It is a long road from well-regarded spiritual leader to chronic adulterer and eventual social pariah but Biodun Fatoyinbo, founder and senior pastor of Commonwealth of Zion Assembly (COZA) has spent the past few years of his life arriving at that ignoble final destination.
Even though he leads one of Pentecostal Christianity’s buzziest and shiniest churches, present in at least four locations nationwide, plus an outstation in Dubai, the very married Fatoyinbo is almost never in the news for any of the right reasons. To keep up with him is to feel caught in a whirlpool, constantly assaulted by reports of sexual proclivities involving members of his vibrant congregation.
It all came to a head last week.
A series of cataclysmic events kicked off when Busola, lifestyle photographer and wife of pop singer, Timi Dakolo sat down with this newspaper to share details of her traumatic personal experience with pastor Biodun Fatoyinbo going back 20 years. In a highly emotional account that promptly set the internet on fire and galvanized an entire nation to take a stand on sexual predators, Dakolo narrated a heartbreaking story of sexual abuse and emotional manipulation at the hands of Fatoyinbo, a man she held in esteem and considered her spiritual leader.
According to Mrs Dakolo, as a seventeen-year-old, impressionable member of Biodun Fatoyinbo’s then fledgling ministry, she was welcomed into his inner circle, showered with affection and when her guard was lowered sufficiently, Fatoyinbo raped her, twice. In her telling, after the first incident, Fatoyinbo consoled his victim thus, ‘’You should be grateful that a man of God did this to you.’’
The Y!TV interview instantly became a touch stone, sparking not just collective disgust at the sordid allegations, but a far-reaching call to action. Sexual abuse incidences have become a daily part of the news cycle but Dakolo’s high-profile status brought a much needed face to the galloping epidemic affecting both men and women.
Indeed, it is almost impossible to sit through Ms Dakolo’s compelling narration and not go through a myriad of emotions. With her quiet, near heroic determination to get her story out, she struck a nerve. Fatoyinbo was immediately cast as the ugly, revolting face of sexual assault. The reaction, both on and offline was massive and it was swift. Nigerians from all walks of life rallied around Busola Dakolo demanding that justice be served. ‘’I am so sorry you went through this nightmare. But I am so proud of you for sharing your truth. You didn’t speak up for yourself alone, but for all the voiceless victims who have suffered similar horrors at the hands of predators like him.’’ R&B star, Banky W wrote on Instagram in encouragement.
It isn’t the first time that Biodun Fatoyinbo would be accused of irresponsible behavior. Memories of the Ese Walter scandal from 2013 were still fresh, not helped by the fact that Fatoyinbo is yet to conclusively address his complicity in the widely reported affair.
If Biodun Fatoyinbo assumed that this particular merry-go-round would be business as usual, then he wasn’t ready for a woke generation that had learned in real time, how to harness the power of collective outrage via social media to maximum effect. An original statement released on COZA letterheaded paper but conveniently left unsigned, distanced the pastor from the rape allegations and went on to threaten legal action.
Meanwhile online, support for the Dakolos was growing into a cohesive unit that advocated not only for Fatoyinbo to step down from his pastorship of COZA but for him to have his day in court as well. Units were mobilized organically to picket COZA branches in Lagos and Abuja. The message was loud and clear. #TimesUp had hit Nigerian shores and Fatoyinbo was going to get his comeuppance.
On the morning of Monday 1, July, Fatoyinbo announced via his social media handles that he was taking a leave of absence from the pulpit. He had earlier announced the cancellation of the church’s annual week long programme, 7 Days of Glory billed to commence on Monday.
The wealthy place
There are flamboyant pastors and there is Biodun Fatoyinbo.
There are churches that thrive on the prosperity gospel and then there is COZA.
A proponent of overt advertisement and avatar of the name-it-and-claim-it-gospel of excess, Fatoyinbo has always been a man of large appetites. His style of Pentecostalism, big on showmanship, heavy on the flash and obsessed with materialism is steeped deep within the culture of the modern prosperity gospel, introduced to the world by the American mega pastors.
According to the church’s website, COZA ministers to a combined 10,000 persons in all of the physical centers in Nigeria and Dubai. The church is also an early adopter of internet streaming services and members from any other part of the world can connect in to the high entertainment value services.
Handsome, suave and always carefully groomed in the flashiest of designer outfits, Fatoyinbo’s brand has been deliberate not only about acquiring wealth, but about flaunting it. His designer wardrobe, jet set lifestyle, fleet of luxury cars and influential friends- Bishop T.D Jakes and vice president, Yemi Osibanjo have called in at COZA- are an extension of the fabulously lifestyle brand he has carefully curated for himself and his church.
In 2014 it was reported around several blogs that visiting American televangelist, Mike Murdock gifted Fatoyinbo with a brand-new Rolls Royce and made lifelong financial commitments to all four of the Fatoyinbo kids. In 2016, the church threw for their beloved senior pastor, a lavish all-white birthday party on a yacht in Dubai with Murdock, Tye Tribbett and Jumoke Adejumo as special guests.
The physical space that houses the COZA headquarters is an imposing structure located in the Guzape Hills, Abuja. First time worshippers are welcomed with a flamboyant show that is akin to the spiritual version of a low brow Las Vegas concert. One that is characterized by lights, sound, color and people falling over themselves to claim the prophesies spilling forth.
Fatoyinbo’s operation is a well-oiled machinery with different departments- from protocol to hospitality to pastoral care- moving in tandem to produce a decent show. Constant chants of ‘’I celebrate you,’’ ring out throughout the service.
On a given Sunday service, Fatoyinbo moves on the stage, like a king in court, a tiger on the prowl, king of his jungle, with his security detail trailing noticeably behind, mouthing things like ‘’The representation of your sweat was your money” and ‘’Your money is your life.’’ He is supported by his wife, pastor Modele who complements him nicely, both guardians of the take-over generation they claim they have been divinely mandated to raise.
This generation praises God in a different way. Prosperity is important and upward mobility is encouraged. Inspired by the example of the pastors, the average COZA member is young-ish, smartly dressed, wealthy, or at least ambitious enough to know that looking the part tends to attract wealth eventually. Testimonies usually revolve around wealth and influence, a better job secured, a lucrative contract in the bag. More, more, more.
The COZA take over generation will go to lengths to celebrate their pastor. During the first service after Dakolo’s rape allegations landed, a group of the faithful gathered to form a human shield to wall off protesters. When Fatoyinbo came forward to make a brief statement, the congregation erupted in cheers and whistles, making it crystal clear what side they were on. The day after Fatoyinbo announced he was stepping down, wife Modele spoke to a crowd of adoring faithful, “I just want to say ‘we love you’. You are our pastor; nobody can take your place,” she gushed.
As far as the church is concerned, there are few stories more welcoming than a sinner who has seen the light and isn’t that the whole point of religion anyyway? Christ himself reckoned that the heavens rejoice over one repented soul and places such an event higher than 99 righteous souls gathered. Biodun Fatoyinbo has publicly spoken about his past life as cultist and indeed embracing the past was a key ingredient of COZA’s success.
Reports insist that Fatoyinbo was rusticated from the University of Ilorin on account of his activities as a leader of a powerful and deadly secret cult group. He would eventually graduate from the University of Benin before moving back to Ilorin where his parents lived. Biodun Fatoyinbo describes Ilorin as a ‘’sharpener’’ for the role the sleepy town played in nurturing the ministries of other mega pastors like David Oyedepo and Sam Adeyemi.
Starting out in the late nineties, Fatoyinbo recognized early on that in order to stand out from the dime a dozen Pentecostal preachers with ambitions of someday leading a large flock, he had to bring on a unique point of view. The precursor to COZA was the Divine Delight Club, a hip motley crew of individuals who gathered individuals identifying as former cultists, sex workers, drug users and school dropouts. They would come together to sing, dance and express their talents to God. Before this, the talented Fatoyinbo who also sings, plays the guitar and the keyboard, was a drummer at the church that eventually became Winners Chapel. One big part of COZA’s appeal is the acclaimed music ministry that houses bring-down-the-house bands like The Avalanche and The Gratitude.
Fatoyinbo’s charisma and effect on people soon propelled the ministry beyond its humble origins and by the time he arrived Abuja in 2008, a mega church was in the making. Before moving into the headquarters in Abuja, COZA held services in Transcorp Hilton and the International Conference Centre, pragmatic choices as they remain familiar haunts for the city’s elite.
Deception, disgrace, evil
By the time Ese Walter came forward with the detailed story of the emotional abuse that followed her torrid affair with Fatoyinbo, COZA was one of the hottest tickets in town. The scandal made Biodun Fatoyinbo a household name but he managed to shrug it off, promising a robust response that never quite came.
Dakolo’s compelling allegations, six years later, reinforce a pattern that Fatoyinbo- whose wife oversees a bimonthly finishing school for ladies- has employed severally to groom young women under his charge for sexual roles.
Both Dakolo and Walter also identified a support system of enablers including Folarin Ogunsola and Wole Soetan- both heads of COZA’s Lagos and Port Harcourt ministries respectively- who are always on hand to help Fatoyinbo clean up his mess.
The tide has turned and Fatoyinbo is clearly not going to wish away the consequences of his accusations. If Ese Walter was the ‘’wrong’’ kind of victim in society’s eyes- a young, unmarried lady who admits to smoking, drinking and having consensual sex is simply no match for a wealthy man of God in today’s Nigeria- then perhaps his reckoning is happening this time because Dakolo, bless her heart, represents the ‘’good’’ kind, a seemingly well-adjusted mother of three, married to a man nationally recognized as The Voice. Then there is the rape charge and the fact that she was a minor at the time.
Both cases- plus the pockets of accusations ringing out from ladies who would rather not be identified- have uncovered a weakness in the systems that fail to police powerful men like Fatoyinbo not just in the church but in every sphere of life. They also point to the role of enablers like Soetan and Ogunsola and the depths that men would descend to protect their brotherhood, even, and especially at the expense of powerless women armed with nothing but the truth of their bodies.
Perhaps it should be left for scientists and medical teams to investigate why sexual abuse, especially against women is so easily shrugged off in these parts. According to Tony Rapu, pastor of This Present House, ‘’Many leaders lack the confidence to address sexual abuse because they do not feel adequately equipped to handle the complexities involved.’’
If in 2013, Walter found herself stranded and unmoored after coming forward with her account, Dakolo has had quite the opposite experience, receiving an avalanche of encouragement and support such that even the church, famously slow to come around, has had to take a stand. Covenant Christian Centre’s Poju Oyemade made it quite clear he expected Fatoyinbo to step down from the pulpit and advocated for ‘’justice, healing and redemption.’’ According to Vanguard newspaper reports, Yakubu Pam, chairman of the Northern branch of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) hollered, “It’s not the kind of thing ears are supposed to hear of ordinary church members, let alone a pastor. I think it is high time for Christian Association of Nigeria to mandate the bloc leaders to start scrutinizing candidates to be accepted as pastors.’’
Stepping down may not be enough this time around. For all his talk about “seeking the face of the Lord,’’ Fatoyinbo has carried on in the same arrogant tone-deaf manner and has refused to take full responsibility. The church’s initial response was a blanket threat of legal action. On Sunday, it followed up by increasing security presence- from the Nigerian Police ironically- and hiring goons to counter the #ChurchToo protesters. Modele Fatoyinbo’s insistence that ‘’not even as an unbeliever will my husband rape someone’’ merely continues the classic gaslighting that the Fatoyinbos, as well as other enablers of bad behavior in the church have routinely employed to deflect culpability. As though rape is strictly a function of one’s religious inclinations.
The allegations remain just what they are and until the law is allowed to take its course, Fatoyinbo remains innocent. Tainted yes, but expect his supporters to find many other reasons to celebrate him.