All roads on November 19 led to Liberty Gospel Church, along Ndidem Usang Iso Road, Calabar, where Helen Ukpabi o, lady apostle, firm producer and general overseer of the church, was dedicating her ultra-modern international headquarters. The round-shaped Palace Temple, as the edifice is known, can sit some 5,000 worshippers while the platform can conveniently sit some 50 clergies and elders.

Many know Ukpabio to like doing the extraordinary and going into areas others dread. The building of Palace Temple is one example. When the building plan came out some years back, many did not understand where she was heading. Some said the structure she had in mind resembled an entertainment empire. Others saw the woman of God trying to embark on a project structured like a mosque. Some fellow preachers even doubted whether the enormously round structure would ever be completed and put to use.

The dedication of the church, performed by Effiong Bob, senator representing Uyo senatorial district, also known as Akwa Ibom North East district, from 2003 to 2011, actually called for celebration by members from the 250 branches across Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroun, Kenya, United Kingdom and elsewhere. Located few metres from the metropolitan Ndidem Usang Iso highway, the church has become not just a tower of refuge and modern-day sanctuary in Christendom but also one pointed edifice that has added beauty, veritable tourism value and monumental fragrance to the city of Calabar.

Palace Temple is, indeed, a plus to the proud residents of Calabar, a city that is indisputably one of Africa’s cleanest. Needless to say, the event brought many of Ukpabio’s fans, Nollywood celebrities and Christian leaders from across the globe to the former Nigerian capital. It was heart-warming to hear them respond with joy to Ukpabio’s now very familiar proclamation of “Alleluia be to Jesus.”

In his speech at the occasion, Bob, who was also the chairman of the dedication committee, said Ukpabio was not only a source of inspiration to the African woman but one of the best in Africa. He said he was not at the event by mistake, as he had equally witnessed the church’s foundation-laying ceremony. Bob said he came in contact with Ukpabio at an evangelistic crusade she held in Oron town many years back and finding her to be upholding the high standard of God’s word, decided to stay around her. “Everything about Lady Apostle Helen Ukpabio is abnormal. This shows how God uses the abnormal to perfect the normal. When God blesses you it will show. This tabernacle is indeed a palace temple,” Bob said. He promised to assist in overhauling the sound system of the church and supplying more air-conditioners. “God’s temple is supposed to be cool and to shield from heat from the outside,” he said.

Preaching at the occasion, N. E. Moses, serving overseer of Overcomers Ministry in Lagos, called on Nigerians to yield their hearts to God, so as to attract the blessing of God for themselves and the nation. Moses commended Ukpabio for the building, which he said had a unique appeal. “There are many beautiful buildings in Lagos, but none of them is like this,” he said.

Ukpabio later led in a brief session of prayers for the nation. There was prayer for salvation of Nigerians and revival of the church; prayer for the leadership and end of the current recession.
Interestingly, Palace Temple is fast becoming the choice centre for some significant Christian activities. Barely two weeks after the dedication, the church hosted a thanksgiving service called by Minister of Niger Delta Affairs and a pastor of the church, Usani Uguru Usani,. Three governors – Ben Ayade of Cross River State, Rochas Okorocha of Imo State and the newly elected Godwin Obaseki of Edo State – graced the occasion. A large number of federal and state officials also attended the service with the governors taking their turns to commend Ukpabio for the distinctive structure, and praying God to continue to guide her in ministry.

While many pastors will not want to physically confront anyone, whether child or adult that is dubbed witch, Ukpabio from time to time, conducts deliverance for them. In such sessions, mostly during the church’s annual retreat in December, she would stand on a platform and call out, “If you are a witch, come out here for your deliverance,” and then, one after the other and sometimes in an amazing rush, adults and young people will in broad daylight, walk up to meet her for deliverance prayer. This rare mission gift, somewhat, has stood her out among preachers of the gospel the world over.

However, this gift has created many enemies for her. Between 2010 and 2013, while the building of the auditorium was going on, Ukpabio and members of her church faced a lot of attack from social media users across the world. It was the result of a campaign against her mission to deliver witches. A United Kingdom-based non-governmental organisation, Stepping Stones Nigeria, in tandem with another in Esit Eket, Akwa Ibom State, Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network, said churches in Akwa Ibom State were branding children witches, and were “capturing”, torturing and even killing them during the process of deliverance. Ukpabio, they said, led the pack.

Stepping Stones Nigeria took the campaign against Ukpabio’s church beyond the shores of Nigeria. The result was a gang up against Ukpabio by atheist organisations and individuals in the West sympathetic to the children, allegedly, dubbed witch and thrown into the street by parents and guardians. They contributed huge sums of money into Despatches: Saving Africa’s Witch Children account, created by Stepping Stones Nigeria and CRARN for the upkeep of the children quartered at CRARN. These sympathisers rained abuses on Ukpabio and called her all manner of names on social media. She was molested on a number of occasions during trips to the United Kingdom and United States with many urging national governments to deny her visa. With time, Stepping Stones Nigeria and CRARN fell out over money issues, and indeed, the sharing of monies realised from Despatches: Saving Africa’s Witch Children. Stepping Stones Nigeria director, Gary Foxcroft, put out a disclaimer of CRARN. They parted ways.

Then Governor Godswill Akpabio later set up a commission of inquiry into the issue of child abuse by churches and, indeed, Liberty Gospel Church dubbing Akwa Ibom children witches. The commission in its findings vindicated Ukpabio and his church of the allegation. It said the two NGOs were dubiously collecting money from the public in the name of rehabilitating abused children. The state government declared CRARN illegal and directed the Ministry of Women Affairs in Uyo, the state capital, to take over the children in its custody.

Ukpabio’s ordeal with Stepping Stones Nigeria and CRARN is the subject of her latest work, a 250-page book titled Akwa Ibom State Child-witch Scam. It is a revealing narrative on how the Briton and the management of CRARN swindled the global community in the guise of saving African children.

As a young student nurse, Ukpabio worshipped in the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star and became a most committed faithful of Olumba Olumba Obu, the late spiritual leader of the organisation. After her new birth, she left the organisation and few years later received the ministerial call and established Liberty Gospel Church. She now has a large following across Nigeria and Africa. They include those who have been blessed one way or the other by her film ministry. With some 250 church branches in Nigeria and across the world, she, doubtless, fits Senator Bob’s description of “one of the best in Africa.”

––Akpaekong is a former Senior Associate editor of Newswatch