By Samuel Ogundipe
As the South African Government begins the handing over of the remains of its 74 nationals who perished in the September 12 Synagogue Church building collapse to their respective families this week, uncertainties hang over the condition and fate of Nigerians who died with them, WESTERN POST investigation has revealed.
After a guest house, located within the premises of the Synagogue Church of All Nations collapsed at Ikotun-Egbe, a suburb of Lagos, Nigerian authorities swung into action to evacuate the over 200 victims, including the 116 pronounced dead, to different health facilities across Lagos State.
The remains of those who died in the tragic incident were said to have been deposited at Mainland Hospital and Isolo General Hospital, both located in Lagos. The injured were taken to several hospitals across the city while their South African counterparts were flown back to their country for treatment.
Amongst the 116 confirmed dead, the South African government, with the support of Nigerian medical professionals, has been able to identify at least 85 of its nationals, 74 of whom were airlifted back to the country last Sunday. The remaining 11 are expected to be transported back to the country upon completion of pathological and forensic examinations.
“We can confirm that we depart with 74 South Africans. On arrival in South Africa, the families will be able to receive their loved ones to take them to their final ancestral resting places,” Phumla Williams, South African government spokesperson, said in a statement.
Questions over Situation of Nigerian Victims
But the situation of the Nigerians involved in the tragic incident appears to have been overshadowed by that of South Africans. Hence, three questions continue to hover around the condition of Nigerian victims of the incident like an albatross:
They are- how many Nigerians actually died in the incident? At which facility were their remains deposited? Has any of the corpses been handed over to relatives for proper burial? If so, when and who are they?
A coroner’s inquest, headed by Mr. Oyetade Komolafe, was instituted by the Lagos State Government under the Lagos State Coroner’s System Law No. 7 of 2007, to unravel the circumstances surrounding the building collapse.
The inquest began sitting on October 13 and Nigerian experts with diverse professional backgrounds have been taking advantage of the inquest to prove their competence.
Others who seem to be taking advantage of the inquest are government officials who have now found a sudden alibi in it, hiding behind it to avoid giving Nigerians useful answers to a devastating incident that is widely believed to be largely avoidable.
Sealed Lips by Officials on the 3 Questions
Most of the officials, including the Lagos State Ministry of Health and SCOAN staff, contacted by the WESTERN POST, declined to comment on any of the above questions, citing deference to the ongoing inquest.
The Lagos State Commissioner for Information, Mr. Lateef Ibirogba, after acknowledging the veracity and vitality of the questions, told WESTERN POST that, “It’s difficult for me to make any statement about the issue for now to avoid complicating the ongoing inquest”.
“The state government set up the inquest specifically to deal with these questions. So, please, excuse me when I say I cannot give an answer for now. Again, I don’t want to say anything that is capable of complicating the inquest,” he said.
When asked how telling Nigerians where the remains of their fellow citizens involved in the tragic building collapse were deposited amounts to an attempt at complicating an ongoing inquest, Mr. Ibirogba refused to give an answer.
A security analyst said none of the questions is capable of doing any harm to the inquest.
According to Mr. Lawrence Igbokwe of SPX Security, who has been a consultant on criminal cases for almost two decades, “The officials are just looking for somewhere to hide because there’s absolutely nothing in the questions that can be misconstrued as harmful to the ongoing inquest.”
Dead South Africans Preserved in VIP, VVIP Sections of Morgue
A source within the church told the WESTERN POST that the officials who declined to comment may, indeed, not be privy to the answers because the church has been very intransigent in its dealings with the authorities since the incident occurred.
“Don’t blame them (the officials). I don’t even think they know anything because the church has refused to cooperate with the appropriate authorities.”
He then went on to say that remains of Nigerians involved in the collapse were also deposited at the same facilities the dead South Africans were taken to.
“They were taken to Mainland Hospital and Isolo General Hospital. The only problem is that the South African authorities are doing their best to make sure that all South African bodies were properly preserved.”
When asked to clarify what he meant when he said the remains of South Africans are properly kept, he offered a shocking revelation:
“The South Africans were preserved in the VIP and VVIP sections of the morgue and Nigerians were separated from them during the process. Nigerians were kept in the sub-standard sections.”
The source also confirmed that no Nigerian corpse has been handed over to their relatives.
When the WESTERN POST visited the church on Thursday, the staff who made statements refused to give specific details of the families of the victims. Instead, they offered muddled information of their whereabouts.
For instance, when asked if he could name the relatives of one of the Nigerians involved, a spokesperson for the church, who identified himself simply as Patrick, said, “Daniel’s families live at Alagbado.”
SCOAN Hoarding Critical Information, Says Ekujumi
He refused to make further comments, saying he was not authorised to speak with the media.
But Mr. Nelson Ekujumi, Director at the Centre for Rights and Grassroots Initiative, a public policy think-tank that has been taking civil measures aimed at encouraging the Nigerian families of the victims to come out to narrate their experiences, said the church is hoarding critical information because the people have been too complacent.
“The church has been taking Nigerians for granted for so long because relatives of the victims and the Nigerian people at large have refused to hold it to account,” he said.
He stated further that most of what Nigerians know in the aftermath of the incident was obtained and relayed by South Africans.
“The South Africans have been updating the whole world about what is going on, that’s why we know the number of South Africans victims so far identified as well as those who have been airlifted and those who remain. The church members of staff have refused to give Nigerian media and authorities any information because they’ve not been demanding anything from them. In fact, the coroner inquest set up by the Lagos State Government was as a result of our relentless demand that it must take action. The families should not be afraid. They should put religion aside and come out.”
When WESTERN POST reached the Chief Pathologist, Professor John Obafunwa, who was appointed by Lagos State government to supervise the remains of the victims, he refused to comment on the allegations that Nigerian victims are kept in sub-standard mortuary as supposed to South African victims whose bodies were given preferential treatment.
Coroner Komolafe: Pastor Joshua Should Respect Himself and Appear
Meanwhile, the coroner’s inquest before Coroner Oyetade Komolafe resumed sitting at the premises of Lagos State High Court on Friday, where a very strong warning was issued to Prophet T.B. Joshua, founder of the Synagogue Church of All Nations.
After the deposition and testimonies of Mr. Dede Obayi, Head, Inspectorate and Compliance Department at the Standard Organisation of Nigeria, were taken by the coroner, Mr. Olalekan Ojo, counsel to SCOAN, informed the Chief Coroner that the inquest should be suspended pending the determination of a case he had instituted at the high court.
Mr. Ojo is seeking a relief from the high court to enumerate the powers of the coroner, as well as to declare that the coroner’s inquest lacks the jurisdiction to compel Mr. Joshua to appear before it.
“I want the high court to prohibit the coroner from further probing beyond its mandate,“ he said.
Ojo also stated that he’s only representing the church as a body and not Prophet Joshua as an individual. He then went on to submit an application to that effect.
This infuriated the judge and a fierce exchange between him and the counsel ensued.
“The court cannot be taken for granted. Nobody can take this court for granted, not even TB Joshua because he’s not capable of such,” he said.
The counsel responded by saying that his client is not questioning the authority of the coroner. He also said he joined Lagos State as a respondent to the suit because the state enacted the Coroner’s Act.
The coroner fired back, saying “South African ambassador and consular had come here to testify despite to the fact that they’re under diplomatic immunity and would have chosen not to do so. Now, what I’m saying to Joshua is that he should respect himself. He shouldn’t set a bad precedent. He’s not above the law. He will never be above the law in his entire life.”
Prophet Joshua had been listed in the order of witnesses but has so far failed to turn up.
Before Coroner Komolafe adjourned for the day, he asked the counsel to say the name of the contractor in charge of the collapsed building but after browsing through his legal cornucopia for several minutes, he looked up to tell the coroner that the contractor’s identity is confidential and would, therefore, be forwarded to the inquest’s registrar’s phone by text message.
Further hearing in the inquest will continue from December 3rd when officials from SON and South African witnesses are expected to give more testimonies.