A huge crowd besieged the entrance of the Synagogue Church Of All Nations in Ikotun Lagos in the noon of September 12, 2014. There was a surge of murmurs among the anxious crowd each time that an ambulance emerged from the premises and moved through the defiant crowd either on its way to the hospital or to the mortuary. The police were having a difficult time controlling the crowd and easing the traffic.
By that time, the Internet was flooded with news that a six-storey building on the premises of SCOAN had collapsed. Though journalists were unable to get to the accident scene as of that time, yet different casualty figures were already being reported generating anxiety in the public.
With the outcry that some journalists, in their bid to get to the accident scene, were allegedly harassed by church members and the reported conflicting casualty figures, one could almost vow that the tragic incident would surely be trailed with endless controversies.
The conflicting casualty figures and the alleged harassment of journalists that flooded the newspapers on September 13 made the founder of SCOAN, Prophet T.B. Joshua, to meet with the media, where he apologised and ascribed the alleged harassment to some community members, who he said should be forgiven for taking their loyalty to the church too far.
But that meeting with journalists and its likes, where the prophet suggested terror attack as the cause of the building collapse, backing his position with clips from CCTV, no doubt informed the witness summons issued on him to appear at a coroner’s inquest later set up to probe the cause of death of the victims.
At the coroner’s proceedings of October 24, 2014 where a date, November 5, was first fixed for Joshua’s appearance, the coroner, Magistrate O.A. Komolafe, had told the prophet’s legal team to relay to him and assure him that the coroner’s inquest was not prosecutorial but a body on a fact-finding mission.
On that day, Komolafe also dismissed the argument by Joshua’s lawyer, Mr. Jude Nnadi (SAN), that the prophet’s appearance would not be necessary “since he was not an eyewitness.”
“We have heard that he has been addressing the press at various times, let him come and address the court.
“The court has summoned him, let him come and tell us what he knows. He cannot sit over there and be sending words to us that he cannot come.
“The court has said that for the purpose of what we are doing here he should come over,” the magistrate maintained.
The Lagos State Government, through its Attorney General, Mr. Ade Ipaye, had in a press release on September 25, 2014, said it became imperative to narrow down to the exact cause of the mishap in response to public yearnings and to possibly forestall a future recurrence.
But Ipaye had suggested that the outcome of the coroner’s inquest might form the basis of a criminal trial if it turned out that the collapse of the building was due to negligence.
Ipaye said the coroner had been vested with all the power of a magistrate to call for whatever evidences and witnesses, which he deemed necessary to his inquisition.
“The law requires the verdict of a coroner, as certified in writing, to be forwarded to the State Attorney General and such verdict may form the basis of criminal prosecution depending on the evidence collected,” Ipaye had said.
Komolafe later announced his inaugural sitting for October 13, 2014 and listed various agencies and individuals, whose testimonies he adjudged would be useful to fulfil the mandate given to him.
Among the individuals invited was the Lagos State Chief Forensic Pathologist, Prof. John Obafunwa, who later put the casualty figure at 116 and confirmed that majority of the victims were nationals of South Africa. Also summoned was Joshua, whose appearance was first scheduled for November 5, 2014.
But the appearance of a group of people living with disabilities on a peaceful protest on the morning of October 13, when the inquest started, could well be taken as Joshua’s disposition towards the coroner’s inquest.
The group, the Disabled Welfare Organisation, led by its National Coordinator, Gbolahan Jonah, carried placards bearing, among others, inscriptions such as: “Free Prophet T.B. Joshua,” “TB Joshua is the real victim, don’t add to his pains,” “T.B. Joshua is not a killer, he is a healer,” “T.B. Joshua is innocent,” “Temper justice with mercy on Prophet T.B. Joshua.”
The day, November 5, 2015, started in Lagos with a heavy, early morning rain; nonetheless the coroner’s courtroom in Ikeja was filled and spilling with a crowd who came in anticipation of Joshua’s appearance. But that morning, neither the coroner nor the prophet was in view. The magistrate’s appearance was only to be announced later at few minutes to 11am.
The proceedings began in earnest with Komolafe explaining how he had been held up in traffic which was occasioned by the early morning rain.
The General Manager of the Lagos State Emergency Management Agency, Dr. Femi Oke-Osanyintolu, whose testimony had been partly heard, took the dock and testified till past noon. And no mention was made of Joshua, who was visibly absent, until when the court was about to adjourn late afternoon.
Komolafe said that in view of the early rain he had pardoned those who were scheduled to be in court as witnesses but failed to come.
But Joshua’s lawyer, Mr. Olalekan Ojo, stood to his feet and said, “May I with respect inform this court that as at today no summons to appear before this honourable court has been personally served on Prophet T.B. Joshua.
“I do not want a situation where this court might be misled to believe that a witness summons has been served on the prophet. Monday was the first time that the bailiff of the court attempted to effect service on Prophet T.B. Joshua but unfortunately the prophet was not around. Being the chief mourner, he has been getting in touch with families of those who lost their loved ones.”
Ojo said he saw the need to set the record straight in order not to cause confusion and following a warning by the coroner that the instrumentality of the law would be invoked against any invited witness who failed to appear.
According to Ojo, the best that the court bailiff could achieve was to drop the summons with one of the church evangelists, but the lawyer said it was not the same thing as serving Joshua in his personal capacity.
The lawyer, however, dodged the responsibility of taking the witness summons for onward relay to his client, saying, “The power of this court as to the issuance of summons is regulated by statute and what I have done so far is out of abundance of caution. With respect, the law does not allow me to accept a witness summons, the violation of which will attract sanction.”
The coroner wondered that in spite of wide media reportage, Joshua could feign ignorance of the call on him to appear. But law is law; if the prophet was not served with a witness summons he was not served.
Komolafe was forced to order a fresh service on Joshua but he also advised the prophet to make himself available for service.
“I have done the needful, but a word is enough for the wise. Personally, the court would not want to inflict more pains on the prophet, being the chief mourner, but he too should help the court by not putting himself at variance with the law,” Komolafe warned.
And facing the chief security officer of SCOAN, Mr. Sunday Okogie, he added, “When next the man (bailiff) is there, I don’t want to hear stories, you have to take him there (Joshua’s office). When is he going to preach in your church? I will ask the DPO at Ikotun to lay a siege on your church. Tell your prophet we are not prosecuting him.”
Though his visit was later rescheduled to November 20, still Joshua was not in court on that day. His non-appearance however was bellied by the faulty court equipment which cut the proceedings of that day short.
But to everyone’s surprise, on November 21, Ojo told the coroner that Joshua had gone before Justice Latifa Okunnu of the Ikeja Lagos State High Court to challenge the witness summons served on him.
Announcing the application at the tail end of the day’s sitting, Ojo said, “My Lord, what we are saying is that this court should suspend further proceedings, pending the time when my Lord, Honourable Justice Latifa Okunnu will give her ruling. My Lord has fixed the matter for December 3 and with utmost respect to my Lord, she is an eminent judge that could even deliver the ruling on that day.
“My Lord, our prayer is that Your Lordship should accord the high court respect and dignity, so that Your Lordship will not be seen to have taken or to intend to take any further action that might amount to prejudising or preempting the high court.”
That day, Ojo invoked the fury of the coroner, who said he was not obliged to suspend his sittings till the high court’s decision came, adding that it had taken him great restraint not to issue a bench against Joshua.
He said, “But let me give this to you, so that you don’t create the impression to the world that anybody is after anybody, because, in fact, you saw me writing, it is the bench warrant for that man. But you see, let me give him a long rope to pull. The court cannot be taken for granted and nobody, I repeat, nobody can do that, not even him. I just want you to advise him accordingly.
“I don’t even need to listen to this application, just to tell you that nobody is being prosecuted or being put on trial. The point I want to make is that, that fellow, whoever he is, he is not above the laws of the land and he dares not try it. Take that message back to him, that not on earth should he try to rubbish the court and never on earth should he try to use his hand to touch the sword of the state, if he does, he would have himself to blame.
“What I am saying is that Joshua should respect himself and not drag the law of the land in the mud.”
On December 3, Ojo pushed his luck further by filing an application for stay of proceedings and for that move the inquest for that day was halted.
Komolafe later dismissed the application for stay of proceedings on December 10, describing it as an abuse of court processes.
The magistrate held that the application was not compliant with Order 40 Rule 6, paragraph (a) of Lagos State Civil Procedure Rule, 2012.
And just when it seemed that the coast was clear for Joshua’s appearance, his lawyer, Chief Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), on December 15 orally urged the coroner to suspend the invitation pending Okunnu’s judgment. The coroner, who was circumspect of the legal tactics to bog the inquest down, grudgingly obliged Fagbemi’s prayer and moved on without Joshua.
Okunnu later upheld the summons on March 6, 2015, holding that the coroner had the latitude to determine which witness was relevant to his inquest, adding that Joshua’s right to fair hearing was not breached by the summons.
The prophet, however, said he was not convinced. He later lodged an appeal against Okunnu’s judgment.
And as expected, as of April 29, 2015 when the coroner called his last available witness in the inquest, the appellate court’s decision was still being awaited.
The coroner has now fixed June 2 for all parties to adopt their final written addresses and canvass summary arguments. He would thereafter fix a date to give his verdict, which would be reached without Joshua’s testimony, which he earlier adjudged important.