The time was 11.45am. The atmosphere in the large church auditorium was electric. A soul inspiring praise and worship session was going on, with most of the congregation up on their feet, swaying and responding to the equally soul stirring gospel rock renditions of the band on the stage. The singers were made up of a male lead singer and six backups, two male and four female. At the moment they were singing, The Name of Jesus That Conquers Satan. The singers were supported by instrumentalists and drummers on both sides of the stage. On the left side were a guitarist, a saxophonist and a pianist. On the right side were keyboardist, a guitarist and a drummer.
It was daytime but inside the auditorium was dark. A medley of revolving lights in rainbow colours created an air of a discotheque. Soon, the set of singers brought their session to an end with a resounding applause. Another set led by a guest gospel artist, Rev. Victor from Benin, was called up and they equally held the congregation spellbound.
Meanwhile, more and more people kept streaming into the auditorium. They were mainly young and upwardly mobile neatly dressed in fashion that appeal to the senses. The praise and worship sessions after a short while was brought to an end and the bright lights were turned on. At 12.05pm, a slim bespectacled smart looking gentleman in a ‘senator’ suit sporting a skin cut and greybeards stepped onto the stage. The church went quiet as they waited for him to talk into the cordless microphone.
It was the third service of the day and the gentleman that stepped on stage turned out to be Rev Chris Ugoh, the Founder and Lead Pastor of the church, Kings Assembly located on Tombia Extension, GRA Phase 3, Port Harcourt, the church that organised the Shop-For-Free event of May 26, 2022 at the Polo Club field in Port Harcourt in which dozens of people were killed in a stampede.
Rev. Ugoh went on to preach the sermon anchored on Acts of the Apostles 27: 21-25 from where he drew seven lessons for the congregation to take home. The seventh lesson had to do with safety. “Safety is of the Lord. It is God that is our defence,” the pastor said.
Incidentally, it was failure of safety protocols that led to the death of scores of people that were trampled as they scrambled to gain entry into the Polo Club field venue where Kings Assembly arranged a ‘free’ shopping programme for the less privileged on May 28, 2022. “Had the church cared for the safety of the thousands of the people it invited to the event the stampede and the resultant loss of lives would not have happened,” said Tony Worlu, a resident of Port Harcourt that commented on the stampede.
Though that tragedy was a sad moment for the church and indeed the hundreds of families that either lost dear ones or had their members maimed, the church had since brushed past the incident and long returned to cruise. But the bereaved families and victims of that incident are still nursing their wounds.
The revelry in the church on January, 15th contrasted sharply with the agony and anguish victims of the stampede were going through. The church, which had promised to reach out to the families in the wake of the disaster, has not visited any of them.
In fact, one of the families that lost their 16-year-old daughter, lives at No. 1 Heaven Close right opposite the church headquarters off Tombia St. But the church despite repeated promises had not come to visit them eight months after the incident. Mrs. Comfort Ebelema, the grandmother of the deceased girl, Precious, told National Point that the church pastor assigned to relate with them stopped taking their calls.
“Those people refused to do anything. They have kept quiet. Anytime we are calling their lines, they would not answer us. They refused to answer. We gave them our line (phone number) and they promised us, they said that we should not let our phone to go off that they will call us. But since then, they have not called us. We have not heard from them,” Mrs. Ebelema said.
She said because of the difficult times, the family has been forced to move out of their GRA neighbourhood and now live somewhere off Ikwerre Road at OCC Bus Stop.
Raymond Ihejirika, who lost his mother and younger sister in the stampede, was also unhappy that the church and the state government had left them in the lurch. “It’s just as if they have left the entire burden on the families to bear alone,” he said.
Similarly, Sam Eke Orji, a generator mechanic whose entire family was trapped in the stampede said he has chosen to pick up the pieces from where the stampede left the family. Sam lost his only son, Delight, in the stampede. His wife had serious internal injuries and suffered trauma for a long time. Sam said his arm was twisted as he tried to protect his daughter during the stampede and has had to deal with the pains since then.
He told National Point that neither the church nor the Rivers State government had come to their aid since the incident. “They have not been picking my calls. And most of us complained of the same thing. They said they have tried to reach them if there is anything they can tell them, they (the church) ignored them too,” he said.
Sam said he braved it one day and went to the church, where he confronted the Lead pastor, Rev. Chris Ugoh. He said the pastor was excited at seeing him and referred him to Pastor Charles Odoko, one of the administrative pastors in the church.
Sam said Pastor Charles only promised to call him. But till date the pastor has not reached out to him. National Point called Pastor Charles for his reaction. But after a long pause, the pastor said the matter was still with the police.
“That matter is still with the police. The police have not concluded their investigations. Thank you bye,” the pastor said and signed off the discussion.
The story of the victims of the stampede has been a pathetic one. Apart from the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) that gave the families relief materials like foodstuff, beddings and toiletries, no other organization or government had reached out to them.
The police, who carried out preliminary investigations into the matter, appeared to have rested it. One man who lost his wife and her niece, Mr. Confidence Demua, said the police at the State CID asked him to sign an undertaking that he would not want the case prosecuted before he would pick up the corpse of his wife and his wife’s niece that died in the stampede.
One of the pastors of the church who did not want to be recorded told National Point that the church was committed to the families and would reach out to them But he said the church rather would rather not want what they would do for the victims to be a media issue.
But the Police Public Relations Officer, Mrs. Grace Iringe-Koko said the result of the investigations had been sent to Force Headquarters for the analysis of the forensic report. And that seemed to best the police in the state could offer about the matter.
The authorities of the Military Hospital in Port Harcourt where most of the deceased and injured were treated declined to comment on their findings, saying they had handed over their report to the State Criminal Investigation Department of the police.
Shortly after the stampede, Rivers State Governor, Chief Ezenwo Wike, promised to set up a panel to investigate the incident. That was never done. And no statement has been made by the state government about the matter till date. The only time the state government referred to the stampede was late last year when it secured a court order to seal Port Harcourt Mall because Spars Supermarket, the main tenant of the mall could not respond to the government’s request to furnish it with safety protocols on crowd control during the last Black Friday sales. It said it only wanted to avert a recurrence of the Polo Field stampede
The Rivers State Ministry of Special Duties which takes care of emergencies like the stampede could not avail any information on how the stampede and its fallouts were handled. The Commissioner, Mr. Benedict Okere, was not at his desk for the second time when National Point visited. An aide of his who said the commissioner had been on the campaign train of the governor, however said the commissioner had not been appointed when the stampede occurred.
In a press statement issued by the Special Assistant to the Governor of Rivers State on Media and Publicity, Mr. Kelvin Ebiri, said Governor Nyesom Wike, who was away when the tragedy occurred, had promised to set a panel to investigate the stampede. The panel was never set up and the government did not reach out to the bereaved families and other victims.