Only a handful of clerics in Nigeria are perhaps more influential and vocal as Johnson Suleman, a televangelist, and fiery Apostle. Sometimes unassuming, other times brash but always assertive and assured.
Although he is a protege of a famous and influential Bishop, the late Benson Idahosa, Suleman’s rise to influence has been somewhat meteoric. He soon began to be courted by the high and mighty within Nigeria. He granted access to politicians and movie stars. All seemed to go well with him and the ministry he founded, Omega Fire Ministries. If he wasn’t broadcasting from his own TV station, Celebration TV, he was flying the world hosting large Christian meetings that often filled up stadiums, spreading the Christian message, a message of liberation as he calls it. It is easy to see why many flock to see the self-styled preacher in packed-out venues across the globe. He is famous for his prophetic abilities. Soon after he starts preaching, or sometimes even before, he calls people out by name and one by one reveals intimate secrets -often problems they are facing – and offers divine guidance.
Things would begin to take a different turn for the Nigerian cleric around 2016 when Suleman started to become more vocal on matters of national security and the unchecked rise of Islamic terrorism in Nigeria. The West African country went to the polls in 2015. Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s current and 15th president ran in the 2015 presidential election as a candidate of the All Progressives Congress party. His platform was built around his image as a staunch anti-corruption fighter and his incorruptible and honest reputation. He had contested and lost three previous elections in 2003, 2007, and 2011 respectively. In the buildup to the 2011 elections, Buhari famously gave support to the enforcement of Sharia law in Nigeria’s northern states, which had previously caused him political difficulties among Christian voters in the country’s south. Many believed Buhari was going to Islamize Nigeria, although this did not seem possible as Nigeria has always been staunchly divided on religious and ethnic grounds.
During President Buhari’s first term, unemployment was at an all-time high of 23%, and millions of Nigerians entered poverty. Buhari soon began to lose his supporters due to his perceived un-energetic personality and contemplative decision-making. Nigeria’s insecurity problems worsened, with many feeling President Buhari was soft on terror, after all, he was in favor of sharia law, which these terrorist groups also wanted.
The President did not like being criticized for the poor state of the economy and insecurity. When he was criticized, he often ricocheted the blame to the previous administration before him. In October 2016, the president’s wife, Aisha Buhari, in an interview with BBC Hausa criticized her husband, President Buhari on how he was leading the country – or for lack of leadership, saying her husband did not know most of the cabinet appointees in his government.
Aisha Buhari even warned that she might not back her husband in the 2019 election if the President decided to run for a second term unless he made changes in his cabinet.
In response to his wife’s criticism, President Buhari responded by saying his wife belonged in his kitchen and that she did not have any right to question his leadership.
He said, “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.”
It was the last time Aisha Buhari criticized her husband. In fact, anyone who did, faced serious consequences. Only a handful of elected government officials in the opposition remained vocal and the country’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) were sent after them.
Back to Johnson Suleman, the vocal televangelist. Angered by the increasing attacks on Christians across the country, some of whom were his members or supporters, the cleric called for Christians to be armed in self-defense as it was apparent that the government was willfully ignoring the menace of marauding Fulani herdsmen across the country. Suleman’s comments were hotly debated, but beyond that, he became a marked man although this was not the first time that the feisty preacher had made remarks that did not sit well with the Buhari-led government and certain other Northern Nigerian leaders.
The first coordinated attack on Johnson Suleman was when bandits were sent to his residence in Nigeria. “They froze [miraculously] upon landing in my compound,” he said. After interrogating the bandits, his security detail handed them over to the authority. This was the genesis, to speak in Christian parlance, of Suleman’s woes -a grand scheme to blackmail and discredit his person. Prior to this, a name search on Google returned zero negative press about the preacher, convener of “Ministers without blemish.” Johnson Suleman was a Christian minister without blemish until he criticized the affairs of the country and the lackadaisical posture of President Buhari, who had thrown critics, including journalists, into prison.
When Johnson Suleman traveled for a well-publicized Christian event in the Southwestern Nigerian State of Ekiti, armed officials of the Nigerian Department of State Services (DSS) stormed the hotel where Suleman was lodging.
Suleman made a distress call to the governor of Etiki State who swung to swift action, foiling the plot of the DSS. After this abduction attempt failed, the DSS resorted to extending an invitation to Suleman.
Although Johnson Suleman was rescued from being abducted by the DSS, the cleric’s woes were just beginning. Enter Stephanie Otobo, a Canada-based Nigerian who accused Suleman of being in an illicit relationship with her. This allegation was long drawn and took many twists and turns. Johnson Suleman denied her allegations but they were not enough to clear his sullied name even after his accuser’s mother tendered an apology. Miss Otobo’s friends claimed that the aspiring singer had a track record of blackmailing people back in Canada.
Unrelenting, Stephanie Otobo went on to release bombshell “evidence,” photos of her engaging in sexual calls with Suleman. This bombshell revelation quickly rocked the Nigerian internet but it didn’t take long for experts to expose the photographs as badly photoshopped content to give credence to Otobo’s allegations. When the waters later settled, Otobo later appeared at Suleman’s church to apologize for her involvement in a scheme to discredit him. According to her, some “very strong and powerful politicians and pastors” deceived her. Her confession was a little too late, perhaps.
Since Otobo first came out, over a dozen other ladies, most of them actresses, have also come out with similar accusations. Some claimed they were involved in threesomes with Suleman but some of the parties who were indicted in these supposed acts staunchly dismissed the accusations as baseless. In a country like Nigeria with a fractured legal system, mere accusations outweigh any evidence, especially on the hallowed courts of social media. When I began researching the Johnson Suleman story, one thing was very clear to me – up until 2016, he had not been involved in any scandal. It seems to me then that it behooves his accusers and their supporters to not only provide evidence for their accusations but also explain why it follows a very coordinated and rehearsed pattern. Whatever anyone thinks of Johnson Suleman, he is paying a price for speaking out against his government which is hellbent on tarnishing his image.