This morning, YNaija TV released a four part series of an interview between Chude Jideonwo and Busola Dakolo about her time at the Biodun Fatoyinbo led Commonwealth of Zion Assembly (COZA) and how he allegedly singled her out, groomed her and raped her twice. This is not the first time that Fatoyinbo, who is known for his decidedly flamboyant brand of prosperity christianity has been in the news for his views, his antics and accusations of sexual assault, infidelity and violence. Dakolo’s interview while graphic and difficult for her, affirms many things that Fatoyinbo himself has incorporated into his salvation story.
Fatoyinbo has spoken at length about joining a secret cult while in the University of Benin and renouncing that life for organized religion. It is also common knowledge that the pastor’s early congregation had a significant population of ‘reformed’ cultists and sex workers, which probably informed the church’s more liberal approach to christian living. In her interview Busola talks about being uncomfortable with this but eventually realising that she had judged the church’s members too harshly. She concedes that the church members gave freely of their time to Pastor Fatoyinbo and his wife Modele, a practice that allegedly created the opportunity for Fatoyinbo to groom young girls for illicit affairs or outright assault. How does a pastor allegedly rape dozens of girls in our hyper-vigilant and hyper-religious country? He weaponizes our culture of deference against his dissenters.
Religion is the lifeblood of Nigerian life. Many of our rituals and communities are built around our religious practices and pentecostal christianity in particular has become a fully immersive experience, with the internet and digital media allowing pastors access into the lives of their congregations in ways that we could have only imagined a decade before. It has become easier for pastors to build a cult of personality, isolate their members from the wider world and successfully indoctrinate them. The sharp divisions between Christian denominations and the understated rivalries between high profile Nigerian pastors that routinely lead to church fractures and new denominations speak to this. During Nigerian elections, the sheer influence that pastors have come to wield over their churches and the nation at large become apparent. Political candidates do tour of churches, kow-towing to their patriarch in exchange for public endorsements. Congregations vote across religious lines at the behest of their pastors and wait for spiritual guidance before making personal decisions. The sheer scale of this kind of hive mind is intimidating.
Pastor Fatoyinbo has been more successful than most at growing a captive church audience; with an eye for branding and the endorsement of global religious heavy weights like T.D Jakes and Creflo Dollar (who gave a glowing review of his time in Nigeria at the request of the Nigerian pastor), Fatoyinbo has grown his church from a non-denominational youth club out of the University of Ilorin, to a mega movement with thousands of members and branches in Lagos, Ilorin and Port Harcourt.
With his fame has come a string of public accusations of infidelity, intimidation, sexual assault and outright rape. The most prominent accusation happened in 2013 when radio OAP Ese Walter wrote a post (which she soon took down) about her affair with the pastor. She alleged he had leveraged his position as her spiritual leader to coerce her into entering a relationship with him and caused her emotional distress. The ensuing media storm (just when Twitter was gaining prominence in Nigeria) forced the pastor to comment on her accusations. The now infamous quip ‘A robust response’ came out of the pastor’s non-response. But he didn’t need to respond, because his congregation felt obligated to defend him.
A big part of christian doctrine is the idea that religious leaders are infallible and immune to scrutiny. The Old testament verse 1 Chronicles 16:22 ‘Touch not my anointed and do my prophets no harm”, is often quoted as justification for a culture that expressly forbids church members from questioning their leaders when their character is questioned and demands that congregations come to their leader’s defense when external scrutiny is applied to religious leaders. It was invoked when video surfaced of Bishop David Oyedepo of Winner’s chapel physically assaulting a girl he accused of witchcraft, it was invoked when pastor TB Joshua of the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) refused to address the deaths of more than a hundred worshippers when a church hostel collapsed. It continues to shield Fatoyinbo from proper scrutiny and in the event that he is found guilty of the crimes he is accused of, justice.
It is counter-intuitive to expect the COZA congregation to hold Biodun Fatoyinbo accountable for his accusations. They have only experienced a carefully maintained facade of pastor Fatoyinbo; one where he is a charismatic leader, a devoted father and a well respected pastor, feted by many of the global pastors they grew up idolizing. They have incentive to uphold this image, defend it where necessary because to be suddenly denied of symbolic power their leader represents to them would be to strip of the doctrine around which they have built their lives. Not many people can survive a shift of that magnitude.
If there are any people who deserve our anger, it is the pastors around Pastor Fatoyinbo, and the people around these leaders, who betray their congregations to uphold the public image, who silence and intimidate people who express dissent, who fight to maintain the facade. They have a greater responsibility to do the right thing. The Board of trustees of COZA have the power to force Biodun Fatoyinbo to step down as head pastor, it happened with the Redeemed Church of God when pastor Enoch Adeboye was required to step down as head pastor to avoid government sanctions. It is the responsibility of the high flying international pastors who endorsed his ministry to hold him responsible for his alleged actions.