LAGOS, Nigeria – A Nigerian televangelist whose exuberant followers across Africa and beyond believe he has powers of healing and prophesy is now under scrutiny after one of his buildings collapsed, killing at least 70 people.
Following the disaster, officials charged that church workers obstructed rescue efforts.
The exact circumstances of the collapse as well as the death toll remained unclear on Wednesday, five days after the disaster at a multistory guesthouse and shopping area for T.B. Joshua's Synagogue, Church of All Nations, on the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital.
South Africa, which said 67 of its nationals died and dozens were injured, was struggling to glean information from the scene and to answer the desperate inquiries of people whose relatives had flown to the West African nation to experience the evangelical Joshua's preaching and faith healing.
Mpho Molebatsi, 25, expressed frustration about the lack of information while waiting with his mother at the main international airport in Johannesburg, where flights arrive daily from Nigeria. His sister traveled to the Nigerian church last week and Molebatsi hadn't heard from her since they spoke on Friday, the day the building collapsed.
"I think they are trying to keep the T.B. Joshua image alive," Molebatsi said, speculating that the church was trying to shirk responsibility.
While Nigerian government officials said shoddy construction was a possible cause, Joshua suggested Islamic extremists who are active in Nigeria were responsible. He sought to rally the faithful with a Facebook message about resilience.
"Hard times may test me, they cannot destroy me," the message read.
Joshua's church has branches around the world, attracts African political leaders and hosts gatherings of thousands during which the preacher places his hands on worshippers, who spin in circles and collapse on the ground. Critics say the televangelist hinders efforts to curtail AIDS and tuberculosis with testimonies by church-goers that faith and his holy water can cure both diseases.
To bolster allegations of an attack on the building that collapsed, Joshua's television station, Emmanuel TV, showed security camera video of what it says was a "strange aircraft" flying low over the building four times before the structure plunges into the ground in seconds, startling pedestrians in the foreground.
The "steel structures" of the building failed, said Bede Obayi, head of inspection and compliance for the Standard Organization, a Nigerian state regulatory body. Workers added two floors onto the original four-story structure, according to officials.
"We need to look at whether, because of the number of people needing to be accommodated, they added more floors without looking at the foundation," Obayi said. His agency is investigating the collapses this year of more than 10 multistory buildings in Nigeria, where corruption in the construction industry sometimes leads contractors to take short cuts and use substandard products.
Another official, Ibrahim Farinloye of the Nigerian Emergency Management Agency, said church representatives had not cooperated, at least initially, with rescuers heading to the site, possibly slowing the effort to find survivors.
Church officials, said by former disciples to exercise tight control over members, have not responded directly to the allegation. On Tuesday, a woman who answered the telephone at the church would not give her name and would only say that the situation was under control.
Farinloye has said 70 bodies were recovered from the rubble, but it was not clear whether the bodies were those South Africans or were a different group. Rescuers were using sniffer dogs in their search for survivors as well as bodies, he said.
Joshua stands out in Nigeria, a country of 170 million where various forms of evangelical Christianity are followed passionately. The church on the outskirts of Lagos, where the building collapsed, has restaurants, overflow tents for thousands and dorms for visitors, who all hope for spiritual guidance from the man known to followers as "the prophet."
"The gospel needs to be preached all over the world," Joshua said in an interview earlier this year with The Associated Press. "You cannot light a candle and put it under a roof."
Torchia reported from Johannesburg. Associated Press writers Carley Petesch and Michelle Faul contributed from Johannesburg.