Synagogue collapse: Uncertainty over repatriation of South African corpses


South Africans are still in the dark about the repatriation of their compatriots killed in a Lagos building collapse on September 21, 2014.

At least 116 people, among them 84 South Africans, were killed when a multi-storey guesthouse attached to the Synagogue Church of All Nations(SCOAN) went down.

The church is run by popular televangelist TB Joshua.

“We still don’t know. Even as we speak now the laboratory [in Lagos] has not given us an update,” South African government spokeswoman, Phumla Williams, said on Wednesday.

“We reckon by end of the week there will be some information. You see they are not commissioned by us, they are commissioned by the Nigerian government. So they are reporting directly to the Nigerian government, not to us.”

Williams saida media briefing would be called once they get new information on those killed.

She had told anxious relatives on October 5 “We wish we had a timeline. We are entirely at the mercy of the Nigerians.”

According to her, the SA government had decided that it needed to have a frank discussion with the families about the state the bodies would be in when they were returned.

She said the families were told: “We are appealing to you that you expect the worst. I don’t think you want to see your relative in the state that they are in. The majority of them, I don’t think that they are looking good.”

Lagos State Chief Medical Examiner, Professor John Obafunwa,was recently quoted as saying the bodies would be home by the end of the month.

“I would be surprised if we had to wait till November… I expect all bodies to be out by that time. The inquest could drag on for weeks and months. But we’re not going to delay the release of bodies to family members because of that,” Obafunwa said.

Reports that bodies were being kept cool with fans and no refrigeration in some mortuaries were denied.

Autopsies are said to have been completed and samples shipped out for DNA analysis.

The process of identifying corpses had been slow because Nigeria does not have facilities to analyse DNA.

Meanwhile, the Coroner’s inquest investigating the collapse have also requested for a manifest of those in the trapped building from the church authorities.

The request was made on October 16 when the inquest presided over by the Coroner, Mr Oyetade Komolafe, visited the scene of the accident.

Komolafe was accompanied on the visit by Obafunwa and Mr Toyin Ayinde, Lagos State Commissioner for Physical Planning and Urban Development.

Others on the visit included Mr Akingbolahan Adeniran, Lagos State Counsel and representatives of the Nigeria Police Force, Red Cross Society and the Lagos State Emergency Management Authority.

The entourage was received by the Chief Security Officer of SCOAN, Mr Sunday Okojie, who conducted them around the scene of the incident.

Komolafe directed the church to give the list of the people lodged at the collapsed building to the Lagos State forensic team led by Obafunwa to assist in identification of the victims.

“We want to be able to identify all the victims because those bodies will not be released to their relatives if we cannot identify them,” he said.

Obafunwa presented a formal letter addressed to the church requesting for the manifest, noting that it was needed for proper identification of the victims.

“In an investigation of this nature, we need to carry out our own tests.

“DNA analysis will not give you a name. There is nothing wrong with what we are asking for,” Obafunwa said.

Responding, Chief Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), counsel to the Church, said that DNA of all the families involved in the incident was submitted to the pathologists more than two weeks before the visit.

He reiterated that the church was ready to cooperate with the inquest to unravel the cause of the building collapse and that the said manifest would be provided by his client.