Keeping our eyes open

BBC’s new documentary about T.B. Joshua’s human rights abuses has stirred debate about the British broadcaster’s intentions.

Synagogue Church of all Nations. Image credit Beendy234 via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed.

At the start of the new year in Nigeria, the British-owned outlet BBC released an investigative documentary on the popular Nigerian pastor T.B. Joshua, who died in June 2021. In the three-part BBC Africa Eye project, the Synagogue, Church of All Nations (SCOAN) founder was exposed for running a cult in his church where disciples were abused, tortured, and raped. The quandary for those in Africa who oppose the imperialist policing role of global media outlets was whether to condemn the exposé or commend it, but that quandary can be resolved by asking critical questions about the content of the story, the intent of the story, and the context of the story.

From my personal experience and research, the content of the exposé is mostly unimpeachable. It would be unnecessary to dwell on the veracity of the content, not only because the BBC presented credible evidence, but because news magazine covers in Nigeria have been littered with the same story of manipulation and abuse by T.B. Joshua since 2001—23 years ago. In fact, Nigeria’s neighbor Cameroon had blacklisted and banned T.B. Joshua for his con-artistry since 2010. The foreign minister of Cameroon, in a warning to Cameroonians trooping to Lagos for T.B. Joshua’s miracles, stated that “women are raped; pilgrims dispossessed of their belongings by armed robbers and left to sleep in the streets at the mercy of gangs.” This was all over a decade and a half before the BBC exposé. It was such a public secret that the BBC had enough material to make a documentary series that, if not for the compelling storytelling style, many viewers would not have been able to finish watching. Rather than call an obvious truth a lie, the only criticism one could make about the content of  the BBC’s reporting is that it is far from original. Is the documentary really an “exposé” if a good part of what was exposed was already public knowledge for more than two decades? 

The overwhelming evidence of Joshua’s crimes was denied in responses by religious commentators like SCOAN’s public affairs director, who asserted that the exposé was “satanically malicious,” but it is almost impossible to substantiate the allegation of malice by the BBC. This leads us to the question of what the BCC’s intentions were in producing a documentary on this issue. 

The irony is that it was the empire for which the BBC was once a mouthpiece that brought Christianity to Africa via colonialism. But suppose the BBC intended to popularize T.B. Joshua’s crimes to spread awareness about religious manipulators—then that good intention has been achieved. Religious fraud and manipulation are pressing challenges in African society today. But what’s next? Some of BBC Africa Eye’s past investigations in Nigeria have led to  accountability, but others (including this one) have not. At least, not yet. If results—like the sack of the predatory lecturers exposed in the Sex for Grades documentary about abuse at West African universities—are not consistently focused on, it will all just be periodic sensationalism. 

Yet systemic solutions are even more necessary. In the case of #SexForGrades, this would mean a restructuring of education institutions in Africa to end the authoritarian arrangements that have encouraged lecturers and school administrators to abuse their power. Just last year, it took protests by female students of the University of Calabar to get the school’s female vice-chancellor to take serious action against a predatory dean of the Faculty of Law, Professor Cyril Ndifon. Another systemic issue was detailed in a 2021 story on the Neo-Black Movement in Africa, also by produced BBC Africa Eye, which revealed that this violent cult has greatly influenced political decisions in Nigeria and has politicians like the deputy governor of Edo State, Philip Shaibu, in its membership. Presently, Shaibu is a major candidate in the race for governor of Edo State. 

In the case of T.B. Joshua, if it is impossible to hold the prime suspect accountable, because he is dead, how about the structures that enabled him? What is being put in place to address the other religious cults across Africa that have continued to exploit Africans even after this story was released on January 8? What will be done to SCOAN to ensure the legacy of abuse does not continue? What will be done about the registration of churches under Part C of the Companies and Allied Matters Act in Nigeria (conferring regulatory roles on the Corporate Affairs Commission to monitor activities of religious and charity organizations) to ensure these institutions are not directly impeding the interests of the public?  

Some systemic problems like nepotism made it nearly impossible to prosecute Pastor Joshua while he was alive. T.B. Joshua was the favorite of many African presidents and politicians, who frequently visited his synagogue and claimed he prophesied their ascent to power, from John Atta Mills to John Magufuli to Joyce Banda to George Weah. Given that the pastor was a close acquaintance of many Nigerian presidents, it is no wonder that he got away with the deaths of at least 116 people killed by the collapse of a church building whose construction he oversaw without any engineering expertise. What will be done to address that prebendalist culture that is pervasive in Nigeria and the rest of Africa, which local and global corporate interests take advantage of? 

The context of this story is perhaps the most controversial. Some reactions to the documentary claim that BBC is publicly owned by the UK government—the same government that violently colonized a large part of Africa and presently perpetuates neo-colonial exploitation in Africa through its corporate interests. It is worth pointing out to these critics that the BBC is an institutionally independent media enterprise, and so subject to the logic of the market and under pressure to remain profitable—this documentary was probably made for monetary interests. The research done for the stories in the BBC Africa Eye project is commendable, but it can  go only so deep. Those criticizing the BBC for telling an African story in its own interest have made the simple mistake of expecting a tune against imperialism from a piper that benefits from it. 

BBC Africa Eye will not open our eyes to some systemic issues, and sincerely, it is not their job to. That does not necessitate the calls to shut down BBC in Africa, but it also means keeping Africa’s eye open. It means keeping our minds open. It means taking the win of the crucial conversations that have been started and relating with them critically until we can use them to make positive changes in the interest of our continent.

Further Reading