Smiles and prayers as Nigerians U-turn on co-operation

Nigerian authorities and church members have made a U-turn on co-operating with South Africans at the collapsed guesthouse tragedy, following a diplomatic skirmish, which saw an entire week fritter away while vital efforts to save lives were blocked.

“It’s completely different, I can’t believe it’s the same people,” Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman told the Mail & Guardian on Sunday. “Now it is all smiles, it’s just strange. We can go to whatever hospital we like, go to the church, the mortuaries.”

A diplomatic source from South Africa confirmed that the Nigerian authorities have proven to be far more co-operative since Friday, a week after the devastating collapse that has seen the largest number of South Africans killed outside of the country since even the downing of the Helderberg airliner in 1987 which killed 71 South Africans.

“The officials, police and experts we have sent say they are being allowed to work,” said the source. “They are working with their counterparts there and they have not reported any difficulties in the work they are trying to do.”

At least 84 South Africans died and scores more injured when a six-story hostel collapse in Lagos last Friday. The building was part of famed televangelist and self-proclaimed prophet TB Joshua Synagogue Church of All Nations.

Scarce skills
A team of experts were in Lagos by Friday, according to Minister Jeff Radebe, head of the inter-ministerial task team created to deal with the situation, including Brigadier Helena Ras, who Radebe emphasised was “an international expert on body identification” who consulted internationally.

The stress on scarce skills in the field followed the shock decision by Nigerian authorities to turn down help from South Africa earlier in the week, including one of the continent’s best search and rescue teams.

Another diplomat told the M&G on Thursday that “Nigeria is obsessed with its competitive attitude towards South Africa”.

“The Nigerians have flatly refused our search and rescue missions, the same way they initially refused international assistance during the search for the missing girls,” said the senior South African government official involved in the mission to bring the bodies of citizens home.

“They feel that this could send a politically worrying message that they don’t have capacity,” said the official.

Search and Rescue South Africa was placed on standby by the department of international relations, Sunday Times reported, but by Sunday last week it was too late.

Ian Scher from Search and Rescue South Africa said: “We didn’t go. It’s crucial to get in there within the first 24 hours … it’s easy to deduce that they didn’t want our help … It’s common knowledge that our team is the only one in sub-Saharan Africa with the resources to carry out this rescue.”

Gift of the givers, a South African-based Islamic relief organisation, were initially blocked in their efforts to access mortuaries and hospitals in Lagos to find South African hurt and deceased South Africans.

‘Some of us were even attacked
In addition, the crucial 24 hours after the collapse, when survivors could have been found in the rubble, was missed as information about the collapse was at a black-out with Nigerian authorities failing to communicate with their South African counterparts in time, and church staff and goers proving downright hostile.

Ibrahim Farinloye, a spokesperson for the Nigerian Emergency Management Agency, told the Sunday Times that rescue workers managed to save three people who were trapped near their gathering point on Friday, but church officials prevented rescuers from accessing the church.

“Some of us were even attacked [by church members]. We wanted to ask the military to deploy to force access for us, but there were many foreigners at the church and we did not want to create an international incident,” said Farinloye.

Church members were also hostile to journalists and smashed at least one television camera.

A number of South Africans trying to help described how they were chased away from mortuaries when trying to identify those who had died.

But according to Sooliman attitudes began to change from Thursday, a week after the collapse.

“We were chased away from the Avon healthcare facility on Wednesday. On Thursday staff at Subol Hospital was friendlier. On Thursday evening we went back to Avon and the attitude had changed. On Friday our embassy came to the church site and introduced us to the church people. There was still a bit of reluctance but by Saturday everything had changed.”

Sooliman was not certain what had led to the belated change of heart.

Mending of diplomatic relations
“The first 48 hours of any disaster there are always problems,” he noted, having experienced multiple aid operations to disaster zones. “When you get there people look at you not understanding what you’re trying to do. People have their own anxieties and fears and we don’t know what that is.”

The mending of the diplomatic relations between the two economic giants on the continent would have also played a role. Dr Oladiran Bello of the South African Institute of International Affairs told the M&G earlier this week that the relationship between the two countries has ebbed and flowed in the past 20 years, and would recover this time too. “There is a tendency for irritants to build up in this relationship, but the fundamentals and economic complements are such that they have to work together.”

Sooliman said the difference from when his Nigerian team had first arrived on Wednesday was remarkable, particularly the attitude of the church staff.

“They’re walking hand in hand, sitting together, working together and praying together like nothing happened,” he said. While all five of the Gift of the Givers local team were Muslims, this had caused zero tensions with church staff, Sooliman said. “The church guys are so happy that there are people wanting to help.”

But it is a case of too little too late.

While South African teams were now allowed unfettered access to the relevant sites, the first diplomatic source said it was purely to identify and recover the dead at this stage.

“We’re talking about the recovery of the bodies and identifications. There is no point rescuing, the Nigerians called it off on Friday. It was exactly seven days after the collapse. There is nothing to rescue.”

Evacuate the injured South Africans
The South African government on Sunday sent an aircraft to Lagos to evacuate the injured South Africans, the Sunday Independent reported.

It is believed that the building was in the process of having additional stories added without first securing the foundations, although Joshua has blamed it on a mysterious attack, citing the appearance of an aircraft above the building shortly before the collapse.

It is the fourth building disaster to befall the church, according to notes on its websites, City Press previously reported. “The roof of the first church was blown off by a storm, the second church was washed away by a flood while the third church also collapsed due to severe weather conditions,” the church said. Building collapses happen repeatedly Nigeria because of the use of substandard material and flouted construction regulations.

Spokesperson for the inter-ministerial task team Phumla Williams was not available for comment.

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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