Blantyre, Malawi – Cheering and chanting, throngs of jubilant supporters on Thursday ran behind a motorcade whisking Shepherd Bushiri away from the grounds of a magistrate court in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.
Moments earlier, Bushiri – a self-proclaimed “prophet” and controversial businessman wanted by South Africa on money laundering, theft and fraud charges – had heard a judge ordering him and his wife Mary freed following their arrest on an international warrant.
The couple had handed themselves over to police the previous day but the court called their arrest unlawful because the warrant had not passed through the relevant government ministry.
“We believe that justice is about to prevail,” a tired-looking but defiant Bushiri told reporters outside the court after the ruling.
It was just the latest twist in a long-running and unpredictable case that has gripped many in Malawi and South Africa – all the while testing the two countries’ diplomatic relations.
Bushiri, the multimillionaire leader of the Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG) church, commands a large following in a number of African countries – in South Africa alone, he says the church has more than one million followers.
Known for his lavish lifestyle and preference for slick suits, Bushiri is often described as one of the wealthiest religious leaders in Africa. His fortune is estimated at $150m and his possessions reportedly include private jets, luxury cars and various properties.
Born in humble circumstances in Malawi’s northern district of Rumphi and spending his childhood in the nearby city of Mzuzu, Bushiri claims he had a spiritual encounter with a supernatural power at the age of 10 that led him to devote his life in the service of God.
According to information on his church’s website, Bushiri founded EGC in 2010 in Malawi before moving its headquarters to the South African capital, Pretoria.
“I’ve seen him move up but he started small,” said Robert Mkwezalamba, a Malawian activist and Bushiri supporter. “Then people started crowding his church in Mzuzu. He later moved to Lilongwe and was assembling at one of the biggest halls. Everyone was asking how he managed to pay but it used to be filled up so obviously one would look at the offering that he was able to get at that time,” he added.
“He had vision and realised there was a gap in South Africa [so] he went there … South Africans, they would want a better life and if there is someone who can pray for their wellbeing, they would always subscribe and always pay.”
Bushiri describes the non-denominational church as a prophetic ministry based on the principle that God cares and loves people and wants to speak directly to them. He claims to have cured HIV patients, treated blindness and brought back people from the dead. In one video shared online, he appears to be walking in the air.
On several occasions, the evangelist star has filled large venues, including South Africa’s FNB Stadium, the biggest in Africa, with more than 95,000 attendees.
The fugitive preacher has also built a business empire mainly through a company called “Shepherd Bushiri Investments”, described on his church’s website as having “interests in mining, real estate, an airline and other entrepreneurial pursuits”.
He says men of God should be rich and justifies his venture into business as a way to support his family. But his swift rise from humble beginnings to amassing a fortune remains a mystery to many and has raised eyebrows, including allegations of swindling members of his church.
Perhaps more seriously, Bushiri and his wife have also faced various criminal allegations, including fraud and money laundering charges amounting to some $6.6m.
The couple, which deny the charges, were released on bail earlier this month and had their passports taken away. But on November 14, it emerged that Bushiri and his wife had broken their strict bail conditions and fled to Malawi.
In a televised statement, Bushiri said they had left South Africa for security reasons, claiming their lives were in danger. He also outlined a number of conditions that needed to be met by the South African government before their return for trial, accusing those investigating them of bias and saying they should be charged.
It remains unknown how the Bushiris managed to flee undetected but the news rattled South Africa and prompted questions about the effectiveness of the country’s justice and border control systems.
The escape coincided with a visit by Malawian President Lazurus Chakwera to South Africa where he met his counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa.
The departure of Chakwera and his entourage from an airport near Pretoria was delayed for hours after stringent checks by security forces. Both Bushiri and the two countries have denied that the preacher escaped through the plane which carried the Malawian officials.
The South African government has since announced that it has initiated an extradition process and said it was seeking assistance from Malawi’s authorities “to ensure that the two fugitives face justice”.
Edge Kanyongolo, a legal expert and associate professor at the University of Malawi, said the case is likely to face lengthy litigation.
“This is going to be a test of the effectiveness of regional law enforcement and crime-fighting,” he told Al Jazeera. “Will the Southern African Development Community regional commitment to cooporate in terms of law enforcement in era where trans-border arising, I think this is a broader issue,” he said.
Meanwhile, South African authorities have confiscated the Bushiris’ $355,000 property after they violated their bail conditions and failing to report to the South African police said.
But as he walked free outside the Lilongwe Magistrate Court last week, Bushiri said: “My right to life is more important than any asset in the world.”