Several allegations of sexual impropriety have over the years been leveled against ‘Biodun Fatoyinbo, the senior pastor of the Commonwealth of Zion Assembly (COZA), a popular Nigeria-based megachurch. In this digital age and amid the buzz created by global campaigns to support survivors of sexual violence— particularly women—there was no ignoring the latest allegation against him by ‘Busola Dakolo, a celebrity photographer and wife of popular Nigerian singer Timi Dakolo. In an interview with Y! TV in June 2019 anchored by lawyer, journalist, and media entrepreneur, Chude Jideonwo, ‘Busola accused Fatoyinbo of raping her twice when she was a teenager 20 years ago. He promptly refuted the allegation in a public statement. It later emerged that she had filed a police complaint against him soon after the interview aired.

Social and news media erupted immediately with heated commentary that showed clear fault lines between Nigerians who support Busola, those who are indifferent, and those who exonerate Fatoyinbo because of his ‘holy’ office.’ There are also those who question Busola’s motives for only now reporting an assault that took place so long ago, with some questioning why she had not tried harder to foil it. Several women subsequently made similar allegations against Fatoyinbo and other pastors as part of a new movement of sexual assault survivors publicly accusing and confronting their high-profile abusers. However, women’s struggles against sexual violence in sacred spaces are neither new nor limited to a particular faith or denomination; Mona Eltahawy’s #MosqueMeToo is also exposing sexual abuses of women and girls in Muslim holy spaces during Hajj. ‘Busola’s may be the most high-profile case of such abuse in Nigeria to date, but the movement around this issue has a long history that precedes recent events. Daily media reports point to widespread sexual abuses of mostly girls and women, but also boys, perpetrated by actors of various faiths. What distinguishes the Fatoyinbo case are the prominent profiles of the persons involved, the amplifying power of social media, and the global protest movements coalescing around female survivors of sexual assault by so-called “men of God.”

Days after Busola’s interview, at least 126 Nigerian civil society organizations and citizens (mostly women) converged in protest at COZA’s premises in Abuja and Lagos. Calling themselves the #ChurchToo Movement, they demanded, among others, that Fatoyinbo step down while the matter is investigated. To counter the protests, Fatoyinbo’s wife, a senior pastor in COZA and some female members testified in the next service how he had positively changed their lives. Protesters were harassed by armed police and military and pro-Fatoyinbo counter-protesters who were allegedly hired for the event. Under pressure, Fatoyinbo stepped down days later in what many saw as a victory for #ChurchToo Movement. Weeks later, despite its silence on Busola’s formal complaint against Fatoyinbo, the police allegedly attempted to arrest the Dakolos and invited them for an interview about a criminal conspiracy case. However, after Aisha Buhari, the wife of the Nigerian president tweeted #SayNoToIntimidation at the Inspector General of Police, he immediately took steps to ensure a fair trial.

Sexual abuse is about predation and power and the Fatoyinbo spectacle exposes the dark side of Nigeria’s Pentecostal ‘erotic economy’ with omnipotent pastors perched grandiosely atop. Obadare’s 2017 treatise on them as demigods and sexual objects germinated in the soil of state retreat and intellectual decay in Nigeria seems apocalyptic in light of recent events. This ‘erotic’ economy thrives on essentialised notions of good women, female bodies and sexuality as profane, and men as helpless before the lures of female temptresses—ideologies that make sacred spaces sites of precarity and violence for women and girls. Here, perhaps, lies the logic behind the disclaimer by Enoch Adeboye, much revered senior pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, against male pastors having female personal assistants. Such ideologies are also the basis of widespread denunciations of Busola’s allegations and attempts to silence her by state and citizen alike.

The number of Pentecostal churches have exploded in recent years (Obadare 2016) in response to Nigerians’ quest for meaning and the means to survive in a debilitated state. In the country’s evolving religio-political infrastructure, pastors rule over congregations as potentates do where their subjects and religious constituencies are increasingly important markers of identity and belonging. The more eloquent, charismatic and well-connected among this mostly male clique form part of a religious elite so enmeshed with the country’s political leadership as to warrant claims of the ‘pentecostalisation’ of Nigeria’s politics. However, as popular responses to Fatoyinbo’s case reveal, accountability is low because many Nigerian Pentecostals trust their pastors unquestioningly and equate demands for accountability from them with questioning God.

The #ChurchToo movement, like Bring Back Our Girls, is the latest episode of the historic struggle for women’s rights in Nigeria. Nigerian women have protested violence against female bodies by men armed with political, military, or religious power in Odi and Choba (1999) and, more recently, Abuja (2019). Both activisms embody the changing nature of this movement and broader Nigerian civil society as marked by a departure from traditional NGO-led advocacy and the growing willingness of citizens and survivors to perform embodied resistance-through-protest. Evolving forms of activism create room for freer expression and more direct confrontations with protest targets because they are more fluid, more digitalized, and less institutionalized. As stated, while these new forms of collective action are not new, hyperglobalization and social media are facilitating transnational linkages and greatly enhancing visibility and impact. Nigeria’s #ChurchToo movement recalls the #ChurchToo hashtag started in late 2017 by two American women based on their personal experiences of childhood abuse in American churches. While it is not clear how diffuse #ChurchToo is, or how/if it has involved Nigerians, using this label appropriates the agencies of local mobilisations by implying that they were galvanized by Western movements (Ajayi 2018). This effectively erases ‘local’ histories of activism that make contemporary ones possible. Inasmuch as the use of such labels facilitates visibility and reflects parallels in experience and performances of resistance, critical thought should be given to the politics of transnational activism and how it constructs or camouflages the agencies of resistance by ‘local’ actors.

Without empirical evidence, it is hard to gauge the tide of public sentiment about cases like Fatoyinbo’s. What is clear is that social media has made such debates more visible and that there is a vocal mass unwilling to tolerate either the grotesque entitlementalism of male clerics or the uncritical gatekeeping by their religious constituencies. Despite furtive manipulations by unidentified persons designed to distort the course of justice, the more objective comments of other prominent pastors and growing public scrutiny of holy spaces arouse hope that the infestation of sexual abuse in sacred spaces can be arrested. But this revolution will be futile if it is allowed to ebb with the fickle tide of public attention. For women to regain some measure of control over their bodies, targeted awareness must increase, and independent structures must be put in place that do all to prevent, protect against, and punish sexual abuse in holy spaces. Civil society must not relent in resisting the oppressive theologies that enable and justify this scourge.

 

References

Ajayi, Titilope F. “#MeToo, Africa and the politics of transnational activism.” Africa is a Country, July 6, 2018. https://africasacountry.com/2018/07/metoo-africa-and-the-politics-of-transnational-activism

Ajayi, Titilope F. “Taking stock of “Bring Back Our Girls” at Chibok’s Day 500.” Nonprofit Quarterly, August 25, 2015. https://nonprofitquarterly.org/taking-stock-of-bring-back-our-girls-at-chiboks-day-500/

Obadare, Ebenezer. “The Muslim response to the Pentecostal surge in Nigeria: Prayer and the rise of charismatic Islam.” Journal of Religious and Political Practice, vol. 2, no. 1, 2018: 75-91.

Obadare, Ebenezer. “The Pastor as Sexual Object.” CIHA Blog, May 3, 2017. http://www.cihablog.com/pastor-sexual-object/