David Oyedepo Pastor Nigeria
A church member holds up pamphlets outside the Living Faith Church, founded by Nigeria's richest priest, Bishop David Oyedepo REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

Plans by president-elect Muhammadu Buhari to crack down on Nigeria's crooked super-pastors could spark a civil war, a leading researcher has warned.

Many Nigerians see the Muslim Buhari as a non-corrupt politician, tough on corruption and eager to regulate the "pervasive activities" of the so-called miracle healers in the volatile west African nation.

Walking down the streets of Nigeria's South, the number of Pentecostal preachers claiming to have been present at miracle healings or cleansed their followers of evil spirits is bewildering.

In the 1980s and 1990s the few Pentecostal churches were well regulated but, claims Nigerian psychology and criminology researcher Chima Agazue, since then the proliferation of super-pastors has resulted in millions of citizens squeezing into thousands of churches to pay priests for good fortune in their lives.

"This is what you hear every minute everywhere you go, in public transport vehicles, walking down the streets. It's not about going to church," Agazue told IBTimes UK. "Everything is about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus and money."

Exploiting fear

Born in Nigeria's southern Anambra state, Agazue has investigated how the culture of superstition in Africa's most populous country has led to a proliferation of what he describes as "religio-commercial pastors" since 2006.

Agazue, who is based at the University of Huddersfield, is calling on the Nigerian government to crack down on the corrupt Pentecostal pastors.

These preachers, he says, have built comfortable lives for themselves by putting fear into their followers, telling them they cannot succeed in life unless they hand over money or valuables to their churches.

While some specialise in witchcraft -- often targeting very vulnerable people, such as widows, the very ill or women desperate to conceive -- others are exploiting fears of insecurity on Nigeria's roads, where armed robberies are rife, to create multi-million dollar corporations.

Three Nigerians are killed by HGVs every day, according to Federal Road Safety Commission statistics.

"As a result, for instance, hardly any coach goes without an evangelist pastor preaching inside the vehicle against evil spirits and without the whole bus throwing bank notes at his feet," Agazue explains.

This national fear is also exacerbated by medical doctors referring their patients to pastors when they are unable to diagnose their patients' illness.

"In Nigeria, the culture means that once a condition cannot be diagnosed, a number of doctors or clinical pharmacists will automatically believe in a spirit and refer their patient to those prophets, the miracle makers. They believe this man can perform miracles in the name of Jesus."

Agazue added: "The more they put fear into people, the more they make money. People are blind to logic."

Multi-million God corporations

Besides donations, pastors have used the pulpit and the local church as a commercial platform for their other sidelines, such as the sale of so-called holy materials like handkerchiefs, scarves, holy oils and books.

While it is difficult to estimate just how much money these preachers are collecting, Agazue explains that some teach their worshippers to hand down a percentage of their income.

Doctor Sign Fireman, the leader of Lagos's Perfect Christianity Mission who was last year arrested over the alleged ritual murder of a virgin girl, for instance, is reported to have ordered his worshippers to legate 10% of their income to benefit from their powers.

Pentecostal Crooked Pastor Nigeria
Millions of dollars change hands each year in Bishop David Oyedepo's Living Faith Church, which is modelled on counterparts in the United States. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

The richest priest in Nigeria, Bishop David Oyedepo, sits on fortune estimated at $150 million.

Forbes estimates the net worth of Chris Oyakhilome, the founder of the Christ Embassy -- a blooming congregation with branches in Nigeria, the UK and the US, at somewhere in the $30 million to $50 million range.

Oyakhilome's wealth includes a record label, television stations, a hotel and a fast-food chain.

"It's got out of hand. Changing the system is not easy because these pastors control the minds of millions of Nigerians, who will believe whatever the pastors are saying, because they believe they are just delivering the message of god."

Buhari's war on corruption

Independent Pentecostal churches can be set up by anyone and tend to operate outside the main Christian denomination "because that sect is less regulated than Anglicanism and Catholicism", said Agazue, who is calling for increased regulation.

However, because Buhari is a Muslim -- a status which the pastors used against him during the political campaign -- it would be extremely difficult for the newly-elected president to regress the situation, which Agazue says would be equivalent to "declaring a civil war".

Muhammadu Buhari
An ex-military ruler-turned-democrat, Muslim President Muhammadu Buhari has a tough job ahead. Getty

"Some of these pastors continually convince their followers, while delivering their usual prophecies, that Buhari is coming to Islamise the country," he explained.

The outgoing president, Goodluck Jonathan – a Christian – is said to be an ardent follower of the super-pastors and has attended "crusades" in their churches.

"[Jonathan] was also used to travelling to Jerusalem with the pastors to pray for the 'miraculous progress' of Nigeria. So you can easily see part of the reasons why the pastors were so desperate to have him back (re-elected). Even if Buhari were a Christian, he still wouldn't be too keen to engage in this sort of eye service."

The super-pastors have also developed aggressive defences against individuals who frown on them and their work.

"It is common for pastors to announce the names of their human enemies from their pulpits and incite followers against such persons. Often you hear pervasive prayers from the pastors and their followers asking God to kill these individuals," the researcher explained.