BY CHIDI NKWOPARA, Owerri
Friday, January 28, 2011, is a day the staff of Imo State Customary Court of Appeal will not forget in a hurry. This is no thanks to a mysterious fire that completely razed the Court building located in the high brow Commissioners’ Quarters, Owerri. None of them had any inkling of the disaster that was lurking around the corner. But by Saturday morning, the once beautiful edifice had become a ghost of its former self.
The state government was similarly jolted by the unfortunate incident. A major mystery surrounding the fire disaster was the fact that Thursday and Friday last week were work-free days.
Vanguard Metro investigations equally revealed that all the records of court, equipment and some personal effects, including documents belonging to the President of the Customary Court of Appeal, Hon. Justice Ambrose B.C. Egu, were consumed in the inferno.
Although the exact inventory of lost items or its monetary equivalent in Naira and Kobo, occasioned by the fire disaster could not be ascertained at press time, it was, however, gathered that nothing was salvaged from the President’s Chamber.
A staff of the Court told Vanguard Metro that “the State Fire Service was immediately contacted when the fire was noticed but it was only the fire engine stationed in Government House that came to their assistance”.
The first callers to the ugly scene included Governor Ikedi Ohakim, the State Chief Judge, Hon. Justice Benjamin Ahanonu Njemanze, the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Prince Ken C.O. Njemanze (SAN) and some judges of the Customary Court of Appeal.
Speaking after taking Governor Ohakim round the debris, the Court’s President, Justice Egu, who was obviously dumbfounded, put the loss at “millions of Naira”.
He also reaffirmed what a staff earlier told Vanguard Metro that “when the staff on duty alerted the State Fire Service personnel, they failed to come to their rescue”, adding that they were only assisted by the Government House Special Fire Combat Squad.
In the opinion of Justice Egu, about 12,000 case files, the President’s Chamber, Office of the Secretary to the President, the court library, appeal registry and the main courtroom, among others were completely consumed by the raging fire.
He recalled with grief that he was informed of the incident by the Public Relations Officer of the court that the fire started from the court’s store and maintained that electrical appliances in the building, to the best of his knowledge, were switched off.
While wondering what could have caused the fire, Justice Egu suspected foul play, submitting that “the fire was selective in its action”.
Speaking to Vanguard Metro after inspecting the disaster, Governor Ohakim, in an emotion-laden voice, expressed shock and disbelief at the rate of destruction, adding that there are unforeseen circumstances in this world.
Answering another question, the Governor promised that he would quickly provide a temporary accommodation for the Court to continue functioning and enjoined the staff not to be deterred from performing their constitutional duties.
Ohakim, promised that Government will set up an inquiry to unravel the cause(s) of the tragedy, with a view to ascertaining if it was a mere accident or caused by an individual or groups of people.
“If it is caused by men, we will fish them out. If it was caused by nature, we will still discover and take steps to check a re-occurrence. Some people may have come to spoil our good works in the state, like the access road leading to this court. But no human being can be greater than government,” the Governor said.
Meanwhile, a number of people have roundly condemned the fire incident as “one too many”. Mazi Damian Nze, a youth leader in Owerri, was particularly irked that some of the documents destroyed by the raging fire may never be replaced.
“How, for instance, will the judges replace law reports that are currently out of print? I only hope that this will not turn to another case of arson? I passionately appeal to Imo people to regard all government property as our collective wealth, which should not be destroyed for whatever reason,” Mazi Nze pleaded.