African Preachers Preying on the Vulnerable

Faced with poverty, unemployment, and diseases, many Africans have turned to religion as their only source of hope and solace. However, many became the victim of religious abuse as a result of bogus preachers who capitalised on people’s desperation to gain fame, wealth and also satisfy their sexual lust.

They have been known to hoodwink their followers into parting with huge sums of money and also subject them to dubious rituals, in the name of “performing miracles”. As Professor Dion Forster, a teacher of Ethics and Theology at Stellenbosch University in South Africa explained, these miracles are usually staged using “actors, psychological tools or technologies”, and are meant “to attract members and also to establish a hierarchical religious power structure with the pastor at the top.”

As a result of these miracles, many have been injured, marriages have been broken and hundreds have lost their lives, all in the hands of these deceptive preachers and prophets.

What are these miracles?

In April this year, 18 people were hospitalised and 27 reported dead after being convinced to drink a bleaching agent called Jik by a preacher who claimed it would “wash away all the demons”. The preacher whose name is Rufus Phala had told his church members that they were drinking the blood of Jesus and not Jik. It was not the first time Phala duped his followers into drinking a cleaning liquid. In 2016 he drew wide condemnation after he made his followers at the Ark Centre Ministry in Limpopo, drink Dettol.

In 2017, Pastor Paul Sanyangore of World International Church in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe claimed that he had “God’s direct line,” and could “call him any time to get instructions”. Standing in front of stunned worshippers, he ordered a woman in the congregation to be brought before him. As the woman knelt, Sanyangore produced his mobile phone and started saying: “Hello, is this heaven? I have a woman here, what do you have to say about her?”

The pastor then turned to the worshipers telling them that God had replied to him that they should pray for the woman’s children, one of whom was epileptic and the other asthmatic. In what appeared to be a stage-managed prophecy, the woman confirmed that what the pastor was saying was true. Although to most outsiders this was another hoax from Sanyangore, his staunch followers strongly believed the pastor was able to communicate with God on the phone.

In an interview with France24 about the incident, Sanyangore defended himself arguing, “If God can speak through a donkey, why can’t he speak through a phone? People don’t believe that God spoke in a phone yet they believe that the mouth of the donkey was opened by God and that God spoke through a burning bush.”

Sanyangore would later be humiliated by his cousin who made outrageous claims that he faked miracles and cheated on his wife. Soon after, people began to leave his church in droves.

Another South African preacher called Pastor Alph Lukau of Alleluia Ministries in Johannesburg caused a furore after a video emerged online showing him allegedly resurrecting a dead person. It was claimed that the body was being returned to Zimbabwe for burial when the mourners decided to pass by Lukau’s church. In the clip, a hearse pulled up outside the Church, and the wealthy preacher was called outside by the mourners. Moments later the coffin was opened, and Lukau laid his hand on the dead man.

Before long the man named Elliot rose from the dead, as mourners watched in disbelief. It later turned out this was a prearranged ‘miracle’ by Lukau to win more followers and praise. Investigations were immediately launched by the South African Commission for the Protection of the Rights of the Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities. Two people were eventually arrested for fraud in connection with the hoax resurrection.

Still, in South Africa, a pastor called Penuel Mnguni attracted the wrath of the locals because of his unscrupulous healing rituals at his End Time Ministries church. This was after he sprayed his followers with pesticides, and also fed them snakes claiming they had been turned into chocolate. Unable to withstand his rituals, locals chased him out of a township in Pretoria where his church was located.

Not even the most vulnerable people in society such as women and children have been spared by these crooked preachers. Many of them have been molested, sexually abused, and assaulted in the name of being healed. A Ghanaian church leader by the name Bishop Daniel Obinim of International Godsway Ministries caused an uproar when an online video showed him stepping on a pregnant woman’s abdomen in the name of exorcising demons.

Other preachers such as Bishop Gilbert Deya from Kenya, exploited the desperation of infertile women to conduct fake miracles. Deya, then based in London, convinced these women that they would be able to give birth after prayers and on taking a trip to Kenya. After prayers, the women were sent to Kenya where they were made to believe that they were in labour pain before giving birth. Investigations later revealed that the so-called “miracle babies” were children stolen from maternity hospitals in Nairobi. Last year Deya was extradited to Kenya from Britain, to face charges of stealing babies. His wife had been sentenced to a similar charge in 2011.

So why are Africans so susceptible to religious abuse?

According to Professor Forster, this susceptibility is because of the moral and political failures of the state and politicians. He explains that religious leaders tend to gain trust in situations where the population faces high levels of economic and social vulnerability.

To protect the public from these bogus preachers, many countries have now introduced legislation to regulate religious leaders and churches. In South Africa, this is being carried out through the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights, Cultural, Religious, and Linguistic Communities.

The Commission is setting up a standard of qualifications, registration, and conduct which all religious organisations and leaders will have to meet. Last year Rwanda closed 8000 churches and some mosques who were involved in operations the government claimed “threatened the lives of worshippers”. Church leaders in the country are also required to have a degree so that they can teach the correct doctrines.