What is the matter with … TB Joshua

T.B. Joshua proffers a version of American tele-evangelism's empty promises to African masses, as nationalism and liberation politics lose their shine.

On September 12, 2014, a building housing foreign guests of the Synagogue Church of All Nations (“Pastor”: T.B. Joshua) in Lagos, Nigeria, collapsed. Initially, the death toll was only three people. Then, four days later, on September 16, South African President Jacob Zuma announced that “at least 67 South Africans were killed.” Nigerian rescue workers, according to the BBC, have now upped the total number of bodies pulled from the rubble to seventy people total. South African media reported that five South African church groups were visiting Joshua’s church at the time of the collapse.

Some may wonder why it took so long – five days – for the information about the total number of deaths in the church collapse to emerge. The short answer is that TB Joshua’s church has a reputation for acting outside the law. His church and its properties are usually off limits to Nigerian security forces, and local authorities have struggled to get access to the site since the building collapse. Also, the local government in Lagos is negligent and corrupt. The church most likely flouted building regulations, paying off city officials.

As for Joshua, he is very good at deflecting. Apart from some tepid press statements, his and his church’s bizarre explanations for the building collapse were to blame, among others, (1) the devil, (2) a plane that sprayed a mysterious substance over the building, and (3) Boko Haram. There is no evidence of any of these things ever happening.

So, who is T.B. Joshua, and what does he represent?

T.B. Joshua represents a broader trend on the continent of the emergence of “pastors” and “faith healers” who proffer a version of American tele-evangelism to African masses as nationalism and liberation politics lose their shine.

There’s been some good coverage and comments about Nigerian preachers on Nigerian Twitter (see Elnathan John‘s tweets about it, for example) and on sites with a Nigerian focus, like Sahara Reporters (like this or this). As for us, back in December 2011, when a British TV channel made a film about him, I watched it and wrote a post about Joshua. We’ve pasted that post below.

By now, you’ve probably watched the (British) Channel 4 TV documentary film about Nigeria’s millionaire preachers–the fake healings, buckets full of money collected by church leaders (“tithes”), police escorts, mall openings, and all the flash associated with the position. All this plays out against a background of grinding poverty. I watched it last night. Not surprisingly, most Nigerian blogs (many believers) have focused on theological debates thrown up by the documentary.

When quizzed about his ostentatious show of wealth, one of the preachers featured in the film, Dr Fireman, responded to Channel 4’s journalist: “Jesus was rich and had an accountant who followed him around.” 

No one’s surprised that with low confidence in political parties and the state, people gravitate toward fast-money preachers promising eternal salvation and financial and physical health. 

However, the filmmakers could only get to the B-List preachers since we didn’t see any really wealthy preachers. Those preachers, compiled in a list by a Forbes blogger earlier this Fall, include David Oyedepo (estimated net worth of $150m), Chris Oyakhilome ($30-50m), and TB Joshua ($10-15m). 

Of all these evangelists, overseers, and pastors, perhaps Joshua is the most interesting (there’s even a TB Joshua Watch online).

TB Joshua claims to heal HIV/AIDS, cancer, and paralysis at his Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos. He has also found a willing audience among African elites, especially its political class and leading sporting personalities.

Joshua serves as an advisor to many of the leading Nigerian sportspeople. They thank him profusely for their good health and form on the field. But not just his country’s sports people have trusted Joshua’s healing powers. Players from elsewhere on the continent did, too. In one celebrated case, Jaco van der Westhuyzen, a top rugby player from South Africa, traveled to Lagos with a niggling knee injury and claimed to have been healed by TB Joshua

Two of Van der Westhyuzen’s teammates in the Springbok rugby team also went to consult with Joshua. Their ailments were more serious: they suffered from cancers. Joshua’s teachings included telling people to stop their medical treatment. The result was usually fatal. Joshua told Ruben Kruger and Wuim Basson that their cancers were gone. Both men died. Consistent with evangelical Christianity’s teachings, Joshua and his followers rationalized Kruger and Basson’s deaths as due to their supposed lack of faith, and in Basson’s case, Joshua claimed to communicate with him beyond the grave.

South African television has reported stories of primarily white Afrikaans-speaking South Africans traveling to Joshua’s church in large groups for healing.

As for the politically connected who travel to see and hear Joshua in Nigeria, they include Ghanaian President John Atta Mills. Joshua prophesied his victory in the Ghanaian polls: “… there would be three elections, and the results would be released in January.” Atta Mills has described Joshua as a mentor. 

Separately, a Zimbabwean newspaper reported that Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai visited Joshua’s church in September. So have other leaders of Tsvangirai’s MDC movement and senior members of President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. Some hoped it would give them an edge in party political contests back home.

The same newspaper mentioned a few other high-profile guests: former presidents Frederick Chiluba (Zambia), Pascal Lissouba (Congo-Brazzaville), André Kolimba (Central African Republic), Omar Bongo (Gabon) and Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini (who came to testify about his “daughter’s healing from epilepsy”). The president of Zimbabwe’s football association, Cuthbert Dube, also claimed to be healed by Joshua.

Not all governing elites are as welcoming of TB Joshua and his healings and predictions. He has claimed to foresee plane crashes and natural disasters and even predict the results of sports events (especially English Premier League games). However, critics point out that the videos where he makes such predictions are cleverly edited. Cameroon banned Joshua from visiting and preaching there. 

But the most curious recent guest at Joshua’s church has been Winnie Mandela. In this video for Joshua’s television station, Emmanuel TV, Winnie Mandela blamed everything wrong on the continent on Western modernity – except Christianity. She tells the Emmanuel TV interviewer that Africa needs “democracy of a special type,” which implies a dictatorship. Joshua’s station does not object because this is how he runs his church.  

Further Reading

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Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.