PASTOR BISHOP OYEDEPO PLc By Tokunbo Olajide and additional reports by Stephen Oni
Nigeria's richest pastor and Winners' Chapel founder, David Oyedepo, flaunts a vast business empire worth billions of naira. And there is no end to his material acquisitions.
To thousands of his devotees, David Olaniyi Oyedepo, billionaire businessman and presiding bishop at the Living Faith Church, better known as Winners' Chapel, is a preacher of immense spiritual endowment. Fondly addressed as Papa by his congregation, Oyedepo is held in awe – the kind reserved for deities. The cleric's deistic clout, however, transcends his Winners' Chapel enclave.
To many outside his fold, the prosperity preacher, who owns homes in London and the United States, and has been owner of four private jets so far, is gleaned from his insatiable material bequest. In 2010, Forbes, the respected American business magazine which keeps a tab on the world's rich, listed Oyedepo as Nigeria's wealthiest pastor, with an estimated networth of $150mn (about N23bn). Oyedepo is only followed on the rich list by another Nigerian flamboyant pastor, Chris Oyakhilome of the Believers' Loveworld Ministries, a.k.a. Christ Embassy, whose worth was put at between N4.7bn and N7bn. In Nigeria, Oyedepo conveniently leads the growing list of pastorpreneurs, church founders exploiting the passion and emotion that Christianity commands to feather their nests.
A proponent of prosperity Christianity, Oyedepo is unapologetic about the materialistic tinge to his gospel. In taking to ministering, God, he repeatedly claims, told him to “make my people rich”. He describes his prosperity-centric teachings as “covenant software for programming yourself into victories and triumphs”. With abiding faith in God, there are no limits, he insists, to how prosperous a man can be. And God's word, he says, is a goldmine. “It is loaded with treasures — treasures for your pleasure, treasures for your comfort,” he pontificates.
Vast Business Interests
Oyedepo's business interests span manufacturing, petrol station, bakery, pure water factory, plant (bulldozers, etc.) hiring, education, restaurant, supermarket, bookshop, internet cafe, real estate and the latest addition, aviation. He owns the thriving Dominion Publishing House, DPH, which has turned out countless Christian and motivational literature – usually centred on prosperity – bearing his name as the author, and audio-visual materials. The DPH has more than four million copies of Oyedepo's works – many of them bestsellers – and those of his wife, Faith, in print.
The most known of the pastor's many lines of business are his range of educational institutions. Most famous among them is the Covenant University, Ota, where the pastor is the Chancellor. Oyedepo told his congregation that he encountered God in 1981 in a vision that directed him to develop humanity through education.
The world's largest church and the universities
The move to actualise the “vision” began earnestly in 1999 after the dedication of the Faith Tabernacle, which he boasts of as the world's largest church auditoriums. Funding for the establishment of the university confirmed Oyedepo as shrewd as the most shrewd of businessmen come. At every service, a special envelope marked “CUP” (Covenant University Project) was circulated for members to donate their contributions towards the school project. The CUP funding, largely from the poor and medium income earners, was exclusive of the regular handouts in tithes, offerings and 'seeds' from the teeming members and well-wishers. It was also exclusive of other huge contributions from the affluent church members. Oyedepo, it was alleged, once received a single donation of N400 million from a well-known Lagos business tycoon with interests in publishing and oil & gas.
Oyedepo was assisted in construction of the school's structures by many devout members of the church, skilled and unskilled, who fell over one another either carrying blocks or fetching water or just offering free labour. The university took off actively in October 2002 with the admission of the first batch of 1,500 students. But if many of the church members thought that, by virtue of their financial contributions to the CUP and their manual labour, they had a university they could call their own and conveniently send their children to for tertiary education, they were soon rudely awakened. The elitist fees Oyedepo fixed were, and remain, way beyond what most of the parents can afford. Covenant University owners currently charge not less than N500,000 for a degree course. Oyedepo's apologists maintain that the school administers partial scholarships for education to poor church members, but have been unable to put such details like the number of students that benefit and the amount involved, to their claim.
An Advertisement manager in a leading magazine publishing firm narrated that the church continued to circulate the CUP envelope even after the university had taken off for what it (the church) said was for the school's growth and development. For the manager, that was the last straw. “I stopped my family from attending the church. When the university was being constructed, my wife was always eager to go all the way from our residence in Akute, Ogun State, to the site in Ota, to carry blocks even when she was very reluctant to supervise work on our own site in Akute there. Worse, after the school took off and we were shown in clear terms it is not built for our children, its owners continued to ask us to donate to the CUP. I knew it was time I came to my senses,” he remarked.
Although the university authorities are confirmed to have been accommodating to followers of all religions on admission matters, a peculiar case last year challenged that virtue. The school allegedly refused to admit a muslim candidate, Abdulgafar Ayomide Salami, despite satisfying the admission requirements. The institution blamed “inconsistencies” in Salami's application for its action, a claim the candidate's father, Taiwo, vehemently denied. “They should just be bold enough to admit it. They discriminated against my child on the basis of his religion, and that is so unfortunate,” Taiwo fumed.
Oyedepo has established another tertiary institution, Landmark University in Omu-Aran (his hometown) in Kwara State. It officially opened in March last year. The university is believed to have been built with the staggering sum of $100m. Oyedepo claimed that the Landmark initiative was a response to calls from his kinsmen that he replicate the Covenant model in his hometown. It is most unlikely, however, that many residents of Omu-Aran will be able to afford the fees of the new university. But Landmark University's Vice-Chancellor, Professor Matthew Ola-Rotimi Ajayi's explanation was that the institution came to fill the void created by the dwindling standard and paralysis, occasioned by strikes and social vices, in the public educational system. “The institution was established in response to these challenges, poised not only to break new grounds, but also to ensure that the institution's footprints are left on the sand of time,” said Ajayi.
The VC said agriculture is the focal point of the new university. This, he said, is in demonstration of its commitment to being part of the global response to the impending food crisis. Specifically, he said, the university has set, as its primary objective, a commitment towards an agrarian revolution, making the institution's farm not only an enviable centre of excellence, but also the food basket of the country. This, he claimed, prompted the institution, through its proprietor – Winners' Chapel – to award “100 per cent scholarship” to all the agricultural students of the institution, including agricultural engineering. To drive the agricultural revolution, Ajayi claimed, the school is investing hundreds of millions of naira as scholarships to motivate all the agricultural students of the institution, while also investing heavily on teaching and research equipment so as to enhance enterprise agriculture training. In addition, other support services – financial, technical and material – required for sustainable mechanised farming are also provided for the students.
Not unexpectedly, there is an entrepreneurial method to drive the scholarship 'madness'. Into the institution is built a thriving farm project – comprising poultry, fishery, crop farming and feedmill – whose products are said to be doing well in the market. In response to the increasing demands of the institution's products, the university has embarked on the second phase of its expansion programme on the farm. It has commenced massive production of the Landmark Bread while plans for production of Landmark bottled water are at an advanced stage, among other products in the pipeline. As a matter of policy, the VC said, the entire university community – staff and students – irrespective of course of study, are engaged in one form of agricultural practice or the other.
A third university, it is believed, will soon become operational in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory. It is being located in the expansive 560-acre Goshen City, a replica of the massive Canaanland at Ota, Ogun State. The pastor is said to have already completed at Goshen City, situated along the Abuja-Keffi Road, a multi-billion naira housing project, a 15,000-capacity sanctuary, a printing press, and primary and secondary schools. Oyedepo is also believed to be planning a multi-million dollar college in upstate New York, United States.
Oyedepo's massive investment in education at the secondary level is the Faith Academy group of colleges spread across Nigeria and run by Faith, his wife. Faith Academy, a full boarding secondary school which opened in 1999, belongs to the country's elitist league of middle-level schools that make parents pay through the nose for services rendered. The school's fees range from N250,00 to N350,000. On the Ibadan-Ife road, Faith Academy is currently completing its sprawling complex of not less than six imposing three-storey buildings. Besides the Faith Academy secondary schools, Oyedepo has been smart enough to also establish the Covenant University Secondary School which charges fees that are no less considerate of the lean finances of Winners' Chapel's poor followers. Faith, Oyedepo's wife, also runs Kingdom Heritage Model Schools, the nursery and primary arm located in different cities in Nigeria. There are about 90 Kingdom Heritage schools scattered across the country.
Land acquisition binge, tithes and aircraft
Oyedepo's business acumen is well-honed. The expansive landed property alone on which the Canaan business empire sits is estimated by estate valuers to be worth, at least, N10 billion. Over time, the pastor has been acquiring many villages adjoining the original property he purchased in the 1980s, so much so that now, were the City to be an ordinary village or town rather than a church monolith that it is, it is big enough to have its own first-class oba, its traditional ruler.
As it is, Oyedepo plays well the role of Canaanland's traditional ruler and Chief Executive Officer. Church members and workers on the 5,000-acre estate both rever and fear the 57-year-old Papa as he superintends the conglomerate of business entities there. The church itself is a weekly money-spinner. Oyedepo is so shrewd as to concentrate the Sunday service at only Canaanland. Unlike the Redeemed Christian Church of God, the Living Faith Church (Winners' Chapel) does not encourage the flowering of branches, though it equally has thousands of followers. There is only a handful of branches and then house fellowships. On Sunday, all Oyedepo's followers, especially in Lagos and Ogun states, wishing to attend service are compelled to do so at Canaanland. From only one service of two hours the church operated every Sunday some years ago, it now runs four services. The Sango-Ota-Idiroko road as well as other access roads to the expressway leading to the church experience traffic gridlocks every Sunday from morning till afternoon as Winners' faithful populate them.
From the thousands of congregants comes a rake-in for the church in millions of naira and hard currencies, in offerings, tithes and pledges. An an usher confided in this magazine, the church makes, at least, N30 million every Sunday. And even this sum pales into a measly pittance compared with what is garnered annually at the church's Shiloh week-long special programme held every November attended by devotees in both Nigeria and from abroad, and at every New Year's eve service.
The church also runs a factory which produces the Hebron sachet water. The product is hot number among church members who view the water as 'divine', and thus believe it could help unburden them of their afflictions. It also sells well in the immediate Otta environment. Also operating in Canaanland is a bakery, a filling station, a restaurant, an internet cafe, a bookshop, supermarkets and a microfinance bank. Oyedepo's investment in property also continues to grow. On the vast land, the church has recently completed a massive housing project and the houses will soon go on sale. Already available are guest houses for paying church members and guests.
Done successfully with medium-scale businesses, the flamboyant preacher has decided to go for the big one. Last week, reports did the rounds about the wealthy preacher's latest addition to his business lines. The pastor has been reported to have floated an airline, Dominion Air, on whose board he is to sit as Chairman, as he naturally does of all his other businesses. An account has it that the airline project had been in the works for six years. The plan was only unfurled this year. Towards this, a number of aircraft has been acquired, and none of them is said to be on lease. Another version of the reports, however, claims that the crippling cost of maintaining his four private jets forced the pastor to set up an airline where he would put the planes to commercial use.
An online news medium with bias for Nigerian news, Saharareporters, quoted a source in Winners' Chapel as having said that each of the aircraft costs Oyedepo some $1,000 per hour in parking fees and maintenance. “Last year, as staff costs, fuel prices and landing fees escalated, Bishop Oyedepo had contemplated selling two of the jets. But when buyers were not forthcoming, he turned to Plan B: to set up Dominion Air and put the jets to commercial use,” claimed the medium.
Among Oyedepo's fleet of jets is a Gulfstream, a business aircraft that is not capable of carrying more than 19 passengers. Apparently overwhelmed with the colossal costs of managing four planes, Oyedepo, had, late last year, reportedly put two of his four private planes up for sale. That was few months after he acquired the Gulfstream V Jet, his fourth plane worth $35mn, and planned a private aircraft hangar. Before he acquired the Gulfstream V, Oyedepo owned a Challenger 604 and a Gulfstream IV. It is thus believed that Oyedepo's new airline may be targeting the country's aviation sector's lucrative air charter services, where only a handful of passengers are ferried at princely sums. Charter services are a staple for the country's rich, especially business tycoons, state governors and other top politicians, who prefer its exclusive services to the regular commercial carriers. Oyedepo's church and Oyedepo himself would, as has become their trademark of keeping sealed lips on their dealings, not confirm or deny reports that the bishop is starting an airline.
Flak for the man of God
Oyedepo has attracted flak for amassing huge personal fortune using the church as his springboard, when some of his followers can barely afford basic supplies, let alone enjoy the luxurious lifestyle he leads. But the capitalist pastor continues to trudge on, and has been making a success of his business ventures.
Oyedepo's expanding business frontiers has re-ignited the long-running debate that places of worship be made to pay taxes to fund critical public infrastructure, education and healthcare. Going by extant laws, a church registered as an entity for the advancement of religious ideals is not expected to pay tax, but where it engages in business, it would be subject to taxation. “Agreed, Oyedepo is a businessman (and not your everyday pastor). Can we begin to see his taxes and for him to undertake Corporate Social Responsibility? The next time you think of taking on MTN for being such cruel capitalists after they invested their hard-earned cash, try asking how much Covenant University charges after church money was invested in it,” remarked Atom Lim, a blogger.
Since establishing his Pentecostal ministry in 1981, his flock has grown in astronomical fashion. The 50,000-seat Faith Tabernacle where he holds court is acclaimed as one the world's largest worship centres. The church also maintains thousands of mission stations in about 40 nations of Africa, Europe, Jamaica and America. Among Oyedepo's thriving foreign outposts, which send revenue to the headquarters at Ota, Nigeria are those in Ghana. But in 2004, the high-flying Ghanaian arm of the church drew Oyedepo's ire when its head, Bishop George Adjeman was suspended for discontinuing the remittance of money to the headquarters. The Ghana parishes were then said to be repatriating to the Nigerian head church about $60,000 in monthly revenues.
Oyedepo's unconventional pastoring has been attracting to him strident condemnation and criticisms, although he doesn't ever seem perturbed by them. Sources that had worked for him at Canaanland said he does not suffer staff and pastors gladly. Two years ago, the Newswatch magazine reported cases of two pastors of the Winners' Chapel Oyedepo had allegedly sacked when they could no longer perform their pastoral duties. Three pastors – Akah Ikenna (Benin), Ifeakwachukwu Sunday (Asaba) and Dick Abiye (Port Harcourt) – were actually said to have been involved in auto crashes that resulted in disabilities. According to the magazine's reports, the pastors of their respective parishes on N45,000 each per month, were on official assignment for Winners' Chapel when the vehicles they were travelling in were involved in the accidents.
Sunday, ordained a pastor of the Living Faith Church on 16 January 2001, was serving at Umunede, Delta State, as a pastor of the Winners' Chapel when his world began collapsing on him. As he narrated to Newswatch, sometime in 2006, he went to Lagos for a meeting of the church. On his way back, he had a motor accident that nearly claimed his life. One of his legs broke into two and he also suffered severe dislocations in the pelvic area. He was admitted in a hospital in Benin where he went through several surgical operations. One of them was a limb operation in which steel braces were inserted into the leg and the pelvis. He was then discharged and asked to come back for a second operation to remove the foreign objects from his leg and pelvis. But, as he claimed, the church abandoned him at the hospital in Benin, “but through the help of some brethren, I came back to my station”, bed-ridden.
In that state, Pastor Sunday was redeployed to the church's district office at Asaba. Strangely, he got another letter the same day terminating his appointment as a pastor of Winners' Chapel. Somehow, in that agonising condition, Sunday travelled to the church's headquarters in Ota, Ogun State, to appeal to Oyedepo for a re-consideration of his case. He recalled: “Luckily, I met Oyedepo himself as he was coming out from the church. After I had introduced myself, he asked me what I wanted. I told him I needed money for the operation to remove the metals from my body. He then directed me to one Ndubuisi who was then the secretary. Ndubuisi asked me what it would cost and I told him I did not know till we meet the doctors. He then asked me to go and do so and get back to them. When I got the documents from the doctors, I went and submitted them to him, but the church never acted on them.”
In one of the documents, dated 13 October 2007, from the Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospital, OAUTH, Ile-Ife, signed by E.P. Osaigbovo, consultant, intensivist/traumatologist, and addressed to the church's senior Pastor in Asaba, the hospital billed Sunday N230,000. The letter read: “The aforementioned (Sunday) individual has been our patient for the past 18 months. He was managed by our surgical team following multiple fractures to the neck and shaft of the femoral bone as a result of injuries sustained in a road traffic accident. Following-up radiological evaluation reveals that there is enough callous formation in the steel-plated fracture. He is, therefore, billed for plate removal – a procedure that will involve revisiting the fracture site so as to remove the implants.”
A desperate Sunday said he wrote to Oyedepo on 12 August 2009: “I had written series of letters to you, attached with the medical bill for my surgery, but all to no avail. I believe the letters did not get to you. From the time I was relieved of my service to the church, it has not been easy for me following pains from the injury. Now, I cannot stand for a period of three minutes, not alone walk. I solicit for your fatherly care. I have nowhere else to turn to but this organisation I once belonged to.” Till Sunday told Newswatch his story published in the magazine's 7 July 2010 edition, he never got a response from Oyedepo.
Sunday, an employee of the National Fertiliser Company of Nigeria, NAFCON, Port Harcourt before he resigned his appointment to be a full-time staff/pastor at Winners' Chapel, claimed that besides sacking him and ejecting him from his quarters, the church would not even pay him his entitlements. He explained he resigned his NAFCON appointment in line with the church's policy that a pastor and his wife shall not engage themselves in any other job. Worse, on the domestic front, Sunday's wife, both of whom had been childless for over 10 years before the accident rendered him a vegetable, abandoned him in his bedridden state.
Ikenna's physical and financial condition is not different. But while Sunday and Abiye elected to sue Oyedepo in God's court for God to judge him, Ikenna headed to court and popular Lagos-based lawyer, Festus Keyamo, is handling the brief. They won the case at the Otta High Court. But the defendants, Winners Chapel and Oyedepo, headed to the Appeal Court. The case has been at the Appeal stage since 2009. Barrister Vitalis, Keyamo's deputy, expressed confidence Ikenna would win the case even if it goes up to the Supreme Court because, as he put it, it was a clear case of man's inhumanity to man.
Oyedepo himself would not immediately respond to enquiries from Newswatch on the matter. But his spokesmen were quoted to have retorted in an official statement that: “They were not abandoned. They were treated on moral ground and in demonstration of good christian character. The church (Winners' Chapel) has the right to review its workers' performances and release from service any staff it feels his or her services are no longer needed.”
It was not until in an interview published in the 11 November 2011 edition of Newswatch that Oyedepo publicly commented on the issue. His words: “I almost cursed them (i.e. the three pastors). If there is any case that is serious to take to the court, you go to the court and lawyers will take charge.” Oyedepo also responded to questions on whether members truly contributed to build Covenant University and are still contributing. Admitting the contributions, the capitalist pastor remarked: “Yes, from the offerings that they give. From the offerings that they give and the supplies that God makes. It's amazing.” He did not explain the nature of those celestial “supplies”.
And to a question that “those who contributed are not able to send their children to his university because of the (high) cost', Oyedepo calmly contradicted himself on “contributions” he had only minutes earlier admitted that the church collects from members: “We don't contribute here. People give to the Lord,” he stated. Then he added: “But you see, each one (member) goes for what he can afford in the market (educational market, that is). Even the public schools they are talking about pay as much, if not more. So people are just making noise for nothing. It depends on what you can afford.” Oyedepo would also not point to a single public university that charges “as much, if not more” than Covenant does.
Oyedepo has also had similar brushes with junior pastors at the church's headquarters. Two pastors, who once questioned the bishop's dictatorial manner of running the entity, had to leave the church to set up their own ministries. Their complaints ranged from poor welfare, to the absolute power Oyedepo wields. A number of workers at some of the business entities set up by the church have also had to complain of the poor remuneration, even though they feel their employers could afford better pay. One of such workers was a staff in the kitchen of Faith Academy, the secondary school. On duty from early morning till 6p.m., she was earning N9,000 per month. Apart from paying for public transportation from her residence to the Winners' Chapel main gate, she would need to pay another N100 for the internal transportation arrangement from the main gate to her Faith Academy duty station. She was always complaining of the laborious nature of the kitchen job, which demanded that she alone fry eight cartons of fish every day, apart from other chores. With transportation fare taking so much toll on her miserly salary, and the kitchen's labour taking so much toll on her health, she didn't need any telling before she walked away from the job only six months after she was enlisted.
The Dirty slap video
Oyedepo's controversial ways also achieved international notoriety last year after a YouTube video showing him slapping a teenage female worshipper became an internet sensation. During one of the church's deliverance services in 2009, Oyedepo had accused the girl of being possessed with witchcraft, a charge the youngster stoutly rejected. “I am not a winch; I am a winch for Jesus,” she insisted, on her knees. Oyedepo repeated his “you are a witch” assertion and apparently expected the girl to quake and submit to his own exact words. But the girl stuck to her words. Stunned by her guts, the pastor, transferring the microphone he was holding in his right hand to his left, powerfully hit the girl's left cheek with a slap that visibly rocked her, boasting: “Do know who you're talking too? ” He then began swearing away at the girl: “Foul demon! You are a foul demon…You are not set for deliverance and you are free to go to hell.”
That drama of what came to be known as “holy slap” elicited criticisms from many observers, some of whom cracked rude jokes about the preacher's unusual methods. But Oyedepo dismissed such criticisms, saying he didn't regret his actions. “People now complain on the internet that I slapped a witch. If I see another one, I'll slap again,” the pastor reportedly boasted.
The pastor's unbridled desire for wealth also makes him unpopular with some other clerics. One of his most vitriolic critics is Tunde Bakare, pastor of the Latter Rain Assembly and running mate to General (retd.) Muhammadu Buhari in the 2011 presidential election. Bakare constantly rebukes prosperity preachers of Oyedepo's hue, describing them as “apostates”. He regards them as “only interested in the gospel of wealth”. In a fit of rage, Bakare once publicly tore a book written by Oyedepo, claiming its contents were contrary to the teachings of Christ.
Another notable cleric, Anthony Cardinal Okogie also chided the likes of Oyedepo for allegedly placing materialism high above the gospel. “You claim to be a pastor looking after souls. I know you cannot look after the soul without the body, but why would a pastor give 90 per cent of his time to the body and give only 10 per cent to the soul. I wonder what kind of pastors they are?” Okogie queried. According to the Catholic bishop: “That shows really that they are not sheperds of the flock. They have been skinning the flock, taking out of the milk of the flock”.
Though still being kept under the radar, Oyedepo, with his new airline project, has further invited reproach from a section of the Nigerian public, who also condemn the preacher's compulsive desire for wealth. “Pastor Oyedepo, by his choice of businesses, has severally demonstrated a disconnect between himself and hundreds of thousands of poor Christians who he claims to have come to deliver,” said Lawrence Ofili , who belongs to a faction of the opposition movement, the Save Nigeria Group, founded by Pastor Bakare. Ofili argued that Oyedepo's decision to float an airline is a misplaced priority. “His Faith Tabernacle accommodates 50,000 worshippers every Sunday. How many of them are going to fly Dominion Air? Honestly this project is not for the poor. He should have settled for mechanised farming to engage unemployed men and women,” the critic said.
Similarly, a blogger, Ofordile Tony-Okeke, in an online post, challenged Oyedepo to channel more of his material endowment to charitable ventures. “With about 70 per cent of Nigerians living in poverty, Bishop Oyedepo would do well to invest financially in the poor in his church and country. I am aware of what the World Mission Agency, an arm of the Living Faith Ministry is doing, as it provides welfare and other health and humanitarian services to the needy in the society,” wrote Tony-Okeke. The blogger, however, argues that the act of giving should never be enough. “We should give as if all things depend on giving. Bishop David Oyedepo should give, give and give until it hurts him. That way he will be doing a sacrifice like Jesus Christ, his mentor, did,” said Tony-Okeke.
While Sunday has become almost a vegetable with a decaying leg and abandoned by his wife and the church he was serving before the road traffic accident, Bishop David Oyedepo is harvesting billions of naira from the church and other business empires he established. While the church policy doesn't allow pastors and their wives to do any other job, Oyedepo, with Faith his wife in tow, is a pastorpreneur extraordinaire. Oyedepo's business range has no limits.
Born on 27 September 1954, Oyedepo began his ministry in May 1981. On 17 September 1983, Enoch Adeboye, general overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, ordained him and Florence, now Faith, his wife, as pastors. He labelled himself a bishop five years later.