• Catholic Archdiocese seeks to rebuild Bethlehem Girls College
By Neta Nwosu
One year after the pipeline explosion that rocked the Lagos suburb of Abule Ado, off Lagos-Badagry expressway, the victims are still waiting on government for succour. The devastation of March 15, 2020, is, without doubt, one of Lagos’ worst catastrophes in recent years. The explosion, whose shockwave was felt over a five-mile radius, left in its wake a carnage: buildings across over 100,000 square metres reduced to rubbles, with human casualties. Among the worst-hit victims was the Bethlehem Girls College, an institution owned by the Lagos Catholic Archdiocese. Consequently, the citadel of learning has been in a state of limbo since then.
The incalculable loss of lives
As March 15 draws nigh, Catholics in Lagos and Nigeria at large, are reminded of that huge loss of 2020. The destruction wreaked by the pipeline explosion was spread over a two-mile radius in every direction, but the worst of the havoc was at Bethlehem Girls College, which recorded the highest casualty figure of eight dead including the Administrator of the institution, Reverend Sister Henrietta Alokha, SSH, who died in the melee. Others were three security officers, Miss Abidemi Johnson and Messrs Godfrey Brown and Kolawole Ojo; store attendant, Miss Esther Omosefe Ofure; the Rev. Father’s Cook, Miss Claire; one of the student’s kitchen staff, Mrs. Irene Oakhu, and the gardener, Mr. Aliyu Ali. In all, 50 out of the 358 students were treated for injuries and shock at nearby hospitals and discharged the same day, save for four that sustained serious injuries.
“The population of the students was 358. Some of the students sustained injuries while few had severe shock from the experience. All were taken to nearby hospitals for treatment. Most were discharged same day while others were discharged the following day. However, four of the students that sustained serious injuries had to remain on admission,” recounted Reverend Monsignor Jerome Oduntan, Director of Education, Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos. How the eight deceased died was harrowing to hear. The case of Sr. Alokha (a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart) who, in the first instance, was safe but had to rush back into dangerous areas after discovering two of her students missing, was a heart-rendering story of sacrificial love and uncommon sense of duty. Rev. Sr. Monica Rowland, SSH, Superior General of the Congregation of Sisters of Sacred Heart, lamenting, described the late Reverend Sister, as a pioneer member of the congregation and a role model to younger sisters. “That makes her death very, very devastating for all of us, especially me,” she declared. Even one year after, some of the sisters have not come to terms with her death. “When the incident happened I had to send some of them for professional counselling and therapy to help them. It was a serious battle for us especially within the first six months,” revealed Rowland.
Government’s cold attitude
What triggered the explosion? That was the big question after a swathe of the neighbourhood was brought to ruin by the early morning pipeline blast. The Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), the government parastatal that owned the pipeline came up with a hypothesis: A truck hit gas cylinders at an LPG shop. Months later, that explanation, however, was debunked by a 17-minute forensic investigation released by BBC Africa Eye. Released in late September,The video documentary showed how a leak of vapourised flammable liquid from an NNPC pipeline ignited and caused the explosion in March. New evidence of a video filmed at the explosion site, five minutes before the blast, shows a catastrophic leak of vaporised liquid at the exact location where the NNPC high-pressure petroleum pipeline runs under the ground.
The graphic details corroborate eyewitness accounts earlier published in newspapers such as Saturday Sun. The facts as presented by NNPC did not add up. The BBC documentary brought a fresh perspective to the tragedy. Subsequently, the cause of the catastrophe was easy to deduce: negligence in pipeline monitoring and maintenance by the NNPC. That placed the blame at the doorsteps of the government and also the moral burden to compensate victims. In this regard, the government had chosen the easy way out. Talk big, do nothing. The Lagos State Government had visited the hospitalised students and offset their hospital bills, and the following month, gave N2.5 million cheques, to each family of the deceased, including those who died at the school. But nothing had come to the Archdiocese, the owner of the school. “Lagos State government has not given us any cheque [but] we gave them the estimate of the loss. After a painstaking calculation, we arrived at over N2 billion loss in terms of the infrastructure,” Monsignor Oduntan clarified. “The Lagos State Government has not promised to give money they have not given us anything yet. Whether they are going to give us money or not, they have not said anything about that.” As it were, the Catholic Archdiocese may have been left to bear the loss of the destruction of the school. The scale of destruction is better appraised by those who knew Bethlehem Girls College before the March 15 devastation.
The boarding school with 358 students had a big hostel, three blocks of classrooms, a dining hall, a big chapel, the convent, an administrative block, a well-furnished library, an ICT laboratory, typing pool laboratory and a science laboratory. “We had nine structures and everything is gone. We lost all. The convent is still standing on one leg but the roof has been blown off,” Oduntan explained. The state government had touted its effort at raising two billion naira as an emergency relief fund, but Oduntan avowed: “We spent more than N2b on the school; so, even if the state government gives us the whole money, we are still in deficit.” And to rebuild the school, according to him, requires huge financial re- sources, “because so much money has been poured into the project gradually over the years.” Despite the odds, the Archdiocese still did not relent in its effort to salvage the situation. “We have our plan to rebuild the school,” affirmed Monsignor Oduntan. Yet again, the government has been a stumbling block. After the incident, the Lagos State government declared the area a non-habitable space citing safety reasons.
The implication: Even those who are outside the danger zone, like the Bethlehem Girls College, cannot return to their land. “We acquired this land on September 4, 1992, around 30 years ago from the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and not from the state government,” stated the Catholic Director of Education. “At the time, there were no signs of pipelines. They claimed that the pipelines were buried by the right-hand side. But where the school is, is quite far.” In 2004, the Holy Family Catholic Church, Festac town, commenced the building of a perimeter fence around the 3.766-hectare land on which Bethlehem Girls College was built and completed in 2006. Going by the Oil Pipeline Law Cap 338 of the Federation 1990, setbacks for oil pipelines is pegged at 27.5 metres to the building line. The school was far outside the trespass zone. Nonetheless, in the aftermath, the government had asked all to vacate the area. In the words of Oduntan: “We were asked to bring the particulars of the land. And we submitted ours. Based on that, the Lagos State government has apportioned another land for us within that axis but far away from the pipeline.”
Again, the government had stalled the process: “We have been shown the plot of the land but we are still waiting for the government to give us the documents for the land.¨ The Catholic Herald Newspapers contacted the Lagos State Commissioner for Special Duties, Engr. Tayo Bamgbose -Martins on findings and recommendations of the fact-finding Committee that the Lagos State Governor constituted to determine the root cause of the explosion, its reaction to the startling revelations of BBC investigation and compensation of those who lost their properties in the blast. But as the time of production of this publication the Lagos State government was yet to respond. Sadly, that is the status quo to date. To whom do the owners of the school complain? Even the Committee constituted by the Lagos State government had since April 2020, after the disbursement of cheques to the families of the deceased, been inoperational.
Catholic Archdiocese’ resolve to rebuild
What became of the students of Bethlehem Girls College (BGC)? The Catholic Archdiocese had on its own again, managed the fallout of the disruption to their education by methodically, distributing BGC students into existing Catholic schools JSS 1 to Sacred Heart College, Apapa; JSS2 to St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic College, Okokomaiko; JSS 3 to Our Lady of Apostles, Yaba; SSI to Holy Child College, S.W., Ikoyi, and SS2 absorbed into Maryland Comprehensive Colleges, Maryland. SS3 students, in their final year, were taken in by Marywood Girls College, Ebute-Metta, where they wrote their WAEC and NECO exams and passed with flying colours. Inevitably, not all students eventually got absorbed into Catholic institutions. Some parents chose, instead, to place their children in other schools due to the distance from their home to the Catholic schools. For the same reasons, too, it wasn’t possible to absorb all the staff. Monsignor Oduntan, in no uncertain terms, conveyed the Archdiocese´s resolve to rebuild the school. He also did not fail to underscore the key issue: “We want the government and corporate organisations to help bring the school back to its feet,” he stated.
‘We lost over N2bn, we plan to rebuild the school’
Monsignor Jerome Oduntan, Director of Education, Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos, in an interview with NETA NWOSU, provides a broad perspective on the aftermath of the pipeline explosion that destroyed the Catholic-owned Bethlehem Girls College at Abule Ado, Lagos.
What has been the fate of the students of the school since the explosion?
As soon as the incident happened, we took those who were injured to the hospitals. The population of the students was 358. Some of the students sustained injuries whilst a few suffered severe shock. All were taken to nearby hospitals for treatment. Most were discharged the same day whilst others were discharged the following day. However, four of the students that sustained serious injuries had to remain on admission. The Lagos State Government paid them visits and even offset their hospital bills. Then we took it upon ourselves to distribute the students into our existing schools. Luckily for us, we have more than five girls’ schools. So they were distributed all over the schools. Those in JSS 1 were allocated to Sacred Heart College, Apapa. The JSS2 Students were assigned to St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic College, Okokomaiko, JSS 3 to Our Lady of Apostles, Yaba. SSI was assigned to Holy Child College, S.W., Ikoyi, SS2 was absorbed by Maryland Comprehensive College, Maryland and the SS3 students taken in by Marywood Girls College,Ebute-Metta. Those in the final year in SS3 were able to write their WAEC and NECO, and the results came out, they made their papers. Not all the students were absorbed. Some parents said that they will find other schools closer to them for their children. As for the staff, we tried to absorb them in other schools but we couldn’t absorb all of them. Some of them of course went somewhere else because of the distance just like some of the students too.
What is the Archdiocese’ plan concerning the school?
There is a plan for us to rebuild the school. After the incident, the Lagos State Government said nobody should build on that land and we were asked to bring the particulars of the land. We were able to submit ours. Based on that, the government apportioned another land for us within that axis, but far away from the pipeline. We have been shown the plot of land but we are still waiting for the government to give us the documents for the land. So the Church has a plan to rebuild the school.
Give us an idea of the extent of damage to the school
Human lives were lost and nobody can quantify that. We lost some members of staff including the administrator and nobody can be able to pay for that. Life is unquantifiable. The Archdiocese, Bethlehem Girls College lost eight of her members of staff to the explosion. They included: Sr. Henrietta Alokha, SSH, Administrator of the school; Miss Abidemi Johnson, Security Officer; Mr. Godfrey Brown, Security Officer and Miss Esther Omosefe Ofure, Store Attendant. Others were Mr. Kolawole Ojo, security officer; Miss Claire, Rev. Father’s cook; Mrs. Irene Oakhu, student’s kitchen staff and Mr. Aliyu Ali, the gardener. As for the infrastructure, after sitting down and calculating the loss, we arrived at over N2 billion loss.
So far, has there been any restitution from the government?
The Lagos State Government has not given us any cheque. We just sat down, computed the value of the loss and gave them the estimate of the loss. The State Government has [even] not promised to give money. So [for the record] they have not given us anything yet. They have only shown us land to rebuild. And whether they are going to give us money or not, I don’t know. They have not said anything about that. After the incident, Lagos State Government gave cheques for those who died and each deceased family was given N2.5milion. Those who died in our school were also beneficiaries.
Tell us about the fact-finding committee that was set up by Lagos State government to determine the cause of the explosion.
The committee has as members the Deputy Governor, Commissioner for Technology, Commissioner for Education, Commissioner for Education, Commissioner for Housing and Special Duties and LAWMA as well as representatives from the community. As for the cause of the explosion, it was said that a loaded truck of granite that was parked on a particular spot where the NNPC pipeline was laid, bust the pipeline and triggered the explosion.
What has the Committee done to the report by BBC investigation?
Since the BBC was aired, the Committee has not had any meeting. The meeting of the Committee stopped the very day the government gave the cheques out to the families of the individuals that lost their lives. The report of the BCC was in late September 2020 and the cheques were presented in April 2020.
What plans does the Archdiocese of Lagos have to mark Sr. Henrietta Alokha’s one year anniversary?
On the 23rd of March, 2020, a requiem Mass was organised and offered for the repose of the souls of the staff of BGC and others who lost their lives to the explosion. To mark the first anniversary of the death of our staff of BGC, a memorial Mass will take place at St Agnes Catholic Church, Maryland, on Saturday, 20th March, 2021 by 10am. The Congregation of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, SSH, will be launching a Foundation, in honour of Sr. Henrietta Alokha, on the same day in Benin-City. The Archdiocese is making a huge contribution to this Foundation and will be highly represented at the launching in Benin-City. The Foundation is to be named Sr. Henrietta Alokha Education Foundation for Indigent Students (SHAEFIC).
‘Late Rev. Sr. Henrietta Alokha will be remembered for selfless service’
In this interview with NETA NWOSU, Rev. Sr. Monica Rowland, SSH, Superior General of the Congregation of Sisters of Sacred Heart, gives a profile of the late Rev. Sr. Henrietta Alokha,SSH, the Administrator of Bethlehem Girls College who died alongside seven other staff in the tragedy of March 15, 2020.
Give us a recount of what happened on that fateful day
On March 15, 2020, at about 8:30 am, Sr. Henrietta with her students in Bethlehem Girls College, Abule Ado, Festac Extension, Lagos, were at Sunday Mass when all of a sudden the atmosphere changed. White fumes covered the whole school including the hall where they were having Mass and before they knew what was happening, there was this heavy explosion that shook the whole place leading to the collapse of the buildings in the compound. Sr. Henrietta Alokha successfully evacuated over 300 students through the back fence, because the explosion started from the entrance of the school by the gate. With the help of good Samaritans, they were able to evacuate the students. But she counted the students and discovered that two of them were still missing, so she ran back with the security lady to go and look for these students inside the big hostel. Unknown to her, the two students had already taken another route to join their mates. Unfortunately, the building collapsed, and both Sr. Henrietta Alokha and the security lady were trapped inside and they died there. Seven other staff died besides Sr. Alokha. The affected staff include the security men by the gate post, the gardener, and the lady that swept the compound that fateful day. They were at the gate post when the explosion erupted. The explosion was so massive that the building collapsed on them immediately. Two other staff were in the staff quarters, which was an annexe to the gate post.
How has the loss impacted the Congregation of Sisters of the Sacred Heart?
It has been a great loss. Because we are Christians, we are women of faith, we cannot question God as to why it happened. The vacuum is a big one because Sr. Henrietta Alokha was one of our key members in the congregation. She was a pioneer member of the congregation. She was one of those the youngest sisters look up to as a role model. So her death was devastating, very, very devastating for all of us, especially me. She was my classmate. There were only two of us remaining in our set. Now she is also gone. I’m the only one remaining. She had been a friend. Some of the sisters up till now have not come to terms with it. When the incident happened I had to send some of them for professional counselling and therapy to help them. It was a serious battle for us, especially within the first six months.
Tell us more about Sr. Henrietta Alokha
Sr. Henrietta Alokha was the Administrator of Bethlehem Girls College, Abule Ado, Lagos. She was an educationist. She loved her job. She loved the teaching profession with passion. She also loved children so much and desired so much for whatever is good and beautiful for them. As a classmate, I know her very well, even as young ladies before we entered the Congregation together. I know much about her. We had talked privately and her dreams, her desire, was to see that no Nigerian child will go without getting formal education. She was the type that can go the extra mile for people. She tried as much as possible to give holistic education and training to those under her watch. I think that was what led her to go searching when she did not find these other two students, who, unknown to her, were already safe. She was already safe, with the other students, with the staff and every other person. But after the headcount, she went in search of the missing two. That tells you she was very faithful in her services to people.
What will she be remembered for?
She will be remembered for sacrificial love. She paid the price for others to live. She sacrificed herself for others to live. She would also be remembered for her excellence. She believed so much that what is worth doing is worth doing well. She believed so much in putting her best into anything she sets out to do. She disliked mediocrity. For her, it’s either you do it well or you don’t do it. She will be remembered for her good heart towards children. She loved children so much and she tried to encourage them. She believed in people, she believed that something good can come out of nothing. So she will be remembered for several things.
What are the plans for her first-anniversary memorial?
There are different plans already set out by the Congregation of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. By God’s grace, on March 15, there will be a memorial Mass in the Archdiocese of Benin, in our Parish, Mary the Queen Parish, Iguosa, Benin City at 10 am. At the Mass, we are going to launch a foundation, which we have set up to immortalize her. Realising that she loved children and she believed in children acquiring formal education, we set up a foundation named after her, Sr. Henrietta Alokha Education Foundation Funds for Indigent Students (SHAEFIC). The scholarship funds will be made available to Nigerian children between the ages of 5 and 18, in primary and secondary schools. I’m aware that the Lagos Archdiocese will be having a memorial mass on March 15. One of the things that she loved to do when she was alive was music. Music was one of the courses she studied while at the university in America. So there is a group planning a concert in her honour. They have composed a song they are going to present on Sunday, March 21 at The Holy Family Parish in Festac Town, Lagos.