Monday, April 22, 2024

Government orders church to close questionable bank account

Following a Sunday Standard expose, two Zimbabwean pastors of the Bread of Life Christian Church International have been ordered to close a bank account they have been operating outside of what church rules say.

The pair was part of a group from the church that were summoned to the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs headquarters last Thursday.

The ministry was represented by the Civil and National Registration Director and three senior officers while the church was represented by the church’s international leader, Bishop Innocent Nkomo, its national leader Bishop Owen Isaacs and six other members.

Following that meeting and discussion on issues raised in a November issue of Sunday Standard, the church was instructed to close a bank account, which was opened with neither the knowledge nor authority of members upon whom the constitution expressly confers signatory powers. The account’s signatories are Nkomo and Pastor Katanga Chuma. Evidence of the account’s closure (a letter instructing to the bank) was to have been delivered to the ministry on Friday.

Although it is unclear whether the letter was delivered, we can confirm that money in the account was taken out on Friday morning and the account closed. The closure of this account should have happened in July this year when the church discovered its existence. Nkomo was questioned over it and advised to close it immediately. That did not happen.

While the opening of the account does not contravene the Banking Act proper, the bank should have been more diligent. In cases when a person opens a trust account with a bank, the Act requires a bank “to know and understand the structure of the trust sufficiently to determine the provider of funds and those who have control over the funds.”

In the case of Bread of Life, those who have control over funds are the treasurer, chairperson and secretary of the national executive board. In an earlier interview with Sunday Standard, Nkomo defended his actions saying that as Overseer, he has authority to sign cheques. The constitution does not explicitly say so and Nkomo did not advance that argument at the Thursday meeting.

One other issue that the meeting is said to have raised was of an upcoming camp that features Nkomo’s own brother who lives in Zimbabwe. Nkomo conceded to ministry officials that he did not make full disclosure and it turned out that he was ignorant of such requirement.

Although an ‘international’ church, Bread of Life’s active presence is in Botswana. As the largest, the Gaborone congregation is also the church’s cash cow. Property in Gaborone West, opposite the new central business district brings in good rent every month. The church also gets monthly income from Mascom Botswana for a transmission tower installed inside the church’s compound in Block 9.

As an African success story, Botswana has spawned a multi-million-pula commercial-religion industry in the form of charismatic churches that are mostly controlled by expatriates from African states. This has caused a great deal of consternation among national leaders, some of whom have gone public to express their dismay. Commercial religion’s contribution to the national economy is almost zero mainly because profits made are repatriated to the leaders’ country of origin.

Bread of Life is a breakaway church of Family of God (FOG) which originated in Zimbabwe. FOG’s emphasis, as outlined in a paper by a University of Botswana lecturer who is himself Zimbabwean, is on “speaking in tongues, the healing of the sick, and the gospel of prosperity”.

Togarasei’s paper is titled “Jerusalem and Antioch: Inter-state, Intra-Church Politics in the Family of God Church in Botswana.” The paper was published in “PULA: Botswana Journal of African Studies” and provides rare glimpse into how churches play the money game.

At the time of the split, Nkomo accused the leader, Prophet Andrew Wutawunashe, of repatriating to Zimbabwe money raised (and that could have been used) locally.

FOG members that Togarasei spoke to said that all money collected by the Botswana church had to be sent to the church’s central coffers in Harare. Nkomo, who was himself interviewed for this study, said, “Instead of transferring the money through the bank, the money was transported as hard cash to Zimbabwe by road.”

Two weeks earlier, one other church member in Gaborone had told Togarasei that each week he used to collect between P35 000 and P42 000, which was then sent to Zimbabwe.

“The figures surely seem inflated and one pastor I tried to verify with said such large sums were only collected during nationwide conventions when the Prophet himself came to preach,” the paper says.

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