AFRICANGLOBE – You can hear the Synagogue Church of All Nations long before you see it. The hymns sung by its 15 000 worshippers, their arms upraised, echo through the dusty streets of Lagos. Devotees come from far and wide every Sunday to hear, and be healed by, the man they call the Prophet, Temitope Balogun (“T.B.”) Joshua. Such Pentecostal churches are booming in Nigeria, indeed across much of Africa.
Mr Joshua’s satellite television channel, Emmanuel TV, airs his prophecies live to millions worldwide. Admirers have included Ghana’s late president, John Atta Mills; Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ex-wife of South Africa’s late president, Nelson Mandela and Julius Malema, a charismatic South African politician.
The international reach of Mr Joshua became apparent on September 12th, when a six-storey guest-house used by his church suddenly collapsed.
Among the dead were at least 80 South Africans and three Zimbabweans.
A security camera captured the moment the building fell like a house of cards. Nigeria is no stranger to construction accidents. But the pastor claimed the guest-house had been attacked by a mysterious aircraft seen circling above.
The tragedy has not deterred the faithful. This week the packed congregation included Nick Holmes, a retired British accountant who has been a frequent visitor since being cured of asthma 12 years ago.
He came to show support after the disaster.
Another follower, from Botswana, credited the pastor with making possible the conception of her child. An Argentine pastor simply wanted to strengthen his faith.
“I have seen many miracles, but not like these ones,” he said. “I see in the prophet a world leader.”
Little wonder that many of Nigeria’s super-pastors have been catapulted into the ranks of the super-rich. Followers make tithes and other offerings in hope of winning blessings from on high. Most churches do not have proper governing boards, so there is little financial accountability. Beyond donations, such “pastorpreneurs” also rake in cash by publishing and distributing devotionals, running hotels, renting out private jets and investing in real estate.
Forbes reckoned in 2011 that Mr. Joshua was Nigeria’s third-richest pastor in a list headed by David Oyedepo (estimated to be worth $150m).
Ayo Oritsejafor, who leads the Christian Association of Nigeria and is a close ally of President Goodluck Jonathan, was embroiled in a recent scandal when a private jet he had leased out was found to be carrying $9.3m in cash into South Africa, supposedly a payment for an arms deal on behalf of the Nigerian government.
Still, many of the best-known evangelists hand out large sums to the poor or run their own education programmes. In some ways, they offer basic services that governments fail to supply. The mega-churches are also a boon to local economies.
Hotels, hawkers and small businesses do a roaring trade with the devotees. The South Africans killed in the collapsed guest-house had each paid upwards of $1,700 for their trip and accommodation. Some were travelling abroad for the first time in church groups from rural towns in Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces.
Survivors recounted how they sang hymns and prayed together while they lay under the rubble, waiting to be rescued, sometimes for days. There are reports of rescue workers and journalists initially being chased away from the site by church members.
The lack of information about how the building fell down has led to growing outrage in South Africa. When Mr. Joshua announced he would visit the country to comfort his flock and pray for those he calls “martyrs of the faith”, the Youth League of the ruling African National Congress demanded that he be banned until the full truth was known. Thanduxolo Doro, brother of Vathiswa Madikiza, who died in the collapse, says he is organising a group to file a lawsuit against Mr. Joshua, whom he calls a charlatan.
Mr. Doro wrote of his sister: “She idolised the man but was in no way ready to commit an ultimate sacrifice for T.B. Joshua.”