Synagogue Church vs Lagos Coroner Community Groans, As Prophet Lies Low
• Businesses Are Dying
• Landlords Now Know There Is God
• Int’l Airlines Feel Crunch
PROPHET T. B. Joshua atop a bicycle, riding leisurely, Prophet T. B. Joshua taking an evening walk outside the walls of his Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN), Prophet T.B. Joshua stopping for a minute or two to watch some men chatting away at a game of draughts. These are by no means common sights. But one man has seen them all.
“Personally, I don’t come to the shop on Sundays,” said the shop owner. He was a tall man, possibly, in his early 50s. His dark-lit shop spotted an array of everything except nothing. At some points, he spoke like one who might have been born a stammerer, had some powerful cherub not hurriedly whisked his spirit away from the queue.
“I worship at The Synagogue,” the shop owner said proudly. “Many people open their shops on Sundays because of the money they hope to make. I want money and I want Christ also. But I have to choose one. That is why I don’t open my shop on Sunday.”
Reminded that Sunday is the best day to make money from the thousands of people, who attend the Church’s programmes, he explained: “If I come on Sunday and make money, it would mean leaving Christ. So, I prefer to take Christ. It is written that even God made the world in six days and then kept the seventh day aside for worship.”
The shop owner had no less than 30 years of the community’s history at his fingertips. “I was here when T. B. Joshua started,” he said. He could tell how the Church’s magnificent edifice grew through stages of constructions, reconstructions and modifications. He also knew a time when prayer and deliverance sessions were held close to the road “and little children would go there and be watching.” The decades should have been time enough for him to have met the prophet and experienced a miracle. “Many of the miracles we receive are not conspicuous,” he however said, “but when you go out and compare yourself with a lot of people, you will see that God has been doing a lot of things in your life.”
Then a wiry fellow walked in. The shop owner had been engrossed in a conversation with the reporter and had not attended to him in time. Consequently, he put up a fine drama of being angry. Following his cue, the shop owner, now repentant, handed him a plastic jar, as the man picked two objects from a packet.
“But should you…?”
“I know the question you want to ask,” the shop owner said, laughingly. “Should I have sold the sticks of cigarette to him? You see: this is something I have always sold, right from the beginning. And, secondly, the warning, ‘Smokers Are Liable To Die Young’, is written on it. If I don’t sell it to the man, another person would. If he doesn’t buy them from me, he would buy them from another person, and would still smoke.” He had barely finished speaking when a girl of about 18 walked into the shop. She looked like Nneka. Surprisingly, she was Yoruba. She pointed to an object and the shop owner gave it to her.
“What is that?” I asked Funmilola.
“Small Stout,” she replied.
“CAN my wife too get a shop around this area, so she can sell things and make some cool money?” I asked the shop owner.
“Ah! The big issue is whether she will ever find a place to rent in the first instance. Even accommodation here is hard to get.”
“You don’t mean it.”
“Yes. All the houses here have been turned into hotels.
“What of that storey building under construction there (pointing)? Is it also a hotel?”
“Na hotel! A lot of business is going on around the church. Almost all the landlords here gave quit notices to their tenants. They preferred to turn the rooms into lodges. The Man of God even warned them that it is not moral. He didn’t like the idea that people were suffering just because others wanted to make quick money from something he was involved in. Some of those shops at the front of the Church pay as much as N15,000 in rent per month, especially those who sell food.”
“But that is quite a lot. How are they able to cope?”
“Before, they were able to pay. But now, a lot of them cannot. If you come here on Sunday, you will find that a lot of shops are closed. There’s no more business.”
“Why?” I asked.
“People don’t come to the Church, like they used to do. You know, since the building collapse, everywhere became dry. After the collapse, they changed their system of service. They used to have service on Saturdays. But now, they don’t. He (T.B. Joshua) has even stopped coming out. He has not been attending the services. It’s the Wise Men that have been leading the sessions. So, for that reason, a lot of people don’t like to come.
“If you go there now (motioning in the direction of Segun Irefin Street) and see the market, you will realise how bad things have become. If it were before, at this time, you would be seeing many people, foreigners, coming and going. Do you see that car put up for sale (pointing)? It belongs to a cab operator. E no fit make am again, so he wants to dispose it. He used to up pick visitors from the airport. But now, they are no longer coming. There are many of them (cab operators) like that. Even those hotels…the workers are crying because people don’t come there again.”
The shop owner spoke with his mouth, no less than he did with his body, stressing every moment in the downturn narrative with every bone and muscle he could muster. Across the road, workmen were putting final touches to some three or four-storey apartment. Also, about a hundred metres away, another building was beginning to eye prospective lodgers. “How about these people that are still building hotels and lodges?” I asked.
“They didn’t know things would turn this way,” he answered. “Many of them had bought their plots before now. Many had entered into agreements with owners of the lands and they cannot collect their money back. My brother, business no move like before. Look at these (pointing to stacks of assorted drinks outside his shop). It was the foreigners that used to buy the plastic bottled drinks. The local people, here, na sachet water dem dey buy. But now the foreigners don’t come to buy anymore.”
“So, when do you think the Man of God will come out?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” answered the shop owner. “Some people say that he is fasting and praying. And that when he eventually steps out, it will be with an explosion of prophetic FIRE!!!
“NO! NO!” It was a young man tending some flowers. Having walked past the Church’s armed police post, I had lifted my phone, attempting a photo shoot of a masterly sculpture of Christ at the Last Supper. Denied, I walked on. Segun Irefin Street is no doubt beautiful, at least, that part asphalted and kept spotlessly clean by tens of the Church’s workforce. Away from that stretch, the remainder of the street is an ugly-looking dirt road. It was here three women walked up to me.
“Accommodation?” asked one of them, a short, fair, clean-looking woman, possibly in her mid-30s. And did she wait to find out if I actually wanted one? “We have N2,500, we have N2,000, we have N3,000, we have…”
“You are not saying I can’t get lodging for N500 per night, are you?” I asked.
“Ha! My Oga, I will not advice you to take the one for N500.”
The other two women, meanwhile, milled around with desperate and jealous eyes. (If you have no intention to lodge in any of the area’s hotels, you had better not walked down Segun Irefin Street with a traveling bag!) Their competitiveness was palpable. Quickly, I confessed I was on a mission that required no lodging. But it was too late. A motorcyclist had suddenly appeared from nowhere, vowing he would take me to my lodge for a token.
The conversation went on anyhow. “That N500 room na mat,” said the woman. The one with foam is N1,000. Then there is one for N35,000. Oga, if you sleep for that one, my commission ehn! E go reach like N5,000 for four days.”
“So, if you are able to attract about 10 customers, what would your commission be?” I asked.
There was no monetary disclosure, only: “Ha! Halleluiah! I go just dey shout Emmanuel! Emmanuel!!”
But I learnt that business has been down lately,” I chipped in.
“Business still dey,” she said.
At this moment, one of the other women added her voice. She seemed 40-something. And looked like someone who started a forced skin-whitening therapy but escaped, minutes before she could have become an Oyinbo woman. Bros, business no dey like before. We never see him comot,” referring to Prophet T. B. Joshua’s absence from public view.
“May be the man is making some special prayers,” I suggested.
The bleached woman brightened up at the idea. “When he go commot, like this, na FIRE!!!” And pointing to a three-storey hotel, added: “If he touch you ehn! Anointing go carry you throw-away for that upstairs!”
A WALK further down Segun Irefin Street should have led one to a bustling market. Last week Tuesday, however, the place was a mockery of its old self. Several shops were locked up. The ocean of human heads that used to flow around the area had reduced to a miserable trickle. Food sellers, especially, had all but disappeared.
Close to what looks like the most deluxe hotel in the area, a man with an Irish cap, swinging a car key, asked if I needed a cab. Dressed in jeans trousers with an orange top, he looked handsome and refined. But disquiet sat on his face. He had hoped that I would jump into his car, sit back like some foreign visitor to the Church, while he drove me to anywhere – for a fee, of course.
Once resident in Malaysia, he had returned to Nigeria, following some undisclosed reversal of fortune. “We had been using these cars privately,” he said. “But when you cannot make ends meet, you have to use them for business because you must eat. We cannot stay back and sleep in our houses. So, that is what we are doing for now. But unfortunately, the Church’s programmes have stopped. Now, we don’t know what to do again.”
Describing the present state of business in the area, the cab operator said: “Some hoteliers are closing their premises. The cheapest room in that hotel (pointing) was N10,000. Now, the rooms are being let out for N5,000, simply because lodgers are not coming. The management of the place has to pay the workers, maintain electricity generators and pay bills. If this thing continues, they will be forced to trim their workforce. Some small lodges have even closed. The landlords reclaimed their properties and sold off mattresses and other items.”
Recalling the days when business was superb, the operator said: “Formerly, he (T.B. Joshua) held special prayer sessions on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. At the time, cab drivers were usually overwhelmed. They went about with their bags, their clothes inside their cars. They didn’t have time to go to their families. They visited home only at weekends.”
“And don’t you think your wives would be happier to have you always at home now?” I asked.
“Your wife cannot be happy. If you were giving her N3,000 for a pot of soup before and now that pot of soup isn’t forthcoming, would she be happy? If you stay in the house, is she going to eat you? That was why when I saw you, I asked if you wanted to go somewhere, so that I could drop you and get some money. Before, I would have been getting calls from several places. My phone would have been ringing, with people calling, asking ‘Where are you? ’ At such times, I had the opportunity to even choose the highest bidder.”
At apparent loss over what to do, the operator appealed: “I think all you news people should come together and talk to this man and see what is happening. Before, the Man of God comes out on Sundays and conducts services. But now, he doesn’t come out again. Programmes have totally stopped. Foreigners don’t even see him on TV live. If they just see him on TV in the Sunday services, they will come. A lot of them bought their tickets. But there has been no prayer line.
“We are just waiting and praying to God to make him restart the programmes. The bitter fact is that there is nothing that can be done to stimulate business in this area. Without foreigners coming and injecting their resources, there is nothing, virtually nothing else to fall back on.
“If you people know whatever you can write, go ahead and write it, to make him (T.B. Joshua) feel pleased and come out, because many people are dying. Let him come out,” said the cab operator. Suddenly, he turned prophetic: “T.B. Joshua! Come Out! Foreigners are coming; they are dying. Please, start your prayer line! Two, three times, a week! Even once a month!”
WHEN The Guardian visited Kaywy Lodge, along Segun Irefin Street, last year, it had met Sufi Onilewura, a staff who manned the reception. “Many investors have swarmed on Ikotun. What people do now is buy houses, break them down and build up hotels. The Church has totally changed the landscape of this area. This place is now a big commercial environment,” the young man had explained.
The lodge had a touch of class; something Sufi said made guests keep coming back. Sufi had outlined an assortment of rooms that included: executive with A/C N5.500; executive, A/C, hot bath N6.600; executive, A/C, big bed N7.700; twin bed N8.800; big bed, hot bath N8.800. Proud owner of the place and BOT Chairman of Pilgrims Hostel Operators’ Association, Engr. K. Y. Aminu, had also taken the reporter on a tour of facilities at the lodge.
Once again, Engr. K. Y. Aminu, on Tuesday, took the reporter to see his lodge. But this time, it was to uncover the total collapse of what used to be a money-spinner. “Business is zero. I am partially closing down. The 10 rooms here (pointing at a section of the lodge) are undergoing conversion,” he said, as he began to show the reporter parts of the lodge-turned-regular accommodation. At some points, he generously explained how he would transform already marked sections into full living quarters, complete with kitchen. At others, he merely showed the level of re-structuring accomplished.
“This one (pointing), someone is coming for it. That one (pointing again) has already been taken.” Just then, one inquisitive boy of about seven looked out through the door of one of the now converted rooms. “Where is your daddy?” Aminu asked. “He has gone out,” answered the boy. “They moved in yesterday,” said Engr. Aminu.
“I have just one cleaner now,” said Aminu. “I had four before; three were asked to go. I can’t pay them. Initially, I didn’t want to lay them off. But I realised that I was using the money my children sent to me for upkeep to pay the staff. We were not making enough money, yet we had to pay electricity bills. Why should I be using feeding money sent by my children to pay salaries? I just felt I could not continue like that. But I am not breaking things up entirely; only modifying it, so that at any point in time, if I have to reuse the place for the former purpose, there would be no problem.”
POSSIBLY in her 50s, Mrs. Eyitayo must have been a very beautiful woman in her youth. Light-skinned and trim, she was fast asleep when I arrived her fabrics shop. The place looked well stocked to the eye, until she countered the thought.
“No! This shop used to be full of fabrics more than these. Business in this place is now dead. I used to order market from Dubai, US… But now, for a year and half, we have not ordered goods because of what has been happening here. Hotels used to be everywhere in this area. People even changed their homes to lodges.
“Two years ago, if you came here, you would think you were overseas because we traded in dollars. You can even see (pointing) the POS given to me by a bank. But now, people don’t come again. You will notice that you found me sleeping. If it were then, as you walked in, I would have asked you to lend a helping hand with sales. How many things can the people in this area buy? They can’t buy much. It’s the visitors…”
A Muslim, Mrs. Eyitayo said she prays for T. B. Joshua, and was of the view that the building collapse might have plunged the man into heartache. “The man…I don’t know whether he is thinking or… He doesn’t want to hold any services again except on Sundays, and even at that the Sunday sessions are only for Nigerians. That thing (building collapse) is too much. It is too much. We pray to God that God will help him, because we don’t know where the matter is going. I even heard that he was asked to produce the engineers.”
For the over 30 minutes during which we conversed, not even a fly breezed into the shop. The woman recalled days when the front of her shop was a beehive of activities. Times when: “All these place is garage. Transporters will call Ijebu, Sokoto, Maiduguri, Cotonou, even Ghana. They bring luxurious buses, different different cars. They would come here and say, ‘Madam, give me cloth,’ but now… My brother, the business is dead.”
According to Mrs. Eyitayo, she had had inkling that the bubble could someday burst, as such, when the going was good, she didn’t put all her eggs in one basket, but “saved some money in fixed deposit.”
She, however, expressed sadness at the fate of many youths who had cashed in on the boom; “young boys that work as agents and take people to their lodges.” She explained, “the little they do as agents in a few days often yields as much as N20,000 or N30,000 in commission, depending on how many people they are able to bring. But now, those boys are nowhere to be found. Some of them can even turn into armed robbers because their mouths have wide.”
The fair-skinned trader also thinks that some sort of retribution may have caught up with landlords in the area, who Shylock-ly give tenants a raw deal, forcing them out and consequently turning houses into lodges. “The man (T.B. Joshua) is doing good, but some people are doing bad because of the money they are seeing. When you drive tenants out, and they don’t have anywhere to go, some of them will cry to God, and God will then say, ‘Ehn ehn…!’ This thing that has happened, now, will let them know that there is God.”
Mrs. Eyitayo wants the Lagos State government to “tamper justice with mercy” following its decision to prosecute the Church and engineers over the collapsed building, “because people come from far and near to do business here, plenty people, graduates, plenty… Even the airport people know that this man is bringing a lot of money to the Federal Government. If they can make this place a tourism centre…Even Lagos State, they know how much they are making. The government is not paying salaries, and this…This Nigeria, e don tire me!”
BUT wait. Where is the man sef? Why has he withdrawn from public glare? And just what could be passing through his mind?
“My brother, prophets are like that. Read your Bible very well. They always move as the Spirit leads them,” said one resident.