Bishop Olanrewaju Obembe is the presiding Bishop of Elshaddai Bible Church. A former president of the Lagos chapter of the PFN, Obembe is reputed to have pioneered the printing of Amplified English Bible for the first time in West Africa in 1987. He holds three distinctive degrees in Missiology, Systematic Theology and Christian Education. He is the Apostolic Prelate of International Communion of Charismatic and Apostolic Ministries. In this interview with GBENGA OSINAIKE of the Church Times, Obembe bares his mind on the controversial Benny Hinn crusade that took place in Nigeria about 10 years ago.
You were President of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, Lagos Chapter as it was then called. What were you doing before the PFN call?
I was active in my assignment. The Lord enabled me to start a full time literature ministry in1986. We started as a literature ministry. We saw the need for information and education. The Lord enabled us to print the first amplified Bible in West Africa.
What was church like in those early days?
In those days there were a number of big churches that were doing well and making great impact. They include churches like the Assemblies of God, Foursquare, Church of God Mission. RCCG and some others. These churches were Pentecostal churches that were making impact. They were recognized as major pioneers of the Pentecostal movement.
They were the churches that were believed to be preaching the full gospel. They were churches that believed in speaking in tongues. There are some cardinal principles about Jesus. He is the savior, baptizer in the Holy Ghost. He is our redeemer. He is our healer. He is our provider. Jesus becomes who you declare him to be. He is the soon coming king, He is Lord. His Lordship in our lives cannot be questioned. These are principles, cardinal mission and vision that guided the church in those days and those were the premises on which the Pentecostal churches were formed.
But what was your own peculiar experience?
I grew up in Foursquare. We were brought up by wonderful men of God. The Senior Pastor of the church then was Pa Osinbajo. He was instrumental to my growth in the Lord. Pastor Mathew Ashimolowo did wonderfully well too. Papa Osinbajo had the capacity and great grace to build churches. He planted a lot of churches. The kind of miracles that were taking place in those days were amazing. Such miracles could be traced back from the days of Apostle Ayo Babalola.
The foursquare church started in Okota in our sitting room. I became a member of the church council. In those days we believed in direct labour. Pastor Osakwe worked with Pastor Dr. Odunaike who was another fantastic man. He was President of Vision International of Billy Graham. He was a sought-after man of God who preached powerfully well. He was a brilliant corporate achiever. He was director of Personnel of African Petroleum.
I grew up with the foursquare tradition of accountability. That was why during the Benny Hinn Crusade planning I engaged, a chartered accounting firm to keep record of all that we did. That was why I could come out clean after the series of panels that were asked to investigate me.
Let us go back a bit. When did your involvement with the PFN begin?
My wife was first appointed national treasurer of the PFN. They zoned certain offices to some churches. They always felt churches who founded the PFN should hold key positions. But my wife was brought in because they wanted a professional to handle their finance. She is a qualified accountant. She did a lot.
In those days the late Archbishop Benson Idahosa was a great motivator and source of inspiration. He helped to bring a lot of notable men of God across the world to Nigeria. He brought Benny Hinn, Morris Cerullo and a host of others. The first time he brought Benny Hinn was in 1991. I remember I was once under the ministration of Benny Hinn. He picked my suit and threw it on people and they were falling under the power of God. That was the first time I would have a close contact with him. People were so skeptical about his ministry when he came because of the outstanding miracles.
These were the background that led to my being appointed by the leaders to be president at the time I did. Initially when they asked me to come and lead the PFN I did not want to take it. But many of the church leaders including Pastor Boyejo of the Foursquare, Pastor Enoch Adeboye asked me to take the appointment that it would be a school for me. They said what I would learn there I will not learn in any university. So I felt honoured that highly placed men of God could prevail on me to accept such call to duty. Some people even used derisive terms for the PFN. Some called it Pentecostal Politics of Nigeria. That was laughable. But I summoned courage and took the appointment. I asked for people to work with me and they gave me people, credible people to work with.
What was your vision for the PFN when you assumed duty as the then chairman?
We realized that for pastors to be involved actively in an organization, you must have something to offer. Initially the pastors were very skeptical. They felt the big churches just wanted to use them. So we had to be involved in a system of integration and cohesion.
There were those who were at the bottom, those up-coming and the mega churches. The big churches because of their apparent success were careful about the kind of relationship they hold. In the light of that peculiar circumstance we had to work on a tripartite project called WEF: Welfare, Empowerment and Fellowship.
What was the state you met the pastors that constituted membership of the PFN?
Many of the pastors were struggling. We had to empower them mentally and economically. There were those who just came into the ministry without proper guidance. So we had to look for ways of making the body a disciplined body. They saw a leadership that devoted money to the welfare of the people and so were willing to identify and be part of what we were doing.
Did you inherit some funds to work with?
We did not inherit any money from our predecessor. We had to take off from a zero account and see how to reach out. Eventually we were able to raise funds through contribution and donations. This enabled us to be able to help some pastors pay their rent and take up liability and responsibilities which we did not contemplate. We began to look at how we could ameliorate some of the challenges of church leaders that brought their cases to us. We also created room for international fellowship programmes. We had so many international conferences. Times Square Church came and some other foreign ministries who took us in leadership programmes.
What was the structure like?
We had the acronym IBILE to designate the whole of Lagos. It means: Ikeja, Badagry, Ikorodu, Lagos Island and Epe. That was the demography then. That enabled us to administer the whole of Lagos and reach out to pastors in remote areas. There were leaders who manned these locales. But we had challenges getting credible leaders then. We had pastors who were into occultic practices so we had to be careful about who is put in charge of a zone. We increased the number of zones eventually because we wanted to allow pastors to be fully integrated into the body. So we had to encourage a number of people to acquire skills. We had workshop where people were trained on using the new technology. We had a representation in the embassy that made it possible and easy for members to travel for foreign missions. People were benefiting from these things.
We even encouraged pastors to earn income outside the church. We had an arrangement where we could give soft loans to encourage pastors to do transport business. We got a large expanse of land in Ikorodu and encouraged members to buy into it. They gave us the land at N100, 000. Some members got the land but they did not take possession of the land. About 20 pastors took possession. But those who did not take possession lost out because those who sold the land to us had to resell to others.
So our members who could not take possession wrote a petition to EFCC. The EFCC picked the land owners up. They regarded the problem as an economic crime. They were locked up and they now said they had a court case on the matter. The problem lingered for a long time. The land owners were making promises to give another land to us. But what we did was to look for money and make refund for those who could not take possession of their land. The return was done last year for credibility sake. We had to make the sacrifice.
What would you consider the greatest challenge you had with pastors then?
Pastors have peculiarities. They are at different levels of spiritual growth. It showed in our interpersonal dealings. I have been taught that where there is Power, position, money, influence and women people are capable of doing anything. These are critical challenges of the body. We are supposed to be homogeneous but because of these factors we were not.
Benny Hinn Crusade
Let us talk about the Benny Hinn project which caused a lot of brouhaha during your tenure. How did the whole thing start?
What informed the need to bring Benny Hinn in the first place was as a result of the desire I had to integrate all churches in the Pentecostal fold. It was very absurd for us that individual member churches had successful programmes and had massive attendance but when the PFN was doing something the attendance was poor. It made our unity fluid and suspicious. So when I became the president (the term president was used then for the Lagos State leader of the PFN, now the term Chairman is used) I was looking for a common front that would bring all the churches together.From time to time we were invited to pray in some quarters. But that was not enough. I felt there was need for a bigger programme that would make great impact in the country.
So when we got an invitation to pray with the then President Olusegun Obasanjo and also for the nation I took advantage of that forum to make a request for the assistance of the president to help facilitate the coming of Benny Hinn to Nigeria to hold a crusade that will bring us together. It was at that prayer meeting that we were asked what we wanted government to do for the PFN And I said, I would appreciate if the government could help facilitate the coming of Benny Hinn to Nigeria for a crusade because his country had said he would not be allowed to come if there was no adequate security guaranteed. President Obasanjo felt that was a small matter. He asked the chaplain, Prof. Obaje to do a letter inviting him and assuring him of security. I was given that letter to take to him which I did. If I was selfish I would have made it my church’s programme because Benny Hinn is a crowd puller. But I took it up and went to Pastor Enoch Adeboye and asked him to help us with the venue. Pastor Adeboye joyfully obliged us. He gave us the venue free but said we had to pay for facilities that will be used. Baba was very fatherly. He was to travel within that period but he cancelled his trip to be part of the crusade.
Unfortunately letters were written to Benny Hinn by another group saying that they were the ones that used to hold crusade that it could not be handled by the Lagos PFN. When that happened Pastor Adeboye insisted that it would be wrong for the programme to be handled by another group.
The letters written to Benny Hinn were forwarded to me. It was from that moment that the problem started. The crusade came and the Lord manifested himself. Souls were saved, we had more than 50 MDs of banks, governors wives, presidents from West African countries were in the crusade There were people in that programme who were highly influential. There were miracles, signs and wonders. The founder of TBN was at the programme. It was not a conventional crusade.
So how did the story about $4million dollars erupt?
Before Benny Hinn came to Nigeria he had announced to his partners that he would need $4million from his partners and that such money would be required before coming to Nigeria. So when he came to Nigeria he announced that he had spent $4 million dollars. And if he said he spent $4million dollars at that time it was N140 to a naira. He said he spent $3 million on high definition equipment and that $1million was spent on the other needs of accommodation and travels and the logistics. But when he announced that $4million had been spent many people did mental calculation and concluded that Bishop Obembe squandered N560 million.
But what really was the issue. Was it that he handed over the money to you and you disbursed the way you like?
The truth is that no white man will give you money and go to sleep. Benny Hinn staff were here and they took records of how money was being disbursed. Before they started bringing money I had spent my personal funds on travels and making links to facilitate his coming. The money he claimed to have spent was spent on the equipment and the travels of his team and other logistics which were monitored by his representatives who were with us throughout the planning.
But I guess that the group that wrote to him brought some form of misunderstanding in the whole arrangement. I would not like to mention the name of the group but that has been put behind us. The group felt I was not qualified to handle such high level crusade and that informed the bad press that followed the declaration of Benny Hinn that $4 million was spent.
I saw all kinds of headlines after the crusade. In US we did a research and found out that there was nowhere Benny Hinn ministered and had more than 50,000 in a crusade as at that time. But here we had over a million on every night even with the fuel crisis we had then. There were lots of sabotage against that programme. Already there was an atmosphere of distrust and ill-feeling. The PFN had to set up a panel and came up with the verdict that Bishop Obembe actually spent his money before Benny Hinn brought funds for the programme.
My personal money has not been refunded since that time. There were so many stories that were based on sentiment. The second probe panel said there was no foul play and that the crusade was a monumental success. And the third panel headed by Bishop Wale Oke revealed that Benny Hinn complained that the programme was personalized. People were saying all kinds of things. My children were told in school that they did not need to school again that their father had over half a billion. Hired assassins were sent to me thinking that Benny Hinn left the equipment he bought behind. They thought I had a lot of money. Pa Boyejo was there in Atlanta when Benny Hinn said he was coming to Nigeria. And he told me they would fight me in Nigeria that this is what some top church leaders in Nigeria had been looking for. It was so bad that Pa Boyejo had to be praying for me on a daily basis. People wanted to kill me because of Benny Hinn. But God intervened and told me to take responsibility for all that happened and forgive everybody. I had to go from person to person and say I am very sorry. Papa Boyejo followed me to some people. I took Archbishop Oyeniran to the then President of PFN, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor and apologised.
I had to apologize and write a letter of apology. It is on record that I apologized. God asked me not to talk because it would create a lot of discord. God told me because I did not fight for myself, he will fight for me. The period of isolation was a period I had to die. I went through a ten-year dying process. The Lord told me things that will happen. He told me he would honour me. He told me so many things about the crisis. So when I got to the letter from PFN that I was going to be honoured, I was shocked. I never spoke with anybody about it and I never discussed this with the current chairman of the PFN. I met him once.
What would you have to say about the PFN after your tenure as the president?
The fact that you have potential does not mean anything until it could be translated. I was looking for a body that will be a voice and be respected. Politicians understand this and they make sure we don’t have such voice so they could exploit us. Some of the politicians came to us when we were serving and we gave them our terms. We had a strong statistics.
The politicians came and we told them we were not for sale. There is a political wing in the PFN. We realized that it is not possible to take sides because churches had their candidates. So we had to be neutral. The potential of PFN is strong but it is being underutilized.
What was your experience as the then president with the Lagos Government?
We got a lot of cooperation from the government. It was during that time that the government returned schools to mission bodies. The leadership of Supreme Council of Islam in Nigeria were not comfortable with what was happening in Lagos. They came up with the idea that Lagos was ripe for sharia. But the then governor of the state said no way that Lagos cannot be a Sharia state. He stood his ground. The pressure was so much. We made a representation and the issue was discarded. Tinubu was smart enough to turn down the request of the Islamic body. During his tenure he was accused of tilting towards Christianity. He was always going to the redemption camp.
So what will be your final word for the current leadership of the PFN in Lagos?
I think the leadership must pursue the unity of the body. It is very crucial. People must walk in love. It is wrong to assume that because of your achievement that you will carry yourself with certain level of holier than thou attitude. The best of men are men at their best. It got a point that Paul had to declare I don’t want to know anything among you other than Christ. If Christ is the focus we will not have problem of coming together