Across Africa, fraudulent ‘Miracle Pastors’, claiming to be prophets who cure disease and end misfortune, are exploiting and scamming vulnerable Africans.
Botswana has reportedly closed down the Enlightened Christian Gathering Church of the Malawian self-acclaimed prophet Shepherd Bushiri, citing concerns over ‘miracle money’ claims. Bushiri’s church taught its members that they could make money through acts of magic. The government stated that this teaching violated the laws of the country. This is just one incident among many – recently, there have been many reported cases of abuses and controversial claims by Africa’s self-styled pastors, priests, prophets, men and women of God.
In this piece, I discuss why African governments are cracking down on fraudulent miracle pastors and their churches. Their bogus claims and promises deceive, fracture, and extort vulnerable Africans, many of them already in precarious situations that cannot tolerate superstition as the prescription to ameliorate them.
Reckless and irresponsible Claims
Miracle pastors make bogus and absurd claims to demonstrate their divine anointment and supernatural powers. They get their Christian devotees to believe that their counterintuitive declarations are actually direct revelations from God or forms of infallible prophetic verbiage. Despite no medical training, many pastors claim to know the cause and cure of diseases, of death and other misfortunes. They release prophecies pretending to know or predict the future. For instance, Bushiri once claimed that he cured people of HIV and brought the dead back to life. In one of his most notorious acts, Shepherd Bushiri released a video where he supposedly walked on air.
Pastor T.B Joshua and Reverend Enoch Adeboye of Nigeria have made faith healing claims as well as releasing prophetic declarations on the outcome of elections and football matches, aviation accidents and the death of presidents. A Zimbabwean prophet, Paul Sanyangore said he had a direct phone number to Heaven that he used to talk to God. Another pastor claimed that he had taken a selfie with the angels, visited hell and killed Satan. Many African pastors openly and publicly declare that God had spoken to them or that God sent them a message to deliver to their church members.
Drama and Deception
African pastors do not stop at making baseless and unfounded propositions. They dramatize, stage-manage and create scenes that make people believe that their claims are real and factual. The miracle pastors indulge in manipulative and fraudulent schemes to demonstrate the presence of God, their supposedly divine anointing and supernatural powers. Pastors fake being in conversation with God or in communication with the angels or holy spirit. They literally and habitually lie to the face of their congregants. Pastors organize ‘faith healing’ more accurately described at fake healing sessions. At these events, persons who have been previously briefed or bribed pretend to be blind or lame and subsequently ‘receive’ healing.
These fraudulent men and women of God organize sessions of exorcism where they fake the expulsion of demons in the form of reptiles or insects from the bodies of their members. One of the aims of these deceptive schemes is to obtain and dispossess gullible folks by trick.
Extortion and Exploitation
Miracle pastors in Africa peddle schemes that make people believe that they can make money through miraculous means. They extort money from their members by marketing ‘miracle’ money narratives in exchange for cash. For instance, Nigerian pastors have a miracle money scheme known as ‘sowing a seed’. These pastors urge their members to ‘sow a seed’ by giving money to God. They make their church members, most of whom are living on less than $1 a day, believe that the money that they give to God has a multiplier effect. The more they give to God, the pastors claim, the more they will get in return. Furthermore, pastors publish in their bulletins names and testimonies of people who sowed seeds, gave money to God and had returns in proportion to the money, the seeds, that they had sown.
Motivated by these miracle money schemes, church members sometimes go to any length to get money to ‘sow a seed’ in their churches. They borrow money from friends and family members. People take loans to sow a seed and expect returns that will never come. There have been cases where people used money that was meant to take care of their families, some public funds or money that belong to their workplaces to sow a seed in their churches.
In addition, African pastors market all sorts of materials, water, handkerchiefs, olive oil, and soap. They designate them as holy and by so doing invest them with extra market value. Pastors compel their members to purchase and use these worthless and sometimes harmful ‘holy’ materials in order to receive divine healing or to enhance their fortune and luck. The time has come for African governments to investigate and shut down these illegal businesses.
Confusion, Division and Conflict in Families
Miracle pastors cause an incredible amount of disruption among African families and communities. They use their prophecies to fuel hatred, suspicion, mistrust, division, and conflict, turning family and community members against each other. African pastors use their so-called prophetic powers to point out those who are responsible for poverty, lack of progress, illness and death in families and communities. Those so identified are often attacked or killed in instances of mob violence.
In one particular case a few years ago, a Nigerian Catholic priest popularly known as Father ‘No Nonsense’ visited a community in Ihitteafoukwu, in Mbaise in Southern Nigeria. The youths invited this miracle pastor to conduct prayers against unemployment and lack of progress. During the prayer, Fr. No Nonsense claimed that demons preventing the youths in the community from making progress resided in nearby trees. He pointed out some of the trees that hosted these demons and instructed that they should be cut down. Some youths went around felling trees that they believed could be harbouring evil spirits. The demon-tree cutting exercise turned into an opportunity for some youths in the community to settle scores. They felled the trees of neighbours that they hated or envied.
In another case, a member of the community protested after some youth relatives felled a tree in his compound. The youths attacked him with a machete and he shot one of them in the leg. Subsequently, a mob of youths invaded the man’s apartment, looted his property and burnt down his house. Such mayhem linked to the prophecies of miracle pastors is a frequent occurrence. African prophets poison family relationships. They instigate quarrels and disputes that linger in various communities.
Abusive and Dehumanizing Treatment
Miracle pastors also subject their members to inhuman and degrading treatment. Pastors abuse and humiliate their congregants publicly and privately, while claiming to be praying for them, or when they are ‘exorcising demons’. There have been reports of pastors who ordered their church members to eat grass. Some pastors have told their congregants to drink gasoline or bleach. Other pastors have sprayed insecticide on churchgoers. Another pastor ordered female members to strip naked and he marched on them. The same pastor declared a snake had become chocolate and gave it to the members of his church to eat. A Ghanaian Bishop who claims that he could enlarge the male private organ has been caught in videos caressing the penises of men. Finally, a South African prophet allegedly expelled demons by inserting his hands into the vagina of the congregants.
Death and Health Damage
The activities of some African miracle pastors have also been linked to the deaths or illness of church members. Many churchgoers who are HIV positive died after they discontinued their antiretroviral treatment following instruction from their pastors. Recently, a sick child died at prophet Mboro’s church in South Africa. The mother of the child took the girl to prophet Mboro to be healed. The girl eventually died, having not been treated with conventional medicine.
A Nigerian comunity banished a prophet after a woman who came to seek spiritual help from him died. She died from health complications after the prophet poured a liquid substance on her genitals. Many Africans continue to die or suffer serious illnesses as a result of deceptive miracle pastors. The pastors present themselves as medical doctors, as health experts, and their churches as hospitals. Unfortunately, African governments have done little to address these fraudulent acts.
As a result of the aforementioned factors, miracle pastors are wreaking havoc in families and communities across the region. They peddle falsehoods and propagate baseless and absurd claims. Prophets extort money from their church members using all manner of shady schemes. Miracle pastors fuel hatred, division, and confusion in the society. They perpetrate criminal atrocious acts that damage the health of their church members or lead to their death. Other African governments should emulate the government of Botswana by tackling miracle pastors and shutting down their churches and illegal businesses. Governments should expose the fraudulent schemes of these charlatans and make them accountable for their crimes.
Leo is a blogger, human-rights advocate and a Humanist from Nigeria.