Uncertainty over SA deaths after Nigeria church collapse

Around 300 South Africans were visiting a Pentecostal church in Nigeria last week where a wing collapsed killing more than 60 people, and an unknown number were still unaccounted for, the South African government said.

President Jacob Zuma said on Tuesday that at least 67 South Africans had been killed when the building in the compound belonging to the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos collapsed; while three extra storeys were being added to the two existing floors. However, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry said on Twitter on Wednesday that the figure of 67 needed to be treated with “caution”. 

‘Not yet accounted for’
Nigerian emergency services on Tuesday put the total death toll from the accident so far at 62. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy. Late on Tuesday, Zuma told the SABC that an unknown number of South Africans were “not yet accounted for”, and that the nation needed to “grieve together”. 

Zuma’s spokesperson Mac Maharaj told the SABC on Wednesday that the government believed that around 300 South Africans from four to five tour groups from the country were visiting the church last Friday, but it was not clear how many were on the spot when the tragedy struck. 

“It has been difficult in getting the news and information. Our figures are based on information received from family and friends, and the high commission in Nigeria. It is subject to change as things go on,” Maharaj said. 

“There have been delays in getting the information. We don’t have the figures of those injured. Sometime during the day we will be better placed on the information and the public will be informed.” He also said the church is very popular with South Africans.

TB Joshua and staff at his Synagogue Church of All Nations had so far failed to disclose information to the investigation and is under pressure to co-operate with the authorities, the Lagos state government and emergency services said. 

Pretoria’s ambassador to Abuja complained investigators had faced difficulties in getting detailed information on the ground. 

In Lagos, rescuers were still picking through the rubble with heavy lifting equipment and using sniffer dogs in the search for survivors. 

Rescuers denied access to the site
“The church is not co-operating with emergency workers at all,” said National Emergency Management Authority spokesperson for the south-west region, Ibrahim Farinloye. “For the first three days of the incident, the church people were very hostile and prevented rescue officials access to the site,” he told Agence France-Presse. Earlier access may have saved lives, he added, giving the latest toll as 67 with 131 survivors. 

South Africa’s ambassador to Nigeria, Lulu Mnguni, told eNCA that the death toll was still uncertain. “The numbers can still either go up or down. We have put more people on the ground to assist us,” he said. 

Some five South African church tour groups totalling about 300 people were thought to have been in Lagos at the time, the government said. 

Toyin Ayinde, Lagos state commissioner for town planning and urban development, said an investigation would examine Joshua’s claim that a low-flying plane may have been responsible for the collapse. He told Nigeria’s Channels television they were checking with Lagos international airport, which is just east of the church, about the altitude of planes in the area at the time. 

Samples were being taken from the building to determine the material used in the construction. Initial indications suggested the collapse was caused because extra floors were being added to the building without strengthening foundations. Ayinde said Joshua and his staff had not yet met engineers and representatives of the Lagos State Emergency Management Agency, which was affecting their ability to disclose accurate information. 

The church, led by the charismatic “Prophet” Joshua, attracts a global following of Christians who believe he is able to perform miracles including curing the ill and raising the dead from the grave.  

Elders aiding search
Meanwhile, Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema said that elders from the church have been helping search for missing people. “I am in touch with the elders of the church. They are doing everything in their power to ensure that every individual that was there is accounted for and that the rescue mission continues,” Malema told the South African Press Association in a telephone interview. 

Although there had been loss of life, very seriously injured church members were rescued as well, he said. – Reuters, Sapa, AFP

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