Thursday, 23 May 2013
How Vicious Mountain of Fire Church Security Molested, Arrested And Detained SaharaReporters Crew In Nigeria
A trip by a Saharareporters/SaharaTV crew in Lagos aimed at covering the “cross over” night of one of Nigeria's mega churches on New Year's eve ended in molestation, threats, arrest and detention by the church. The SaharaReporters' media crew drove into the church premises of the Mountain of Fire and Miracles ministry (MFM) on the Lagos Ibadan expressway in response to news that its cross over night event was the biggest in the Lagos area.
The crew was led by Saharareporters publisher, Omoyele Sowore, who was traveling underground in Nigeria as part of a series of reports for the renowned website. Upon reaching the church's massive auditorium Mr. Sowore was ushered into the church service by church ushers situated at a small entrance, he bore a canon 5D camera mounted on his shoulder with proper photo and video recording gadgets. The period of the SaharaReporters crew arrival coincided with the sermon of the General Overseer, Dr. Daniel K Olukoya, however, the large church auditorium with several huge TV broadcast screens meant that the crew had to seek direction to the podium. As a result, twice during the sojourn, the crew tendered their local credentials to the church ushers and security to gain access near the pastor's podium.
At no time during the visit did any member of the church security team ask members of the team for "accreditation" or press passes to cover the event. Shortly after arriving near the podium, however, Mr. Sowore was accosted by a church security official who demanded to see his identity card. Promptly given one, the official nervously began scrutinizing the card while Mr. Sowore and the crew continued filming Dr. Olukoya's sermon, which was on the subject of fear. Within seconds of the first encounter, a mob made up of security officials descended on Mr. Sowore and a second member of the crew, demanding that they cease any form of filming in the church auditorium. Attempts by the crew to explain that they were granted access to the auditorium following presentation of their press credentials were met with a ferocious and more aggressive pack of church thugs who attempted to break the crew's camera. The argument escalated within the purview of the pastor, who continued his preaching. But it became intense, the church security growing nastier and more physical, pushing and shoving Mr. Sowore and another crew member to the back of the church altar. In an effort to avoid disruption of the service, the chaotic scene was pushed to the back of the church where the SaharaReporters crew was confronted by an army of security personnel comprising the State Security Service (SSS), mobile policemen carrying AK 47 guns, barrel-chested private security officials of the church, as well as the church production crew and a photographer who were taking photos of SR reporters.
There, in the dark, several security agents continued the pushing and shoving, issuing more threats, including a death threat. A guy identified as the "CSO" forcefully dispossessed the crew of its cameras and gadgets and threw them in a Hilux van, while church technical crew secretly searched for any memory cards as the mob gathered around threatening to maim and kill.Mr. Sowore argued against the aggression, wondering why a church service being streamed live was a subject of such secrecy and acrimony. He asked what the church was hiding and what the difference was between the Jesus police and the Devil's army, and in response to an individual church member's threat to physically assault him to death, Mr. Sowore asked, "What's the big deal didn't they kill Jesus, wasn't it the church that killed Jesus Christ".
As the mob got more charged and dangerous, one of the SSS men tried to calm the mob asking that the crew be taken into police custody. As the team made to drive off, it came under further allegations of “insubordination” from the church technical staff who had unsuccessfully failed to remove memory cards from the reporters’ equipment, not knowing they had already removed them and taken them out of the church premises. At that point, members of the SaharaReporters team had also begun secretly filming the encounter on their cellphones. In frustration, the leader of the church interrogation team accused Mr. Sowore of being sponsored by the devil because of the cowry shells he wears around his neck. A more serious allegation was soon to follow as they claimed that the team was sent by Boko Haram, the violent Nigerian Islamic sect that has been bombing churches in Northern Nigeria, to bomb their church. By that time, the team was surrounded by over 40 church people, police and thugs, who threatened them with death if they did not produce the memory cards.
The SaharaReporters team stood its ground, vehemently daring them to do their worst. As things got extremely heated a senior leader of the Mountain of Fire Church, who said he knew Mr. Sowore from his University of Lagos days waded in and asked that the mob step back. He cautioned that the incident could be detrimental for the church, disclosing to them that Mr. Sowore was the founder of SaharaReporters.com. In view of the fact that Mr. Sowore was traveling discreetly in Nigeria, that revelation didn't go well with the crew but that intervention forced the church CSO to drive the crew to the church security post and detention center. There the crew was handed over to the officer in charge with the stern instruction that they be treated as criminals engaging in trespass and criminal espionage.The elderly security man promptly invited the Divisional Police Officer of the Nigerian police station at Ibafo in Ogun state who came and took their identity cards. He made a phone call to the local media affiliate and confirmed that we were legitimate.
The DPO himself then curiously fled the scene afterwards, leaving the SaharaReporters team to face further abuse and harsh interrogation from the three church staff members that had accompanied them to the detention center.
One of them, the editor of MFM News, along with a female production crew member of the church, verbally abused the reporters throughout the encounter.
The technical production chief of the Mountain of Fire Church also physically assaulted Mr. Sowore as he tried to retrieve another memory card that was unrelated to the coverage. The production crew later left, while a new set of younger church security task force hounded the detainees for hours. The reporters were kept in the dingy security post without any formal charges. The SR crew later decided on another round of protests when they found out that none of the people keeping them detained were officially affiliated with the police. In essence, they were being detained by the church, a non-state actor, in Nigeria. As the crew approached the counter to retrieve its cameras and leaven the account of the latest information, the younger task force members blocked the SR crew and some of them brought out a whip and sticks to attack the SR crew, they were cautioned not to try it.
Soon, two minsters arrived to plead with us to delete our footage claiming to have confirmed that they had shown saharareporters website to several top pastors at the GO's office and that they actually patronize SaharaReporters on a daily basis. It is noteworthy that the second member of the new group was the former UNILAG student activist who had cautioned against any form of maltreatment during the molestation session at the back of the church when the crew was first arrested. After a meeting with the leader of the security post they released our cameras.
The CSO also arrived at the scene, where he apologized to the crew and offered to return Mr. Sowore’s cellphone. When the SR crew left the Mountain of Fire Church premises, it was about 3:00 AM. The crew had spent the New Year’s first hours in the detention of the church; one of our camera’s flashes had been damaged and Mr. Sowore’s glasses were missing. Of no less importance, at the detention center we saw the abuse of common Nigerians by Mountain of Fire Church security officials. Leaflet sellers as well as water and roadside hawkers are being routinely beaten and abused. One person was actually chained to a door and repeatedly beaten and abused. His offence: he was said to have been selling "illegal stuff"" on church premises.