Crocodile Mourners

This week's building collapse in Lagos, were it not so painfully avoidable, would have been a cause for tears.

So hold your false tears, Governor Bola Tinubu. Let Aso Rock send no crocodile mourners. Let no mock prayers come from the high and the mighty.

This building collapse is more than a tragedy; it is a crime. And it is a crime that is committed daily. A crime that is routinely sanctioned by governments, including yours, Governor Tinubu. Yours too, Mr. President. And yours as well, dear governors, from the coast to the desert.

This is a crime that is sanctioned each time you permit a contract to be executed by someone who bought it off someone else who bought it from someone else. It is committed each time your engineers certify a substandard new road as meeting specifications because they know you lack the heart to implement true oversight. It is committed each time a building is given unmerited approval for public use.

So spare us your fake handkerchief soaked with river water, and your weepy speeches dripping with false concern. Many of you do not know the meaning of responsibility, or of compassion or of community. You do not care.

If you cared, you would pay attention to the roads on which your people die twice every day: once from terrible traffic that has never really mattered to you because you can fly; and second, when they die in the inevitable accidents. If you cared, you would pay attention when your people take to leaking oil pipelines with cups and bottles and buckets in order to survive. If you cared, we would see you and feel the fires of your concern long after CNN and BBC cameras have left their taping of hundreds of bodies charred to their very souls.

If you cared, perhaps we would have heard a little more about those who died in the last pipeline explosion and similar tragedies in the past nine years. Instead of 419 schemes such as the Nigeria Image Project, by which a government that lost its way actually proves it, we might have heard about efforts to ensure that families affected by the Ikeja Cantonment explosion and similar tragedies are fully compensated to the fullest extent achievable by money.

Instead, Lagosians will listen to more proclamations and more false speeches. The state government has now said it will demolish 500 condemned houses, perhaps because they are substandard. Press reports say that by definition, another home owned by the Ebute Metta landlord will be demolished. Its tenants have seven days to move out and live on the streets.

There are places around the world where people live safely in buildings that are a hundred years old or more. The Ebute Metta building that claimed over 40 lives this week was only three years old, built around the time that Governor Tinubu was finding himself to be the last Governor standing in the west.

Some news reports say the four-storey building had multiple businesses (36, said The SUN; 16, said VANGUARD; 36, said THISDAY): supermarkets, business centres, a chemist, hair-dressing salons, beer parlours, restaurants.

All that was allegedly on one floor. Upstairs, they said, the greedy landlord had residential accommodation (35 flats, said The SUN; 52 single bedrooms, said THISDAY; 35, said VANGUARD).

The contraption located on Bola Street (at No. 21, said Nigerian Tribune; No. 70, said THISDAY; No. 71a, said The SUN), was destined to claim lives.

It should have been taken down long before it had a chance to do so, but it did not. In a populist move, the state government will now start destroying from a list it claims it has.

Hardly surprising. We are talking about Lagos State, where a government routinely gives public land to its anointed, and money to develop it. We are talking about Lagos where, in its capital of Ikeja, a hotel is licensed to operate on top of a petrol station.

While citizens battled with their bare hands to save lives in the building collapse in Lagos this week, rescue scenarios of a different kind raged in the Middle East. Trapped in the outbreak of violence in Lebanon, along with many other nationals, were a reported 500 Nigerians. Traditionally, Nigerian embassies do not care about Nigerians who live in their countries of representation; their jobs are to attend official dinners, pompously grant visas, and be on standby should the President say he is arriving on the next jet.

Last Sunday, Foreign Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said Nigeria was evacuating its nationals from the hostilities, About 100 had already reached a location near the Syrian border, she said, but were being moved to somewhere safer in Damascus. Although she also said those who wish to return to Nigeria would be repatriated from there, nothing has been heard about them in eight violent days.

All the same, one has to thank the Foreign Ministry, as this is a sharp departure from the way Nigeria treats its citizens abroad. One of the things that will always be held against President Obasanjo is that during his second term, he made official the policy that Nigerians are not the responsibility of Nigerian envoys. He personally avoids them when he makes his endless tours abroad.

What is to be seen is whether the evacuation of Nigerians in Lebanon actually took place, how many people were affected, and whether they were treated with any respect. It is interesting that the Foreign Ministry labored to tell Nigerians that the evacuation was stemming from the President's personal concern. For a government that often leaves its embassies without funds, that must be treated as a joke until proof is made available.

Soon after the Minister's statement, the American State Department said that about 1,500 Nigerians were actually involved. Some 1000 did not have to worry; as dual citizens, they were being repatriated along with 24,000 other Americans. The problem was with the remaining 500 who held Nigerian passports or were classified as "undocumented." Nigeria did not seem to know a lot about these people.

Again, this is not surprising. During this violent week, for instance, only two Nigerian newspapers: The Guardian and The SUN, published one story apiece on the evacuation plight of our compatriots in the Middle East.

It is also curious that while Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala said Nigeria was helping such African countries as Ghana, Ethiopia and Senegal with the evacuation of their nationals, Nigeria was itself said to be seeking the assistance of the United States and the European Union to evacuate Nigerians. As US marines arrived Lebanon during the week to provide security for the evacuation of the Americans, a US official said in Nigeria, "Our priority is the safe evacuation of all American citizens willing to leave. We would not be accommodating nationals of other countries who should look up to their governments for assistance."

This was a clear warning to Nigeria. Following her statement, it is time Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala updated Nigerians, particularly those who have relatives in Lebanon, about the evacuation so far. In a situation as volatile as we now have in Lebanon, one week is too long for a follow-up. Since her statement, Israel has put a blockade in place and damaged major roads out of the country. On Thursday, Mr. Kofi Annan confirmed that UN agencies and their humanitarian partners could not reach "almost any part of southern Lebanon," even to assess the needs.

It is a grievous situation for foreigners in Lebanon at the moment, six years after Beirut stopped being the byword for violence and insecurity. It is a great opportunity for the government of President Obasanjo to show that it understands its responsibility to its nationals abroad.

If any readers know anything about the evacuation of Nigerians in Lebanon, I would be glad to publish their accounts.