The collapse of Reigners Bible Church building in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State capital is an event sitting comfortably and promiscuously on the annals of history of the state.
The gloom and agony brought by the building collapse would not be erased by sands of time as over forty lives (as official figure and 100 as media reports) were lost while scores fatally injured at the incident.
It was on a black Saturday, December, 10, 2016 when the General Overseer of the church, Apostle Akan Weeks was to be ordained as an Arch Bishop in a widely publicized service.
From the cacophony of the heavy musical instruments mounted inside the auditorium filled with worshippers came the crumbling of the building, leaving many trapped dead by the iron pillars and roofs while few others managed to escape.
The State Governor, Udom Emmanuel as well as his appointees and other dignitaries were present at the event, fortunately, the governor and few others were among those saved.
The governor who thanked God for the safety was empathetic enough to monitor personally the rescue mission by the officials and ensured that victims still alive were evacuated and given prompt medical attention even though some later died in the hospitals.
Emmanuel thereafter set up a Judicial panel of enquiry headed by Justice Umoekoyo Essang, to investigate the remote and immediate causes of the building collapse who few months after came out with their reports.
The question according to Akwa Ibom residents and some groups is, ‘what is the outcome of the commission’s report? Why has the state government suddenly gone mute after the panel submitted it’s report four years ago? Are there some interests to be protected?
In an interview with the National Coordinator, Akwa Ibom Human Rights Community and lawyer who represented the victims at the panel of enquiry, Clifford Thomas (Esq) on weekend, he noted that the outcome of the Commission of Enquiry was a sad reminder of the failure of government to guarantee the welfare of its people.
Thomas stated that four years after the tragic incident which claimed about “100” lives and left many injured, the government has failed to give succour to many of those affected.
He explained that the 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 hospital, Ibom Multi-Specialist, where they were treated by the hospital management.
He said unfortunately, those affected had to resort to traditional methods to treat themselves, saying they were too poor and afraid to challenge the government for exonerating Apostle Akan Weeks, whom he claimed was responsible for the tragedy.
“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, 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 N3.5million in all. Planet FM appealed to people through their medium. The Chief Executive Officer, Tony Afia put money down and persons began to contribute.
“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. He murdered those people and I am ready for him to take me to court because I have my facts and documentations. I will prove to the court that he deliberately murdered those people”, he stated.
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 personal monies we gave was 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 litigations. 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 they go to court against the government, the government will go after them and kill them. They have fears but we are always ready.
Meanwhile the victims’ lawyer, Thomas and the Chairman of Civil Liberties Organisations, Franklyn Isong had called on the State government to review the white paper and prosecute the founder of the church, Akan Weeks.
The CLO chairman, Isong, said government was bias in the White paper claiming that he monitored the sitting of the Commission in Uyo and therefore 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. It 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 continue to build on that building. That place was a swampy area and was not fit for such project. But when the White Paper reports was released, 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 sitting. When the reports came out, government excused and absolved Apostle Akan Weeks of any indictment but invented something and indicted only the engineers.
“Justice Umoekoyo Essang’s led Panel of Inquiry 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 issue on the figure of people that died. Some said 400, others 300 people. We are asking for a review”, he said
When contacted, the Commissioner of Information and Strategy, Ini Ememobong said state government is yet to get any request for a review.
According to him, “The white paper is 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. The white paper is the position on the report, while the report is the foundation, and the white paper is the building on top the foundation.”