When Oluyemi Ojudu, a civil servant, registered for a housing scheme initiated by a parish in one of Nigeria’s largest Pentecostal churches, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, RCCG, in Abuja, he thought it was the beginning of the end of paying exorbitant rent to landlords.
“It is the desire of everybody to be land owners. It is a dream of everyone in Abuja to have a place they can call their own and stop paying rent as tenants to landlords,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.
Land and other properties in Abuja are perhaps the costliest in the country. Many workers, desirous of owning properties in the city or surrounding neighbourhoods, often take part in housing schemes which allow them to make payments in instalments over a period of time.
In 2009, the Excellent Men Fellowship, EMF, a group in the Resurrection Chapel Parish of the RCCG, Lugbe, Abuja where Mr Ojudu lived, announced it was starting its own property acquisition scheme for married men in the church.
The scheme was also thrown open to members of the RCCG from other parishes as long as they are given letters of introduction from their pastors.
Ordinarily, Mr. Ojudu who worshipped at another RCCG parish in the Gwarimpa area of Abuja, would have hesitated before subscribing to such property scheme due to the frequency at which people were being duped. But this was one his church was organising. The church couldn’t possibly defraud its members, he thought.
He was wrong.
The scheme was a sweet deal. A 600-square metre, sqm, plot of land was valued at N1.5 million. Each subscriber was expected to pay an initial deposit of N250, 000 while remaining payment was spread over two years. Subscribers who pay up to N900,000 would have their plot allotted to them.
Apart from the N1.5 million for the land, beneficiaries were also expected to pay an additional N500,000 for infrastructural development in the estate after they might have started developing the plot allotted to them.
Mr Ojudu said he made a contribution of N1,000,000 and was given a ‘subscriber file’ with number 0744. But seven years after he made the payment, he is yet to get his plot of land from the promoters of the scheme.
A PROBLEMATIC START
The scheme kicked off with a flurry of interests from within the parish and the larger RCCG community in the Nigerian capital according to a PREMIUM TIMES investigation.
Beneficiaries were told to pay the initial N250,000 deposit into a Redeemed Church account named: RCCG-RC-EMHS (Project) with number: 0421201006911, at the defunct, Oceanic Bank (now Ecobank).
A committee headed by the parish’s presiding pastor, Bisi Akande, was tasked with making sure the scheme ran smoothly. Other members of the committee according to investigations were Mr Akande’s deputy, Adeola Johnson; a lawyer, Sunday Adeagbo; EMF President, Olufemi Sobola; an accountant, Cosmas Mbanu, and an Estate surveyor, Victor Ayeye.
The committee came up with a plan to purchase hectares of land in Pyakassa, a village on the outskirts of Abuja, and in VON Estate, Lugbe which was to be distributed into 600sqm plots to beneficiaries.
However, before the land was purchased, Mr. Akande was transferred to another parish and a new presiding pastor, Peter Imonhiosen, took over from him. The plots of land were eventually purchased during Mr. Imonhiosen’s tenure.
However, before the land was shared among the subscribers of the scheme, Mr. Imonhiosen was himself transferred to another parish.
Subscribers to the scheme who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES said the first whiff of trouble was when Mr. Imonhiosen left but failed to hand over the management of the scheme to his successor.
They became suspicious when they noticed that the committee’s meetings had been moved from the church’s premises in Lugbe to the Pyakassa site of the scheme.
But not until some incredulous subscribers started asking why Mr. Imonhiosen was still in-charge of the scheme instead of handing over to his successor that they were informed that the scheme was not owned by the church but a private initiative started by some members of the church, who constituted the committee and passed it off as a church owned scheme to attract subscribers.
“We were all concerned as to why Mr. Imonhiosen would want to hold on to the account of the scheme. It was then crisis and fraud began as we began to see discrepancies in what we were initially told and the way money was being spent,” said a subscriber, Adebambo Adefarakan.
After they realised that the facade of advertising the scheme as church-owned had fallen off, Messrs. Sobola, Adeola (who has also been transferred to another parish in Kuje), Adeagbo and Imonhiosen promptly registered the scheme with the Corporate Affairs Commission, CAC, as Redeemer Excellent Men Housing Foundation without informing subscribers who had been led to believe it was initiated and managed by the church, PREMIUM TIMES learned.
But subscribers were in for more shock.
The Committee started modifying and reviewing the original terms of the scheme such as asking subscribers to make additional payments.
The original letters of offer given to subscribers were revoked and new ones issued increasing the initial deposit subscribers are expected to make from N250, 000 to N500, 000. Furthermore, subscribers were given 21 days to complete the payment or forfeit their chances of being allotted a plot of land. In the new letters, the size of the plot of land was reduced from 600sqm to 500sqm.
“We never knew they had changed the name of the scheme. It was after the revoking and re-issuance of letters for payment that we started suspecting the activities of the committee and accused them of hijacking the whole scheme as they began to change the rules and regulations without consultations from the subscribers,” Mr. Adefarakan told PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr. Ojudu told PREMIUM TIMES that despite meeting the reviewed conditions, he and many other subscribers were still not allotted land.
“I am not the only person who did not get any plot allocation in spite of fulfilling all the stipulated criteria. We are many. They first started sharing the plots they got from VON estates, before they moved to the one here at Pyakassa. Still they have not given many people their plots. They are claiming that some people did not meet the deadline or rules set up. In that case, they should return some of these people’s money to them yet they are not willing to do so,” he said angrily.
He said by the time the committee started sharing the lands, he had gotten a new job and had moved to Ekiti State. He said when he learnt that subscribers were being allotted plots again, he travelled to Abuja to ask for his but was told he now had to pay the ‘commercial price of N4 million.’
“Pastor Adeola said if I wanted to get a plot, I should come and purchase at the commercial price at which they were already selling for the general public. It was when I refused that I wouldn’t pay the commercial price,” he said.
Mr. Ojudu said he became disillusioned after the incident and stopped attending church activities after the authorities of the RCCG published a disclaimer saying they had nothing to do with the scheme.
ANGER AGAINST RCCG
Members who feel cheated in the scheme are unhappy that the church is not investigating the matter and that pastors behind the scandal are being promoted.
“They (RCCG authorities) have left us at the mercies of these unscrupulous people. It is very sad that one does businesses with people believing to be people of God and in the name of the church and yet one cannot get a satisfactory result,” Mr. Adefarakan said.
He said he is particularly angry that the church, whose letterheads were used to issue the offer letters, had been used to lure people into the scheme; but refused to fight for its members and call the officials to order.
“It is also pathetic that the people involved are still pastors in the church and the church is still promoting them and not investigating their deeds. I have stopped attending church because of this. It is a shame. They should give us what we paid for,” he said.
Another subscriber, who asked not to be identified so as not to be victimised, said he has left everything to God to judge.
He said he had joined because he thought there would be transparency and accountability but he was taken aback by how matters turned out.
ESTATE RESIDENTS SPEAK
While it refused to allot land to some of the original subscribers of the scheme who said they met the requisite conditions, the committee is making profit selling same plots of land at the estate to members of the public at rates between N3.6 million and N4 million per plot.
When PREMIUM TIMES visited the estate in Pyakassa, it was discovered that there were several unsold plots. It was also observed that there were several on-going constructions of houses in the estate said to belong to those who bought land at the commercial rates from the committee.
Interaction with some residents revealed that even subscribers who got land allotted to them are constantly at daggers drawn with members of the committee whom they accuse of making arbitrary financial demands.
They allege that levies for infrastructural development have been on constant increase.
One of them, Augustine Eigbe, with file number 0451 wondered what the committee did with all the money it got as the state of facilities at the estate have remained poor. He also accused the committee of making millions of naira from mining of laterite found on the site of the estate and wondered what the money was used for.
“The problem escalated because we asked them to see what we have paid for in terms of infrastructural development which they have been collecting the money from us. We needed to see what they have been using the money we have contributed so far,” he said.
“They cannot expect us to balance any infrastructure fee if we cannot see what they have done with all the money generated. We are asking for accountability and transparency,’’ he added.
Mr. Eigbe also told PREMIUM TIMES that when he confronted Mr. Adeagbo, the committee’s lawyer, on the need to be accountable to the residents, the lawyer threatened to use fetish means to force him to do the bidding of the committee.
Another resident, Meyanga Oguche, said they are even uncertain of the future of their properties as rumours are rife that the Federal Capital Development Authority, FCDA categorises the estate as an illegal one.
He said this fear is gaining grounds even though the estate management told them that it has spent N82 million for the “regularisation of the land title.”
In a video footage of a meeting between residents and the estate’s management committee seen by PREMIUM TIMES, Mr. Adeola said the committee had spent N162 million on the estate.
He claimed that N80 million went into the acquisition of the land, while N82 million was expended on perfecting the title.
He also said that the committee spent N300 million on the provision of roads, boreholes and other facilities to ease construction work in the estate and to control erosion. The committee also said they bought a brand new Toyota Hilux truck for easy access to the project site.
However, there was no evidence on the ground to support his claim of N300 million for infrastructure. PREMIUM TIMES did not see any estate constructed boreholes or gutters when it visited the estate. Drainages to control erosion were not constructed. The only means of erosion control were makeshift pits constructed by individual house owners.
Even the main road into the estate was not tarred as well.
THE COMMITTEE REACTS
When contacted, Mr. Adeola, still a Redeemed Church pastor, refused to be interviewed. He directed the reporter to Mr. Adeagbo, who now acts as the legal officer of the estate management.
Mr. Adeagbo initially refused to talk to PREMIUM TIMES. He asked for the identity of sources who revealed the scandal to PREMIUM TIMES but was politely told that could not be divulged for ethical reasons. Angered, he threatened to sue this newspaper if it went ahead to publish a story on the matter “without hearing from him.”
He later decided to talk after some of his colleagues that were present managed to convince him to seize the opportunity to tell his own side of the story.
The lawyer said the estate was the brainchild of members of the committee and not the entire EMF of the church contrary to what the original participants and church members said.
He said the land rightfully belongs to Redeemers Excellent Men Housing Foundation. He admitted that the scheme started in the church but the church was forced to pull out when trouble broke out between the promoters of the scheme and subscribers.
“When trouble started, the church waded in, because in truth, we started from the church, and the trouble started when the church was in charge. We emanated from the church but when they (aggrieved party) began to attack the church saying that the church should hand over the project to them, that was what made the church pull out.
“In fact, one of them went to court to file a case that the land should be handed over to them, but when the court asked them why should the project be handed over to them when they just came to buy a land, they ran away,” he said.
He denied that the original agreement for the size of the land was 600sqm.
“They applied for 500sqm and this was given to them. We are the ones dictating the pace. The agreement we signed with them is 500 sqm, and when they discovered it was no longer convenient for them, they had a choice to leave it. If they have a complaint that the land given to them was not up to 500sqm, they have a right to reject it and their money will be refunded,” he said.
Mr. Adeagbo’s claim is, however, false.
PREMIUM TIMES is in possession of offer letters given to some of the original applicants. In one such letter issued in February 2010 and signed by Mr. Sobola, as President of the EMF, and Mr. Adeola as Chairman of the Land’s Board, the beneficiaries were told the size of the land was 600sqm and directed on which account to make the payment to.
Speaking further, Mr. Adeagbo said the matter was in court and that those who are unhappy about how things have turned out should go tell the court.
“There is nothing fraudulent about what we are doing. Even the EFCC went to the site and they saw nothing fraudulent about it. Many people are living there, but it is the people who want to hijack what they did not plan that are giving trouble.
“You did not pay, yet you want to take over allocation of land. That is not possible. We will return their money to them if they apply for a refund, anybody who applies for refund will be given.”
He claimed that participants who alleged fraud in the housing deal are not members of the RCCG.
“It was about seven of us that started the planning of the scheme from inception, the lead pastor and the church was not even aware. It was later we involved the pastor. The pastor was not part of the initial conception because some pastors in the church are often busy so they do not have time to attend the meeting. The scheme got its name, ‘Excellent Men of Redeem’ because we originated from the church. It is not that Redeemed (the church) gave us money to buy the land.
“We brought in professionals from the church to render necessary services for the scheme free of charge as it is not a profit-making venture since the mission is to support the church where men will be able to get land and it is still a non-profit making venture. We did all the planning, engineering, purchasing, everything, that is why I am wondering why they want to dictate to us how we want to run it,’’ he said.
Mr. Adeagbo said they agreed at inception that they were going to reserve about 15 to 20 per cent of the land mass to be sold at an open market value to complement actual cost.
“If you have finished your payment and you do not want to move in, it is your problem, but one of them, who am sure is one of the ‘trouble makers’ finished building his house in 2011, but he did not pay the money for Infrastructure and that why we have not allowed him to move in.
“It is either you have not finished building or you have finished building and out of shame you cannot move in because you have not finished paying the infrastructure fee. But some of these people believe that we that set up the project are nobodies,” he said.
PASTOR ADEBOYE WADES INTO MURKY WATERS
Worried by the acrimony the project was generating within the church, the General Overseer of the RCCG, Enoch Adeboye, sent a team led by a senior pastor, Pitan Adeboye, to help investigate the matter and audit the account of the project.
But subscribers complained that the investigative panel sent by the church did not invite them to state their grievances. The team only reportedly met with members of the committee.
They said the team after carrying out its investigation did not release copies of its report neither did they publish the audited report of the scheme’s account.
But some of them who claimed to have seen the report allege that the team recommended the suspension of the “management committee” or “Board of Trustees” of the scheme.
It also recommended that that they should borrow money from a financial institution to make refunds to those who paid but got no land allotted to them.
The team, they claimed, also directed that a caretaker committee be set up to take over the management of the scheme.
PREMIUM TIMES did not see a copy of the panel’s report, so cannot confirm these claims.
However, it was confirmed that the Church did set up a caretaker committee in 2012 to manage the affairs of the scheme. But after some months, it handed it back to the current management of the estate.
Concerned by its inability to solve the scandal, the church published two disclaimers in two national newspapers distancing itself from the scheme.
INVESTIGATIVE PANEL REACTS
The leader of the investigative team, Mr. Adeboye, refused to comment on the matter when contacted by PREMIUM TIMES. He said all enquiries should be directed to the church’s legal department.
“Get the name of the people who signed the disclaimer and talk to them. It was not signed by Redeemed (RCCG),” he said during a telephone chat.
He added before hanging up: “Yes, I came in from Lagos and made some recommendations but were the recommendations not carried out? In which they did, the case was handed over to some elders and the disclaimer came as part of their finding. Get the legal department to explain the meaning of the disclaimer to you, I can’t talk on the matter.”
One of the disclaimers was signed by a legal firm, Sule Paul & Co, Solicitors for RCCG Region 10 and the other by the church, RCCG Region 10 Headquarters, Abuja, the region which the affected parish belongs.
When PREMIUM TIMES contacted the lawyer, Paul Sule, also a pastor at the church, he asked the reporter to contact the pastor in-charge of the region.
Mr. Sule, who was the secretary of the caretaker committee for the estate initially put in place by the church, added that the disclaimer was clear and the church was not part of the project.
“We are a church we do not get involved in real estate. We issued a disclaimer to detach ourselves from the project because you cannot stop people from doing what they want to do but the church has a duty, we are not part of it.”
Mr. Sule also suggested that the name of the church was used for the scandal without its permission
“Anybody can use the name of the church and swindle you. These things happen often, and if you have a large congregation, it does happen everywhere, even people impersonate the president of Nigeria, and we have had disclaimers here and there.
“It has been there from the apostolic days and it will be there until Jesus returns. The church did what it felt should be done under the circumstances.”
He said people should be more circumspect when engaging in any business concern that entails the deployment of their funds to avoid being hoodwinked.
PREMIUM TIMES learnt that with the disclaimer, the subscribers felt cheated and subsequently petitioned the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.
The committee members, Messrs. Imonhiosen, Adeola, Mbanu, Adeagbo and Sobola were questioned by the EFCC.
The petition, signed on behalf of over 200 subscribers by their lawyer, Rotimi Adalumo, accused the board of embezzling about N600 million. The petitioners called on the EFCC to compel them (board) to “render full and detailed account of their stewardship from 2009, when the scheme came into being, and retrieve the original land documents of the housing scheme from the church officials.”
Four years after the petition was sent to the EFCC and the commission commenced investigations, nothing has come out of it.
The subscribers alleged that the church, using its influence and top members, ‘frustrated’ the EFCC’s investigation.
Mr. Adefarakan said the church has since frustrated every move made by subscribers to hold Mr. Adeola and others to account.
The EFCC spokesperson, Wilson Uwujaren, when contacted for comments on the matter, said he had no knowledge of the investigation. He said would find out details and get back to this reporter. He never did, and subsequent calls and messages to his phone were not answered.
Ayodamola Owoseye is a senior reporter covering the health beat for PREMIUM TIMES. She is a graduate of the University of Ibadan, and holds a B.A in Anthropology and M.Sc in Information Science.
Ayodamola advocates gender equity and loves travelling and listening to old skool music. Twitter: @damolaowoseye