LAGOS (Reuters) - For supporters of “Prophet” TB Joshua, one of Africa’s best-known Christian preachers, the death of at least 80 of his congregation under the rubble of a Lagos guesthouse that collapsed a week ago was no construction accident.
“The church views this tragedy as part of an attack on The Synagogue Church Of All Nations,” said a statement on his official Facebook page on Thursday.
“In due course, God will reveal the perpetrators.”
Most of the deaths were South Africans, and Joshua said he was cooperating with the investigation.
Initially his members had refused entry to rescue workers, according to Nigeria’s emergency services, who noted that the Sept. 12 collapse occurred during building work, in which extra floors were being added.
Lagos state governor Babatunde Fashola was quoted in the media as saying the church had no permit for the extension.
Joshua’s public relations team said the church was adding three floors, but when asked if it had a permit they said Joshua’s existing public statements were all he was willing to say for now.
There are nearly monthly collapses of buildings in Lagos, all blamed on shoddy construction.
But many of his flock and other witnesses around the church were convinced of that “demonic forces” bent on destroying a “man of God” were behind the building’s demise.
In Nigeria, as in many parts of Africa, misfortunes of all kinds are often seen as an attack by an unseen enemy, living or dead. Even some newspaper columnists have come out to support Joshua.
Joshua’s church has for years drawn tens of thousands of followers from all over Africa and the world with claims that he and his “wise men” cure normally incurable ailments, including HIV/AIDS, spinal damage and chronic kidney disease, by casting out demons they say cause them.
A flood of pious church offerings have made Joshua Nigeria’s third-richest pastor, according to Forbes magazine, which in 2011 estimated his net worth at $10 million to $15 million.
His supporters include Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, former Ghanaian President John Atta Mills, late South African Springbok rugby player Ruben Kruger and South Africa’s firebrand leftist opposition leader Julius Male.
In their account of how the church collapsed, Joshua’s PR team are circulating CCTV footage they say shows a mysterious aircraft circle it four times shortly before the incident, without fully explaining what the connection is.
A Reuters team that visited the site of the accident, where dozens of workers and construction vehicles were clearing up a tangle of steel and concrete dotted with mattresses and chairs, were shown the footage.
It wasn’t clear if the aircraft was the same one each time, and the video comprised four separate clips edited together. The next scene is of the building collapsing, with no aircraft.
“There’s something weird about the way the building collapsed. Everyone who’s seen the footage agrees,” said one British church member. “That clearly wasn’t a structural problem.”
Asked how the plane caused the building to fall, he said the church doesn’t want to draw any conclusions yet.
Reuters interviewed a dozen witnesses, all of them emphatic that they saw a low-flying plane they blamed for the collapse. Almost all of them talked of evil forces at work.
“This was clearly the work of Satan,” said Jonathan Nwankwo, 40, who though not a member of the church owns a flourishing supermarket patronized by its congregation.
South Africa, which said late on Thursday that 84 of its nationals were unaccounted for, with 67 confirmed dead, is taking a different view.
“They’ve come up with all sorts of crazy theories about planes or what have you, but the reality is the building was substandard. No proper engineering work was done on it,” a diplomatic source told Reuters.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has made no statement about the incident, and Lagos governor Fashola, who ordered the congregation to stop blocking access to rescue workers, appears to have been careful not to criticize Joshua personally.
Analysts say Nigeria’s megachurch leaders are so influential that few politicians dare upset them, especially just before a national election. Nigeria is set to hold one in five months.
Additional reporting by Ed Cropley and Ed Stoddard in Johannesburg; Editing by Will Waterman