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Sep 24, 2022
I’m a self-confessed “nobody” amid a throng of fans standing on a red carpet at an “annual honor ceremony” for Uganda’s most prominent “prophet.” But I’m still being urged to pose for the cameras.
“You’re a dignitary,” one of the many minders of Elvis Mbonye tells me. I politely decline the offer.
Welcome to the world of the seemingly very public but yet very inaccessible Prophet Elvis Mbonye and his ever-expanding church, Zoe Fellowship Ministries. The 45-year-old wasreported to be worth $115 million in 2020, in a country where per capita gross domestic product stands at around just $800. To some, his popularity — he counts many of Uganda’s elite and, increasingly, those of other East African nations among his devotees — is part of the growing“prosperity gospel” movement. It’s a theology contending that those who give to their faith and pastor will ultimately also receive material benefits. To others, his realm could also be described simply as PR gospel. And some are even more blunt — to them, he’s just a scammer.
What is clear is that Mbonye’s rise captures the churnings of a country and region. OZY visited his gatherings in recent weeks to decode the mystery of the man that many Ugandans can’t help falling in love with.
—with reporting by Amy Fallon in Kampala, Uganda
Every Tuesday, Ivan Baguma, a 26-year-old dietitian, joins hundreds of Ugandans in braving Kampala’s notorious traffic to make their way to Zoe Grounds, about 30 minutes outside the capital city, to catch a glimpse of Mbonye.
The self-described prophet attracts members of parliament and university professors, human rights lawyers and sports stars, models and professionals like Baguma to his gatherings.
“It’s come to that point where everybody would like to associate with him,” says Baguma, sporting a black tuxedo as he waits at the venue.
It’s a massive time investment — about four hours on a weeknight — to see Mbonye, who normally appears about two-and-a-half hours into the service. He arrives with a fleet of Mercedes-Benz and Range Rovers, and a police escort.
Then there is the real, tangible money cost that supporters bear in the form of donations in one of the world’s poorest countries. Donations are “not just an offering [but] an honor” and “the returns are beyond measure,” Simon Ssenyonga, a lawyer and Mbonye’s public relations chief, tells the crowd while performing the role of master of ceremonies for the evening.
“Prophets” are “not a new thing” in Uganda, Baguma tells me. Anglicans, Catholics, Muslims and Pentacostals together constitute almost all of the country’s population. But Mbonye is “really one of a kind,” he insists. Baguma first attended a 2018 service after hearing about it from a friend.
“Before, if you met a prophet, the first thing [people] would think of is a cult,” Baguma says. “I was so scared to associate.”
But Mbonye simplifies things and helps followers navigate life and its complexities, Baguma contends. “He has a lot of wisdom he shares that makes life much easier,” he says. “I literally know what to do, when to do it and how to do it. It’s not a guessing game.”
And the Oscar goes to…
Is it all an act? Certainly not to his followers, who — among other things — point to his apparently successful predictions of global events.
Born in Bugolobi, a Kampala suburb, Mbonye claims his “prophetic journey” started in school when he correctly told his “shocked” girlfriend that she had received a letter from another boy.
He founded his congregation in 1998, the same year that, according to his ownsite, he had an “awe-provoking encounter with the Person of the Holy Spirit in which Elvis’ ‘old’ identity was virtually dissolved, supplanted with a new nature in Christ.”
Since then, Mbonye has made a series of claims that his followers cite as evidence of his ability to foretell the future. In 2004, for instance, he apparentlypredicted the date of the deadly tsunami that rocked South and Southeast Asia. More recently, he claims to have predicted the elections of former U.S. President DonaldTrump’s election and former British Prime MinisterBoris Johnson.
But what really stunned Baguma, he says, was Mbonye’s accuratepredictions of the Oscars in 2018. “That really amazed me,” Baguma says. “That was before they even had the nominations. It was so amazing, spot on. I’m like, ‘How can this be?”
Baguma credits Mbonye for personal blessings ranging from being “headhunted” for a job as a dietician to receivingnew sports gear giftedby his brother-in-law, with whom he had never spoken. “I didn’t search for the job, role or promotion, but rather they came looking for me. And I can only attribute this to the grace upon prophet Elvis Mbonye.”
What about missing children? If the police can’t help, some turn to Mbonye.
“What a blessing that this man walks amidst us,” Uganda’s Justice Minister Norbert Maotold the crowd at the Zoe Ministries’ annual celebrations held earlier this month. He told a cheering audience that Mbonye had found his missing son.
But Mbonye has his critics too — and has faced his share of controversies. In 2019, he was interrogated by police over Facebook posts that allegedly spread misinformation regarding mass immunizations for measles, polio and rubella. The allegations were eventually dropped, according to an assistant.
Despite his public stature and influence, Mbonye is reluctant to face questions: His team refused multiple interview requests from OZY. The police also did not respond to questions on allegations the preacher has faced.
Such lack of response isn't entirely surprising. I witnessed representatives of Uganda’s army, police and traditional royal kingdoms attending his event. “There are many fans … I feel good to be in such [a] gathering,” Ugandan boxer Moses Golola told OZY.
Mbonye calls himself the “prophet to nations” and isn’t limiting his ambitions to Uganda. A Kenyan delegation and Tanzanian government representatives have attended his events. Mbonye now also has his own TV programs in Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Back at the event outside Kampala, Ssenyonga, Mbonye’s PR representative, announces: “Expect something more than the ordinary.”
He isn't exaggerating: There's a flash mob, fireworks and smoke display, the cutting of a giant cake, and a performance by visiting U.S. gospel singer Micah Stampley.
When Mbonye finally appears, donning a white tux with a red bow tie, he tells his congregation to take their ambitions “a notch higher.” He then says they're “the most devoted people" he's seen.
Not everyone in Kampala is a devotee, though.
Abdul Karim, a “bodaboda” (motorbike taxi rider) in the city, came to know about Mbonye through media coverage of followers — including a former presidential candidate —kissing his shoes.
“He's really a scammer because he collects money from his followers and buys expensive cars instead of giving it to charity,” says Karim.
Kato Mukasa, a human rights lawyer and leader of the Uganda Humanist Association, labels Mbonye a “pastorpreneur” who has “successfully blindfolded thousands.”
“[He’s] a fraudulent con artist who speaks gibberish and well-rehearsed prophecies to hoodwink a certain class of intellectuals,” Mukasa says to OZY. “He is a supporter of the ruling class and he is nothing but a politician hiding under the church to sell Jesus Christ.”
“It’s worrying when you see many intellectuals being extremely gullible and ignorant,” adds Mukasa.
Worrying? Maybe. Surprising? Not really. According to Elle Hardy, the author of “Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World,” prosperity preachers are immensely popular in the developing world.
“Let's not forget that in many parts of the world — where people have been horribly let down by corruption, failed services and the legacy of colonialism — the church is still often the only game in town,” she says.
All of which makes one thing clear: Whether he’s the “King” or a “devil in disguise,” Mbonye’s following — and his clout in East Africa — appears poised to grow further.
Are there other “pastorpreneurs” and “prophets” lesser known globally who you think deserve the world’s attention — and scrutiny?
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