by Adedayo Ademuwagun
The Coroner’s Inquest concerning the Synagogue church building collapse started yesterday, one month after the collapse.
A building on the church premises collapsed on September 12 leaving at least 100 people dead or injured. There’s been a lot of controversy about this accident since it happened, and many people have clamoured for the government to take strong action concerning the matter in order to bring justice and avert a recurrence. It’s against this backdrop that the inquest was established by the Lagos government.
The inquest is an inquiry into the manner and cause of the building crash, and it’s headed by the coroner Alexander Oyetade Komolafe. It’s not a regular court in that people aren’t being prosecuted and there are no trials. The purpose of the coroner’s sittings is simply to find out the facts and establish the truth.
The inquest is happening at the Ikeja High Court and the turnout was considerable at the first sitting yesterday. Representatives from various involved parties were present, including the church, the state, police, LASUTH, Red Cross and others. The mood was relaxed and the atmosphere was light. Everyone chatted and laughed regardless of which side they supported in the matter. It was a friendly setting.
Here are seven quotes from the court sitting that summarises how things panned out yesterday.
1. “He’s our father.”
Since the collapse happened, a lot of people have condemned Pastor TB Joshua for his alleged complicity in the incident. But one thing obvious yesterday is that the man is pretty popular among many less-privileged people for his humanitarian works.
Yesterday, over a dozen church members were at the court bearing placards and appealing to public sympathy. Many well-dressed members of the Disabled Welfare Organisation also showed up to support the troubled church leader.
The president, Gbolahan Jonah said, “We want the public to know that TB Joshua is a kind man and he didn’t cause this accident. We want to plead with the court to give him a fair judgement. He’s innocent. He’s been so helpful to us ‘disabled’ people. He’s helped us very much. We cannot forget him. He’s our father.”
2. “It’s not a win or lose thing”
The coroner made a strong impression yesterday and tried to get everyone to understand the purpose of the case.
“We’re not here to prosecute anyone,” he said. “I don’t want us to see each other as opponents. We’re all in this together. It’s not a win or lose thing. We’re here to find the cause of this incident so that it will not happen again. That’s why we’re here.” At this point, the lead lawyer representing the church, Lateef Fagbemi, faced the state’s legal team and jeered jokingly, “I hope you heard that now.” Everyone in the courtroom laughed heartily.
3. “We, Nigerians and South Africans, are one.”
This building crash incident appears to have dampened bilateral relations between Nigeria and South Africa given that dozens of South Africans were involved in the accident, and the coroner obviously understands what’s going on.
So while the proceeding went on and the South African embassy representatives tried to point out that certain terms agreed on by the state and the church weren’t convenient for his consulate, the coroner seized the moment to emphasise the need for cooperation.
He said, “This is a matter that affects the two countries. We’ll not change our rules to please the South Africans but we’ll give everyone a fair chance. We, Nigerians and South Africans, are one. At least we are all black. Here in Africa we may try to differentiate, but outside we are seen as one people. So I believe that we are one and we should be cooperative in this matter.”
4. “We stopped Ebola. We can stop building collapses.”
The coroner tried to inspire confidence and express the government’s commitment to ending building collapses by referring to Nigeria’s success concerning Ebola.
“We stopped Ebola, and now it’s the US and other countries who’re battling with it while Nigeria is Ebola-free. That shows there’s no problem we have that we can’t solve. We stopped Ebola. We can stop building collapses.
5. “Victims’ families need to come forward.”
The families of victims were notably absent at the court and the coroner acknowledged this.
“The victims families are not here today. This is not good. We need them to be part of the inquest so that we can hear their part and it will help with our inquest. The victims’ families need to come forward.”
6. “Media, report well.”
It looks like the coroner has been following the media coverage since the incident began. Yesterday he appealed to the journalists present to be fair in their reporting and try not to inflame the public unduly. He said with some irony, “I know you’ve been reporting well. Please continue to report well.”
7. “We will not sacrifice justice on the altar of the speed.”
The coroner, like the opposite legal teams, has showed enthusiasm on the case but he stated that the inquest will not be rushed. It looks like he’s going to be meticulous.
He was patient in listening to the church’s lawyers’ plea for more time to put their evidence together and do their background work. The state was cooperative too and were in agreement with the coroner. There was no fuss.
“We are here today because we want to do the right thing. We will not rush things and do it badly. We will not sacrifice justice on the altar of speed.”
The coroner’s inquest has started on a promising note. On Thursday the coroner and other involved people will go to the Synagogue to have a look at the crash site. Then on October 24 the coroner will start listening to witnesses and taking evidence. In the meantime, investigations and deliberations will continue.