July 12, (THEWILL) – Victims of the Reigners Bible Church, which collapsed four years ago in Akwa Ibom State, have lamented the government’s abandonment of those affected and failure to implement the recommendations of the White Paper issued on the incident.
They are seeking a review of the Commission of Enquiry set up by the state government to look into the incident, saying, so far, they have not been compensated by the government in any way.
The Reigners Bible Church collapsed on December 10, 2016 during the installation of the Church Founder, Apostle Akan Weeks, as an Archbishop, and led to the death of many persons.
Although the state government claimed that about 40 persons died, the media widely reported over 200 deaths and many injured.
Governor Udom Emmanuel, who graced the event and escaped death by the whiskers, later set up a Commission of Enquiry to look into the immediate and remote causes of the disaster even as the committee came up with a White Paper on the incident.
However, nothing has been heard of the implementation of the White Paper, with the Church Founder exonerated by the commission from culpability in the incident.
The National Coordinator, Akwa Ibom Human Rights Community and the lawyer who represented the victims, Mr. Clifford Thomas, said the outcome of the enquiry was a sad reminder of the failure of the government to guarantee the welfare of its citizens.
Thomas explained that a sum of N3.5 million that was raised to support the victims was through voluntary donations from the public, adding that some of the victims with serious injuries were later sent out of the government-owned Ibom Specialist Hospital, where they had been taken.
He said those affected had to resort to traditional methods to treat themselves, as they were too poor and afraid to challenge the government for exonerating Apostle Weeks, whom he claimed was responsible for the tragedy.
Thomas explained: “As a lawyer representing the estate of the deceased and those who were injured, we did our best to reach out to them, we defended them.
“We tried to amplify the fact that the government ought to care by virtue of Chapter 2 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which says that the primary purpose of government is the welfare and security of people.
“It is only Planet FM that came to their rescue. Planet FM set up a committee and made me the Chairman of that committee, and we were able to identify those who died. To those who died, we gave N100,000, and I think we had N3.5milion in all.
“The money came from donations. Planet FM appealed to people through their medium. The Chief Executive Officer of Planet FM, Mr. Tony Afia, put money down and people began to contribute. That is the first goodwill measure I have seen in this state that is devoid of politics. It was based on human interest.
“When the government brought out the White Paper, it did not mention what it would do, but did not hold the culprit responsible. The culprit was Apostle Akan Weeks.”
On whether the victims were willing to seek redress in court on the matter, Thomas said: “They are not; they are poor persons. What we did was free. For the whole of that period, even the personal monies we gave were free. How long can somebody offer free services? There is a limit.
“It is a Human Rights matter. Whoever comes up right now and says I want to go to court, we are ready to take up the matter for them, no matter the intimidation.
“Unfortunately, in Akwa Ibom, we don’t have the pedigree of pursuing matters in court. We don’t have the pedigree of doing litigation. We can only make noise at the Magistrate or High Court level but we hardly go to the Court of Appeal.
“A lot of them believe that if we go to court against the government, the government will go after them and kill them. They have fears but we are always ready.
“We want the government to review the report of that commission. Let the government reach out to the people.
“Akwa Ibom Human Rights Community is calling for the review of the report of the Commission of Enquiry into the Reigners Bible Church collapse to accommodate those who died, those who were left behind and those who were injured.”
Also speaking on the matter, Chairman, Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) in Akwa Ibom State, Mr. Franklyn Isong, said the government was biased in the White Paper released by the Commission of Enquiry.
Isong, who said the CLO monitored the sitting of the Commission in Uyo, however gave credit to members of the panel for doing a “thorough work.”
He said: “Let me Inform you that the White Paper was issued but government hid the report and excused Akan Weeks. Government rather indicted the engineers who carried out the construction of the building.
“As far as the CLO is concerned, Apostle Akan Weeks is the owner of the structure and the place was marked for demolition by the Uyo Capital City Development Authority (UCCDA).
“Apostle Weeks covered up the demolition marking and continued to build on that building. That place was a swampy area and was not fit for such a project. But when the White Paper reports were released, the government absolved Apostle Weeks.
“The panel reports came out very clearly that Apostle Akan Weeks is the owner of the building. He engaged the engineers who gave him professional advice alleging some structural defects on the building.
“But he said they should go ahead, build on that building, and even put up pillars in the middle of the building as a support, which the engineers advised that they should be removed. This, the engineers said during the panel’s sitting. When the reports came out, the government excused and absolved Apostle Akan Weeks of any indictment but invented something and indicted only the engineers.
“Justice Umoekoyo Essang’s Panel of Enquiry did a thorough job. He came out with a clean report but the reports did not mention the number of people who died, which is what we were asking for because there was an issue on the figure of people that died. Some said 400, others 300 people.”
Reacting to the call for review, the Commissioner of Information and Strategy, Mr. Ini Ememobong, said the government is yet to get any request for a review.
“The White Paper is the government’s position on the report. So If they are seeking a review, are they seeking a review of the report or the White Paper? These are technical and administrative issues.
“We are not aware of any request for review of either the report or White Paper because you cannot seek for a review of the White Paper.”