The Lagos State government has given green light to the South African government to repatriate 54 bodies of its nationals who were victims of the September 12 building collapse at the Synagogue Church of All Nations so far identified through DNA test.
Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola, agreed to the return of the bodies during a meeting with the South African Special Envoy, Jeff Radebe, at the Lagos House, Marina on Wednesday.
Following agitation by South Africans for the bodies of those who died in the building collapse to be returned, the South African government appointed Mr Radebe to help in expediting the repatriation of the bodies.
On September12, a building being used as a guesthouse within the premises collapsed killing 116 people including 81 South Africans. The tragedy has been described as the worst in South African’s history since the end of apartheid and the highest number of South African deaths outside the country ever.
The collapsed building, originally a two-storey structure, was being refurbished with four additional floors at the time it crumbled. The Lagos State government said the church did not have the statutory permit to add additional floors to the building.
Mr. Fashola said while it understand the concern of South Africans to quickly get to closure over the tragedy, his government is also handling the process with caution to avoid mistakes in the identification of the bodies.
“I understand the call by South Africans to get the bodies of their relatives but we cannot at this time get the process wrong because if we release a body, we want to ensure that each family takes the body of their relative. It will be unpardonable for us to make mistakes,” he said.
He added that the South Africa could decide to repatriate the bodies in batches or wait until all the bodies are identified.
“We have no reason to deny you the right to take those 54 bodies, you have my word, you can take them whenever you are ready to do so. It is left for you to decide whether to take them in batches or wait until we conclude the exercise. But if you are ready, my team will ensure that you take them without any delay,” Mr. Fashola said.
He said the DNA was conducted in a South African laboratory to make the process less cumbersome for South Africans who are bearing the bigger brunt of the tragedy.
During the meeting the State Chief Examiner, John Babafunwa, said the bodies recovered were subjected to post mortem examination of fingerprints, photography and the collections of other samples.
“We had to collect additional DNA samples to assist the laboratory. We’ve been working together and talking to the lab. It is expected that more results will come in more than the 70 we have identified,” Obafunwa said.
Of the 116 persons who died, 70 have been identified so far among them 54 South Africans. Other nationals identified are Nigerians, Togolese and Béninoise.
Mr. Radebe said his team came to Lagos to speed up the process of repatriation of the bodies as under South African culture, the dead must be laid to rest within a weeks of dying.
“But today makes it two months since the incident. I have also paid a condolence visit to President Goodluck Jonathan two days ago to convey the message of our President and find ways of speeding up the processes and repatriation of the mortal remains of those 85 (81 South Africans) including those four who carry South African passports even though they are not nationals of our country,” he said.
“The whole nation of South Africa is in mourning, especially the families that have to endure these two months of waiting in order to bring closure to this whole incident. We are ready to repatriate them as soon as we get the green light from the State Government.
“We appreciate your government for the cooperation and our team has been briefing us on the challenges of identifying the bodies. But the bereavement was very tragic indeed and we have to get the bodies back to South Africa so it doesn’t get into more difficulties,” he added.