The Lagos State Coroner on Wednesday found Dangote Sugar Refinery, a company owned by Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, culpable for the horrific accident which claimed over 50 lives along the Lagos-Ibadan expressway in August 2010.
Delivering his verdict at the Ikeja Magistrate Court, Tajudeen Elias, the chief coroner, mandated Dangote Sugar Refinery to issue a public apology as well as a “minimal compensation” to the accident victims and their families within three months of the verdict.
Mr. Elias also told the company to produce the driver of the truck which ignited the multiple collision and inferno within three months of the verdict.
“The company ought to show serious concern in the course of its corporate responsibility to the public,” said Mr. Elias.
He also faulted the management of Dangote Sugar Refinery for their “appalling attitude” throughout the incident.
A long road to a verdict
The inquest, initiated by Access to Justice, a non governmental organization, and Femi Falana, began on September 13, 2010; and lasted more than 18 months suffering several adjournments before the coroner’s final verdict.
On Wednesday, it looked like the verdict would suffer another adjournment when proceedings did not begin more than one hour after the noon scheduled time.
At about 1.10 p.m, counsels for all the parties were called into the magistrate’s chamber; they came out a few minutes later telling reporters that “the magistrate would not allow video recording during the session.”
When Mr. Elias eventually emerged at 1.30 p.m; he repeated that “there should be no recording.”
While delivering the more than one hour long verdict, the coroner also mandated the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) to ensure efficient checking and monitoring of all vehicles; a road sign indicating speed limits to be placed at the scene and “all other roads”; and the dismantling of police checkpoints as well as regular police surveillance “to ensure sanity” on our roads.
Leonard Dibia, Cyril Ejiofor, Adeyemi Okuade, and Mr. Adewopo – counsels for Access to Justice; the Commissioner of Police; Falana and Falana Chambers; and Dangote Sugar respectively – told the coroner that they were “grateful” for the verdict.
Mr. Ejiofor said that the police had already begun implementing the coroner’s recommendation as the new Police Inspector General had outlawed police checkpoints.
While Mr. Adewopo left immediately after the sitting and was not available to talk to reporters after the sitting; Mr. Dibia expressed his surprise at the coroner’s use of the term “minimum compensation” for the victims.
“We are talking of human lives and life is the most treasured of all human rights,” said Mr. Dibia.
“I think it wasn’t well thought out. And it will not affect any further steps that needs to be taken. That is his opinion,” he added.
“We will give Dangote time as responsible citizens to respond. If they do not, we will take legal steps.
“We’ll sue on behalf of the victims, asking for compensation as the coroner had even directed that it should be done,” Mr. Dibia further said.
One of the accident victims, Lukman Akinsoji, said he was “very happy” with the coroner’s verdict.
“I’ll follow the judgment to anywhere they said we should go,” said Mr. Akinsoji, whose Mazda bus was burnt in the inferno.
“If they say the High Court, I’ll follow the case.”
There were conflicting reports over the exact number of deaths, with most of the bodies burnt beyond recognition.
The FRSC official report after the accident put the number of accident victims at 33 – 18 of them injured and 15 burnt beyond recognition.
However, eyewitness said more than 40 people lost their lives during the inferno.
Eleven witnesses testified during the protracted inquest which had more than 18 sittings while counsels tendered dozens of exhibits ranging from photographs of burnt victims to reports by the Vehicle Inspection Office (VIO).
Witnesses confirmed that the accident and the resulting inferno was as a result of a police checkpoint as well as brake failure by the Dangote truck.
“I saw a little boy burnt beyond recognition,” one of the witnesses said.
Another witness said that he reported the incident at the nearby Isheri Police Station but discovered days later that the portion of his report which stated that there was a police checkpoint had been deleted.
An 18 year old witness, who was on her way to Ilorin for her post-UME (University Matriculation Examination), said she lost her one year old nephew to the fire.
‘Truck is unroad worthy’
The FRSC finding stated that the trailer was over speeding and that the “brake pads were bad.”
“From our findings, the driver applied the brakes but it failed.”
The finding also attributed the cause of the accident to the sloping nature of the bridge and the absence of road signs.
Police witnesses had argued that the truck, and not a checkpoint, was to blame.
Though they did not provide any evidence to back their claim, counsel for Dangote Sugar, Akin Adewopo, maintained that Salisu Lawal, the driver of the truck, was dead.