The Seventh-Day Adventist Church holds a unique system of end-times beliefs. Traditionally, the church has taught that the Second Coming of Christ will be preceded by a global crisis with the Sabbath as a central issue. Today, the church in Nigeria is facing a crisis of historic proportions. It has entered into a period of doctrinal drift that has not only obscured its theological mission, but has threatened the very existence of the denomination. Isioma Madike, who had a peek into the crisis, reports
The Laity, who claim to be owners of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, are at loggerheads with the President of the Western Nigerian Union Conference (WNUC), Pastor Oyeleke Owolabi, his officials and loyalists. While some of the members of the church claimed they were unduly harassed, intimidated and illegally arrested, the Union officials, who spoke on behalf of Pastor Owolabi, said the Police were only invited to help execute the judgement of the court of law. Those representing the Laity are however appealing to the Inspector- General of Police to call his officers to order, and to, as a matter of urgency, investigate the Church officers, who have been inviting the Police to arrest church members on spurious allegations. They are also urging the Police to waste no time in prosecuting those they say are giving the Force false information.
They specifically alleged that Pastor Owolabi had been using law enforcement to perpetrate this illegal act. Deacon (Barrister) Abiodun Adebayo, who described himself as the current Church clerk in Lagos mainland conference headquarters, spoke to our reporter.
He said that the church is in agreement that its trustees as presently constituted is premised on “fraud” and that Pastor Owolabi has no legitimacy to remain as the president of the WNUC. Meanwhile, the Executive Secretary of the Conference, Pastor Adeleye Ezekiel, who the Union mandated to speak on its behalf, was quick to respond to the allegations.
He told Saturday Telegraph that the Administration of Western Nigeria Union Conference has kept quiet for so long on the crisis. Ezekiel said the crisis emanated a few years ago through those he called “disgruntled individuals”, and orchestrated by people of the same mind among the clergy and laity within and outside the shores of Nigeria. He said: “Initially they tagged themselves ‘concerned Adventists.’ Later they started showing their faces and named themselves ‘reformers.’ Twenty six allegations were written against Pastor Owolabi. Investigation was carried out and decisions taken based on the findings of the commission that was set up by the executive committee of WNUC.”
Background/ Karnik Commission report
Deacon Adebayo, who gave what he called the background on how the crisis started, said it was about 2015 or 2014 when Seventh-Days Adventist Church clocked 100 years in Nigeria, and the church celebrated what was called centenary in that year. The world church president, he said, came from Maryland, USA, to celebrate the anniversary with the church. Around that time, according to him, the highest authority of the church held a general conference in the United State of America and chose to organise what the church called a mega city crusade across the globe, and three cities were chosen for that. Lagos was chosen in Nigeria, Sao Paulo in Brazil, and New York, USA.
He said: “After that programme, information started filtering out that the money released by the world church was not judiciously used in the Nigerian arm under the leadership of Pastor Owolabi. A petition was written, but, because our church is conservatively dispositional in all its activities, the church set up an investigative panel headed by a general conference legal adviser, Elder Karnik Doukmetzian. “Some respected retired pastors of the church were part of the committee. There were 26 allegations levied against Pastor Owolabi because prior to that time, he commissioned a mansion in Osun State.
“The commissioning of the mansion in Osun State raised serious questions because an average Adventist is trained to be disciplined and not to be flamboyant. That’s the training given to pastors. Being an Adventist pastor, we know that since he joined the ministry, all his earnings cannot put up that structure. “I think the value was put at a sum of N75 million as at that time, 2015. People were raising concerns that an Adventist pastor cannot put up this structure; it was part of the allegation levelled against him in that panel. It was also alleged that church money was paid into his personal account; out of it, N400,000 was donated to be given to the entire pastors, which he also cornered to himself. “He also published some church manuals, which he doesn’t have the authority to do, and made sales.
There is also evidence that about N300,000 of sales, which was meant for the church, was paid into his personal account. The church has a corporate account so that any money earned for the church should ordinarily be paid into it. There is no justification for paying a corporate fund into a personal account. “In the long run, although the committee was not thorough, he was found wanting of three allegations substantially. I think two were partially substantiated and in Seventh- Days Adventist Church, by our working policy, one of the allegations that was substantiated is enough to remove such a fellow from being a minister in Seventh-Days Adventist Church. But the church is organised, the only body that has the right to do that is the executive of Western Nigerian Union Conference.” Adebayo said that Seventh-Days Adventist Church in Nigeria is divided into three; Western Nigeria Union Conference, Eastern Nigerian Union Conference and Northern Nigerian Union Conference. Three of them, he said, are of equal and the same status. One, according to him, is not higher than the other.
“But Pastor Owolabi always goes about to represent the president of Seventh-Days Adventist Church in Nigeria whereas he is only in charge of the WNUC. And each of these union conferences is conglomerates of other conferences. “For instance, WNUC has Lagos mainland conference as one of the conferences that make it up. We also have Lagos Atlantic conference as a component of it; and we have Ogun and Oyo conferences as components.
“We have the Ondo mission, Kwara conference, Kogi mission and others that come together to give us WNUC. And the status of each local conference is like the relationship of state governments to the Federal Government. WNUC is like the Federal Government while the local conferences are like state governments. We have gone to court to fight for our fundamental human rights to shield ourselves from injustice,” he said. The fifth of the Commission’s Terms of Reference, according to Adebayo, reads inter alia: “To make recommendations based on the investigation and findings; and in particular, to check recurrence of negative allegations against church leadership.” He also quoted from the last paragraph of the “Conclusion” of the Commission’s report thus: “The Commission has chosen to present the substantiated allegations without recommendation to the Executive Committee and allow the Committee to make a determination as to any action required to be taken against Pastor Owolabi.” With this, the crisis in January 2017, assumed various dimensions. But while members of the church in Western Nigeria blamed the leadership of the church for escalating the crisis, the congregation was thrown into what they said was another round of emotional torture and a literal spiritual confoundment. They alleged that on October 20, 2019, the Adventist Development & Relief Agency (ADRA) – a worldwide philanthropic organisation owned by the world church in Germany, officially wrote to the leadership of West-Central Africa Division about its investigations. The consequent decision, according to Adebayo, was to recommend five persons involved in “fraudulent practices and mismanagement within the operations of ADRA Nigeria” for prosecution by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). West-Central Africa Division is the second tier of the General Conference in West Africa.
The Union reacts
Meanwhile, the Union’s account is similar but slightly different. Pastor Ezekiel, who spoke on behalf of the group, confirmed to Saturday Telegraph that some individuals wrote a petition consisting of 26 allegations against Pastor Owolabi, to the West-Central Africa Division (WAD). WAD leadership, according to him, officially presented a copy of the allegations to the Executive Committee of WNUC on September 14, 2016. He said the commission headed by the General Conference (world church) legal counsel was put in place to investigate the allegations and make recommendations to the executive committee for final decision on each of the allegations. He said following a torrential release of socially and spiritually toxic publications on social media beginning sometime in 2015, a petition was referred to the WNUC from WAD. He said: “After a series of tortuous debates and administrative faux pas at different levels of leadership, WNUC and WAD leadership teams, jointly consented to convene an extraordinary meeting of the WNUC Executive Committee for September 14, 2016. “During which session a copy of the allegations made against Pastor Owolabi by some individuals, was officially presented to the Executive Committee by WAD President, Pastor Dr. Elie Weick-Dido, in company with the Executive Secretary, Pastor Dr. Kingsley Anonaba, WAD Vice President, Pastor Gay Rogey, and retired President of Cameroon Union Mission, Pastor Tchoualeu Jean Marie.” The Executive Committee, he further said, responded by immediately nominating a Commission, headed by Elder Karnik Doukmetzian, to investigate those allegations (26 of them) and report back by December 15, 2016. The Commission Chairman, however, to accommodate his tight schedule as well as others requested, and was granted, an extension till January 2017, to allow for a credible and thorough job that would minimise the margin of error to the barest. He added: “After the completion of the assignment, the chairman and the secretary of the commission presented their report to the executive committee, and the executive committee of the Union took action on each of the 26 allegations.” Elder (Dr.) Ibhiedu Amos, who is the treasurer of the church in WNUC, also recalled that the crisis is longstanding. Some of the issues, he told this reporter, have been documented and “we have our response on paper. Be that as it may, let me just say that yes there has been some kind of crisis in the church. It borders on the issue of leadership and position. “Some years back, some individuals came up with allegations against Pastor Owolabi, and according to the policy of the church, a committee was put in place. The committee did their job and presented a report. “When the report was presented, the executive committee of the WNUC that Pastor Owolabi is the chair of met, and the meeting was chaired by the deputy since Owolabi was the one that allegations were made against. “The committee looked at the outcome of the report and found out that Pastor Owolabi was not guilty. So, they made their position known and all the allegations that were brought up against Owolabi were cancelled. “That committee was chaired by the General Counsel of the church in the whole world, based in the USA, Elder Karnik. These people are very few, after that day they started raising dust in various quarters. “At a point, they went to court and sued the church and its trustees; I am part of the trustees because of my position. The court gave a ruling in Ibadan, which didn’t favour them. We also went to court in Akure and they gave a ruling which didn’t favour them too. “They went to a court in Delta and the summary was that they were no longer pastors in this church because they were the ones that took the church to court. So, the church ruled that they were no longer pastors of the church, Pastors Ajani and Adeleye. That was as far back as 2017. “They remained in office and refused to vacate their offices and also refused to conduct a constituency session so that they could be replaced. The various levels in the church started to intervene but these people were not moved. “We now decided to use all our options because they have flouted the policy of the church because the court, which is the last resort in Nigeria, has made a ruling that they are no longer pastors because of what they had done. “They went to court because we didn’t take them to court. So, we said if they are not ready to follow the ruling of the church, let us approach the police to give effect to that court ruling, to help us execute the ruling of the court. “That was what informed the idea of approaching the police in the first place. The police picked them up at Ibadan and took them to Abuja. The ACP Asuquo was in charge of the case. “He said he is a Christian so he would like the church to use internal mechanisms to solve the crisis because he doesn’t want to charge anybody to court. That he wants the church to try to resolve the case within its structure and then come back to tell him that we have resolved it or tell him whatever had happened. “The general conference under Karnik now said they will go into it and resolve it. There were terms of settlement and these people refused to follow the terms. That is still pending. The issue is not resolved and they are still causing unrest in the church. “The Lagos mainland conference that is trending now, the tenure of the executive expired. Our church has a tenure system of four or five years and before their tenure expired, there was a crisis between the pastors and officers within Lagos mainland conference. “Some people were found wanting and sanctioned accordingly. The people that were sanctioned were not happy and they took the case to court, in the course of the trial, their tenure expired. “We were trying to do a constituency and they started making trouble because they didn’t want the constituency to hold. We now said it is supposed to hold so that the members will have a chance of either re-electing them or electing fresh people that will lead the church for the next four years. They refused to call a constituency and another one was held and new members were elected. “The secretary and the treasurer refused the outcome; they called some of the church members again and forced them to put them on interim basis so that they can continue to run Lagos mainland conference, though their tenure had expired in December 2020. While the struggle was going on, some of the elders in Lagos mainland conference formed a committee to straighten them. “They discussed with the Union leaders to find a way to resolve the issue. While that was going on, we decided to have a one day constituency where the Lagos mainland conference will come together to either reaffirm the election that was done before or do a new election. “In the course of making that arrangement, the industrial court gave a ruling that the court lacks jurisdiction. When that ruling was given, if the court gives a ruling of this nature, it means the status quo remains, that the action taken by the executive committee against those that were found wanting based on the findings of that committee that was put in place were still sanctioned. “Those that were dismissed remained dismissed and those that were suspended remained suspended unless another court gave a new ruling.” Elder Amos said that a new treasurer, president, and secretary had been elected but that former secretary still paraded himself as the acting president and secretary, which is not known to “our policy; there is no provision for that in Seventh-Day Adventist Church. “They simply just refused to vacate their offices. They are still there. The church finances are done in such a way that the higher organisation, which is the Union, supervises the conferences under the Union. The treasurer of the Union is a signatory to the various accounts of the different conferences.”
However, the police have said that the allegations of favouring a party in this crisis are simply unfounded. CSP Ben Bright of the Special Enquiry Bureau (SEB), FCIID, Area 10, Abuja, spoke to our reporter. He said: “When a case is reported, the police will go in to investigate and take necessary action to maintain law and order and that’s what we did in this instance. Nobody has the power to instruct the police to harass, intimidate or arrest others illegally. That I can tell you is a big lie. “But, a group of them have been maligning the police in the media via their press releases and reports on social media, which is why I’m happy that you have called to get the facts. We acted professionally when we were called in and will continue to do our job without fear or favour. “In any case, the matter is in court but know that we can never be biased in a matter we ought to play the arbiter. We are not trained to take sides.”