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Furore over non-release of Uyo church collapse report by government


Collapsed Church

It is already one year since the main auditorium of the Reigners Bible Church International, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State collapsed, killing about 30 persons and injuring over 50.

But the state government is yet to make public the report of the Commission of Inquiry it instituted on the incident, which happened during the ordination of the church’s founder, Akan Weeks. Expectedly, the delay is giving room for immense speculations, as some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are alleging a cover up, as well as, claiming that corpses may have been tempered with.

Some of the NGOs say since the cause of death of the deceased was building collapse, and the victims died instantaneously, there was no reason to perform an autopsy on them, especially in the absence of representatives of their families.The state governor, Udom Emmanuel, who escaped from that incident unhurt, had in a state-wide broadcast the following day commended all emergency organisations, agencies of government and corporate organisations, especially construction companies that were involved in the rescue and evacuation exercise for acting “promptly and I commend their sense of patriotism and gallantry.”

He went on to announce that his administration would set up “a high-powered panel of inquiry to ascertain the immediate and remote causes leading to the collapse of the building, with a view to forestalling the recurrence of such incident and bringing to book, persons found to have compromised professional standards in the construction of the building.

“We appeal to all citizens to remain calm, pray for the injured and avoid undue speculation as the situation is being given the best possible attention,” Emmanuel stated.

The seven-man commission inaugurated on December 16, 2016, was asked to submit its report in three weeks from the date of its first sitting, or within such extended period as may be allowed after a written approval.Interestingly, during the Commission of Inquiry sitting, the head, Town Planning Department, of the Uyo City Capital Development Authority, Effiong Akpan, blamed the state government for not releasing funds for the demolition of the ill-fated church.

Akpan, while testifying before the Commission of Inquiry said that the church building had been marked for demolition five times, adding that UCCDA had once demolished the structure at foundation level and warned the developer to desist from erecting any structure on the site.He said that the land and the entire area where the church was built had since 2002 been mapped out by the government as conservation area, adding that the area lies on the hilly side of Uyo ravine, which is prone to landslide.

The department head said all the churches and event centres built along that axis of the road were illegal, as the soil could not hold any structure.He further explained that on May 4, 2015, UCCDA applied for funds from the government to procure cranes, excavators, bulldozers and security coverage to demolish the structure. Though the governor approved the money, the then Accountant-General of the state refused to release the funds.

We marked ‘X’ on the structure on March 6, 2013; it was covered by paint; we did the same on July 16, 2014; March 1, 2016; July 20, 2016, and Aug 16, 2016. The developer ignored all the markings by covering them with paint.

“We later issued a 21-day ultimatum to remove the property failing which the authority would remove the structure and cost borne by the developer. The developer used heavy pillars for the construction. After the expiration of the notice, we did not have the capacity to remove the heavy pillars and roofing used for the construction.

We needed cranes, excavators, bulldozers, money, security coverage and vehicles to carry out the demolition.He continued: “On May 4, 2015, we requested for funds and security coverage for the demolition; the money was approved by His Excellency but we never access the money. The then Accountant-General did not release the money for us to embark on the demolition.”He alleged that the owners of the church threatened to liaise with the government to dismiss any of the authority’s employees, who made an attempt to embarrass workers on the church site.

After eight months of sitting, the commission chaired by retired Chief Judge, Justice Umoekoyo Essang, in July submitted its report.Emmanuel, while receiving the report, expressed his administration’s preparedness to implement the recommendations, as contained in the report.He thanked members of the commission for accepting to serve in the committee and their painstaking effort in executing the assignment.

Justice Essang, in his remarks, commiserated with the government and people of the state over the incident and expressed appreciation to the state government for trusting the commission with the assignment without interference.

It was further gathered that after the committee’s report was submitted in July Governor Emmanuel, government will now set up a panel to review the report of a commission that was funded with public fund and after that it will be reviewed again before a white paper comes out. But this position was rejected by the NGOs saying “by that time they would have watered down the full report of the commission’s work and we said know it was wrong.  Any white paper they bring will be bias…Let us see the report of the commission as raw as it is.”

The State Chairman, Civil Liberty Organisation (CLO) and Head, Akwa Ibom Human Rights Committee, Mr. Clifford Thomas said, while expressing worry over the delay in making the report public said there were over 1, 000 persons in that building with the governor in attendance, contrary to claims that there were less than 150 people.

He further alleged that the number of deaths officially released by the state government fell far below the actual deaths recorded, adding that, “for those, who died the government has refused to tell us the truth. They keep saying it is 28. We are challenging that figure. In the cause of our investigation, we discovered that more persons who died than the government was ready to own up to. But beyond that, there were several other persons, who were missing during that crisis within the church, who still have not been found or accounted for. This one that government claimed 28 persons died, not even one child. The question is, those children who died, where are their corpses? We don’t even know whether there are any compensation plans or not”.

The state Commissioner for Health, Dr Dominic Ukpong, who denied knowledge of the report being submitted to government said, even when it is submitted, the governor would study the report before making it public, “and it is when he does that I will be in position to explain the details, and by that time, he would have given me the report to read.

“You would recall that some components of the media reported very scary details of the number of deaths, which was a far cry from what the truth was. We have explained and given the correct number of deaths and people, who were sick or injured we treated. We have done post-mortem, did DNA marching to make sure that the dead were collected by their relations, according to their DNA.

On allegation that autopsy was carried out without the consent of family members and some vital organs harvested, Dr. Ukpong said, “I am hearing this for the first time, but that information cannot be correct. Usually when somebody dies, for an autopsy to be done the family members have to give consent. If the person dies of suspicious circumstance and in the circumstance of Reigners Church, by accident it becomes a corona case, and when you have a corona case, it gets entirely out of the family. It becomes a case for the state to investigate to be sure that this thing is not due to homicide, deliberate murder etc.”

Also commenting, the Chief Medical Director (CMD) of University of Uyo Teaching Hospital (UUTH), Professor Etete Peters said, “We admitted the victims here. The autopsy was arranged purely by the state government, and the hospital was not involved. Our duty was to embalm the corpses and if the corpses were embalmed here, it means whatever that was done here was at the instruction of the state government.

“They arranged for an independent pathologist to carry out the autopsy, it was not carried out by us. As a result of that we are not privy to the report because the state government ordered it. Such cases are regarded as corona cases, which means that we don’t have a say. The government or the court can order an autopsy. So, that was done. On allegation of whatever happened or transpired during the autopsy, I cannot say because we were not directly involved, but all that I know is that I have not received any official complaint from either relatives, or any other person regarding the autopsy that was done and as I speak, virtually all the bodies have been claimed and buried.”

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