Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, who is worth N1.7 trillion ($11.2 billion) according to Forbes magazine has, through his company – Dangote Sugar Refinery Plc – refused to respect a court ruling which resulted from the killing of dozens of people by one of his employees, while on official duty.
A driver belonging to the company had rammed a company truck into waiting vehicles, resulting in an inferno which claimed over 40 lives.
The chief coroner, after investigation of the incident, had found the company driver culpable and ordered the company to compensate the families of the victims.
The total compensation to be paid by Mr. Dangote’s company is less than N200 million, about 0.01 percent of what the billionaire is worth.
On April 25, in a crowded court room in Lagos, Tajudeen Elias, chief coroner at the Ikeja Magistrate Court, pronounced his verdict on what is, arguably, the longest dragging inquest since the advent of the Coroner’s Law in the state in 2007.
The 19-month long inquest, which suffered more than a dozen adjournments, was initiated by Access to Justice (a non-governmental organisation), and Falana and Falana Chambers (a law firm), to determine the cause of a horrific accident in 2010; when a Dangote Sugar Refinery truck rammed into waiting vehicles along the Lagos-Ibadan expressway.
The resulting inferno led to the loss of over 40 lives as human occupants and metallic parts got charred in one of the severest fatalities on the expressway.
Reading his verdict in a capacity filled room, Mr. Elias told the Sugar Refinery Company, owned by Mr. Dangote, to issue a public apology as well as pay a “minimal compensation” to the accident victims and their families within three months.
Mr. Elias also indicted officers of the Nigeria Police for mounting a roadblock which caused a traffic snarl in the minutes leading to the accident.
Also, the verdict ignored the sugar company’s lawyers’ claims during the inquest that Salisu Lawal, the driver of the fatal truck, was dead. Mr. Elias mandated them to provide him within three months.
Mum is the word
Three months after Mr. Elias delivered his verdict; the management of the sugar refinery have neither issued the apology nor paid the compensation to the victims and their families.
In May, one month after the coroner’s verdict, Access to Justice, one of the parties who instituted the inquest, wrote a reminder to the management of Dangote Industries.
A similar letter was sent to the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Abubakar.
Both letters did not receive any response.
“We made these presentations to Dangote as well as the police. As I speak with you, they have drawn a blank,” said Joseph Otteh, the Executive Director of Access to Justice, a non-governmental organization.
“They gave us the impression that they would (respond), but they still haven’t.
“I guess they are testing our resolve, whether indeed we would carry out what we said we would do,” Mr. Otteh added.
In the letter addressed to the Chairman of Dangote Industries, the group demanded N160million as cost of losses suffered by the accident victims and their families.
“Since the 15th of August 2010 when these unfortunate multiple accidents occurred, up till this moment, Dangote Sugar Refinery has not lifted a finger; it has not contacted any of those we represent for anything whatsoever,” the letter, dated May 22, reads.
“At the time of the accidents, your company representatives did not provide emergency first aid care to our clients, did not visit the injured ones when they were hospitalized, or visit families of deceased victims to offer condolences afterwards,” the letter added.
Access to Justice, on behalf of the accident victims, also demanded a N218 million compensation from the Nigeria Police.
They also asked that the officers who set up the checkpoints be “searched out and disciplined accordingly”.
Phone calls to Sunday Esan, General Manager, Corporate Affairs, Dangote Industries Limited were not answered. Text messages were also not replied.
Ngozi Braide, Lagos State Police spokesperson, said that she was unaware of the coroner’s verdict.
I just resumed at this post,” said Ms. Braide, a Deputy Superintendent of Police, who was appointed in June.
To the courts
In his verdict, Mr. Elias described Dangote Industries’ attitude towards the accident victims and their families as “appalling”.
“The company ought to show serious concern in the course of its corporate responsibility to the public,” said Mr. Elias.
Access to Justice said that the “only alternative” left for them to press home their demands is the court of law.
“It would have been a lot better if, having been told in non-ambiguous terms that their truck was primarily responsible for that disastrous accident, that they would have, at least, made some efforts for their sins,” said Mr. Otteh.
“Ever since that accident happened, Dangote has not lifted a finger to even say ‘who are those people whose lives were shattered, traumatized by the acts of our company or those who are employed by us’,” Mr. Otteh added.
Mr. Otteh said that his group has not rushed to court after the inquest because it is “finalising” its court papers.
He said his organisation wrote to Dangote and the police with the expectation that the two parties would be willing to resolve the issues, based on the coroner’s verdict.
“Unfortunately, they are the ones forcing us into a court action,” he said.