A Hell Of A Crusade

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The News (Lagos)

October 18, 1999
Posted to the web October 18, 1999

Richard Elesho

A well-hyped Reinhard Bonnke crusade in Edo State turns sour as it resulted in a harvest of at least 16 deaths. Now, both the organisers and the bereaved are poised for a titanic legal battle

It began on Wednesday, 6 October with high expectations of miracles from heaven. By last week, however, the expectations had suffered a twist. Rather than divine blessings, the people of Benin are now looking forward to witnessing one of the most dramatic legal battles ever fought in Edo State. It would appear some forces believed to be evil in the state are unrelenting.

For popular televangelist, Reinhard Bonnke, his appearances in Nigeria are not the best of testimonies. At least, on two occasions, his name has been identified with misfortune. In Kano, in 1990, and only two weeks ago in Benin, Bonnke's crusades were attended by gnashing teeth and tearful eyes. Actually, both crusades left in their trail a tragedy of multiple deaths.

The universally-respected televangelist had arrived Benin on 5 October amidst high expectations of delivering Edo State from a series of mysterious disasters which occurred in recent times. Last month alone, two accidents in the state involving luxury buses had resulted in over 60 deaths. In an ancient city undergoing a troubled transformation from fetish practices to the Christian faith, the coming of Bonnke could not have been more heart-warming. His crusade would cleanse the state of evil influences, every believer thought.

By 5 p.m of 6 October, the opening day of the five-day crusade, the Dr. Grawick Memorial School playground venue of the "Great Gospel Crusade" was bursting at the seams with the faithful. Attendance on that day was estimated to be 100,000. There was practically no room to swing a cat. When the Deputy- Governor of Edo State, Mr. Mike Oguiadomhe, who was the guest of honour arrived early in the evening, even his executive status could not guarantee him smooth passage to the forestage.

Sadly, what descended on the venue in the wake of the crusade was a morbid kind of a miracle. As the crowd made for home after Bonnke's crusading, crowd control, or rather lack of it, became the issue. It was around 5p.m, no organised manner at guiding the sea of faithful out of the undemarcated venue, a stampede ensued as they jostled to set out of the ground. At the end of the squeezing, pushing and shoving, 14 persons were confirmed dead. 50 persons mainly children, were also declared missing. While the stampede lasted, terror reigned supreme as hoodlums vent their unbridled lust on defenceless damsels whom they mercilessly raped.

The 14 persons who died on the spot comprised 11 women and three men. Their corpses were deposited at the government-owned Central Hospital, Benin where the mortuary was said to be full to capacity having received some accident victims earlier in the day. As a result, some of the victims were left on the bare floor with half of their bodies covered. Vivian Aebigwe, Comfort Obulor, Mary Erhahon, Josephine Efemu and Mrs. Felicia Agbonkpolor were among the unfortunate dead. By last Thursday, no fewer than five unidentified victims still lay at the hospital morgue unclaimed. But even as the bereaved were counting their losses, Bonnke was ignorant of the disaster until 48 hours after it occurred. He would simply sound philosophical about it: "God had accepted the souls of the departed."

Ironically, the Deputy-Governor, Mr. Ogwadomhe, had prophetically asked the faithful to help pray against "evil phenomenon" in the state. Obviously, that prayer was not answered, specifically in respect of Bonnke's crusade.

The catastrophe presented a weapon for traditionalists opposed to the gradual "Christianisation" of Benin. On 7 October, a group of protesters stormed the Edo House of Assembly and urged the Speaker, Mr. Thomas Okosuns to summarily put an end to the crusade. They argued that the tragedy that attended the opening ceremony was an indication that "the gods" were not in support of the crusade.

Dispassionate critics are blaming organisers of the event for their lackadaisical efforts at crowd-control. One, the venue of the crusade was considered too small for an occasion of that magnitude. Two, experienced relevant professionals were not put in place to handle any untoward occurrence that could arise. For instance, there were no medical personnel or equipment at hand to attend to victims who did not die immediately after the incident, as confirmed by Dr. Pius Asemota, the medical director of Central Hospital.

The state government has expressed its condolence to the families of the bereaved. In a message conveyed by the Commissioner of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Joseph Awowie, the government described the incident as "very unfortunate and a big loss to the bereaved families."

The organisers too have sympathised with the bereaved. A paragraph statement signed by Mr. Felix Omoubode, chairman of the crusade's board of advisers reads that the body "very deeply sympathise with the families and relatives of those who passed on to glory during the crusade."

All these palliatives would, however, not soothe the frayed nerves of one of the bereaved. Rather than be pacified by mere words, the family of the late Josephine Efememise, a 36-year-old mother of two is asking for monetary award. Last week, Mr. Theophilus Osagiede, brother to Efememise, headed for the Benin High Court to slam a N60 million suit on Bonnke and seven of the crusade organisers for the death of his sister. Mr. S.O. Omare is his lawyer.

Omare will have his hands full in court. Already a battery of lawyers, led by Mr. Okeaya Inneh, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria has indicated interest to defend the man of God. The lawyers aver Osagiede has sued God. They also hold that although the organisers advertised that the public attend the N16 million-worth crusade, the onus of attendance actually lie on individual, without any prompting. Omare is determined to prove them wrong in court.

Publication date: October 25, 1999

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