Countries like Rwanda clamping down on churches may not stop Africa’s bogus preachers

Following the government requirement of faith-based organisations in Rwanda to meet up with safety standards before being considered for operations, the President of Rwanda H.E. Paul Kagame issued a statement saying he has officially closed down 6000 churches in Rwanda. His reason: they were playing with the faith of Rwandan citizens.

Earlier at the National Leadership retreat held in Gabiro, in March, Kagame had expressed his astonishment at the rising number of churches in Rwanda. He asked if they were boreholes or wells that gave people water. “700 churches in Kigali?” he said during a government dialogue. “Are these boreholes that give people water? I don’t think we have as many boreholes. Do we even have as many factories? This has been a mess!”

Pentecostal churches springing up under leaders who claim to have received a call to preach is an occurrence that has grown rapidly in many parts of Africa in recent years. Often led by charismatic preachers who draw followers with promises of signs, wonders and miracles, the churches are either run in houses, tents, or crude tiny structures built without planning permission and lacking adequate water systems, or in massive buildings, attracting thousands of worshippers each Sunday.

Kagame has said his country doesn’t need so many houses of worship. While citing security concerns, he explained that such a high number is only fit for bigger, more developed economies that have the means to sustain them. Most of the religious institutions closed are small Pentecostal churches. One mosque was also closed. And while Rwanda clamps down on erring churches, a new requirement proposed in February whereby religious leaders procure a theology degree before given license to open up religious institutions is being debated on. The Rwanda Governance Board said the move is meant to tighten rules on registration and functioning of churches in Rwanda and also reduce on the creeping cases of fraud as many religious leaders were reaping off impoverished followers.

The existing law on civil society organizations permits Rwandans to open churches and register after a period of months but doesn’t require pastors to go through any training. Under the new law, in addition get a theology degree, faith based organisation must also obtain government certification that building requirements—such as adequate plumbing and parking—have been met and renew it annually.

While some Rwandese including members of the clergy supported the move, others have accused Mr Kagame’s government of clamping down on freedom of expression. This has been denied by the Government of Rwanda, which said it respects freedom of worship, but protecting people’s lives was first priority. Six Pentecostal pastors who protested the church closures were arrested and accused of “illegal meetings with bad intentions.” Since then, other critics have refused to discuss the issue with the media.

The question, though, is whether the crackdown on illegality of faith-based organisations will have a long standing effect, because it is not unusual for people to look for ways to go around a law, especially as not everyone has the money for such a degree.

Churches are usually started from the houses of those who decide to venture out into the ministry, moving out into makeshift tents and uncompleted buildings, and then, when the congregation is finally large enough, into a proper church building.

Sometimes a church isn’t even needed as morning calls to prayer are blared out of loudspeakers, and megaphones very early in the morning, in buses and other public spaces. Most times, the congregation, or anyone who identifies as religious, are surrounded by the noise and do not see it as such. When preachers stand to broadcast their gospel in public spaces, they’re often joined by complete strangers. To them, this is perfectly normal. 

Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame looks on as he meets Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel in Brussels. Photo credit: Quartz

Recently, in a case involving Amazing Grace FM and the Rwandan State, the radio station was accused of airing a hateful sermon against women. It was temporarily closed and fined Rwf2 million ($2,320) for undermining state security and Rwandan culture. While the steps, like this, taken by Rwanda’s Government to curb menaces in the largely Christian nation of 12 million people are good, the blind reverence of the African pastor may not go away anytime soon. Because it has less to do with the pastors and more to do with the people being preached to. 

In Uganda, a man identified as Pastor Busoga took his gospel to another level. He told his congregation that God instructed him to walk on their backs. These people clearly surrendered themselves to the pastor. But the kind of investment a country will need to input in its citizens to prevent them laying down on the floor to have their backs throdded upon should not be ignored. This menace is only a symptom of a bigger problem, which can be summarised aptly as a government that doesn’t work.

The religiosity and things requested for in prayer dramatically change as one advances towards financial security and has basic necessities taken care of. Prayers for electric supply in a nation where there’s no constant power supply, or prayers against untimely death in a nation where anything can happen without proper consequences significantly drop in a nation whose security and its observance for basic human rights are acknowledged. 

This sentiment is echoed in a Pew Research Center study done in 2015 that summarised how religion is “very important” according to various countries. Sub Saharan African countries congregated at the top of the list with percentages ranging from 86 to 98 percent with South Africa at 67 percent, while countries like China, UK, Germany were found at the bottom. The only notable exception to the trend of people in wealthier nations placing less importance on religion than those in poorer nations was the United States—the wealthiest nation included in the 2015 global survey based on gross domestic product per capita.

A Rwandan government official told the BBC that some of the more than 700 buildings shut down in March have already reopened after they were approved by inspectors. And while local media in the capital have reported that over 6,000 churches have been closed so far across the country, CEO of Rwanda Governance Board (RGB), Prof Anastase Shyaka said the actual number was still being compiled.

Other African countries have attempted to sanitise public spaces: In Nigeria, Lagos state closed down 70 churches and 20 mosques, in addition to more than ten hotels, pubs and clubs, after a 2014 tragedy in which a church guest house belonging to Nigerian pastor T.B. Joshua collapsed, killing at least 115 people; the government of Botswana shut down the church of pastor who gifted his 5-year-old daughter a $125k Maserati in the face of impoverished church members; and Johannesburg, South Africa, war was declared on the mushrooming number of illegal churches, structures and spaza shops.

There are glimpses of hope though, for in Rwanda, the law requiring religious leaders to have a degree in theology before given a license to open a church is no longer a mere subject for debate. Also, more Africans now demand good governance and speak against religions and traditions that espouse problematic theology that emphasize obedience above responsibility.