……Agbakoba, others demand late developer’s firm, media presence at panel sittings
Abuja – A panel of enquiries set up by the Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, to investigate the immediate and remote causes of the 21-storey building that collapsed on Gerrard Road, Ikoyi, will address members of the public on Monday, Saturday PUNCH has learnt.
This is just as families of victims killed in the incident urged the state government to allow them to attend the panel proceedings while lawyers warned the government against barring journalists from covering the probe.
The state Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, had constituted a six-member panel led by the President of Nigeria Institute of Town Planners, Mr Toyin Ayinde, on November 3 to investigate the immediate and remote causes of the collapse and submit its report within 30 days.
Other members of the panel are a structural engineer, Dr Akintilo Adeleke; an architect, Yinka Ogundairo; a representative of Institute of Builders, Mr Godfrey Godfrey, and a property lawyer, Mrs Bunmi Ibrahim.
The high rise owned by a developer and Managing Director of Fourscore Heights Limited, Femi Osibona, had crumbled on November 1, trapping him, his personal assistant, Oyinye Enekwe and his US-based friend, Wale Bob-Oseni, billed to return to the States that fateful day, a corps member and several others working at the site.
At the last count, 46 persons, including Osibona, Bob-Oseni and about-to-wed Enekwe, had been recovered dead from the rubble while 15 persons were rescued alive as the emergency operation continued.
The incident had been enmeshed in controversies with the suspended General Manager of the Lagos State Building Control Agency, Gbolahan Oki, saying that the skyscraper was approved as a 15-storey building, while the state’s Deputy Governor, Dr Obafemi Hamzat, insisted that 21 storeys were approved.
However, a viral document from the Lagos State Physical Planning Permit Authority dated April 9, 2019, confirmed that the government indeed approved “15 floors” for the real estate firm.
In the ensuing conundrum, Sanwo-Olu set up the panel to determine if there was full compliance with physical planning and building materials laws of the state; whether there was supervisory or oversight lapses on the part of regulatory agencies and make necessary recommendations to guard against reoccurrence.
Speaking to one of our correspondents on Friday, the state Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Gbenga Omotosho, said the panel had commenced its assignment since it was inaugurated by the governor last Thursday and would brief the public through the media on Monday.
He said, “The panel has begun work immediately the governor swore them in. The panel may hold a press conference on Monday.”
Meanwhile, the Osibona family and others who lost their loved ones in the tragic incident have asked the state government to allow them to take part in the proceedings of the panel.
The Osibonas’ lawyer, Olisa Agbakogba (SAN), said since the panel was looking into crucial issues, it must hear from the family.
He said, “The family will take part in anything concerning the enquiries, the panel itself, the building control agency and the question of the coroner’s inquest because this is a huge issue and it is important that the family is fully represented in all of the enquiries that the Lagos State Government would like to make so that the role of the late developer is fully taken into account.”
Agbakogba said while the family had yet to receive an invitation from the panel, it expected to be involved in the enquiries.
The lawyer added, “I expect that the panel would understand that if it is set up to deal with the question of the integrity of the building, it must consult with the developer (firm). There is no question that it is the only way to go. The panel cannot arrive at any meaningful conclusion without involving the family and the developer.”
Asked whether the disagreement between the developer’s siblings and his wife over his assets had been resolved, the lawyer simply said, “There are no issues.”
Ademola Ayodeji, the cousin of a bricklayer, Sesan Akinleye, who also died in the collapsed building, said the family would like to take part in the panel’s enquiries.
“It would be good if they invited us to witness the panel proceedings. It is a normal thing. The most important thing is for us to be there to know what is going on,” he said.
John Otu, the elder brother of the late aluminium frames installer from Abuja, Kenneth Otu, told Saturday PUNCH that the panel risked being accused of bias if families were not allowed to participate.
He stated, “Families of the victims should be allowed to participate in the panel’s investigation. There should be one or two representatives of each family present there. Without any representative who may have one or two things to say during the investigation, there may be a reason to say the panel is biased. If each family is represented, I think it will be better and fair.”
Gafar Ogunfunwa, the younger brother of an engineer and pastor at Redeemed Christian Church of God, Living Water Parish, Ibafo, Ogun State, Ola Ogunfunwa, who also died in the building collapse, said inviting affected families to the panel deliberations would be a good move “so it doesn’t become a government affair alone.”
He added, “The families can make comments and it will be a fair representation. However, we can’t force them to invite the families. There is nothing we can do about it. Even if they don’t invite us now, I believe they have to do so at a certain stage of their investigation.
“If the government sets up a panel on a matter of this nature without allowing members of the public to attend proceedings, there is a tendency to rubbish the outcome.”
Abacha Maisule, the relation of two labourers killed at the site, Hassan Mikailu and Aminu Yale, said the families would like to partake in the panel enquiries but for distance barrier.
“The families will like to be present at the panel hearing but they are based in Sokoto,” he said.
Adegboruwa, others demand media presence at panel sittings
A senior advocate of Nigeria, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, has warned that journalists should not be barred from covering the proceedings of the panel.
Adegboruwa said members of the public were entitled to know what the panel was doing to avoid giving the impression that there was “anything to hide.”
He said, “I believe it is an investigative panel. Under Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution, members of the public and the press should be allowed to observe the general proceedings of the panel. But if the panel has witnesses that request their identities to be masked, that can be granted in exceptional circumstances.
“But I think that having regard to the pledge made by the governor to the people of Lagos State in respect of transparency on the investigation, the proceeding should be made public so that the impression is not given that there is anything to hide in respect of the assignment of the panel. The public should be entitled through the press to know the developments happening at the panel.”
Similarly, Agbakoba said having a public enquiry with journalists present would make it a fair proceeding.
“Of course. Why not? There is no secret. So, the question is to find out what went wrong and how it can be fixed,” the senior lawyer added.
Also speaking on the matter, Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, noted, “Sure, they should. It’s their right under Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution. The panel must sit in public and the press must cover the proceedings so that nothing is hidden under the debris of that unfortunate crash.”
However, another lawyer, Malachy Ugwummadu, said the head of the panel reserved the right to conduct the proceedings of the panel in camera if the need arose, in line with the Panel of Enquiry Law of Lagos State.
He said, “The panel of enquiry, just like you have the judicial panel of enquiry into the #EndSARs crisis, are all pursuant to the Panel of Enquiry Law of Lagos State. Ordinarily, it is supposed to be a public exercise. However, the panellists, particularly the chairman or the chairperson, reserve the right pursuant to the same law to conduct the proceedings of the panel in camera if the need arises.
“Even in court, there are circumstances in which enquiries are conducted in private. So, in the same vein, if for any reason, whether security or otherwise, the panellists resolve to make their proceedings in camera, that is not against the law. It could be some aspects of the proceedings, it could be all aspects of the proceedings; it could be for a particular situation or the other. But ideally, the attribute of an arbiter is to do it (conduct proceedings) in the public. After all, such institutions are public institutions.”
A reliable source privy to the panel confided in one of our correspondents that space constraints might prevent the investigative committee from inviting journalists to cover the proceedings.
The source said, “The space they are using is small. If they allow all journalists to come in, there is going to be a problem. It will be choked up. What I think they will do is to, from time to time, brief journalists on what they have done.”
However, Omotosho maintained that the panel was open, adding that the victims’ families and the media were free to attend its proceedings.
He said, “They are free to come but as you know it is a panel of experts not just anybody. On Monday the panel will be holding a press conference around 1 pm. Media will also be allowed to cover the proceedings.”
Collapsed building yet to be linked to any underwriter – NCRIB
The Nigerian Council of Registered Insurance Brokers on Friday said no underwriter or broker had claimed any relationship with the 21-storey building 12 days after it collapsed.
NCRIB’s Executive Secretary, Mr Tope Daramola, said this in an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria on the sidelines of the NCRIB Special Day at the 2021 Lagos International Trade Fair in Lagos.
Daramola, who described the fatalities recorded in the incident as unfortunate, urged the National Assembly to legislate compulsory insurance on storey buildings.
He said, “As of today, no underwriter or broker has claimed any relationship with the collapsed building. The implication of this is a total loss for everyone involved, and sadly for those who lost their lives, if no insurer eventually shows up to take up the claims. The government must stop paying lip service to giving insurance the impetus it needs.”