LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Government corruption and deteriorating roads caused a fiery multiple car and truck crash in Nigeria that killed at least 18 people in 2010, a coroner said Wednesday, highlighting major challenges facing Africa's most populous nation.
Police set up an illegal checkpoint August 2010 along a major expressway in Lagos, using tires to funnel traffic down to one lane as officers demanded bribes from motorists, witnesses said. The driver of a speeding truck carrying sugar for the nation's largest industrial company tried to stop, but the vehicle's bad brakes failed and the truck slammed into waiting traffic, witnesses and officials said.
Those details, long denied by authorities, came out Wednesday when a coroner investigating the deaths ruled against Nigeria's federal police and the Dangote Group, owned by billionaire Aliko Dangote.
However, lawyers say this is merely a first step toward winning justice for victims of the crash in Africa's most populous nation, where corruption and incompetence strangle government agencies responsible for protecting citizens.
"The culture of lying, misrepresenting facts and denying responsibility is something we see over and over again," said Joseph Otteh, the executive director of Access to Justice, which took part in the inquest. "We have these deep problems in Nigeria, but the thing is we have a process to reach down to the truth."
The coroner's inquest focused on only one of the horrific multiple car crashes that happen almost daily in Nigeria, the third worst country for traffic fatalities behind China and India, the World Health Organization has said. Drivers travel at high speed and overtake slower vehicles, leading to such head-on collisions. Main cities are linked by pitted, two-lane roads crammed with passenger buses, trucks laden with goods and rickety private vehicles.
The Aug. 15, 2010, crash occurred along a major expressway in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city. A fire consumed the vehicles involved almost instantly, sending people fleeing. Those trapped inside their cars burned alive, including a 1-year-old boy who wailed behind a wall of flames unable to free himself, witnesses said.
Even today, it remains unclear how many people died. Police and road safety officials say at least 18 died. Others have said more than 40 were killed, as authorities took charred corpses to different mortuaries and didn't keep proper records.
The police who mounted the illegal checkpoint fled during the inferno, with their superiors later denying any roadblock had been there. Firefighters responded late to the fire as well, as those who suffered burns arrived at hospitals barely running as doctors were on strike, records showed.
On Wednesday, Coroner T.A. Elias read aloud his findings, blaming police for erecting an illegal checkpoint and others for not properly putting warning signs along the highway. However, he also blamed Dangote Group for allowing a truck with failing brakes and an improperly mounted tire to drive.
Elias ordered Dangote to turn over the truck's driver to police for possible prosecution, and ordered the massive company to issue a public apology and "provide minimal compensation" to those affected by the crash.
"Without a brake failure or overspeeding from the driver, there would not have been any accident," Elias said.
The ruling against Dangote finds fault with a man routinely lauded by President Goodluck Jonathan for transforming the country's industrial base. Dangote, whose net worth is $11.2 billion according to Forbes magazine, built his empire on commodities like flour, sugar and cement.
Lawyer Akin Adewopo, who represented Dangote, only said his client was "most grateful for the ruling" after the coroner finished his remarks. After the hearing, Adewopo refused to talk to an Associated Press reporter.
In the time since the crash, the inspector general of the Nigeria Police Force has ordered officers to stop mounting roadblocks, though similar directives have failed in the past. Cyril Ajifor, a lawyer for the Nigeria Police Force, said ending the roadblocks showed the police had addressed the concerns of the coroner.
The coroner's ruling merely sets the stage for a possible civil lawsuit against the police and the Dangote Group, Otteh said. He said he remained hopeful that the courts would be able provide justice for the crash's victims and their families. However, courts have been co-opted by the nation's powerful in the past.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.