The Akwa Ibom State government has made it clear it will not release a white paper on its inquiry on the church collapse that killed 27 people and injured 37 in 2016.
The Reigners Bible Church, Uyo, which was under construction, caved in during a ceremony to consecrate the church founder, Akan Weeks, as a bishop.
The Akwa Ibom Governor, Udom Emmanuel, who was a special guest at the ceremony, narrowly escaped unhurt.
Seven months after the commission of inquiry, headed by a retired judge, Umoekoyo Essang, submitted its report, the state government said on Wednesday in a statement that, “The Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice has been mandated to commence the process of taking appropriate actions against all persons found culpable in the church building collapse.”
The statement, issued by the Commissioner for Information, Charles Udoh, added that “All cases of proven professional negligence will be dealt with decisively within the ambit of the law.”
The statement took many people by surprise because of the expectation that the report was going to be made public soon.
Those who spoke on the matter expressed anger against the government’s decision not to release a white paper on the commission’s report.
“The statement by the commissioner is pointless,” said Inibehe Effiong, a human rights lawyer, who has been campaigning for the release of the report.
“It does not resolve the questions which the people of the state have been asking on the outcome of the investigation by the commission of inquiry.
“The procedure is that when government constitute a judicial commission of inquiry, upon the conclusion of the assignment, it is expected that a white paper be issued by the government wherein the government would state the recommendations that it accepts and those that it rejects, and a clear statement on actions that would be taken in respect of the recommendations,” Mr. Effiong said.
Mr. Effiong accused the government of having a hidden interest in the report.
“The government has an interest in that report which it does not want to come out openly to say.
“If the government is interested in the truth, why not release the report. In fact, given the scale of the tragedy that took place, what stops the government from publishing the report on the internet. I am not even talking about the white paper, I mean the report itself.
“I am saddened that the government has not deemed it fit to, at least, honour the souls of those who lost their lives,” said the lawyer, who hinted that he may sue the government on the matter.
Victor Iyanam, a lawyer and a former commissioner for justice in the state, said if the government knew that they were not going to release a white paper on the commission’s report, they should have simply used the police to investigate, arrest and prosecute those culpable.
“Let us know those who have been indicted by the commission,” Mr. Iyanam said. “That is the transparent thing to do.
“Let the government not give the impression that the whole essence of setting up the judicial commission of inquiry was to sweep things under the carpet.”
Another lawyer in the state, Nsikak Akai, said the government’s statement succeeded in keeping the people in the dark on what really led to the church collapse, apart from the fact that it did not mention names of persons to be prosecuted which the people would also want to know.
He said the government’s position was “wrong” and “totally unacceptable”.
“Akwa Ibom people are more enlightened and intelligent,” he said.
Mr. Akai said people who feel aggrieved over the government position could approach the court to compel it to not only release a white paper but initiate criminal proceedings against those culpable.
He said they could also team up to file a civil suit, seeking damages from the Reigners Bible Church.
Franklyn Isong, a journalist and a member of the Civil Liberty Organisation, CLO, has been among those putting pressure on the government “to do the right things” as far the church collapse is concerned.
Mr. Isong expressed shock over the government action. He said the human right community and the people would continue to agitate for Governor Udom Emmanuel administration to take proper actions on the matter.
“A press statement from the government is not enough.
“The government claimed that they have paid all verified outstanding medical bills of the victims of the church collapse. The question I want to ask the government is: how many victims were affected and which hospitals treated them? How many survived and how many died? These are tax payer’s money,” he said.
When contacted, the Commissioner for Information, Mr. Udoh, he said there was no law that says a government must release a white paper on the report of the commission.
The state Commissioner for Justice, Uwemedimo Nwoko, declined comment on the matter.