Abusive’ legacy of Nigerian megachurch boss lives on from Lagos to London

‘Abusive’ legacy of Nigerian megachurch boss lives on from Lagos to London

How former disciples of megachurch leader TB Joshua are amplifying his claims of spiritual healing to

TB Joshua (top) and the six ‘disciples’ who continue his work today: (left to right) Racine Bousso, Christopher Tonge, Daniel Emelandu Udochukwu, Christopher Orji, Charalampos Tsakonidis and John Chi

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mikroman6/Colors Hunter – Chasseur de Couleurs/Pius Utomi Ekpei/Stringer/Getty Images (image editing by James Battershill)

Adecade ago, a top lieutenant of Nigeria’s most successful Pentecostal pastor split from the Lagos-based megachurch and started his own ministry in Cameroon, where he claimed he could heal HIV/AIDS and cancer.

In 2015, a second lieutenant, also claiming to have the gift of miracle cures, branched off to lead another religious group in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Years later, a third former favourite of controversial televangelist Temitope Balogun Joshua founded a separate evangelical community in Wales, where he offers “interactive prayer” that his digital followers claim can cure maladies like epilepsy and meningitis.

Their mentor TB Joshua, as he was commonly known, died in 2021 as one of the most influential Christian leaders in Africa – and one of the most controversial. His global ministry boasted followers on five continents, including presidents, leading football stars and celebrities.

The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.

Yet at least eight former top ranking members of his ministry claim to have witnessed or experienced physical, sexual and psychological abuse from the former leader of The Synagogue, Church of All Nations (SCOAN), an investigation by the BBC in partnership with openDemocracy has found.

Today we can also reveal that ministries founded by more than a dozen of his former disciples are propagating some of the Nigerian televangelist’s abusive spiritual practices even after his death.

Our six-month investigation across Nairobi, Buea and London included interviews with more than two dozen former and current members of Joshua’s church – The Synagogue, Church of All Nations (SCOAN) – and an analysis of hundreds of church documents and videos from these offspring ministries.

From Lagos to London, Wales to Washington State, and from Tampa, Florida to Thessaloniki, Greece, the ministries of ex-Joshua loyalists boast a collective five million followers on social media and more than 194 million views on YouTube. Together their reach is far greater than Joshua’s church, which continues operating under his wife and successor, Evelyn Joshua.

Many of these leaders left not because of misgivings about the self-styled “prophet” who boasted spiritual powers that included raising the dead, healing HIV/AIDS and fixing what he called the “demon” of homosexuality – nor due to allegations detailed by more than two dozen former disciples about rape, forced abortions and torture in a documentary released on Monday by the BBC and co-produced by openDemocracy.

Rather, they appear to have left to replicate the religious and institutional infrastructure that had made Joshua one the most powerful figures in global televangelism.

These ministries represent a clear and present danger to hundreds of thousands of church-goers around the world equal to the ongoing operations of SCOAN itself, according to Rae Rencken-Holmes, a former disciple of TB Joshua who is among the 19 former church members who spoke on the record for this investigation.

“This is his legacy: destruction, turmoil, pain, agony,” Rencken-Holmes said. “The spiritual abuse, though, has not ended.”

openDemocracy asked all 20 of the offspring ministries to comment on the views of TB Joshua and allegations of abuse. Two – The Synagogue, Church Of All Nations Thessalonica and Christ Our Choice International Ministries – responded by defending Joshua as a man of God and quoting scriptures that reference unjust persecution. Charalambos Tsakonidis, the leader of the Greece-based ministry and who is also called “the man of God Harry”, denied that TB Joshua abused female disciples at SCOAN.

“Harry, clearly, does not believe in any of the accusations of any disciples or others against Prophet TB Joshua, because he [lived] with other male disciples of Prophet TB Joshua in his house, where he was literally 24 hours a day with him,” according to a statement emailed to openDemocracy by the ministry. “If Prophet TB Joshua had done anything ungodly and if any of the accusations were true, the man of God Harry would have known.”

Paul David, head of Christ our Choice Ministries, said in a statement: “Every allegations [sic] against him are not true. TB Joshua is a man that always wanted the best for the world.”

Leaders of these offshoot churches attribute their success both to Joshua’s spiritual lessons and to his business strategy, utilising high-production media to brand themselves miracle workers, prophets and social media influencers.

‘The quintessential African miracle entrepreneur’

From his early days as a spiritual leader in the 1980s, TB Joshua pioneered a unique blend of West African Pentecostalism and American televangelism. Miracles and signs have a long history in the Christian church and were exceptionally popular in the ’80s and ’90s in Nigeria amid the AIDS crisis and crumbling public infrastructure. While many churches in Lagos advertised the healing gifts of their leaders, Joshua was one of the first to leverage the media to bring supposed miracles to a mass audience, starting with VHS tapes and cable in Nigeria, but eventually moving to global satellite and digital channels.

As a tool for increasing his fellowship and his finances, TV and then digital media became core to his ministry and his brand. Among thousands of Pentecostal Christians, TB Joshua’s sermons and miracles broadcast over his Emmanuel TV station became must-watch events, and a sign of favour within his church was to be promoted to work in his media division.

During the 24 hours of daily programming, dozens of videos of purported miracles are shown on Emmanuel TV, including people allegedly healed from HIV/AIDS, cancer and paralysis. The satellite channel became the growth engine of Joshua’s media business and, in the estimation of religious studies professor Asonzeh Ukah, made him “the foremost and quintessential African miracle entrepreneur of the 20th and early 21st centuries”.

Journalists, congregants, and unaffiliated Pentecostal leaders have been questioning the authenticity of those alleged healings since at least 1999.

Nigerian journalist Adejuwon Soyinka was part of one of the earliest investigations into TB Joshua’s claims of miracle cures for people infected with HIV/AIDS that had been broadcast on Nigerian cable channels. The reporting in Nigeria’s Tell Magazine revealed that the address for a “hospital” issuing medical reports that backed claims Joshua had healed people of HIV was, in fact, the location of an apartment owned by SCOAN. The supposed address of a nearby hospital lab was an empty shop front. “There was no lab. There was no hospital at all,” Soyinka told openDemocracy.

Bisola Johnson, who worked for TB Joshua from 1995 until 2008, was part of the media team in charge of producing and editing the videos for SCOAN. She told openDemocracy that the miracles were part of a propaganda campaign to mislead vulnerable people.

“People said they were healed of HIV. They were not healed,” she said. “Many people watch Emmanuel TV and think it’s real. I am speaking now as someone who was an insider… What is happening on Emmanuel TV is not real. We organise it. We project what you see to you. And what we don’t want you to see, we cut away.”

Yet TB Joshua’s so-called “deliverance” and “healing” videos remained a staple of his global broadcasts until early 2021, when openDemocracy revealed how the televangelist was spreading hate speech in sermons streamed on the Emmanuel TV YouTube channel.

Among those religious broadcasts were claims by TB Joshua that he could “cast out demons” that he said were responsible for addiction, mental health struggles and “the demon of homosexuality”. In response to enquiries made by openDemocracy about the false and harmful homophobic messages that he was propagating, YouTube shut down the channel, which had previously been one of the largest Christian YouTube channels with over a million subscribers.

Joshua died less than a year later, and several senior disciples left SCOAN as part of a leadership struggle. The reconstructed SCOAN led by Joshua’s wife and her new team of disciples revived the YouTube channel at a new web address, hoping to utilise the powerful tool that former church insiders said had been key to sustaining and growing SCOAN’s financial health.

Among the highlights of the new broadcasts are miracle services performed by Evelyn Joshua – such as one witnessed by openDemocracy that took place in early October in Nairobi, Kenya, during a day-long religious revival that promised healing and blessings to the faithful. It was attended by tens of thousands of believers waving national flags from countries across Africa and Europe.

A woman in a black dress leads a huge crowd walking towards the camera with the backdrop of the inside of a stadium. The sky is dark and cloudy.

Evelyn Joshua, the wife of TB Joshua, attends a ‘crusade’ rally in Nairobi, Kenya, in October 2023

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Brian Otieno

Evelyn Joshua took the stage after more than four hours of singing and testimonies of divine healing. A 45-foot banner above her bore a huge image of Evelyn and her late husband while Emmanuel TV cameras showed her “laying on hands” for hundreds of people wanting medical cures. Some held printed and hand-written posters describing ailments like HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, diabetes, asthma, difficulty walking, broken bones and tumours.

An announcer trumpeted the pastor’s talents as Evelyn prayed. “Through the hands of the Woman of God, pastor Evelyn Joshua, and the Evangelists [senior church leaders who are allowed to preach], people are receiving that instant healing in their lives,” he declared.

A rapturous attendee at the Moi International Sports Centre, who was interviewed by Emmanuel TV, said what many others were feeling: “I know the legacy of TB Joshua continues.”

With more than nine million followers on social media, Emmanuel TV last month announced plans to cease broadcasting on cable channels in Africa in January 2024 and move to a purely satellite and digital distribution model, through apps for Apple TV, Android, Roku and Amazon.

London links

By the time the newly constituted Emmanuel TV YouTube Channel started streaming, SCOAN had stiff competition among audiences looking for evangelical prayer and healing. Televangelism remains big business in Nigeria and beyond – but SCOAN could no longer corner the market on TB Joshua content.

Many of Joshua’s disciples have been building ministries that trade on his public image, making similar claims that they could perform miracles. None, however, has replicated his legacy in scale and structure as thoroughly as John Chi – a Cameroonian national who broke away from Joshua in 2013.

Both the physical exterior and interior of his Ark of God’s Covenant Ministry in Buea, Cameroon, resemble the mother church in Lagos. So do Chi’s sermons and live-streamed services.

Like SCOAN, Chi’s ministry has incorporated multiple British entities with Companies House, the UK government’s official company register.

One of these, the Ark of God’s Covenant Ministry, established a London branch in September 2022. Led by Caster Mpangi, the church broadcasts its Sunday services live on Facebook from a community centre in Forest Gate. About 50 people turned up to a recent service attended by openDemocracy, where a queue for “deliverance” through prayer lasted over an hour with multiple women undergoing lengthy exorcisms.

One of those members, Lungile Nyavi (also known as Geraldine), and her husband Samuel Nyavi, who is a registered doctor in the UK, regularly make claims of having been healed at the church from problems as wide-ranging as eating disorderschest painknee issuescompulsive nail bitingfertility problems and sexual dysfunction, claiming all were caused by demons.

Lungile Nyavi’s LinkedIn profile lists her as a cognitive behavioural therapist treating in-patients at Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust. The trust confirmed it was looking into the allegations but declined to comment further.

In one video, she advised people struggling with eating disorders to “seek the face of God” and said people struggling with addictions should pray. The Nyavis had not responded to openDemocracy’s requests for comment as this story went into production.

Chi has also developed upon his former mentor’s global media model. Ark of God TV has a satellite channel, a YouTube presence with close to 50 million views, and Apple, Android and Roku apps from which his followers in Europe, North America and the rest of Africa can receive his spiritual messages and witness his purported miracles in real time.

Chi’s YouTube channel spreads misinformation and disinformation about illnesses like cancerliver and kidney disease, as well as claims that Chi has resurrected dead foetuses. Ark of God TV also amplifies conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, “human lizards” and snakes, and mermaidsOne video is titled: “​​IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE THERE IS A DEMON BEHIND HIV/AIDS, WATCH THIS!!!”

In multiple interviews in his own Ark of God broadcasts and on his church websites, Chi credits his success as a global megachurch leader to TB Joshua. “If not for my mentor prophet TB Joshua, I would not be what I am today,” he told openDemocracy, “Without prophet TB Joshua, you would not have heard about apostle John Chi.”

Chi, it appears, has not spoken publicly about the multiple allegations of sexual abuse by his mentor against former SCOAN members. In 2016, after Chi had set up his own church, three former SCOAN disciples met with Chi and his wife in Cape Town and told them about abuse they had suffered, including explicit details of sexual assault by Joshua.

One of these former disciples who met with Chi told openDemocracy that – although Chi acknowledged their abuse and Joshua’s predatory behaviour – he told them he would continue to honour Joshua publicly. This was confirmed by a witness present during the whole of the 2016 discussion with Chi.

Chi did not respond to openDemocracy’s requests for comment.

At his Buea church compound in November, Chi’s affiliation with Joshua was part of the attraction for hundreds of men and women who queued in the pre-dawn darkness for a chance to see the self-styled prophet in person.

The lights of passing cars revealed people in wheelchairs, or the infirm with wrapped bandages carried in the arms of family members, each hoping for a miracle cure during what would be a 12-hour Sunday service.

Signs outside a building read 'BEAUTIFUL GATE' and 'SEASON'S GREETINGS FROM APOSTLE JOHN CHI'

One of the entrances to John Chi’s Ark of God Covenant Ministries, Buea, Cameroon, pictured in December 2023

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Agbor Obed

Inside the church compound, Chi’s disciples had vials of holy water for sale. The “Living Water”, as they called it, sold for 20,000 West African CFA francs (just over £26), which is the equivalent of half a month’s rent in Buea. Some followers of John Chi say it’s better to spend their funds on the so-called holy water blessed by their pastor, than on medical care at local hospitals.

Select believers, meanwhile, were chosen to have miracles performed live on the prayer stage and beamed to Chi’s global audience. A man introduced as Jean Paul testified that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and that doctors had recommended immediate surgery, but that he instead went to the Ark of God Covenant Ministries. “I was completely healed,” he claimed. Another man, Nkongdeu, claimed his low sperm count and chlamydia were healed after an encounter with John Chi.

A man in a white T-shirt with hands clasped, sitting at a wooden desk

John Chi in his church office, Ark of God’s Covenant Ministries, Buea, Cameroon, pictured in December 2023

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Agbor Obed

Since Joshua’s death, Chi has described TB Joshua as “someone who never stopped inspiring me and the entirety of humanity.” In an interview with openDemocracy a few days after the prayer service, Chi continued that praise. “My life is incomplete without SCOAN,” he said, “and I am what I am today because of SCOAN.”

From Nigeria to Wales

Chi is not the only TB Joshua protege to trumpet his association with the late pastor despite allegations of sexual abuse at Joshua’s hands.

Christopher Dennis Tonge is a UK national who, after finishing his GCSEs, says he lived as a disciple of TB Joshua in Nigeria for 17 years. After Joshua’s death, Tonge – who was born in Winchester – founded a Pentecostal ministry in a converted chapel in Penmaenmawr, Wales. In just two years, Tonge’s operation has eclipsed Chi’s church in terms of digital reach.

Tonge’s ministry, God’s Heart TV, offers “interactive prayer” and deliverance from “demonic influences” over Zoom, and its social media accounts are filled with alleged healings from epilepsymeningitisdepressiondiabetes and other serious physical and mental health conditions. Its website states that it “is inspired by the life and legacy of Prophet TB Joshua”.

Indeed, Tonge’s most popular content has been videos focused on Joshua. The top six YouTube videos streamed by God’s Heart TV, each with more than two million views, feature the late pastor. Tonge also hosts a programme called “The Legacy Lives On” dedicated to re-sharing TB Joshua content.

One topic Tonge has not discussed is the allegations of abuse made by multiple former disciples of Joshua, including by two members of his own family.

Tonge did not respond to openDemocracy’s requests for comment.

He says on his website that he will “forever remain grateful to God for bringing me to the SCOAN in Nigeria to receive such Heavenly training under such an anointed servant of God”.

Meanwhile, in northern Greece, evangelical leader Tsakonidis enthusiastically leverages his long relationship with TB Joshua as part of the spiritual authority he brings to his ministry. His website credits his life at the Lagos headquarters of SCOAN as giving him “a unique kind of training to build character”.

Emails reviewed by openDemocracy show that fellow evangelicals close to Tsakonidis warned him in 2020 about credible allegations that TB Joshua was sexually assaulting multiple women. Tsakonidis never publicly acknowledged the allegations.

In a statement to openDemocracy, his ministry said Joshua’s life was “a beacon of Christ’s life and love. His divine legacy is God’s Spirit which was instilled in the hearts of the people that he raised spiritually.”

Tribute videos

It’s not only established congregations capitalising on the TB Joshua brand. Hundreds of social media fan accounts keep Joshua’s spiritual teachings alive – and build their own brands – by reposting, repurposing and distributing SCOAN content and media made by former SCOAN disciples.

On Facebook alone, fan groups and pages dedicated to SCOAN figures have more than 7.9 million followers. These groups make video montages, highlight reels, and tribute content that circulates across the ecosystem of Pentecostal and evangelical believers.

TB Joshua’s reputation remains untarnished in many of these circles, with scores of Pentecostal leaders across the world claiming in their online biographies that they were mentored by him. Inspired by his ministry, they consider themselves the “spiritual sons” of the late televangelist.

Their repackaged content and tribute videos often outperform their other content, allowing ministries to solicit further donations and entice new congregants – and customers for their “deliverance” sessions.

“For me, I think TB Joshua’s most significant legacy is that he managed to replicate himself,” said Soyinka, the Nigerian journalist. “Younger pastors modelled their practices after TB Joshua and are now more or less replicating his approach.”

The BBC contacted the current SCOAN leadership with the findings of this investigation. They replied: “Making unfounded allegations against Prophet TB Joshua is not a new occurrence… None of the allegations was ever substantiated.”

openDemocracy will be reporting and publishing additional stories about these topics. If you are a current or former follower of SCOAN and have your own story to