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Dana Crash: What becomes of the Coroner Inquest?

By Abdulwahab  Abdulah

Since a suit filed before the Federal High Court by the Civil Aviation Round Table Initiative Limited,  and an aviation expert, Captain Dele Ore (rtd) stalled further  proceedings in the coroner ‘s inquest into the June 3, 2012  Dana air crash before Magistrate Alexander Oyetade Komolafe and the subsequent re-validation of its operating licence, Nigerians have been pessimistic on what becomes  of the coroner inquest set up by the Lagos State government on the death of the passengers as well as those killed on the ground.

It will be recalled that shortly after the air crash, some Nigerians petitioned the Lagos Chief Coroner Judge, Justice Latifa Okunnu on the need to institute a coroner inquest into the circumstances leading to the sudden death of the passengers and crew members of the ill-fated craft and those who lost their lives as a result of the crash.

Precisely, Justice Okunnu appointed Magistrate Alexander Oyetade Komolafe to preside over the coronary which started its sitting on June 18 at the Alimosho Magistrate court, Abule-Egba, Lagos.

The proceeding was sequel to a request made by the Falana and Falana and Olisa Agbakobas Chambers for the inquest.

Subsequently, the coroner court heard evidence and testimonies from witnesses including the victims families and government agencies that took part in the rescue missions at the scene of the crash as well as the medical team that carried out autopsy and DNA tests on the dead bodies to determine the identities of the burnt victims of the crash.

The government agencies that testified before the coroner court were the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria, FAAN,  National Emergency Management Authority, NEMA etc and officials of the airline and several others including the Lagos Chief Pathologist, Professor John Obafunwa who gave evidence on the DNA carried out on the remains of the victims of the air crash to determine their identities.

However, the recent court action by Capt Ore and his organisation, Civil Aviation Round Table Initiative Limited, CARTIL, has already stalled proceedings at the  coroner court.

The Coroner’s System Law as promulgated by the  Lagos State Government was out to establish a new method of investigation of death in the State. It imposes specific civic responsibilities on individuals in both private and official capacities by strengthen the security of human life by investigating suspicious or questionable deaths, and enabling the state take action necessary to forestall the repetition or continuance of circumstances capable of bringing about avoidable loss of human life.

The case filed by the organisation in its originating summons specifically is seeking for an order of the court nullifying all steps taken so far either by way of summoning or invitation of witnesses to testify or give evidence in the inquest in the coroner court, presided by the presiding Magistrate, which was said to have contravened S. 29 of the Civil Aviation Act No. 6 of 2006.

Joined as defendants in the suit were the Chief Judge of Lagos State, the Chief Coroner of Lagos State, the Attorney General of Lagos State, the Attorney General of the Federation, Federal Ministry of Aviation.

Other defendants include Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Federal Airports Authority, The Accident Investigation Bureau, Nigerian Air Space Management Authority and Dana Airlines Limited.

The plaintiffs also sought for an order setting aside the proceedings of the coroner court already conducted till date on the grounds that the court as presided by the Magistrate  lacked the requisite authority or competence to investigate the cause of deaths occurring from the June 3, 2012 Dana Air crash.

They asked the court to declare that the coroner court could not exercise or carry out any form of inquisition or inquest into the deaths arising from the Dana Air crash of June 3, 2012 or any matter related to aviation accident or deaths arising from it.

They also asked the Federal High Court to declare that the appointment of Magistrate Komolafe as coroner on the Dana crash was ultra vires of the powers of the Chief Judge of Lagos state having regard to amongst others, the fact that the cause of death of the victims is known and as arising from the air crash.

In addition they sought a declaration that the provisions of sections 14, 15, 17 and 25 of the Coroners’ System Law of Lagos State No. 27 of 2007 was not applicable to deaths arising from aviation accidents, specifically within the contemplation of section 29 of the Civil Aviation Act No. 6 of 2006.

It further sought a declaration that the deaths occurring from the Dana crash was not such that fell within the contemplation of Coroner’s Systems Laws, Laws of Lagos State 2007, particularly, Sections 14 and 15.

In a 29 point affidavit in support of the originating summon deposed to as the President of the NGO, Captain Ore, argued that “having read the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended, the NCAA Act No. 6 of 2006 and the Convention on International Civil Aviation, Chicago 1944(ICAO) in conjunction with the Lagos State Coroners’ Systems Laws, the Laws of Lagos State 2007, that the honourable Chief Judge of Lagos State and the Coroner have no power to inquire into causes of air accidents and deaths arising therefrom”.

Captain Ore further averred in the affidavit “that it will be in the interest of justice and continuing pursuit of safer air travel in Nigeria for passengers and users of the Nigerian aviation sector to stop the abuse going on in the name of Inquest as afore stated”.

However, the state in its counter affidavit urged the Federal High Court to strike out the action on the ground that the applicants lacked locus standi and that they had no legal interest in the case.

Apart from this, the state argued that tit was not interested in the technical issues involving the ill fated aircraft but that the coroner was out to find out the cause and manner of death of the victims.

It further stated that it was interested to find out  the level of preparedness of the state emergency services and how they were responding to emergencies in the state, vis-a-vis the issue of crowd control at emergency scenes.While testifying earlier before the coroner, a witness, Mr. Rafiq Olubukola Arogunjo, an Air Traffic Controller with the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) had related to the coroner court details of his discussions with the pilot of the ill-fated Dana airline flight 0992 before it crashed at Iju-Ishaga, Lagos on June 3, 2012, saying he received distress call from the pilot at(14.42  UTC- universal time coordinate)3.42p.m. local time and that three minutes after, the aircraft went off the radar.

At the time of the distress call, he noted, the plane was at 11 NM (nautical miles) to touch down, which gave them the impression that the plane would crash inside the airport.

According to him, immediately he got  the distress call, the message was transferred to Aerodrome Controller, to prepare the stage for emergency

Also, testifying the forensic Pathologists, Professor John Obafunwa, who carried out DNA test on the bodies of the victims said the remains of the victims of the Dana Air crash were burnt beyond recognition.

According to Obafunwa several of the bodies only “contain bone fragments while some had body parts” which were salvaged in pieces by the rescue team who brought them to the hospitals for autopsy.

The Pathologist who bemoaned the cost and time for carrying out DNA test abroad, said it is time that the country has a functional DNA center in the country.

However, the question observers are asking is what becomes of the coroner inquest, which has temporarily been stalled by the action filed by CARTIL before the Federal High Court and the lifting of the ban of the operation licence of the airline by the Federal Government.

The restoration of the operation license of the airline according to the federal government was due to  “government’s satisfaction with the air-worthiness of the airline after a rigorous technical, operational and financial audit of the airline.”

Speaking on the development, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Olisa Agbakoba  said the government should have ordered an inquiry on the matter, establish the cause of the accident before clearing the airline to resume operations.

His words:  “I hope that Dana Airline would have learnt its lesson from the recent fatal accident. As a rule, it must be made clear that an accident does not mean that an airline must not fly again. The only thing I see is that if the regulatory authorities have cleared them to fly, they can resume operation. I am not talking specifically about Dana now.

What happened in the Dana case is that we do not have full disclosure on what went wrong with its ill-fated flight. The clearance came out of the blues. The decision clearing Dana must be in the public domain.

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