Among many Nigerian and other African Christians, TB Joshua is a prophet, a healer and a man of God. On Thursday, however, the Nigerian televangelist is due to appear in a Lagos courtroom, alongside two engineers, charged with criminal negligence that resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people.
The case relates to a tragic incident on September 12, 2014. A Lagos guesthouse belonging to Joshua’s church, the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN), collapsed, killing at least 115 people, including 84 South Africans who had traveled across the continent for one of Joshua’s renowned healing services.
The South African government reacted angrily to the event, calling on Nigeria to conduct a thorough investigation. Eventually, in July 2015—10 months after the incident—a Nigerian coroner ruled that SCOAN was culpable of criminal negligence, since the structure had more floors than the foundation could hold, and that those who built the guesthouse should be investigated. The Lagos state ministry of justice indicated its intention in November 2015 to charge the SCOAN’s trustees, of which Joshua is one.
For their part, Joshua and the SCOAN rejected the coroner’s findings as “unreasonable, one-sided and biased.” The Nigerian mega-preacher and his church maintained the collapse was connected to the presence of a mysterious aircraft, which they alleged had been circling the building prior to its collapse.
Even if Joshua is found guilty of criminal negligence, his reputation will not be damaged among his legions of devoted followers, according to Maria Frahm-Arp, an expert in Pentecostal Christianity at the University of Johannesburg. “Right from the beginning, he’s been spinning this story of this mysterious airplane and the idea that this was an attack by Satan,” says Frahm-Arp. “The court can find whatever the court finds, but it’s going to be seen [among Joshua’s followers] as an attack by Satan to try and undermine and discredit him.”
Born in June 1963 to a poor family in a rural part of Ondo state, southwestern Nigeria, Temitope Balogun Joshua claims to have been in his mother’s womb for 15 months before he was born. He says he received his divine calling early in life, when he had a vision in which he was commissioned by God to teach, preach and carry out miracles. The SCOAN was allegedly founded with just eight members; the Lagos’ HQ now reportedly attracts 50,000 worshippers each week, with many traveling from as far afield as South Africa to see the charismatic preacher in the flesh. TB Joshua’s popularity extends online: his Facebook page has more than 1.9 million likes and his Twitter feed 135,000 followers.The church even has a television channel, Emmanuel TV, that broadcasts Joshua’s sermons and publicizes his miracles to millions.
And it is miracles that are central to Joshua’s ministry. Videos on SCOAN’s website include testimonies from church members concerning all kinds of healings, from the exorcism of demons to financial prosperity and fortune to the restoration of a man’s private parts. Joshua also claims to have prophesied in advance the occurrence of multiple world events, from the death of Michael Jackson, to the shooting down of MH17 in Russian airspace, to the November 2015 attacks in Paris. Yet some of Joshua’s prophecies have not yet come to pass: the pastor prophesied in May 2014 that 276 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram from their dormitories in Chibok, northeast Nigeria, would be returned safely to their families. To date, 219 of the girls remain missing.
Joshua’s “health and wealth gospel” has a particular resonance in places like Nigeria, says Frahm-Arp, where people are inclined to turn to miraculous healers in the absence of the state adequately meeting their needs. More than 60 percent of Nigeria’s population—almost 100 million people—live on less than $1 per day and parts of the country, such as the northeast, lack decent infrastructure due to the ravages of the Boko Haram insurgency. “They are drawn to something outside of the public and governmental domain to try and find answers,” says Frahm-Arp.
The Nigerian preacher has found plentiful earthly rewards for his ministry. In June 2011, Forbes estimated Joshua to be have a net worth of between $10-15 million. He has also developed friends in high places, including the late former Ghanaian president John Atta Mills and Julius Malema, the leader of South Africa’s left-wing opposition the Economic Freedom Fighters. His church has given much to charity: Forbes estimated that Joshua gave more than $20 million to causes including the rehabilitation of former Niger Delta militants between 2008 and 2011, and Joshua founded a Lagos football academy named My People FC, one of whose graduates, Ogenyi Onazi, now plays for Italian club Lazio.
According to Manji Cheto, Nigeria analyst at political consultancy Teneo Intelligence, “pastor-preneurs” like Joshua have struck a chord among Nigeria’s lower classes, who long for the lifestyles that their preachers have. “A lot of people that he attracts are working-class Nigerians, some very poor, and middle-class Nigerians either aspiring to retain or increase their wealth,” says Cheto. “That sort of miracle-working pastor, who has gained notoriety and is a bit of a celebrity, those are the sort of people he would appeal to.”