By Marelise Van der Merwe
Let me begin by stating that this opinion is not solely based on my own personal ruminations but rather on a relatively collective notion opined by South Africans of varying degrees whom I have discussed this salient topic with.
If truth be told, a certain negative connotation is unfortunately attached to the image of Nigerians in South Africa, formed by some unsavoury antics of her kinsmen within our nation such as drug pushing, internet fraud, armed robbery and illegal overstaying. I am not in anyway branding all Nigerians under the same illicit banner – but there are sufficient numbers who have done significant damage to arouse caution from the average South African.
In fact, Prophet T.B. Joshua’s rise to popularity within South Africa has proven a key player in the ‘rebranding’ of the Nigerian image for many South Africans, buoyed by Emmanuel TV’s brand of refreshingly practical, unorthodox Christianity. As many Nigerians living in South African can readily attest to, a question revolving around Joshua is almost certainly asked once their nationality is ascertained, exuding the influence he has within South African shores.
BBC’s Chief African correspondent Will Ross recently reported how an uneducated local in rural Botswana identified Nigeria as ‘T.B. Joshua’s country’ after learning Lagos was his base. It is an assertion similarly shared by many here, particularly in the rural areas of South Africa who automatically associate Africa’s most populous nation with its most controversial pastor.
Unfortunately, the Nigerian government’s response in the aftermath of the tragic building collapse at The SCOAN last month has done little to assuage this already precarious image. The private jet debacle whereby Nigerian money was illegally carried to South African soil for the purchase of arms, coupled by the painfully slow process of the repatriation of our fallen brethren in the collapse have only served to fuel an atmosphere of distrust and distaste.
It is unfortunate also that the inquest set up by the Lagos State Government into what truly transpired at The SCOAN has aroused equal qualms, its political undertones breeding scepticism within South Africa towards the genuineness of its intentions. From the initial sessions, it appears to be more of a platform for Lagos State Government to cover-up their own inadequacies in the rescue operation while ensuring a predetermined agenda is played out, ultimately bringing culpability on the part of The SCOAN for structural failures.
I have closely followed media updates surrounding the coroner’s inquest, most of which came from Nigerian media sources as media coverage in the aftermath of the tragedy has reduced in South Africa. The propensity of focus toward debunking the claim of explosives being behind the collapse, alongside the insistence that T.B. Joshua himself appears at the inquest, certainly calls for questions. I am not saying such information is not valid but the sensational media headlines and lopsided reports suggest the outworking of a negative agenda against Joshua, orchestrated by both the Lagos State government and media houses reporting the incident.
For example, it was widely reported on Tuesday that pathologist Professor John Obafunwa ruled out claims of an explosion as the cause of the building collapse, saying none of the victims had blast injuries. However, a report from the following day’s inquest where Obafunwa admitted he had only conducted autopsies on two bodies and could not authoritatively determine what was behind the collapse was barely mentioned.
Similarly, the apparent ‘refusal’ of church authorities to cooperate with external rescue bodies such as NEMA was disproportionately accentuated, to the extent that media commentators suggested such callous attitude actually increased the death toll. This was highlighted by the testimony of NEMA spokesman Ibrahim Farinloye at the inquest on Tuesday who claimed his team were not given access to the site until Sunday evening.
However, in Wednesday’s session, a spokesman for the Nigerian Red Cross shared his own version of events, praising The SCOAN for their co-operation and efficiency and directly opposing Farinloye’s claims. “When we got to the place, we met NEMA and LASEMA there, but we didn’t see them carrying out any rescue operations,” Ige Oladimeji told the court. Contrarily, he said the church officials were the ones who were championing the rescue mission, buoyed by The SCOAN’s 10 ambulances and heavy duty rescue machinery provided by several local construction companies. Why was it that this aspect of the inquest was completely downplayed to barely a mention by the majority of media reports yesterday? Perhaps because it revealed shameful inadequacies within Nigeria’s rescue team – both in attitude and action?
I recall reading an article by Nigerian-based journalist Simon Ateba, who was at The SCOAN on the day of the incident, sharing similar sentiments. “The truth is that NEMA has no equipment needed to rescue people,” he bluntly stated. “All NEMA was doing was to release the number of the dead and the injured to the media. NEMA is a failed and incapacitated agency that cannot rescue anyone… They should shut the hell up and get enough funding and equipment to do their job rather than playing to the gallery and claiming that they “just coordinate “. Coordinate what? Interviews when people are trapped?”
In Thursday’s session, Lagos State Commissioner for physical planning Olutoyin Ayinde was quoted as saying the airplane seen bypassing the ill-fated building on four occasions on the day of the incident was simply on a flight path towards Lagos airport. Why is it, however, that nearly two months after the incident, no official statement whatsoever has been made by the Nigerian government or aviation authorities concerning this? If indeed there was nothing sinister or suspicious in its movements, why wasn’t there an immediate statement to that effect since this is an incident of grave international proportions?
Yesterday, a Nigerian lawyer called for the halting of the inquest, arguing that several agencies from within Lagos State had already made indicting statements against The SCOAN to the effect that structural inadequacies caused the collapse. He submitted that the inquest would ‘seriously occasion miscarriage of justice’ as it would base its decision on the testimonies of the same agencies. In the light of the above, I believe he has a very valid point.
As I wrote in an earlier article berating South African media’s coverage of T.B. Joshua in lieu of this tragedy, I am an Emmanuel TV viewer and have visited The SCOAN once last year in what I would term a spiritually enhancing pilgrimage. The latest incident has not blighted this belief, although many pertinent questions still remain unanswered concerning the exact cause of the catastrophe.
It is unfortunate that the Lagos State inquest is not providing these answers but provoking even more questions, especially within South Africa.
*Der Merwe is a social analyst based in Johannesburg, South Africa