A week ago, I touched on the ongoing controversy between Apostle Johnson Suleman of Omega Fire Ministries and a woman, Ms. Stephanie Otobo, who accused him of sexual impropriety and a breach of “marriage contract”. Since then Apostle Suleman has turned out to be one of the luckiest holy men in the world. As the narrative is being shaped in several quarters, the Apostle is supposedly being persecuted by his state governor whom he antagonises. Suleman himself is cleverly milking spiritual cum political capital from his purported tale of harassment. While that seems probable, it is not a viable reason to hastily exonerate this pastor from the severe accusations Otobo made against him.
Like flies attracted to decaying flesh, Apostle Suleman has a former presidential aide in his beleaguered corner. Our wing-man, a “pastor” who himself was once embroiled in a scandal over his multiple identities, has grabbed the Twitter soapbox to proclaim the good works of the pastor. Sorry, but what is being contested here is not his charity, it is his integrity. If Apostle Suleman is truly guilty of Ms. Otobo’s charges, no good he has done for indigent people can erase the fact that he abused spiritual authority and privilege.
The dots are easy to connect to reveal why the Apostle, despite his alleged indiscretions, has zealots defending him and claiming that their suspect Christian values are under attack by some rampaging counterforces. The Nigerians who have this kind of mindset are typically blinded in one eye by religious sentiment and in the other by ethnic parochialism. No matter how they spin this, the truth needs to be established and not merely presumed on some baseless sentiment. As a man of God faced with such a weighty accusation that impugns his credibility, Apostle Suleman himself needs a stronger defence than making silly prophecies about “marine spirits.”
Otobo stated that she travelled with the pastor on his evangelical ministrations and that he wired her sums of money. The police should cross-check both their passports to confirm this to be true. He should provide his passports and his bank details to prove her wrong.
There are important reasons the unflinching innocence of Apostle Suleman is an imperative. First is the fact that he heads an organisation gifted a non-profit status. If it was true that he was bestowing the money he made in church on women with whom he had sexual relationships, then he should be penalised and his tax-free status revoked. It is morally and legally wrong for a pastor to collect the seed offering from people who use the money as a “point of contact” for their miracles and lavish it on women who satisfy his lust.
No matter what pastors say about “God’s money”, the fact remains that financial accountability is essential. God’s money is not a “no-go area” and corruption is corruption, no matter where it takes place. We cannot complain about corruption in the government and justify corruption in the church.
The establishment of Apostle Suleman’s innocence is also necessary because Christianity, by its very nature, imposes an obligation of self-abnegation and self-sacrifice on its adherents especially the leadership. A man is a man of God not because he can prophesy the death of a state governor but because he practises a level of self-denial and self-discipline that opens him up to spiritual power and experiences. To be a man of God goes beyond being called “Papa” or “Daddy in the Lord”, it is about self-crucifixion, a suppression of desires and a daily subjection of the flesh to certain ascetic and monastic practices.
The legitimacy of men of God revolves around the belief that in their private spaces, they pray longer and study the Bible with far more commitment than lay members. We take it for granted that they practise certain spiritual exercises and as a result they claim certain privileges from the public. A pastor that lacks libidinal restraint is therefore useless because it means he is corruptible and untrustworthy.
There is no question of whether he is accountable to only his church members, he also owes the public a measure of accountability. Spirituality is not sports, but let me relate the hard work of being a pastor to athleticism. Athletes are some of the highest paid people in the world because they take their bodies through a disciplinary regime so arduous regular humans cannot attempt them. They do this to win a race or a game and they get heavily compensated. When we find out that they have not worked hard enough and they merely used performance enhancers, they are stripped of their credit. The same ethics go for men of God. They must discipline themselves otherwise they have no moral right to speak for God or claim benefits in his name. Nigerians need to learn to stop defending their pastors’ excesses and learn to demand accountability from them.
Some years ago, I interviewed a woman in Ibadan. The woman, a retail seller of soft drinks, told me about a pastor who had prescribed a fasting and prayer session for his flock but entered her shop at 11am on the first day of the programme to buy a bottle of a popular malt drink! She was not a member of his church but she attended services occasionally and so she knew him. The woman told me she watched the pastor drink and drain the bottle. After he left, she called the church members she knew and told them to go break their fast since the pastor himself had broken his. I asked her why she did not challenge him and she replied that the phrase, “Man of God” means “the man” comes before “the God.” Pastors are just human like us, she said.
I found her rationalisation both fascinating and upsetting. How could she be so undemanding of a man that imposed on others a spiritual procedure he himself could not adhere to? The kind of laissez faire attitude to religious moral standards she exhibited is an aspect of the Nigerian religion that confuses me. Why was she quick to overlook the pastor’s hypocrisy and lack of self-discipline to offer an excuse for him? Is that not the same way Nigerians quickly rally around the same politicians who have robbed them of their national patrimony? Why are Nigerians hell-bent on protecting the virtues of their leaders despite their sins?
In Western countries, pastors like Bishop Eddie Long, Ted Haggard, and Jim Bakker have all had cases of sexual indiscretions. When they were exposed, they apologised and recused themselves from the altar while they dealt with their sins.
Why is Nigeria different? Why do our pastors resort to “strong head” when challenged on their sins? Pastor Biodun Fatoyinbo of COZA promised to give us a “robust reply” he has since left the public in abeyance with his elusiveness. What is it about the Nigerian character that makes penance for betrayal of public confidence a non-starter? From the secular to the sacred realm, people who are caught in sin merely deny and assert their tainted moral authority. A former governor of Delta State, James Ibori, returned from prison recently. The same man who confessed to all his crimes in the UK court now insists he was innocent and was only a victim of political machinations. From pastors to politicians, the story is the same: I didn’t do it, I must have been set up by someone…
Nigerians should stop making excuses for their spiritual and political leaders and let them take responsibility for their actions. Faith practices are a powerful historical and cultural force that shapes political sphere and if, as a society, we want a better political system, we should start with the religious sphere.