A fortnight today, Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, used to buildings collapsing, witnessed one case of a different kind. A five- storey guest house in the precincts of the Synagogue Church of All Nations – Synagogue Church, for short – in a suburb of the city collapsed. It is owned by self-styled prophet Temitope B. Joshua who draws followership all over Africa and even beyond. As of Sunday, two days after, 87 dead bodies had been pulled out from the debris. There were over a hundred others injured, according to Mr. Ibrahim Farinloye, the Lagos spokesman for National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA).
Literature students will immediately be reminded of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, a verse drama that portrays the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.
However, there is a difference. While one was a choreographed political killing, the deaths in Lagos’ Synagogue Church were caused by a collapsed building due to, according to owner ‘Prophet’ Joshua, strong vibrations from a low flying plane, “dangerously hovering over the building”. He believed the building stood on firm ground and couldn’t have collapsed on its own. He said, “…we have a stable terrain in this area. I have been in this community for the past 30 years and no building has collapsed.” He was referring to the Ikotun area of Lagos.
Firm ground or not, the immediate question is: did the structure, still under construction, get Lagos state government’s approval? We have it on good authority that there was no such approval given. Lagos state’s Commissioner for Physical Planning and Urban Development, Mr. Olutoyin Ayinde, on Sunday, told reporters at the scene that there was no proof that the church obtained a permit to put additional structures on the existing ones.
The building originally had only two storeys, but at the time it collapsed, three additional floors were being built.
“We have no proof that there is a permit,” Ayinde said. “We asked the engineering team to meet us and for about two hours no member of the engineering team has come; we also have questions to ask.” He added that even if there was no approval for the building, it still ought to have been built professionally”.
Besides the apparent breach of the state’s building law, there was the inexcusable behaviour of church staff. Again, we have learnt authoritatively that they forcibly prevented rescuers from accessing the accident site that Friday. It was not until Saturday, a whole 24 hours after, that rescue work got under way. That full day delay made a very significant difference between life and death.
There are two issues in law here – violation of an extant state law and criminal behaviour of the staff of Synagogue Church.
We commend the Lagos government for promptly commencing an inquiry into this avoidable accident.
Anyone found guilty of contributing to the tragedy should be made to feel the full weight of the law. Not even if the guilty is a man of God.