Security and Task Force team at the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries, MFM, headquarters, harassed and detained a renowned citizen journalist who attempted to report a New Year’s Eve crossover night service at the church headquarters along the Lagos-Ibadan express road.
Omoyele Sowore, publisher of Saharareporters, accompanied by Lagos-based citizen journalist, Segun O’Law, who reports for the site from Lagos, stopped in for the church’s crossover night service, but were molested and detained illegally for four hours by a joint task force of church security, armed police and the State Security Service.
Mr. Sowore arrived the church bearing a 5D Canon Camera, with a frame holder on his shoulder, while Mr. O’Law held a dual purpose shots and video-taping mini Panasonic Camera.
Upon entering the main gate, which outlooks the busy Lagos end of the expressway, the crew moved into the auditorium and identified themselves to the security officers and ushers they encountered every inch of their way.
The crew’s mission, Mr. Sowore said, was to take photos and cover the service; and having made that clear to the officials, they were allowed in and motioned towards the altar after their identity cards were scrutinized.
But as Mr. Sowore approached the front where the church’s General Overseer, Pastor Daniel Olukoya, was delivering a sermon, he was mobbed by several church Task Force officers guarding the altar, some wearing aprons with inscription ‘Prayer City Army’.
“We were dragged to the back of the altar by a mob that threatened at first to smash our camera,” Mr. Sowore said in interview days after the attack. “The mob later handed us over to the police and the SSS operatives attached to the church.”
Accompanying journalist, Mr. O’Law, who at this time was attempting to establish a separate location for his reporting, rushed to the scene to identify Mr. Sowore and reaffirm the team’s mission. The security team would have none of that, the journalists said.
The authorities of the church would not comment for this story when contacted for details of the events.
A man who answered our reporter’s call declined comments, saying we should come physically to the church’s headquarters in Lagos for any enquiries. He insisted that the telephone number listed on the church’s website was meant for those interested in prayer consultation. He would not also give his name.
“I can’t make any comment,” the official said. “Just come to our office and that is the only way we can respond to your enquiries.”
But Mr. Sowore’s narrative, depicted how a reportorial adventure that was meant to highlight how some of Nigeria’s most populous and affluent church congregations pray their ways into a new year, turned almost violent right within the church premises.
At the MFM, as at several other churches, worshippers are known to view the final nights of outgoing years as key to shaping the new years.
Amid thunderous singing and praying, hundreds of thousands of congregants at the church’s sprawling camp ground waited ecstatically for the earliest seconds of 2013 to herald expected miracles and new blessings.
While Mr. Sowore and his colleague were dragged to the church’s rear entrance, a large crowd gathered, he recalled.
Mr. Sowore’s argument that he was only doing his job merely infuriated the crowd. One member fumed about wearing down the Jesus in him and transforming into Satan to kill the journalist.
For wearing neck beads designed of cowry shells (which he says are meant to showcase his ‘Africanness’), some of the church security operatives described Mr. Sowore as a ‘sinner’, ‘satan incarnate’, among other vilifying christening.
Moments later, the crew were pushed into a security van and whisked to a detention post within the church’s expansive premises. The Task Force, who had demanded Mr. Sowore’s identity card had also seized it, forcefully detained the crew and invited the Division Police Officer of Ibafo Police station, which oversees security in the area.
Upon arrival, the D.P.O inspected Mr. Sowore’s local identity card, which he uses as a special correspondent for one of the numerous Nigerian media he collaborates with.
The local police chief confirmed the card was genuine after making some calls through to the media office. He however disappeared after confirming who Mr. Sowore was, and declared he would rather not get involved and advised the church officials to allow for amicable settlement to avoid blowing up the matter.
The church task force however refused, Mr. Sowore said. Instead, they repeatedly requested to delete the photos and video recordings in the cameras before releasing the devices and the journalists. The crew remained in the church detention for four hours.
Within the period of the journalists’ illegal detention, one of the MFM pastors in the task force emerged with a cane and attempted to flog Mr. Sowore, but was cautioned.
The pastor and his task force team members had to the sight of the two journalists, flogged, slapped and humiliated some teenage boys and girls who were arrested within the church premises for selling bible literatures, prayer books, printed praises and worship songs and sachet water.
“What shocked me most was to discover that MFM maintains an illegal detention security post,” the publisher of the online advocacy and whistle-blowing website said.
Mr. Sowore said he hoped to maintain a low profile all through, to experience what journalists face with authoritarian attitude of established local African institutions towards reporters.
That ploy soon failed when one of the senior ministers in the church, who had spotted Mr. Sowore among the crowd behind the altar before they were whisked away to the detention post, waded in and enlightened the task force that Mr. Sowore was the publisher of the popular site Saharareporters.com.
The mobs, security and task force men quickly opened the website and googled Mr. Sowore’s name. They suddenly backtracked, and pleaded that all footages taken in the church be deleted, a request Mr. Sowore turned down.
Two days after the incident, the crew stopped by at a festival of Masquerades while travelling through Ondo State to cover a traditional African masquerade dance in Erekiti.
This time also, Mr. Sowore and his crew introduced themselves and presented same identity cards they showed the church security.
In a marked difference with what obtained at the church, the crew narrated, the masquerades welcomed and warmed up to them.
The MFM sits on massive hectares of land along the popular Lagos-Ibadan expressway. The church also runs a private university called Mountain Top at the same location.
Alongside the MFM, other super-populous churches, the Redeemed Christian Church of God and the Living Faith Church, also known as Winners’ Chapel, with millions of worshippers, also operate expensive private universities.
While Redeem owns the Redeemers’ University for Nations, RUN, Winners’ Chapel runs Covenant University, CU.
The schools are amongst Nigeria’s most expensive with fees in several hundreds of thousands of naira, a fact that have put the churches up for intense criticisms.
Many church members have complained of not being able to enroll their wards in the schools they helped build with their tithes and offerings.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This post has been significantly edited and updated.