SA hopes to bring home all Nigeria tragedy victims

Thursday, November 13, 2014

By Chris Bathembu

Lagos – The South African government says it’s still hoping to bring back this weekend, all the mortal remains of the South Africans, who died when a church building collapsed in Nigeria in September.

Of the 81 South Africans who died in the tragic incident, 54 have so far been positively identified. Minister in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe, who is a Special Envoy in Nigeria to facilitate the repatriation, on Wednesday night, said he was still hopeful that more bodies would be positively identified so that all the remains can be transported back to Pretoria on Saturday.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Raji Fashola, gave the go ahead for all the bodies that have been positively identified to be transported to South Africa. Minister Radebe led a team of senior government officials to a marathon meeting with Fashola at the latter’s official residence in Lagos, where it was agreed that repatriation should go ahead this weekend. 

Speaking during the meeting, which was opened to the media, Minister Radebe went to great length to explain why it was important for the remains to be returned to South African without any further delay.

“In terms of our culture, we bury our dead within a week and now we are marking two months since the incident took place. We are very glad we are meeting with you Governor so that we can be able to speed up this process of repatriation,” Minister Radebe said.

More bodies identified

Nigeria authorities last month appointed a laboratory in Stellenbosch to conduct DNA tests to identify the bodies. It emerged on Wednesday that 70 bodies have been identified so far and 54 of those were South Africans, who were in the guesthouse of the Synagogue Church of All Nations led by Nigerian Evangelist TB Joshua when it collapsed. Other identified remains were of Nigerians and some Togolese.

The South African government will also include the remains of the Zimbabwean and Democratic Republic of Congo nationals who carried South African passports when they travelled to Nigeria. 

Minister Radebe said the affected families had endured “enough pain” during the past two months and it was important that the repatriation takes place without delay.

“They need to find closure to this incident. We must record our appreciation for the support we have received from the State of Lagos in light of the challenges that are there in positively identifying all the bodies.”

Since the incident took place, social workers from the Department of Social Development have been visiting families to provide them with updates and psychosocial support.

Director General in the Presidency Cassius Lubisi said teams from the Department of Health and Department of Defence and Forensics specialists will be among those who will be despatched to Lagos this coming weekend to prepare for the looming repatriation of the remains.

“It’s a team of specialists who will work very closely with the Nigerian authorities in order to ensure that the remains that have been identified are properly managed and loaded into mortuary trucks which will come in the second plane which is an Antonov flight that will carry all the mortal remains that would have been released by the State of Lagos,” Lubisi said.

Identification ongoing

Nigeria’s Chief Medical Examiner of Lagos State, Professor John Obafunwa, said collection of samples from relatives and finger prints from the victims was ongoing in order to speed up the process.

Obafunwa said it was expected that more results will come in as the week progressed.

“I’ve already asked the mortuaries to begin the process of tagging and the process to initiate the writing of death certificates for the bodies that have been identified so far and will take it from there,” he said.

President Jacob Zuma and the Inter-Ministerial Task Team tasked to manage the tragedy will be at the Waterkloof Air force base on Sunday when the mortal remains are returned.

Social workers will be deployed to help the families and the President will meet with the individual families before a formal reception is held in the morning. Only family members of the deceased and invited dignitaries would be in attendance.

The Nigerian defence department has also agreed to the use of its airforce base to allow for a smooth hand over process of the bodies to the South Africans on Saturday night.

An inquest into the disaster is continuing and the Lagos State Federal High Court is hearing evidence from several parties, including Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency and the church itself.

Governor Fashola said on Wednesday that the coroner’s inquest will not stop and that all the affected parties will be updated on the investigation.

“As events transpire, we will keep the South African government and people abreast of the developments. The matter has not ended here. The hearings are going on but it is important to note that the inquest is investigative and nobody is on trial,” Fashola added.

He revealed that when he first visited the scene he was shown a video by TB Joshua purporting to show a mysterious plane hovering above the building before it collapsed.

Joshua claims that a mysterious aircraft was seen hovering above the Synagogue Church of All Nations in the minutes preceding the tragedy on 12 September. -