The presidential panel of inquiry into Saturday's tragedy at the Liberation Stadium in Port Harcourt took off on Monday on a poor note as members of the public literarily stayed away from the panel's sitting. But for the reporters who turned up to cover the sitting and some police personnel on duty, the venue would have been empty.
Also, apart from five journalists, who later mounted the evidence box, only two members of the public including a traditional ruler, gave evidence during the first session that ended at about 1.55p.m.
It was when the lean attendance dawned on the Chairman of the panel, Assistant Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Abubakar, that he urged journalists who constituted the majority of those in attendance to feel free to give evidence.
Reacting later to reports by two of the witnesses that people were reluctant to come forward because some regarded it as a government affair that would lead nowhere while some were afraid of reprisals, the chairman appealed for a change of heart and assured that nobody would be 'harmed' for speaking out.
He told Nigerians that the truth about the tragedy would remain elusive unless they come out to tell what they know.
'We cannot know the truth if people will not come forward to say the little they know.
'We assure you that nobody would be harmed for coming forward. After all it is an open truth. I encourage people to please come forward.'
Giving evidence earlier, the traditional ruler of Agburuland, Chief Darlington Nwankwo said the overbearing influence of security men from Abuja, poor crowd management and impatience on the part of the crowd caused the tragedy.
Chief Nwankwo, who accused the visiting security men of humiliating the traditional institution by denying all the royal fathers access to the VIP area and 'pushing us to stay under the sun,' wondered why MOPOL 24 was publicly recognized as the only unit to man the VIP area.
He told the panel that horses were also used to block part of the few available exit points while a lady locked the gate behind that section of the stadium and went away with the key despite protests from people.
The royal father who alleged that people were horse-whipped, said it was wrong for the authorities to have relegated the law enforcement agents in the state who are familiar with the stadium.
He advised that the Federal Government should liaise with the Rivers State Government to update facilities and increase the number of gates at the stadium.
In his evidence, the second witness, Mr. Austine Simon told the panel that disagreed that the incident was due to security lapse.
In his assessment, the stampede followed a collision of jubilant supporters of the governors after the presentation of flags as many of them attempted to go out while some tried to enter the stadium. Mr. Simon said the flogging of people could not have caused the problem because it was before the stampede.
A journalist, Mr. Joe Ezuma who covered the rally faulted the approach of the security men at the stadium to crowd control.
He told the panel security men 'pushed people anyhow' pointing out that all the gates ought to have been flung open towards the end of the rally to ensure easy exit from the stadium.
Mr. Ezuma who insisted that 'security men's judgment was poor on that day', urged for improved disaster management and emergency systems.
Speaking in the same vein, another journalist, Mr. Jimitota Onayimi suggested that Policemen and traffic workers should be trained on emergency response and effective crowd control.
Yet another journalist, Mr. Kevin Ebiri, told the panel that apart from the main entrance, the other gates were locked on the fateful day pointing out that, 'if they had opened the whole gates, this would not have happened'.
Also, Mr. Ebiri said that the ambulances stationed at the stadium were grossly inadequate.
In his evidence, another journalist, Mr. Abdul Mohammed blamed planners of the event for not appreciating that the stadium was inadequate for the rally knowing that several States would be heavily represented.
He urged that in future, viewing screens should be mounted outside the stadium gates top check the influx of people into the main arena.
The Panel of Inquiry is to identify the immediate and remote causes of the stampede of Saturday, February 12 at Liberation Stadium, Port Harcourt, during the PDP South-South Zonal Presidential campaign launch and establish the cause (s) of the deaths and the number of those who either died or were injured.
Also, it is to confirm if there were any security lapses that caused the incident and make useful and meaningful recommendations to government in order to avert such incidence in future. Hearing continues Tuesday.