by Eromo Egbejule with additional reports by Emmanuel Osanedum
It is certainly difficult for a new generation to grasp – growing to see him only as a man of the bible – but the conversion of Kris Okotie in the ‘80s really, really shocked the nation.
Here was the poster boy of Nigerian funk and pop, at the peak of his career, suddenly careening from secular superstar to, what? Born-again Christian. Many people didn’t even know what that meant at the time.
Thus began the curious case of Christopher Oghenebrorhie (Urhobo for “God brought him”) Okotie – a man who would soon make it his stock in trade to shock his country(wo)men.
A mind of his own
But, if you were really paying attention, he had already showed the signs early.
Born on 16 June 1958, in the now defunct Bendel State, Okotie had suddenly abandoned his law studies at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka halfway through to pursue a music career.
That decision served him well. When he released his debut album, I Need Someone, in 1980, it was to critical acclaim. He was soon touring cities all over Nigeria – the excitement from his fans palpable.
“He was like the Chris Brown of that generation,” says Timothy ’T-Money’ Mba, a music promoter who grew up selling CDs in his father’s shop in Lagos, and remembers the girls who would come in just for Kris’s. “He had the looks, and the M.J comparisons from Jerry curls to dress sense which were visible for all to see, the female attention and suddenly, he wanted to throw all that away.”
Then, out of the blues like one awoken from a deep sleep, he decided that he would change course – again. In 1984, he went back to school for his law degree. Then he became a born-again Christian. In 1985, “in obedience to a divine call from the Lord Jesus Christ”, according to his church website, he left Nigeria for bible school in Tulsa, Oklahoma “to prepare for a life of Christian ministry”.
When he returned in 1987, the Household of God International Ministries was born.It was too dramatic to be taken seriously, or at least to be taken well.
Long before women began to throw underwear on stage for an assortment of pop stars from D’banj to Davido, there was Kris. For abandoning those thousands of young fans therefore, there was disappointment. In fact, at an event in 1984, when he went to preach the bible to students at the University of Lagos, they responded by pelting him, literally, with stones.
“We whistled and heckled and tossed whatever we could lay our hands on (to) the stage…” recalls journalist Emmanuel Ukpong, who was one of the students. “Furious because Kris, the Wonder Boy of Nigerian music had come to preach the gospel, not perform his hit songs.”
The switch from entertainer to preacher started as a rumour, and for many remained unbelievable – even as the man replaced jeans with cassock. There was no press release or announcement. But on 1 February 1987 “in his living room, then in the Ikeja area of Lagos,” according to the church homepage, the journey began.
“It just began to filter out that he had become SU or Scripture Union, the forerunner of today’s born again doctrine of Pentecostal Christianity popular on university campuses and (in) secondary schools,” Ukpong recalls.
The jerry curls remained, but the rhythm had certainly changed.
The Kris Effect
What Kris had was a cult following.
“Whether he was recording or performing live, Kris’s phrasing was always almost perfect,” Ukpong recalls. “I think his excellent command of the English language was a factor in all of this. There was something special about Kris. He impacted my generation in many profound ways – his lifestyle, his music and of course his fashion. This is no slight on the musicians of that era but many of them wanted to sing like Chris. That’s how strong his influence was.”
His stage costumes and album sleeves were equally striking; and, though Jerry curls had been around for a while, young people in the ‘80s took to the fad in droves because Kris made it so. He was so cool, even the inversion of the ‘C’ in his name started a trend. Some chose to call themselves ‘Krees’, others ‘Krys’. But there was only one Kris Okotie – with just the right mix of talent, eccentricity and fervour.
He stood out amongst his contemporaries, including the now forgotten Dizzy K Falola and Felix Liberty. And, even as a pastor today, the man called “an unrepentant car freak” by soft sell, Encomium still insists on standing out.
The 55-year-old Okotie, who kick started a debate over pastors in Jerry curls and joined a posse of new generation pastors living in flamboyance previously unseen by the Nigerian public has not allowed any criticism slow him down, including the purchase of a N33 million (Autobiography) 2014 and a Rolls Royce Coupe, the 2014 Bespoke Edition to celebrate his 30th year as a Christian (and 27 as a minister of the gospel) in 2013, a story that has since gone viral.
Also gone viral is the video of the reverend pointing unashamedly to his shoes and suits and jewellery from an assortment of expensive brands – from Franck Muller to Louis Vuitton.
“The suit I wore recently on Sunday came off the runway from Dolce and Gabana’s new collection,” he said to a reporter Hazeez Balogun last year, even though the man didn’t ask. “When you look at the Bible, God was very particular about the apparel of the priesthood. I like good clothes and maybe it has to do with my orientation. Fashion has a way of giving you confidence.”
Indeed, sometimes, it can seem – save for the God he preaches – that not much has changed since he was famous for his sleeveless body-hugging tees as a singer. But he doesn’t agree.
“Pastors are human beings, right?” he asked rhetorically in a recent interview. “We could be fashionable like everyone else. King Solomon, the servant of God, was the most fashionable in his day.”
It was in the same interview that he pointed to his still-distinctive hairstyle as a fashion statement, and then declared – as if a guest on the set of Joan Rivers’s ‘Fashion Police’ – that Jerry curls are now so 1980.
This, the same pastor who shocked some of his members by endorsing tattoos and cosmetic surgeries in a sermon at his church on 13 January 2013. Then there is the retinue of ubiquitous bodyguards he carries around with him. According to the man of God, necessities to protect him after a series of death threats in the past few years.
It can all be a bit too much.
Man of his word?
Perhaps it would be easy to ignore Kris Okotie as a pastor, except it isn’t. This is a man who speaks with authority in his new profession – a man who certainly knows what he is talking about.
It is not just the “grandiloquence of his presentation” (he once referred to former President Olusegun Obasanjo as ‘the ipsissimus of the Nigerian genitive nuance”; that is apart from his famous cover quote to a soft sell in 2006 about “avian species of identical plumage congregating within the same proximity” referring to his sworn enemies Chris Oyakhilome and TB Joshua); it is the soundness of his theology, ingrained first at bible school in Tulsa and made popular by his television broadcast, Apocalypsis.
“Kris is a formally trained and ordained priest; therefore he has a very deep understanding of the Word of God, even though you may not always agree with his views,” says Israel Adejuwon, who was a member of his church for eight years and still speaks of him with awe. “From the pulpit, Kris Okotie’s message can sometimes be complex, owing to his very high level of articulation – his church isn’t exactly for street sweepers – but I find him a very practical Christian. Unlike other men of God who keep taking from the congregation, Chris has made the point of giving back. To that extent, his theology remains as solid as a rock.”
It was so solid that, when he declared in 2007 that God had told him he would be the next president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Christians across the nation took him very seriously. His credibility had already been bolstered by his vociferous war against the duo of Chris Oyakhilome of The Believers LoveWorld aka Christ Embassy and TB Joshua of The Synagogue Church of all Nations.
Branding them ‘charlatans’, ‘shamans’ and any assortment of choice invectives (backed, of course, by scripture he could find), he had effectively driven them from the mainstream of the Christian establishment, raised questions as to the credibility of the rising Oyakhilome’s miracles enough to lead to a ban by the National Broadcasting Commission and thus establishing himself to the nation as a voice to be taken seriously beyond the gates of his church – where he owns all the property on the entire street.
So that by the time this voice declared improbable interest in the highest political office in the land, it was enough to give him the benefit of the doubt. And, after all, who could ignore a man with a divine mandate?
He began active politics by the formation and eventual registration of the Justice Party. Many forget this now, but before this time, Okotie was first a member of the People’s Democratic Party. He now calls it a cauldron of darkness amongst other naturally colourful adjectives, but he once stood under its banner, memorably taking his place in the losers column on stage alongside a downcast Alex Ekwueme in 2003 to declare his decision to leave the party, having lost woefully in the primaries.
He soon found himself in conflict with the Justice Party, and showed some chops by joining a coalition of smaller parties who forced the national electoral commission to register his new party, seen by many as only an extension of his church, the FRESH party. Both times, in 2003, and 2007, a number of Christians and young people looking for, erm, fresh ideas, found themselves captivated by his candidacy.
And why not? After all, in the run-up to the 2007 elections, he won a popularity poll organized by the Silverbird Group and Vanguard Newspapers; polling 31.17 percent of total votes cast, even though he ended up losing at the elections proper.
That straw poll came with its own baggage however. Simon Ateba, a journalist who was a volunteer on his campaign team at the time, has revealed on his blog how victory in the Silverbird poll was ‘made’ possible, despite coming up against the likes of Generals Ibrahim Babaginda and Muhamadu Buhari, Peter Odili, Dora Akunyili and Orji Uzor Kalu.
According to the blogger and PM News reporter now famous for his stated animosity towards the pastor, one night Sola Salako, the campaign coordinator (who has herself left the church under a cloud of hostility after many years at her pastor’s side) and the pastor’s aides purchased cartons of SIM cards and loads of airtime recharge vouchers and put him and some others in a room, urging them to vote their principal until midnight.
By this time, perhaps Okotie had begun to question God. That much could be presumed from a popular interview on One-on-One, a prime time television show on the network service of the Nigeria Television Authority. There, in a particularly painful conversation where his interviewer challenged the shallowness of his campaign, the reverend parsed his words, claiming a distinction between sacerdotal intervention (by priests) and divine intervention (by God), calling his a personal mission as a man of God to save the nation.
Lost for words
It didn’t matter much. By this time, the world had determinedly stopped taking Okotie seriously – national columnists spending page after page ridiculing what was now a quixotic test (Chairman of the Thisday Editorial Board, Olusegun Adeniyi called it a ‘delusion of grandeur), and young sympathisers visibly losing faith, not just in his ambition, but also in him.
“I’m a very positive person and I believe strongly that impossibility is nothing but it’s easier for Portsmouth to win the UEFA champions league than for you to be our president,” a columnist, Bimbola Gold wrote in a piece titled ‘An Open Letter to Kris Okotie’. “Within you I’m pretty sure you know if you truly come out again you’re fighting to lose so why drag the office you hold in the house of God into murky waters? I’m well aware of the billions of Naira that go into every political party that contests an election, my dear pastor, is this what you’re after? How would you be seen if you’re eventually defeated the third time? How would you encourage your congregation to keep the faith with a failing pastor? Your confidence is laudable, but seek first for yourself and congregation the kingdom of God, and let God add the rest as He’s promised.
“First time you came out to contest in 2003 you said it was God’s leading, you said God told you in a revelation that you’ll be Nigeria’s next president, we all know that God has a way of using the wrong people: Moses was a murderer and a stammerer, David an adulterer, Paul a staunch persecutor of the brethren and so on like that so we gave you the benefit of doubt, nobody questioned you then because we knew it was a matter of seeing the election results to know whats up.
Can you remember your position in that election? You were woeful, why were you trying to coin and con us with God’s name? The God you and I serve never fails, His word is yea and amen, he will never lie; you are a citizen of Nigeria, you’re qualified by age, academic and other cheap INEC stipulations, why don’t you just go to the polls with your manifesto and leave us to decide instead of attaching God’s call? Now have you considered the implication of your woeful failures on the Christians out there? You know how many are now confused because a certain pastor portrayed God as a liar? How do you think your congregation members see you? Fill in the gap.”
Ukpong disagrees. “Politics isn’t just about wining seats and running government. It’s also about having a platform to advance a cause and philosophy. To that extent, he has done well as a politician; he is by no means a spectacular failure.”
For whatever its worth, the man of God is undeterred. Only last month, he declared his intention to run for the office of president the 4th time – side by side with Muhammadu Buhari as the most dogged contender for that office.
And who is to stop him? The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) tried to when, in 2012, it de-registered the party amongst about 22 others for inability to win any elections. In June last year, his party won a victory in court over that decision.
“I will run in 2015, God willing,” he said in an exclusive interview with Punch newspapers in January this year, renewing his certainty in his now-divine mission. “God spoke to me about my participation in the political process, which was why I took the step in the first place. He has not said anything contrary.’’
Asked about his repeated failures despite “God’s promise”, Okotie was ready with an answer. “The duty of a servant of God is to obey his master when he gives him instructions, irrespective of whether he fails or succeeds,” he said, reasonably. “Like Moses in the Bible, who kept fighting until Pharaoh released the Israelites.’’
He blames election rigging for his loss. “I can sum it up -rigging by the PDP,” he said. “Even one of the party’s stalwarts, Chief Adeseye Ogunlewe, told The PUNCH recently that all elections have always been rigged. So that answers the question. These election questions are inter-related. If they didn’t rig, then I could have won.”
That assertion is likely to be seriously questioned by serious-minded observers. For one, Okotie’s mission to the Presidency is hardly recognizable outside of newspaper interviews, almost non-existent in the north and hardly registered in the Southeast. Credible polls including from NOI-Gallup and ThisDay have failed to register any tangible support for his candidacy, and debate organisers, who can hardly be accused of duplicity, have found his candidacy to be, at best, fringe.
For that matter, he doesn’t even appear to be running a serious minded campaign. Investigations into INEC records in six randomly chosen states (Delta, which is his origin; Osun, Kaduna, Cross-River, Ekiti and Kogi) reveal no party structures. Currently, there is even no functional website for the FRESH Democratic Party.
Calls and SMSs to Ladi Ayodeji, the church – and pastor’s – director of media and communication strategy, yielded no reply save for a string of excuses. “I’m driving”, he said the first time. “Someone will text you an email address when I get to the office; since I don’t know you, I can’t give you mine,” he then said after several other calls. That email never came.
Asked about the transparent lack of, well, anything by PUNCH, Okotie’s response called to mind Adeniyi’s critique. “I don’t want to talk about our strategy for now,” Okotie said, with no irony. “We have learnt from our past experience, we don’t want to talk about it for now.’’
This last assertion was too much for Chinedu Akabueze (not real name), an official of the Lagos chapter of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria. “We really have to question Okotie’s sanity,” he said, heatedly. “How can he speak of people stealing his strategy? What strategy? The strategy of delusion? This is a man who doesn’t have campaign offices in any state. I really wonder about those that go to his church – are they not worried for his sake? Will they wait until this once-respected man of God takes off his clothes?”
I Need Someone
Unfortunately, it is not only with politics that Okotie has left many of his erstwhile admirers scratching their heads.
He has been as unlucky in love as he has been in politics – which is quite surprising for a man who has never lacked for female attention. But it is the way he has handled those relationships that has called his judgement into question.
His first marriage, lasting for an impressive 17 years (though much of it, in absentia), to Tina, crashed in 1998. First she abandoned him in Nigeria under a cloud of uncertainty not cleared till date. And then suddenly she wasn’t coming back.
“She wanted to go,” Okotie has said in an interview. “It was her choice that she didn’t want the marriage anymore and she decided to divorce me. So, God can’t hold me responsible for something I didn’t do. This is the second time for me now to pick it up from where Tina left.”
While she was away and he was alone, the handsome man of God began to be linked to a revolving door of women in his church, including former Miss Nigeria Vien Tetsola who, according to the gossip columns, was torn at some point between her pastor and the musician, 2face Idibia, the former famously joining her to cut her birthday cake at the Sheraton in Lagos when she turned 30.
Ms. Tetsola soon left the Household of God (and the public eye, ever since), under controversial circumstances. Another linkage was his former campaign manager, Sola Salako, said to be besotted with her principal. She too has left the church and refuses to speak about it in public. Another was Pastor Elishammah Ideh, prominent by his side during the 2007 run, and rumoured by blogs in 2012 to be pregnant for him. Then there was a Naomi Hoffman. Then there was ex banker Ure Okezie. Then there was a Delphine Onyii Okoronkwo. Anyway, you get the picture.
All of these disappeared when the Pastor found another missing rib, in 2008 –the strikingly beautiful Stephanie Henshaw, 42; a mother of three and widow of his late friend (her second marriage ended in divorce).
The pastor declared the marriage to the world with fanfare, announcing he had known her for 19 years, and had courted her for 7, starting in 1999. He had asked for her hand in marriage severally but she had said no, he told interviewers.
The wedding was, of course, lavish. It took place on 7 August 2008 at her family house in Ikoyi, Lagos, with a court ceremony the next day and a loud thanksgiving service at the Household of God Church on Sunday, 10 August 2008.
“She is the embodiment of the epitome of beauty and spirituality,” he gushed in one interview. He would call her out in the church affectionate – “Sister Stephanie” –more times than was necessary on any given Sunday, a man apparently drunk in love. Her photograph for many years welcomed you to the church’s website, her glittering complexion inviting you into a world where everything was alright.
Except, suddenly, it wasn’t. One Sunday morning, in June 2012, the Pastor announced to his congregation that the marriage was over. He also made it clear there was no chance of reconciliation. According to him, “Stephanie and I are no longer married. We have separated. You can see she’s not in church today. It’s due to irreconcilable differences and you should please respect our wishes at this time”. Then he added: “because there is no going back.”
The Nation, in a story that month, reported it best.
“About four years ago, it started with drama,” it started. “Two days ago, it ended the same way.
“The founder of the Household of God Church, Oregun, Lagos, Pastor Chris Okotie, announced the end of his second marriage to a shocked congregation. The couple crisscrossed continents for an expensive honeymoon. An excited Okotie declared Stephanie as unbeatable. According to him, his pretty ex-wife was ‘’a culmination of my desire to stabilize as a man.” At a point, he even claimed God told him they would have twins.
“The marriage met with stiff criticism across the country, and with Nigerians already wary of a man with too much baggage. Chairman of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Southwest, Archbishop Magnus Atilade, yesterday described it as regrettable and saddening. He, however, called for caution, saying it would be wrong to blame anybody yet.
“He said: ‘’He needs our understanding and prayers. We should all sympathise with him because it could not have been an easy decision. We can only pray that God will take control so that his ministry can move forward. We cannot pass judgement because nobody can truly know what happened between them.’’
“The President of International Church Growth Ministries, Dr Francis Bola Akin-John, however, dismissed Pastor Okotie as a bad example of what a good church leader should be.
“He said: ‘’The problem with divorcees is once they leave the first, they are always vulnerable. He is a classic example of preachers who do not practice what they preach. He is given over to lust. He is one of those giving Christianity a bad name. You don’t quit a marriage because of challenges.
The Senior Pastor of the Glory Christian Centre, Lagos, Dr Iruofagha James, in an earlier interview, said: ‘’Divorce is only permissible when a case of adultery has been established. Even at that, reconciliation is best.”
“The Senior Pastor of the Vineyard Assembly, Ibadan, Pastor Buki Gbenro, shares the same view. Citing Mathew 5: 32, he said: ‘Once you divorce and you want to remain a Christian, you must never remarry. To remarry is to become an adulterer or adulteress. People are just walking away these days from their homes, including men of God. They are remarrying. Once you do this, you are acting against the Bible.’”
But he had equally firm supporters, including fellow politician and fiery pastor of the Latter Rain Assembly, Tunde Bakare. Pastor Bakare attended the wedding, supervised the cutting of the cake for his “true brother”, and when asked about propriety of the second marriage, retorted: “This is a brand new book; anything in the past does not exist anymore.”
The Nation was quick to crow: “Now, that new book has been torn.”
There is no clarity as to what exactly happened, and none to be gotten from any of the only two parties who would know.
“Twenty years I have known a man, fifteen years we have been the closest friends,” Henshaw wrote in a tortured, rambling post on Facebook later that year. “I prepared all his meals for ten years including the four years we were married, the day I was asked to leave I prepared his meal, served it and I left, for the four years he never fell ill, but today I am called all sorts of names, witch, mermaid spirit. I have served JESUS with clean hands and a clean heart, I have loved all that have come my way, and if I don’t live through this pain and hurt, as sure as Jesus lives my children will see my vindication.
“Today makes it three weeks I was asked for a separation,and a week and four days I packed out.Romans 8:28 ALL THINGS WORK TOGETHER,FOR THE GOOD OF THOSE WHO LOVE GOD AND ARE CALLED ACCORDING TO HIS PURPOSE FOR THEM. I’m as shocked as most people, as there has not been an argument in my home in the over a year, we have been as happy as everybody thought we were.I wait, because I know in time GOD will make known what has gone wrong. Have mercy on me,o God,have mercy!I look to you for protection.I will hide beneath the shadow of your wing until the danger passes by.”
On Okotie’s end, a Reverend Grace Paul, who has been with the church for 25 years and claimed to be speaking for him, offered an explanation in a September 2012 interview with City People.
“A blind person knows that my pastor loved his wife, Stephanie, passionately,” she said. “This year before the separation, he had taken her out of the country at least three times to different places like Dubai, US and so on. He loved her, so did the congregation but the bible says that two cannot walk together except they agree. In the establishment of the kingdom of God, the rules change because the rules are made by God and not by man. So, it didn’t have to do with what pastor wanted to do, because left to him, his love will keep him struggling and going at it but if God gives him instruction he has to follow it through.”
Like his twice failed presidential campaigns, his stated promise of twins from God did not materialize.
It was the one time when cracks began to show in the pastor’s most stubborn support base – his congregation. Reports indicated that many high profile, even rank-and-file, members of the church stopped attending service, names mentioned include TV icon Patrick Doyle, who is very close to Henshaw, and actor/politician Richard Mofe-Damijo. The former refused to speak for this story when contacted, speaking of his deep respect for the man of God.
Barely a month after his separation from his second wife, a woman surfaced claiming to be the mother of an illegitimate child biologically sired by the pastor, who she alleged, dumped her as soon as she informed him of her pregnancy. She had been a member of his church since meeting him in 1997, she said, claiming to have done three abortions for him before Tioluwani, his supposed daughter was born.
For Nigeria’s most-gossiped-about pastor, speculations went wild. Until, it appeared the pastor had had enough.
“The pastor of our great church, the Household of God, Oregun, Lagos, Rev. Chris Okotie has finally laid to rest speculations about his future marriage which have been the subject of media controversy since his separation from his former wife, Stephanie Henshaw last year,” his spokesperson, Ladi Ayodeji issued a public statement in January 2013.
“He announced to the church during the evening service on Wednesday, January 09, 2013, his decision not to remarry which he said is final and irrevocable, having already settled the matter with the Lord Jesus Christ.Taking cognisance of the wide media interest that this issue is likely to generate, we decided to make this statement to pre-empt mischief makers from distorting the facts.
A comment on popular blog BellaNaija.com, time-stamped January 13, 2013 at 4:49 AM captured the response of a fed-up public to thus new development: “The guy said he heard from his god that he will be president (2twice), also his god told him to marry his ex-wife now. Bia biko, what is the name of your god?”
But the man who quit school to pursue his dream, and then quit his dream to go back to school, and has seen each of those decisions rewarded with success, doesn’t appear fazed by all the background noise.
He has, after all, always seen himself as special.
That sense of Kris Okotie inherent specialness – he once said it was the devil who first told him he would be a pastor – has driven his desire to launch into gratuitous controversy, taking on anyone he wants – from former president Olusegun Obasanjo to celebrity blogger, Linda Ikeji, both of whom have wisely ignored him.
Then there is the way against former acolyte, Biodun Kupoluyi, publisher of E24/7 Magazine, who was ‘banned’ from the church for writing a negative story; as well as 40-year-old Dafiaghor Okiotor, a pianist who held the church hostage in the first quarter of 2013, claiming he was owed N39 million for work done over 14 years (he had been jailed for three weeks in June of 2012 for the same conduct, and was subsequently arraigned before an Oshodi Magistrate court after his March 2013 return).
But two of his biggest controversies though have centred on his major profession – as teacher of the bible.
One morning in October 2001, the nation woke up to read in tabloids, soft sell magazines and newspapers that he had accused Pastor Chris Oyakhilome – also of the jerry curls practitioner – whose church headquarters shares a wall with Okotie’s, of liaising with Pastor T.B. Joshua, whom he accused of being a member of the occult, to lead unsuspecting Christians members to hell.
The long-drawn fight became so petty, Oyakhilome had to spend 30 minutes of primetime television across the country to term Kris Okotie “a liar” jealous of his rapid growth. Retaliating, Okotie declared to journalists across the country that his own name was Christopher, very different Oyakhilome’s Christian.
Then, most recently, he was back telling others how to practice their religion. Okotie once again sent shock waves through the nation when, unprovoked, he pronounced the Catholic Church as a counterfeit one, announcing with pomp that its members will go to hell for believing in purgatory, and that its leader, the popular Pope Francis, is the anti-Christ.
“The pope is an Anti-Christ and the Catholic church will soon declare for Satan. This is the end of times,” the author of ‘The Last Outkast’ declared in a November 2013 sermon. ““They don’t believe in heaven. They believe in purgatory, the purgatory that they invented. That church, the Catholic church has been there for Satan and at the right time, they will declare for Satan.”
To be fair, these comments are hardly novel for anyone who has spent more than a year’s worth of services at any run-of-the-mill Pentecostal church, many of them routinely decrying Catholic “idolatory.”
“He is right,“ says a junior pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, who asked for anonymity. “Catholics have bent Biblical teachings over time, from the time of Martin Luther and the Niocean Creed. Personally, I disagree with his statement that the Pope is Anti-Christ and there are a lot of good people there and some true doctrines, but worshipping Mary is a no-no; it’s against the Bible. If you study carefully, you’ll realize Okogie didn’t even back his reply with any scriptural quotation.”
He was referring to the revered Anthony Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie, who had to step out of semi-retirement to refute Okotie. “It is always good to talk on what you know, not on what you do not know,” he said to journalists a few days after. “The problem we have today is that a lot of people put their mouth in what does not concern them because they want people to know that they too are there; that they can be reckoned with.”
T-Money, a Nigerian rapper who actually admires the Okotie shared one of the popular sentiments in response to his comments. “Judge not, so that ye be not judged”, he quoted from the bible. “Not everyone must serve God the same way. That I don’t serve Mary (which I see as idolatry) doesn’t mean anyone who does is going to hell. It’s whatever you believe that works for you, my brother.”
But for many, it wasn’t what was being said; it was who was saying it. “He is possessed,” shrieked Kay, a commenter on the popular internet forum, Nairaland. “A man who doesn’t know how to keep his woman should keep his mouth shut!”
Blogger and artiste manager, Toni Payne – herself party to a celebrated divorce, from singer 9ice, took it to the reverend via Twitter: “thanks a lot. We like it like that. At least our Priests don’t lie dat GOD asked them to commit adultery and leave their wife,” she said. “don’t blame him sha.. i blame those attending his church.. ur pastor told u GOD told him to DIVORCE and u no go find another church?’”
Blogger Linda Ikeji was equally harsh on the man who once accused her, through a lengthy press release, of “promoting satanic agenda through falsehood”. “If he really said this,” she told her readers, “then it’s a damn shame. Is this pastor really a man of God? He can’t make his marriages work and now he’s condemning a religious denomination?”
And a headline on this site, aggregating the top 10 Twitter reactions to his viral statement, neatly summed up how much damage the pastor has done to his public credibility. “If I see Kris Okotie in heaven,” the Twitter commenter announced to his followers. “I’ll leave.”
It is impossible not to wonder – what does Okotie think of all this? What does he say to himself when he is alone – literally, as he is without wife or child?
Can it be possible that he sees his propensity for needless controversy as part of his legacy? Is he worried about his position as punch line in public debate, the butt of jokes anything he opens his mouth – and not just for his inexplicable desire to reach for the most tongue-twisting synonyms for simple words (The simplicity of the gospel has been the greatest impediment to the cerebral and elevated intelligentsia, he explained via Twitter on 7 June last year)? Or does he live in a bubble where no one tells him what the world truly thinks of him?
One suspects it’s the latter, going by a rambling defense of the man in a widely circulated piece by his spokesman in January of 2013.
“The reverend’s case is particularly pathetic because over the course of his ministry for more than a quarter of a century he had, and continues to be a subject of relentless onslaught, which Satan wrought by the hands of junk journalists in different formats,” Ayodeji wrote, proceeding to describe his pastor, and employer, in superlatives. “Having known Rev. Okotie for more than 30 years, I have seen him evolved from a budding recording artiste, into a world class preacher, political leader and devoted disciple of Jesus Christ.
“I am particularly fascinated by his wholesale commitment to his unique commission, which is why one is troubled by the unbridled, shameful assault on his person; ministry and life in general. The mob will stop at nothing to cast the reverend in bad light at the slightest opportunity.
“Although for 22 years running, Rev. Okotie’ s church, the Household of God, has been making annual donations of millions of naira to charities through its GRACE programme, our celebrated bloggers deliberately ignored this exemplary effort because it does not fit into their satanic agenda.
“This good work is not mentioned by the mob network. For instance, on December 9, 2012, the church gave out about N6.5million to charities, including awardees, the late scholar and politician, Prof. Ishaya Audu, the beneficiary of our KARIS Award for last year.”
Indeed, a part of his ministry that no longer gets as much buzz as his controversies is his consistent, admirable philanthropy.
His GRACE programme and KARIS Awards have been consistent every single year since their institution in 1990 and 1996 respectively. One is a charity fund while the other appreciates Nigerians who have made positive impact in their various fields but, for various reasons, have not been given substantial recognition by the public.
The GRACE programme has funded several charity organizations like the Pacelli School for the Blind and Partially Sighted, the Little Saints Orphanage and the Spinal Cord Injuries Association of Nigeria – with the lump sum of five hundred thousand naira. Past recipients of the prize, which has a cash prize of one million naira, include Mallam Aminu Kano, Tai Solarin, Hajia Gambo Sawaba, Mr. Taiwo Akinkunmi, Mrs. Margaret Ekpo, Chief Michael Imodu, Chief Gani Fawehinmi and many others.
In addition to the goodwill he enjoys for this, however little, is the fact that many will forgive him anything for the talent of his voice. Since ditching secular music for life as a clergyman, he has not released any new music, barring the single “Yonder Place’. His velvety voice was clearly broken and he didn’t reach for the stars, but it was clear from the wholesome – some will say perfect – song, and its video, that here was a man with effortless talent.
His church members perhaps are hooked by this singular blessing only they are fortunate to share.
“Immediately he picked the mic, he went into solo songs,” the intrepid blogger Kris Nwandu shared of a visit to the church (and his hilarious account of his experience is worth reading). “Okotie does not have a choir or back up singers. He is the Choir, Choirmaster and chorister all put in one. His is the only Church I have visited that does not have a choir. He was moving from one song to another, for over one hour he didn’t stop. no wonder all these people are trooping here, they came to see Okotie perform every week, definitely not his preaching.”
A comeback would be perfectly in order, argues Ukpong. According to him, “If he doesn’t return to music, he might be completely lost to future generations. Already, there are ominous signs. My 10-year old son who enjoys The Bee Gees as much as Chris Brown and J Cole, confuses Chris Okotie with Chris Oyakhilome. What does that tell you?”
“Who do men say I am?”
At the centre of all this chatter is Kris Okotie himself.
And going by the supreme sense of destiny (“Jesus Christ appeared to me when I was three years old,” he told a reporter in a 2012 interview); the calm – even unnerving – confidence when he speaks, he appears firmly unperturbed.
In response to the raging war over his catholic church comments, he only doubled down: “Re- Catholicism: Truth is bitter. It lacks saccharine delights,” he tweeted from @RevChrisOkotie, an account he uses sparsely, too busy perhaps to engage in the banality of social media as enjoyed by mere mortals.
And, despite what you might think about his national aspirations, he continues to contribute regularly to public debate, writing articles on everything from PDP’s rebel governors to insecurity across the nation.
So what exactly is the measure of this man?
Two keen observers hazard an assessment.
“You know, Chris Okotie is not a bad man,” says Ateba, despite his constant criticism. “He’s a good man unlucky to find love and power.”
Ukpong, clearly smitten by the pastor, makes a much simpler case: “Chris is simply his own man.”
See other long read pieces HERE