December 13, 2016
LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria’s Akwa Ibom state government says only 23 people died in a collapsed church tragedy, an apparent attempt to cover up a death toll of more than 150 when metal girders and the corrugated iron roof crashed onto a crowded service last weekend.
Cranes and bulldozers are still at the scene, clearing debris on Tuesday, three days after Saturday’s disaster. The Associated Press has reported at least 160 people died, using the count at one mortuary by the director of the state’s biggest hospital, the University of Uyo Teaching Hospital.
Hospital director Etete Peters said Saturday that mortuaries in Uyo city were overflowing with bodies and the toll likely would rise. But Peters later told journalists that only 24 bodies were at the teaching hospital’s morgue. He could not be reached Tuesday to explain the discrepancy.
Reigners Bible Church was under construction when it hosted hundreds of people for the consecration of founder Akan Weeks as a bishop. Weeks and state Gov. Udom Emmanuel, who was a guest with a large entourage, escaped unhurt. The state website put the dead at 23.
“The governor said the earlier figures … came as a result of multiple counting as a result of the different private health centers that victims were rushed to, before being transferred to the University of Uyo Teaching Hospital,” the statement said.
Emmanuel has ordered the arrest of the building contractor of the collapsed church, but it was unclear Tuesday if he has been found. Federal workers of the National Emergency Management Agency were prevented by state officials from counting the dead, said an official involved in the tragedy. The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to reporters.
Nigeria’s media is questioning the low death toll. The official News Agency of Nigeria ran a story that began “Did the Nigerian police in Uyo, Akwa Ibom state, lie on the number of casualties in the collapsed church on Saturday?” The agency quoted a resident, Gary Ubong, as saying, “I saw more than 100 dead bodies brought out on loaders.”
Sahara Reporters, a New York-based Nigerian news agency, ran a commentary “Tell The Public The Truth About The Total Number Of Victims And Casualties Now” by human rights lawyer Inibehe Effiong. As in many such tragedies in Nigeria, the true toll may never be known. Buildings collapse often in the West African country because of endemic corruption in which contractors bribe inspectors to ignore shoddy work or a lack of permits.