Nigeria collapse: ‘big announcement’ on repatriation of the dead

2014-09-28 06:00

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The South African government is expected to make a “big announcement” today or tomorrow about the repatriation of the bodies of those who died when a church guesthouse collapsed in Lagos, Nigeria.

The injured have already been flown home, but the 84 South Africans who died at TB Joshua’s Synagogue of All Nations Church more than two weeks ago must still be repatriated.

This week in an interview with City Press, Nigeria’s deputy high commissioner Martin Cobham said it was a sombre time.

The country is marking its Independence Day on Wednesday, but Cobham said the mission in South Africa will not be celebrating the day out of respect for the deceased.

But it has emerged that President Jacob Zuma and Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan failed to meet face to face on the sidelines of this week’s United Nations General Assembly in New York.

It was speculated earlier in the week that the two would meet to discuss the tragedy. The total death toll is believed to be 115.

Zuma’s spokesperson Mac Maharaj confirmed to City Press that Zuma did not meet with Jonathan.

Zuma had a packed schedule at the UN meeting, but it is unclear whether that was the reason they didn’t meet.

The two did, however, speak on the phone last Friday.

Cobham said staff at the high commission in Pretoria had been receiving up to 600 applications per day for religious pilgrimages to his country.

Cobham had been overseeing the operations at the country’s mission in South Africa following the collapse.

The high commissioner, Sunday Yusuf, travelled to Nigeria a day after Zuma announced the South African death toll because his father died (not in the collapse).

Although Cobham admitted there had been “sparks” in the diplomatic relationship between Nigeria and South Africa, he said this was a normal part of “human endeavours”.

He repeated the official government line that “the relationship between South Africa and Nigeria is very cordial”.

The first batch of rescue workers to go to Lagos could apply for their visas on arrival – a major concession – while visa fees were waived for other officials going there soon after.

Some South African officials privately complained a day after Zuma announced the tragedy that they were being given the runaround by the Nigerian mission when applying for visas.

In initial press conferences, International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane did not thank or acknowledge efforts by the Nigerian government.

Communication from the South African government was centralised soon after, with only Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe and government spokesperson Phumla Williams authorised to speak on the matter.

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