with his then wife (Tammy Faye Bakker), now late, of the PTL Club, a popular evangelical Christian television program. By the early 1980s, the Bakkers had built Heritage USA in Fort Mill, South Carolina, (south of Charlotte), then the third most successful theme park in the US, and a satellite system to distribute their network 24 hours a day across the country. Contributions requested from viewers were estimated to exceed $1 million a week, with proceeds to go to expanding the theme park and mission of PTL. In their success, the Bakkers took conspicuous consumption to an unusual level for a non-profit organization. PTL’s fund raising activities between 1984 and 1987 underwent scrutiny by The Charlotte Observer newspaper, eventually leading to criminal charges against Jim Bakker. From 1984 to 1987, Bakker and his PTL associates sold $1,000 "lifetime memberships", which entitled buyers to a three-night stay annually at a luxury hotel at Heritage USA. According to the prosecution at Bakker's later fraud trial, tens of thousands of memberships had been sold, but only one 500-room hotel was ever completed. Bakker "sold" more "exclusive partnerships" than could be accommodated, while raising more than twice the money needed to build the actual hotel. A good deal of the money went into Heritage USA’s operating expenses, and Bakker kept $3.4 million in bonuses for himself. Following a 16-month Federal grand jury probe, Bakker was indicted in 1988 on eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy. In 1989, after a five-week trial which began on August 28 in Charlotte, the jury found him guilty on all 24 counts, and Judge Robert Potter sentenced him to 45 years in Federal prison and a $500,000 fine. According to Frances FitzGerald in an April 1987 New Yorker article, "They epitomized the excesses of the 1980s; the greed, the love of glitz, and the shamelessness; which in their case was so pure as to almost amount to a kind of innocence.” Detractors often said the PTL, acronym for Praise The Lord, as meaning: Pass The Loot. I have often believed that if the same kind of scrutiny that Jim Bakker passed through is allowed in Nigeria, many of the Pastors on the pulpit now in our Churches would be in Jail or on their way to Jail!
Churches are exempted from paying taxes because they are categorized as non-profit organizations. However, if a supposed non-profit organization procures an asset worth hundreds of millions of naira for assuaging the luxurious indulgence of an individual, the State should, by fiscal policy, be made to eke some revenue from such transactions. The ‘non-profit’ status conferred on any organization should subsist so long they exist to ensure that the preponderance of the people find meaning to life; if the purpose of a supposed non-profit organization changes to promoting ostentation, the status should equally be reviewed.
A closer look at this Oritsejafor’s Plane connotes other things. The conspicuous presence of Mr President on the day has its portent. Ordinarily, it can be said that, owing to the fierce closeness of the twosome, there is nothing strange in the President’s presence. Before the April 2011 Presidential election, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor had used his privileged position as CAN President to promote candidate Goodluck Jonathan as ‘the anointed of the LORD’ among Nigerian Christians. Following the post-election violence, like a bolt out of the blues, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor held a Press Conference on April 25, 2011 and called for the arrest of General Muhammadu Buhari (GMB). It did not matter to the obscenely flamboyant pastor that his incoherent and unverifiable allusions are unsupportable in any organized human establishment. Sensing that this may be a prelude to his formal arrest by the Jonathan regime, GMB (through his spokesman, Yinka Odumakin) said inter-alia: “Our attention has been drawn to a totally misguided call for the arrest of General Muhammadu Buhari by Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor in a reckless abuse of the office of the President of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) for a purely political consultancy for Aso Rock.
”It is unfortunate that he has chosen the Easter day, when most Christian leaders were espousing the message of love which the risen Christ symbolizes, to make a satanic call capable of only pouring gasoline into a burning flame which casts him in the mould of a PDP goon rather than a responsible faith leader whose words at the moment should be of healing and reconciliation.
”In all his sound and fury, Pastor Oritsejafor did not provide any evidence to link Gen. Buhari to the wave of unfortunate spontaneous revolt against vote theft in parts of the country beyond playing the role of a "false accuser of the brethren".
“It is on record that the CPC Presidential flag bearer has distanced himself and the Party from the mayhem severally and strongly condemned the burning of worship places and alleged killings of youth corps members. Till date, nobody has brought out any contrary facts beyond false innuendos and character assassination which Pastor Oritsejafor has also been recruited into.
“The ridiculous claim by the cleric that Buhari is culpable because there were disturbances where he won is like calling Oritsejafor a hemp smoker because someone is seen smoking marijuana around the premises of Word of Life Bible Church. Absurdity!
“While we concede to the Villa Priest who is widely believed to be a beneficiary of the rot that presently defines governance in Nigeria the right to defend the tainted victory of the PDP, we frown at the use of the CAN mask to prosecute his Aso Rock brief.
”Our collective memory is not so short as not to know that unlike other revered men of God who have been on that exalted seat and spoke truth to power in the order of Samuel who put God's command above the fat of oxen, we don't have a quote of Pastor “Oritsejafor on the unbridled corruption and open banditry that has been the defining rule of governance in the country. The images of him the people have is roaming the villa corridors and parading government houses across Nigeria giving spiritual succour to treasury looters.
“If Pastor Oritsejafor happens to be a sounding board for President Jonathan's crackdown, we strongly suspect he is, we can only say: G00D LUCK!”
Rumor mill had it that the President’s presence was actually to deliver into Oritsejafor’s hands, the generous gift from him. Indeed, the antecedents of Dr Goodluck Jonathan reveal his rich generosity to those who have helped his ascendancy to the throne. Dr Reuben Abati, after his deployment of literary prowess in skewing negative public opinion towards GMB as the originator of the post-election violence in his Guardian Newspaper column, was promptly rewarded with a top position in Jonathan’s government. Confiding in his former Boss and Publisher as the basis for desiring the Job, Abati had reasoned that this would afford him the opportunity to travel around the world with the President. In short, in the despicable attempt to blacken GMB, there was a confluence of a life-long dream and a capricious lust for power!
What this obscenity in our churches portends is the disappearance of free, passionate service by the youths. Virtually everything is now monetized! Churches now pay handsomely the Youths (in the congregation) to play musical instruments for the weekly services. If the Youths of the Nation are being orientated with the mindset of constantly gauging their services against the pecuniary returns, then the nation’s future is blighted indeed. The wider implication of these societal anomalies is seen in the new private universities dotting the landscape. The preponderance of these universities is owned by religious bodies. I dare to ask: how many children of the peasants (of the church organizations) are in these schools that charge very prohibitive fees? In the early 90’s, I was at a book launch in which the late business mogul, Chief MKO Abiola, was the chief launcher. He bought some copies of the book (with a fat cheque) to be given to his alma mater, the Baptist Boys high school, Abeokuta. He then went on to eulogize the Baptist convention for giving him a chance for education despite his indigent status. He further revealed that there was never any school term that he ever paid his tuition fees in less than four installments! So it goes to show that whilst the missionaries, that travelled far and long to bring the gospel, came with the matra of ‘freely you have received, freely give’, the Nigerian clergy have now reviewed this to assuage their avaricious appetites. As I was putting finishing touches to this article, I discussed with a friend and class-mate at the University. He narrated how the Pastor of a church (that established a secondary school and University somewhere in Ogun state) withdrew his son from the secondary school (on the first year) because of inability to cope with the prohibitive tuition fees. Meanwhile, the Pastor/Founder of the Church organization rollicks around with at least two private Jets. Is it a tale of the Pastors prospering while the ‘plundered’ congregants struggle to eke out decent living?
If the truth must be told, the religious bodies (especially the church) are fast losing relevance, owing to inability to cater for the dislocations of the people’s economy as a result of the deliberate pauperization policies of the government. How the church moves from here to repair its besmirched reputation is what would be evinced in the immediate future.
Meanwhile, I wish Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor safe flights in the exquisite jet with the gold-plated interior!
Rotimi Fashakin (Engr.)
Plot 1132, Festus Okotiebo crescent, Utako Abuja.
Fashakin is the National Publicity Secretary of Congress for Progressive Change (CPC).