As the remains of 74 victims of a church collapse were flown home to South Africa on Sunday, one of Africa's wealthiest preachers called them "martyrs" of a "tragic incident" at his church's guesthouse. But an inquest is revealing a disturbing picture of illegal and shoddy construction in the preacher's compound in Nigeria.
T.B. Joshua, the self-styled prophet and miracle worker who has an estimated wealth of $10-million to $15-million (U.S.), has been officially summoned to attend the inquest in Lagos, where 116 people were killed in the dormitory collapse on his church compound in September. So far, however, he has refused to show up.
Experts at the inquest have rejected Mr. Joshua's claims that the collapse was caused by an attack from a terrorist airplane. They say the church had been adding extra floors to the guesthouse – without obtaining a permit or strengthening its foundation – when the building collapsed.
The disaster has heightened concerns about the vast wealth and political power of Africa's popular Christian televangelists, who seem almost immune to prosecution. Among Mr. Joshua's loyal followers are many African presidents, prime ministers and other leading politicians. He preaches to crowds of 15,000 people and claims to have foreseen celebrity deaths and airplane crashes.
At an air-force base in Pretoria on Sunday, his supporters handed out white scarves, branded with the logo of his evangelical television network, to the grieving families of the 74 victims whose remains were finally flown from Nigeria to South Africa after a two-month delay. Many family members cried and wailed as a military band played the Death March and four forensic pathology trucks carried the remains to a hangar for a formal ceremony.
South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, addressing the nationally televised ceremony, called it a "sombre" and "traumatic" moment for the nation. "We understand that the loss you have suffered remains unbearable and incalculable," he told more than 200 family members. "In the aftermath of this tragedy, the people of Nigeria and South Africa have been united in loss and sorrow."
Mr. Ramaphosa insisted that the deaths have "reinforced the warm and fraternal relations" between the two countries, the biggest economic powers in sub-Saharan Africa. But in reality, the disaster has provoked much tension, with South African officials reported to be sharply criticizing Mr. Joshua and the Nigerian government for obstructing efforts to rescue survivors and identify victims. Some family members in South Africa are calling for a lawsuit against Mr. Joshua and a suspension of diplomatic relations with Nigeria.
"South Africans from mostly poorer backgrounds mercilessly lost their lives on Sept. 12 whilst they thought they were on a mission to better their lives," says a website established by Thanduxolo Doro, whose sister was killed in the disaster. "Their souls yearn for justice. We dare not fail them."
The inquest in Lagos also heard testimony from Nigerian emergency rescue workers who said they were assaulted by Mr. Joshua's followers and barred from entering the church compound for three days after the disaster. The trained rescue workers, with specialized equipment, might have rescued more survivors from the rubble if they had been allowed to enter immediately.
Mr. Joshua, who has a huge following in South Africa, placed a quarter-page advertisement in a South African newspaper on Sunday, offering condolences to the victims, whom he called "martyrs of the Kingdom of God."
He has never retracted his claim that the building collapse was somehow caused by an airplane that passed above the building a few minutes before the disaster. But testimony at the inquest revealed that there were no signs of an explosion or flames anywhere in the building or in the bodies of the victims.
South Africans had expected 85 bodies to be returned home on Sunday, but 11 bodies were delayed by further DNA tests that are being conducted in Nigeria to identify them.