Four years ago at Oliver Reginald Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, the following conversation took place between this writer and an immigration officer who was routinely processing the writer’s exit from South Africa. “Were you at the stadium?” “Which stadium?” “Last Saturday at the stadium when the Prophet came. It was so full, eish?” “Which Prophet?” “Prophet Joshua.” “Who is Prophet Joshua?”
The immigration officer screamed, literally. “Do you mean you are a Nigerian and you do not know Prophet Joshua?” At which stage three other immigration officers joined the crowdy conversation. No question as they stared at the passport and this writer, they genuinely began to doubt the authenticity of his nationality. Some quick thinking, a little humour and I rescued my passport from them and made my way quickly towards boarding area. One resolution though – I must find out who was Prophet Joshua. Not only did I ask family and friends about him, I visited the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) within a week of being in Lagos.
In South Africa, I began to pay more attention to the framed picture of Prophet Joshua or him and his wife hanging prominently on walls of homes.
There has been a lot said about TB Joshua, the collapse of the building that accommodated his guests, related actions or inactions, and what should be done. The comments have dwelled rightly on the loss of 115 lives mostly from South Africa. Such a huge loss of lives and in such circumstance should make any sane society uncomfortable.
Such deaths should be prevented in the future. Lessons should be drawn. But it must be done fairly, correctly and with a balanced sense of judgment. A new thinking on the state and religion should emerge.
Both Islam and Christian religion, to which more than 90 per cent of faith adherents in the country belong, have roles to play in the socio-economy of the country, over and beyond their religiousness. How do we re-think the relationship between state and faith? How do we re-establish a pragmatic and win-win relationship between the state and faith-based entities?
The SCOAN tragedy presents an unparalleled opportunity to ignite the new thinking.
The 51-year old pastor is one of the biggest religious tourism attractions to Nigeria. His new version of evangelism is a big pull. Nigerian Pentecostal churches bring in hordes of people from all over the world in ways that state and federal governments have failed to do. One does not have to share in the faith or belief that underpins the travels of the “tourists” to see how such large scale tourism is benefitial to a country’s economy. These visitors come to “praise and worship” and they also buy things, get to know Nigeria and some of them, especially those who claim they were healed or saved, end up with a favourable view of Nigeria. They meet and interact with Nigerians. The challenge to policy and government is how to make better use of the opportunity that the religion sector presents for tourism. Both the state and faith entities can benefit from such interaction.
In a country with official unemployment rate in cities at about 32 percent (un-officially at double that) and under employment is close to 80 per cent, the mega churches and Christian “industrial” complexes are significant employers. Consider that they have branched into education at all levels, construction of houses, buy-sell of commodities. It is not unlikely that Nigerian pastors and imams, especially pastors, are as many in number, if not more, than diplomats working officially for the country overseas. Where does one get statistics today on the employment within the religious organizations? What is the extent of financial business deals that are made by faith entities and what legal and financial rules govern them?
Besides contributions in mosques and churches, should some of the financial enterprises and business-like transactions be subjected to revenue deduction? Conversely, given the ambitious social and development roles that some faith entities play, should the state provide financial, infrastructural and other support to them as subsidies? What accounting systems are used and what authorities look in the books of faith organizations? These issues are not unique as they are done variously in some countries of the world.
As much as Nigeria has spent enormous amounts of funds to brand the country, there is at best only mixed results. It is not an overstatement to say that most foreigners do not have positive views about Nigeria and Nigerians due to various factors which will not be discussed here. Religious leaders and groups from Nigeria certainly hold their own and are respected across the world. As a brand selling point, religion, has been a welcomed, positive attribute of Nigeria. It is yet unclear to what extent the Boko Haram terror has mitigated this fact. Nonetheless, the religiousity that grew from Nigeria has been a factor for good. It is an important factor, and one for which TB Joshua is amongst those who should take credit. Despite the good points above, there are ugly sides. The unattractive sides of religion in Nigeria were markedly present in the ways that TB Joshua mismanaged the terrible incident at SCOAN.
So far from available reports and until more facts are known, it is fair to assume the following.
The super-imposition of additional storeys to the already existing two storeys of the collapsed building was not authorized. What happens within the walls of a religious organization is seen as outside of the boundaries of the state. This wrong propensity governed TB Joshua. Further, when the building collapsed and for several hours thereafter SCOAN staffers prevented and hindered entry by official emergency response and rescue workers. Why would any organization prevent safety of lives and assistance to its needy people? What could TB Joshua have wanted to hide in such a situation?
As the incident unfolded, the SCOAN leader in turn withheld information; disingenuously released information about aircraft that flew over the building as a possible cause; suggested that enemy actions were responsible for the incident; and he offered money to journalists as reported competently by Nicholas Ibekwe, a journalist. A tripod of withholding information through no communication, miscommunication, and inducement communication by Joshua.
In all, TB Joshua showed scant sympathy, less empathy for the family of the bereaved. His most important attention should have been directed at the dead, their families and those of many who were being treated and recovering. He certainly did not plan or intend that his building should collapse. When the unfortunate incident occurred therefore, he should have shown leadership – take responsibility, care for the needy, make amends with those affected, and bring out the best in his faith for others to learn from him. He can still do it.
The state should play its part. If from the huge loss of life and maiming of so many at SCOAN, and if in the official handling the aftermath of the tragedy, the good is sifted from the ugly, then the dead would not have died in vain. The convenant between government and faith should be reviewed and reformed. If there is none, let a new convenant emerge from this incident on.
#Bunmi Makinwa is a communication for leadership entrepreneur based in South Africa and Nigeria. He was Africa Regional Director of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).