The Lagos state government says TB Joshua, founder of the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN), must face trial over the collapse of a six-storey building within his church premises.
The incident, which occurred on September 12, 2014, led to the death of 116 persons, mostly South Africans.
In November, the government announced its intention to arraign the trustees of the church – Joshua is one of them – alongside engineers of the affected building.
Bola Akingbade, deputy director, public affairs of the Lagos state ministry of justice, said the coroner inquest set up to probe the incident, indicted the church and its engineers for criminal negligence and recommended them for prosecution.
But the trustees failed to honour court summons, and filed a suit before Kazeem Alogba, a judge of the high court in Ikeja, challenging the verdict of the coroner.
In their fresh action, the trustees sought for an order stopping their proposed arraignment and an order quashing the decision of the coroner.
Oyetade Komolafe, magistrate of the coroner, had held that the building that killed the victims was built without approval, adding that its collapse was due to structural defect.
But the church and its engineers – Oladele Ogundeji and Akinbela Fatiregun – rejected the verdict, describing it as unreasonable and one-sided.
When the matter came up before Alogba on Thursday, E.L Akpofure, lawyer to the trustees, said Komolafe erred in law to have sat as coroner court in Alimosho district, which he argued was non-existent.
Akpofure also referred to an argument of the state government to the effect that the criminal charge filed before Lawal Akapo was pursuant to the investigation conducted by the police and not the decision of the coroner, saying that such argument was a confirmation that no investigation was conducted because the police never interrogated the trustees of the church.
In response, Adeniji Kazeem, Lagos state attorney-general and commissioner for justice, said the issue of wrong heading of the nomenclature of the coroner was a mere irregularity, which lacked the vibe to render the proceedings of the coroner invalid.
While describing it as a mere technical point, Kazeem said such argument was not directed at substantial justice, and as such, the court should discountenance it.
Speaking on the powers of the attorney-general of a state to file criminal charge, Kazeem, who cited the case of Okereke Onyuike versus the people of Lagos state to buttress his argument, said once satisfied that a prima facie evidence has been established, the attorney-general has powers to file criminal charge even without the input of the police.
While questioning the jurisdiction of the court to hear the instant suit, Kazeem argued that the trustees of the church were clearly out of time as mandated by order 40, rule 4 of the rules of the court within which to file the suit, and as such, the case was dead on arrival.
He said under the rules, such application ought to have been brought within three months of the decision of the coroner, but it was filed on January 13, 2016, almost six months after the verdict of the coroner, which was delivered on July 8, 2015.
The attorney-general also faulted the verifying affidavit in support of the suit deposed to by one Sunday Okoroji, an assistant to Joshua, saying the deponent lacked the power to replace the trustees of the church, who are legally empowered to do so.
“My Lord, we submit that there is no proper verifying affidavit before this court because the said Okoroji cannot replace the trustees of the church who are still alive and kicking and as such the application is incompetent,” Kazeem argued.
He thereafter urged the court to dismiss the application with substantial cost, saying it was in the interest of justice for the court to so hold.
In a brief bench ruling, Alogba said he would give the matter the urgency it deserved being a matter of public importance.
He thereafter fixed February 19, 2016 for judgment.