by Adedayo Ademuwagun
One of the buildings inside the premises of the Synagogue Church in Lagos collapsed on Friday afternoon. Dozens of people died and others were injured.
After the collapse happened on Friday, church members blocked the collapse site and prevented journalists and officials from state agencies from entering.
The members were violent. They assaulted journalists and broke some of their equipment. The Lagos State Building Control Agency (LASBCA) boss, Abimbola Animashaun, and her team were prevented from entering. Officials from Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA) were also assaulted and prevented from going in. The exact number of casualties still cannot be ascertained.
On Saturday morning I was at the church to cover the progress of rescue operations and find out how things were getting on.
Inside the premises, dozens of church members manned the gate leading to the collapse site and barred anyone from going in or out except their church members and essential rescue officials.
Myself, and journalists from organisations such as STV, AIT, the Associated Press and others waited outside the site for hours. The church people on the ground were very aggressive and refused to attend to us or let us do our job. It was clear that they didn’t want journalists and the rest of the world to know what was going on in there.
There were many police cars parked around, from the church entrance to the collapse site. The police officers saw what the church people were doing to the journalists and the officials from the state agencies, but they just continued to look. Personally, I approached some of the policemen and challenged them to do something to stop this unlawful action by the church people, but the officers barely even looked at me.
Around 11 am, the DG of LASEMA, Femi Osanyintolu, arrived at the church and promptly agreed to address journalists. He was very journalist-friendly. He confirmed to us that the church members had been hostile to his men and said his men were inside the site doing rescue operations. He also said 17 people were dead while 21 were in hospital as of 1 am Friday.
Meanwhile, there was a woman weeping on the side-walk and murmuring about her relative who was inside the building when it collapsed. She didn’t know if the relative was dead or in hospital or even still stuck under the rubble. Apparently, no one had addressed families of victims. This was 24 hours after the building collapse.
I asked the Mr. Osanyintolu if the relatives of victims had been informed about what was going on. He confirmed that no one had yet done this.
I and the other journalists demanded to be allowed into the site. The LASEMA boss reasoned with us and tried to lead us and his men into the site, but the church people manning the gate repelled us. The LASEMA boss was furious and ordered them to let him in, but they didn’t move. The LASEMA boss IS the head of all emergency operations in Lagos.
The boss turned back to meet the church’s security chief to have a word with him. After some time, they reluctantly agreed, but we were again blocked at the gate to the site. The police officers continued to watch.
Meanwhile, some young female officials of the church were sending the DPO up and down the walkway like their errand boy. We asked him why he and his men are watching all this happen. He murmured incoherently.
I asked one of the journalists from a TV station why the police were acting like the Synagogue’s police force when they ARE the Nigerian police force. He replied, “He who pays the piper dictates the tune.”
I looked at all the police cars. Nearly all of them had this printed on them: Donated By Emmanuel TV. Emmanuel TV is the media arm of the Synagogue church.
Finally, we had to fight our way into the site, following the DG’s lead. He wanted to try and squeeze us past the thug-like youths who were holding the gate viciously.
Some journalists made it in, but I stayed back for a moment to record their militant behaviour. So they attacked me and pulled me off the back of the DG. He tried to pull my arm in, but we were outnumbered. The police at this gate were practically helping the church people keep us out by force.
As the youths mobbed me and were going to beat me, I appealed to the police officers looking at us to help me. They didn’t say a word. The police woman among them just hissed and walked away. I could have been shot by those people. But an old man among them intervened in the nick of time and led me out of their way.
Later that afternoon, the head of the church TB Joshua granted a press conference, where he claimed that it was an aircraft hovering in the sky that somehow caused that building to crumble.
Churches behaving badly
This Synagogue incident was the latest, not the first, show of cult-like behaviour in churches in Nigeria. Large churches in the country often work like cults. They build walls around their activities and try to keep the outside world from knowing what’s going on inside. So even when the government or the media tries to look into their affairs, they grow aggressive.
Last year, some tax officers of the Ogun state government went to the Winners Chapel church in the state to demand unpaid taxes and do some checks. Church members prevented them from going in and attacked them.
This incident also shows that these large churches in the country are so powerful that they can molest people, break the law and do whatever they like on their premises and no one, not even the government, will take serious action against them.
Some of my colleagues from the other media houses were jotting down the names of the policemen so that they could put it in the media. They would not be the first to do that.
If things turn out well, they’ll put the names in the media and then people would look at it and say, “Oh, this is bad.” If things turn out REALLY well, the details would go viral and then the police force would find out and probably sack the officers.
But that hasn’t quite changed anything so far. In the past, there have been numerous YouTube videos of police officers doing something wrong. But things have effectively remained the same.
With what happened at the Synagogue on this day, it will be very hard for me to continue to trust the police to protect me or defend me in future.