Lagos — Anambra State Governor Peter Obi; leaders of the All Progressives Congress, APC, and the All Progressives Grand Alliance, APGA, yesterday, traded blames over last Saturday's stampede at the Holy Ghost Adoration Ground at Uke in Idemili North Local Government Area of Anambra State in which about 28 people died.
While APC gubernatorial candidate, Senator Chris Ngige and the party's interim National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed blamed Obi for the tragedy, the Anambra State Governor and APGA National Chairman, Chief Victor Umeh, said Ngige is responsible and should be arrested.
This came as the Anambra State government, yesterday, declared three days of mourning for those who died in the incident. In a broadcast in Awka, yesterday, Governor Peter Obi also said that he would set up a panel of inquiry to unearth the immediate and remote causes of the tragedy.
The governor, who sympathized with families of the deceased and injured, also directed security agencies to ensure that the culprits were brought to book.
Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Onitsha, Most Reverend Valerian Okeke, yesterday, said the stampede was reportedly caused by a false alarm raised by somebody in the crowd along one of the narrow roads out of the town.
APGA Candidate, Chief Willie Obiano condoled with the bereaved families and urged politicians to shun politics of bitterness.
Why I went to the church and what transpired - Obi
Looking depressed and worried over the tragedy, Obi explained how he was being interrupted when the priest invited him to speak to the congregation.
Wondering why the APC governorship candidate should turn a holy ground into a campaign arena, Obi said that as he stood to speak, some group of people waving brooms and Senator Chris Ngige's posters started singing Ngige's name.
Obi's broadcast read: "With a deep sense of sorrow and sadness, I address you today on the tragedy which befell us yesterday (Saturday) at the Holy Ghost Adoration Ministry, Uke, Idemili North Local Government Area of Anambra State leading to the death of over 20 persons.
"My heart goes out to the immediate families of the deceased, the presiding priest, Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Obinma, the Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha and indeed all Anambrarians. I assure you that the Anambra State government in its usual manner will give you all the needed support to comfort you at this painful period.
"It is, however, necessary to state what happened at the vigil at Uke. The host of the Ministry, Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Obinma had personally delivered a written invitation to me, requesting that I attend the All Saints night prayers (November 1, 2013 being All Saints Day).
"In my characteristic manner, I honoured that invitation, arriving the venue at about 10:00 pm when the Mass started with no more than 10 persons including my elder sister, Rev. Sr. Martina Obi, the National Chairman of APGA, Chief Victor Umeh and others as well as less than half of my security details.
"It is worth-mentioning that when I was called upon by the Priest to speak as the governor of the state at about 12 midnight when the Mass ended, a group of people located in three different spots started chanting Ngige slogans and waving the brooms of All Progressives Congress and the pictures of Dr. Chris Ngige, the APC's flag bearer in the November 16 Governorship election. It took up to 20 minutes for the priest to calm them down.
"I was surprised that some people would turn a prayer ground into a campaign venue. In my remarks, which lasted no more than five minutes, I promised to sponsor 20 indigent people from among the faithful on pilgrimage, provide access road to the premises and urged all present to pray for Anambra State and Nigeria. The Presiding priest and all present can testify to this, and it is on tape.
"I left the Adoration premises at about 3:00am on Saturday with the persons who came with me and arrived at my Lodge at 3:30 am only to be told after my broadcast, later in the morning where I renamed the Anambra State University (ANSU) to Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu University that a stampede occurred at the place where I had left three hours previously. I quickly cancelled all my engagements on Saturday and Sunday and started visiting relevant places to get first-hand information on the tragedy.
"I appeal to the good people of our dear state to remain calm and prayerful as God who has been with us all this while, will help us to overcome the present sad development so that we can continue the task of turning around our state.
"I have directed all security agencies to do everything possible to unearth the cause of this mayhem. A panel of inquiry will soon be constituted to investigate what happened. Finally, I have declared three days of mourning starting from yesterday in honour of our departed ones."
Governor Obi is culpable - APC, Ngige
Reacting to the development, the APC said that Governor Obi should be held responsible for the tragedy for allegedly turning a house of prayer into a house of politics.
In a statement issued in Lagos, yesterday, by its Interim National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the party said had Governor Obi and the APGA Governorship Candidate, Willie Obiano, not gone to the praying ground "to engage in wrongful politicking," the innocent souls who died at the vigil would be alive today.
Praying that God will grant repose to the souls of the departed and wishing all those injured a speedy recovery and the families of the victims the fortitude to bear their losses, it said while there is nothing wrong in a State Governor going to a vigil, such visit should not be impromptu in order for the organizers to make the necessary security arrangements, and it should also not be a licence to engage in political campaign.
APC condemned the plan by Governor Obi to set up a panel to investigate the stampede, considering that "the Governor himself is at the centre of the whole tragedy.
"Setting up a panel to investigate the cause of the stampede will amount to seeking to be a judge in your own case. The only cause of the stampede is the Governor's ill-advised visit to the vigil. Information at our disposal has it that the stampede was triggered by the Governor's overzealous security details who manhandled congregants as their principal was exiting the venue of the vigil.
The security details were said to have been irked by the murmurs of disapproval that greeted the Governor's attempt to campaign for his candidate, Mr. Obiano.
In like manner, Ngige, yesterday, advised Governor Obi to take responsibility for the stampede.
Noting that he was not ready to play politics with the lives of Anambra people, Ngige urged Obi to explain to the people of the state why he sneaked into an all night vigil with the full campaign machinery of the APGA governorship candidate.
Ngige observed that Gov. Obi's statement on Channels Television that: 'I was trying to speak to the crowd and they were calling a particular name and, we have to find a way to stop that' clearly indicates that the security aides must have aggravated the worshippers, which eventually led to the stampede.
Ngige whose reaction was contained in a statement by the Director of Media and Publicity of the Chris Ngige Campaign Organisation, Chief Charles Amilo, noted that "Senator Ngige neither attended the crusade nor knew nothing about it nor received the report of the incident at the crusade in good time.
If Ndi Anambra who are not necessarily politicians spontaneously rejected Governor Obi and his handpicked stooge during the night vigil, considering that Obi and his APGA team in uniform barged into their communion with God with fliers and sirens, and tear gas, why should Obi now blame Ngige?
Ngige therefore invited Gov Obi to rise to the responsibility of Governance in the remaining part of his tenure by promptly explaining to Ndi Anambra what his security details were reported to have done to create a stampede in the place of worship, as further obfuscation of facts from his government may build avoidable tension'
Arrest Ngige now - Umeh
Countering, APGA National cChairman, Chief Victor Umeh called on the Inspector General of Police, IGP, Mr. Mohammed Abubakar to arrest Ngige immediately for his alleged role in the disaster.
Addressing newsmen in Awka, Umeh alleged that Ngige's supporters instigated the pandemonium that started at the end of the crusade.
He wondered what his supporters were doing at the crusade ground with their party symbols consisting of brooms and posters of Ngige if it was not part of an orchestrated plot to cause confusion at the prayer ground in search of cheap propaganda.
He said: "From what happened at the Holy Ghost Adoration ground, it was obvious that this mayhem and pandemonium were carefully planned and executed by Dr Chris Ngige's team. He has been very notorious for this type of antics. Having wasted about 28 human lives, it will be so little to say that police should only come here and ask people questions.
He recalled that Ngige was at the adoration ground the previous day to participate at the Mass without being molested by anybody, but that knowing that Obi would come the next day, he wanted to come but was prevented by the organizers in order to avert a clash of interest.
Umeh regretted, however, that despite being stopped from coming, Ngige had gone ahead to instigate his people to disrupt the Friday night vigil to score cheap political points, noting that he had always displayed such distractive tendencies in churches by coming in the middle of service where those he planted would hail him.
Obiano condoles with bereaved families
However, Obiano described the incident as "unfortunate and depressing" while commiserating with bereaved families.
Wondering why politics in the state should degenerate to a level where worshippers no longer feel safe to worship their God in a sacred place as an Adoration Ground, Obiano in a statement by Mr. James Eze (Head, Media & Communications Willie Obiano Campaign Organisation), implored the bereaved families to take heart assuring them that his thoughts and those of his family are with them in this moment of grief.
False alarm caused stampede - Archbishop Okeke
Also yesterday, the Archbishop of Onitsha, Most Reverend Valerian Okeke regretted the incident and commiserated with those who lost their dear ones. He also commended those who volunteered in saving lives after the incident.
The Archbishop, who spoke through the Director of Social Communications in the Diocese, Reverend Father Pius Uko said: "In the early hours of Saturday, November 02, 2013, there was a stampede moments after prayers at the Holy Ghost Adoration Centre, Uke, in Idemili South LGA of Anambra State.
"The stampede, which occurred while people were going home, resulted in the loss of some lives. Some are still injured and receiving treatments in some hospitals.
The stampede was reportedly caused by a false alarm raised by somebody in the crowd along one of the narrow roads out of the town.
The crowd was so much that people wanting to leave all at the same time made it very difficult for people to find enough space to move."
This happened in just one of the roads out of the town.
"The outpouring of concerns and supports with regard to the incident has been tremendous."
The Archbishop of Onitsha, Most Rev. valerian Okeke, is still deeply saddened by this ugly incident. He has visited the dead in the morgue and the injured in the hospitals. His heart goes out to the families and friends of those who lost their lives in the incident.
He promises his closeness to them and all the faithful of the Holy Ghost Adoration Centre, Uke, and especially the spiritual director of the centre, Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Obinma, who is hard hit by the ugly incident.
"Full investigations have been launched into the matter and more efforts are being made to protect the lives of all worshippers at the centre.