Today’s problems require more than prayer, Bishop Wisdom K. Peter told a crowd gathered on the outskirts of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. You need a prophet, he said.
After that introduction, in steps 45-year-old Prophet Elvis Mbonye, worth an estimated $115 million. He’s one of the country’s most talked about prophets amid claims that a variety of his predictions have come true, from the restoration of broken laptops to the election of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016 and Brexit.
“The record he holds is much bigger than those in the Bible,” said Ivan Philip Baguma, one of Mbonye’s “remnants of God” as they’re called.
In Uganda, Mbonye has a prime-time TV slot and live streams online to more than 21,000 subscribers. Most weeks, his name trends on Twitter in Uganda, capturing a middle-class, educated, Kampala-based audience. He’s trying to expand his fanbase into neighboring Kenya and Tanzania, and in Zambia and Zimbabwe in the continent’s south.
How Prophet Elvis attracts a crowd
More than 500 people sit through at least 40 minutes of traffic each Tuesday to drive to Zoe, Mbonye’s grounds outside Kampala. At the fellowship meetings, Mbonye speaks often about “encountering” God, and “not in a theoretical way,” he tells the crowd.
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“Knowing God intimately” is a key part of the “Pentecostal promise,” according to said Elle Hardy, the author of “Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World.”
The prosperity gospel Mbonye preaches focuses on “seeding a little to get a lot,” Hardy said. At least some of his flock seems to understand this.
“We are rich, we are loaded,” Peter told a recent audience at Zoe. He said that people give “because they want to prosper.”
More than 40 percent of Ugandans earn less than USD $2.15 a day according to the World Bank. Aware of the high poverty rate, Mbonye told a recent gathering, “We are not planning like people who live in third world nations.” He said those gathered were “citizens of heaven” and the God he knows well is “higher than the first world.”
At the prophet’s fellowships, where ordinary people are welcomed as “dignitaries,” testimonies of Mbonye’s supposedly successful miracles and predictions are broadcast on a big screen. One woman who introduced herself as Sandra Musimenta shared how she was at home with friends one evening and felt uncomfortable. She went into the bedroom to listen to Mbonye.
“He singled me out and gave details of what I was doing,” Musimenta said. “He saw my heart…I had not mentioned to anyone that I was uncomfortable…”
In addition, Mbonye spoke of George, Musimenta’s former partner and father of her child, with which she’d had inappropriate relations, she said. “It was a sign that everything will work out,” Musimenta said.
Other more recent stories of miracles that have been shown to the Zoe crowd include the tale of a woman who had an invalid passport. She claimed Mbonye “miraculously” expedited her passport processing in just a few weeks. The stories broadcast to the audience cannot be verified and lack specific details.
And yet, Prophet Elvis’ “groupies”, as they’ve been labeled, appear to be more well-heeled than the average Ugandan. They include human rights lawyers, doctors, members of Parliament, university lecturers and others, some who have publicly prided themselves on pro-science views. They also appear to be mostly female.
Pastor Martin Ssempa, who started a church in 1996, is no stranger to controversy himself in and outside the east African country for his rhetoric against gay relationships. He said that Mbonye deliberately perpetuates a “Cinderella” notion that he is women’s Prince Charming, a reason why he never appears with his wife.
“I keep saying to Elvis, it’s wrong for you to sit on that couch, for the king alone without your queen,” said Ssempa, referring to the golden throne Mbonye perches on at events.
According to Hardy, most prophets are “alpha guys,” but “in my experience, most of the congregations are women.”
“In general, I would say that women in these churches are socially conservative and are into the sisterhood rather than feminism,” Hardy said.
The mysterious background of Prophet Elvis
Mbyone offers little details about his personal life or insight into his ability to prophesize. His public relations staff has repeatedly declined interviews to media and refuses to comment for stories. However, Mbonye’s 2012 book, “Tasting the Powers of the Age to Come,” describes growing up in “middle-class” Bugolobi in Kampala. As a child, he “frequently experienced close encounters with bizarre beings.” In 1998, Mbonye describes seeing from his bed “the figure of a man enwrapped in dazzling light,” which he thought was Jesus.
In about 2003, when he finished university, Mbonye was still dining in “rundown restaurants.” But he had “a dream… about my life, my prosperous destiny,” he said in a broadcast. On a walk he saw his “calling.”
“I was shown my role and position in the nation of Uganda and the world,” said Mbonye.
In 2012, Mbonye founded Zoe Fellowship Ministries. He started his public talks at Makerere University in Kampala, with only about 100 followers from 2013 to 2015, according to the Uganda Atheist Union.
Claims of prophetic visions
Mbonye and his followers claim he predicted the 2004 tsunami in Asia, Brexit, the 2017 Oscars winners announcement mix-up, the 2017 Texas hurricane and President Biden’s 2020 election win.
One prophesy discussed in Mbonye’s book is the July 2010 Ugandan bombings in Kampala, which killed more than 80 people. Mbonye claimed in May of that year he had a “troubling vision.”
“You do not have to be a prophet to have all these things revealed to you,” he said. “But you must be someone with a developed spirit.”
Baguma, who has been a convert since 2018 and goes by one name, said Mbonye’s prophesies are “useful once they have come to pass, but much more powerful before they unfold.”
“For instance, if there’s going to be floods in Mbale, you can prepare,” he said of the events this July in eastern Uganda that Mbonye said he predicted, which killed at least 30 people. In his own life, Baguma credits Mbonye with a job offer he received and a gift of sports gear from his brother-in-law.
Believers “lose their identity to Elvis,” Ssempa said. Twitter is full of people who have posted Mbonye’s profile photo as their own. This is a sign of a “cultic” movement, Ssempa warned. He points to the doomsday Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, where people “lost the ability to think, lost their individuality, lost their family.” In 2000, at least 700 followers were killed after being locked inside a church then set on fire in Kanungu district in Uganda’s southwest.
Ssempa said that the same strategy to solicit donations for blessings and prophesies was used to “justify” the behavior of Credonia Mwerinde and Joseph Kibwetere, the leaders of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. He’s worried that Mbonye is leading people down a similar “slippery slope.”
Mbonye addresses cults in his book, saying that they are “rising everywhere are a protest of the people against the secular theology that dominates today’s churches.” Some Ugandan churches, he said, “cannot even stand the idea of prophecy yet the Bible they read every Sunday clearly tells us to desire to prophesy.”
In 2019, Ssempa attended a meeting with Mbonye at the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) grounds. “What was quite shocking was the number of guns all around the stadium,” he said. “He had about 30 guns, about 30 Special Forces – what preacher has that?” He believes that Mbonye is a “state agent, which is why when people complain about him, nothing is done.” Ssempa also likened Mbonye’s claim that he’s helped students pass their exams without actually sitting them as “corruption” and “like witchcraft.”
Uganda Atheist Union stress that Mbonye is a Kampala-centric phenomenon. They also say that there’s evidence of an “increase” in non-believers which you can see “all over social media,” although there is not sufficient survey data.
Ssempa is calling for “some kind of post-cult rehab” for “survivors to talk through stuff that they’re able to [and] unlearn the deception.”
This story was originally published by Religion Unplugged.
Amy Fallon is an independent journalist based in Kampala, Uganda.