“Where are you worshipping tomorrow?” my friend asked me as he left my hotel room that night in Abuja.
“I will pray here in my room,” I said.
“Come worship with us at the Aso Rock chapel,” he invited.
My first impulse was to say ‘no thank you’ but then I realised that there could be a story there so I said yes.
Now, I have been labelled anti-APC on account of my interventions on www.sabinews.com and other platforms. The charge is wrong and false but protesting will only suggest guilt even though my interventions are always driven by the exigencies of the situation and context.
Now, I had an ulterior motive in saying yes that night. My intention was to carry out a very “anti-APC act”; look around and find out whether Mrs. Aisha Buhari, Wife of the President had really turned the Aso Rock chapel into a spa or store as I had read on many social media platforms.
I, like many others had read the report and was affronted. How dare she turn a place of worship into a beauty salon? No one asked whether the rumor was true or not, Mrs. Buhari was guilty by reason of past conduct; once a spa owner always a spa owner.
So, there I was at the Aso Rock pilot gate at 7.43am where I joined the throng of people I saw on their way to worship at the chapel situated right inside the seat of power. My friend had come down with diarrhea and couldn’t make it after inviting me.
There were perfunctory questions at the Pilot gate but because it was Sunday and we were going to church, there wasn’t much scrutiny. I showed my phone, my tape recorder and my camera and then was cleared after my details had been taken down.
Outside, I looked up at the bright sun and long walk and baulked. I was still limping from a healing fracture and had not factored in the long walk but I was in luck, a couple driving by saw me limping and offered me a lift to the main gate where there was another perfunctory check.
Once inside the compound that houses the residence and offices of the first lady, you will find a winding tree lined pave-locked drive way bordered on both sides by masquerade trees.
There are green well-tended lawns and flower hedges on both sides of the ten feet wide driveway. The lawns on the right lead up to a cluster of white buildings which are clearly demarcated by a metal fence.
To the left is a heart shaped flower hedge which leads to the offices of the First Lady which must no longer be officially in use since there is no office of the First Lady in the present administration.
There is no fence to your left but worshippers arriving on foot, have to ease off the driveway and walk down a winding corridor for about 4o meters to the entrance of the chapel.
If you walk all the way to the end of the driveway, you will arrive at the First Lady’s kitchen and pantry. Beyond that and to your left is a tennis court complete with seats and further beyond is a mini zoo with giraffes and zebras and peacocks enjoying the sun. To the right of the mini zoo is a small mosque with a loud speaker to your right on the roof. The mosque, a guard I spoke with told me, was used for storage under the GEJ administration.
Retracing your steps from the mosque to the chapel, you will find a line of cars from pick-up vans marked Catering to those emblazoned with Police but there are also regular looking cars parked by worshipers all the way from the chapel to the end of the driveway.
I hobbled around, phone to my ear, as I took surreptitious shots, while I waited for the service to begin.
To get into the chapel, you are told to surrender your phone before you pass through the scanner. I did but kept my recorder and camera.
“Look at me, look at me, I have a goatee like you,” the young man dressed in a grey suit said to me as he took my phone. “When you come out I will give it back to you.”
The chapel is a beautiful worship centre. Done up in white, the altar is a throwback to Jesus Christ’s charge to Peter – “On this rock I will build my church.”
I look around, there is no spa or spa equipment in sight. It is a chapel. The altar features a table literally jutting out of a rock. Behind the table on which is placed a bible resting on a gold centrepiece are six chairs for the clergy. That morning, a woman in red and pink lace is sitting there. Two other men would later join her in the course of the service.
Behind them, the wall is concrete and glass with the crucifix in blue. There is a red floral set piece draped with fairy lights. Beside the altar are two flat screen tv sets high up against the wall. There are smaller flat screen tv sets to the far right and left all of them showing bible verses, song lyrics or live feeds of the worship.
As I sit down, one of the female ushers (guards maybe), notices my camera and asks me to surrender it. I do.
A light skinned man is leading a prayer session. He reads a bible verse and then calls on the congregation to “clap your hands and pray.” I will later learn that his name is Pastor Malomo, the Aso Rock Villa chaplain, newly resumed from Ghana.
He is energetic and passionate as he prays for Nigeria as she celebrates 55 years of independence.
“How can a 55 year old still be paying rent?” he asks after reading from Isaiah 52:2. Then he rails against people sending their children abroad to get an education
“Have you noticed that the only time parents give testimonies about their children’s graduation is if they graduate from a foreign university,” he asks. “In my church I never allow it. Last year, Nigerian spent more on education in Ghana than our annual budget here.”
Then he calls on the congregation to pray against the spirit of dependency.
His next scripture is from Haggai 2:18 and then there is some commentary about the 24th day of the 9th month.
Prayer over the choir leads us on a 20 minute praise and worship session. The lead singer is a middle-aged woman with sturdy legs and a sure voice. She dances and prances as she segues easily from English to Hausa, pidgin to Igbo without dropping a sweat or losing the hat perched jauntily on her head.
There are two readings afterwards first by a man first and then a lady simply introduced as Sister Bisi and they read from II Chronicles 7:12-22 and Mark 16: 14 – 20 respectively before a guest singer takes the stage. She is introduced as Blessing Ilagha, a female tenor with a voice that would have given Pavrotti a run for his money.
There is an announcement about a 55th anniversary church service later in the day before Pastor Malomo introduces the guest minister as Pastor Charles Achonwa whom he describes as his in-law.
In his message, Pastor Achonwa, who describes himself as prayer partner to Vice President Professor Yemi Osinbajo says the Aso Rock Chapel should now be re-christened Chapel of Change.
Commenting on the immediate past President Good Luck Jonathan, Achonwa said Jonathan was a humble man because it “takes a humble man to concede defeat” before adding that President Buhari faced a herculean task in his change crusade and fight against corruption because according to him “Man cannot change Nigeria except God helps him…if you want to fight corruption, where will you start. You will destroy those who made you.”
His message is a riff on change but half way through it become obvious that, like many, he must have heard about the spa story and planned relocation of the Aso Rock Villa Chapel because suddenly he says “the church is not the building, it is the congregation.”
After the service, the ministers and officials of the church take a group picture and the worshippers begun to leave and even though the adults try to hedge the children along the agreed walkway, some of them stray and walk towards the First Lady’s residence which is just ten feet away and watched over by only a guard who graciously offers me his seat.
As I watch the people mill around and banter while others head for the gate I wonder why a chapel was built so close to the residence and why worshippers are allowed in from outside?
“OBJ built it,” the guard who says he has worked there for five years tells me.
“Why so close?” I ask and he shrugs his shoulders.
Could Babangida, a Muslim, have built a chapel next to the residence to be occupied by the first lady?
When I ask for the children’s church, the guard points me to a smaller structure about 5 feet from the chapel. He tells me it used to be a chalet for guests but is now being used by Mrs. Aisha Buhari as a crèche for children of her staff. The building is locked and so I am unable to access it
Sitting on the chair he has offered me, I take a few more shots and as I rise to leave I wonder where the story about the chapel being turned into a spa came from and what I would do if I was the president and the chapel was sitting that close to my wife’s residence.
Knowing myself, I would never allow the chapel or children’s church to sit so close to her bedroom and kitchen and this is a Christian speaking.