/ 25 September 2014

TB Joshua’s church: Built, like others, on shifting sands

As rebels move towards Bangui
As rebels move towards Bangui

A veil of secrecy remains firmly drawn over the causes of the collapse of the multistorey Lagos guesthouse in which 115 people, including 84 South Africans, were killed. The guesthouse belongs to the Synagogue Church of All Nations, run by Nigerian preacher TB Joshua.

Nigerian officials were earlier this week tight-lipped about the scope of a probe into the collapse, as anger mounted against the popular head preacher. “The best thing for us is to put things on hold … It would not be right to say this is this, this is that,” said Lagos state information commissioner Lateef Ibirogba.

But Joshua has denied that it was simple negligence that brought down the building, suggesting a low-flying aircraft was responsible for the collapse. He released security camera footage apparently showing a plane flying four times over the hostel before it came down.

Yet, to understand the bigger forces that brought down the godly hostel, a good place to start could be in a cramped corner of Ikeja, Lagos, in a modest-looking business selling assorted items such as cellphone airtime, plastic buckets and confectionery. There are a few planks of wood strapped together outside the shop, and hanging over them a sign saying “Scaffolding For Hire”.

It’s a curious sight, and raises the question of why any decent contractor putting up a building would hire scaffolding, but it’s just a snapshot of the extensive informality that predominates the economy in the city, where being a middleman is a quick way to squeeze through the cracks and turn a profit.

Trying to make impressions
Elsewhere, an original Armani suit or Louis Vuitton bag is a luxury item purchased as a status symbol, but in Lagos it could be a solid business investment – there is a market for designer gear for hire, because people try to make impressions.

Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but according to an entertainment promoter in the city the hourly rate for an Armani suit, for example, is about $300 – lending it out can soon recoup the investment.

But if the problem in Lagos is cutting corners, the federal capital Abuja faces a different challenge. Driving on the wide, smooth highways, one is struck by the number of huge buildings dotting the expansive city that seem to be under construction.

But a closer look reveals a different story: the sites are eerily quiet, the stones have started to wear, and moss and even grass is sprouting from the walls and roof.

Abuja is one of Africa’s top five most expensive cities, and one might think that it is a case of a supply-demand mismatch; that people are building expensive buildings, hoping to make a handsome profit, but the demand is simply not there.

One state audit revealed that there were a 435 abandoned buildings in Abuja. Most are not small-time structures; they reach six or eight storeys.

When asked why there were so many unfinished buildings, one Abuja resident said it was because the owners had violated regulations in the building code and the authorities moved in to halt construction.

Corrupt money
But the sheer number of abandoned structures didn’t make sense until another taxi driver (these fellows always have the best local knowledge in most cities) gave an alternative insight into the story. “Most of these buildings are put up using corrupt money, and when the money stops, the building stops too,” he said.

Strict controls on movement to previous safe havens abroad means many people cannot stash illegally acquired money abroad – they launder it through real estate. “They don’t care if the building is finished or not, because all they want is to use the property as collateral for more money from a bank,” he said.

“If they don’t pay back, the bank repossesses the property – until the next person comes along looking for scaffolding to hire, just for the day.”

“Prophet” Joshua is a man of God, and far be it for him to break both God’s or Caesar’s laws. Yet, while the Bible speaks of temples, it says nothing about hostels, especially in Nigeria. Like the ghost houses in Abuja, therefore, it was probably built to low standards.

This article was first published on mgafrica.com