"Megachurches" are untaxed sector of Africa's economy
Hundreds of millions of dollars change hands each year in these popular Pentecostal houses of worship, which are modeled on their counterparts in the United States.
Some of the churches can hold more than 200,000 worshippers and, with their attendant business empires, they constitute a significant section of the economy, employing tens of thousands of people and raking in tourist dollars, as well as exporting Christianity globally.
But exactly how much of GDP they make up is difficult to assess, since the churches are largely opaque entities. They don’t submit accounts to anybody.
The main source of the income of megachurches is “tithe”, 10 percent the income of church members. As the churches have charity status, they have no obligation to open their books, and certainly don’t have to fill in tax returns. Pastors argue their charity work should exempt them.
“We use the income of the church to build schools, we use the income of the church to serve the needs of the poor,” David Oyedepo, bishop of the popular Winners Chapel, told Reuters in an interview. “These are non-profit organizations.”
Pastors on Forbes Rich List
Nonetheless, the surging popularity of the megachurches among the Christians who make up half of Nigeria’s 170 million population has propelled their preachers into the ranks of the richest people in Africa.
In 2011, Forbes magazine estimated the fortunes of Nigeria’s five richest pastors. Oyedepo topped the list, with an estimated net worth of $150 million.
He was followed by “Pastor Chris” Oyakhilome of Believers’ LoveWorld Incorporated, also known as the Christ Embassy and popular with executives and politicians, on $30 million to $50 million.
TB Joshua, pastor of the Synagogue Church of All Nations was thought to have $10 million to $15 million.
The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) declined to comment on how churches fit into their GDP figures, but a source there said they were included as “non-profit”, which falls under “other services” in the latest figures. In 2013, the category contributed 2.5 percent of GDP, the same as the financial sector.
A former banker at Nigeria’s United Bank for Africa, who declined to be named, recalled being approached five years ago by a church that was bringing in $5 million a week from contributions at home or abroad.
“They wanted to make some pretty big investments: real estate, shares,” he said. “They wanted to issue a bond to borrow, and then use the weekly flows to pay the coupon.”
In the end, he said, the bank turned down the proposal on ethical grounds.
Yet Nigerian churches do often invest large amounts of their congregations’ money in shares and property, at home and abroad, he and another banking source said.
In 2011, Oyakhilome was investigated by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and charged with laundering $35 million of contributions to his church in foreign bank accounts. He denied all wrongdoing and the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.
Oyakhilome was not available for comment and Joshua’s media team declined a request for an interview with him.
Oyedepo’s headquarters, “Canaanland”, is a 10,500-acre (4250-hectare) campus in Ota, outside the commercial capital Lagos. It comprises a university, two halls of accommodation, restaurants and a church seating 50,000 people, with a total overflow capacity of five times that.
Other pastors have similarly diversified ways of getting the Gospel of Christian salvation out.
Oyakhilome owns magazines, newspapers and 24-hour TV station, and Joshua draws miracle-seekers from all over the world with claims that the holy water he has blessed cures otherwise incurable ailments such as HIV/AIDS.
Before Joshua built his 10,000-seat headquarters at Ikotun-Egbe in outer Lagos, the area was part swamp, part abandoned industrial estate.
Now, it is a boom town with shops, hotels, eateries and bars catering largely to the travelers who come not only from West Africa but also from all corners of the globe to hear his sermons. Joshua also runs a TV station.
“There is no single government input on this premises,” Oyedepo told Reuters in the interview. “We supply our water, we make our roads, then you … say: ‘Let’s tax them’. For what?”