There’s Fire On The Mountain
Nigeria is best described as a human-made disaster. On any given day, there are ample illustrations of this claim. Let’s take a few examples from last week.
Last Thursday, more than one hundred Nigerians – men, women and children – got roasted alive in Okogbe, Rivers State. A tanker transporting fuel overturned as its driver sought to avoid collision with another vehicle. Fuel began to spill. Whilst the driver raced away from the tanker – aware of its dangerously flammable content – many onlookers rushed forward, determined to scoop up fuel. Blinded by poverty, the crowd ignored the driver’s plaintive warnings. They advanced, jostled for position, prospecting for a few drops of fuel.
In what’s become a morbidly familiar pattern, the tanker exploded in a huge, swift ball of fire. The mass of prospectors perished, their bodies reduced to grotesque, charred bones. One survivor told a reporter that “the explosion sounded like an earthquake.”
Earthquakes are natural disasters, and there’s never been a single earthquake in Nigeria’s living memory. But not to worry; everyday, we manufacture our own super “humanquakes.” These man-made quakes far surpass nature’s wrath and fury.
Those poor lives lost to the fuel tanker fire were the wretched of the Nigerian earth. Dispossessed by their thieving “leaders” and betrayed by the country’s intellectual elite, each man, each woman and each child who died in that inferno was a victim, in the final reckoning, of a human-made disaster. They died trying to collect their own elusive “dividend of democracy.” When that tanker fell, the would-be casualties of its cargo must have thought God had answered their prayers. It was the closest they ever came to the experience of owning their own oil block. Then, since they were not of the class called stakeholders in the lingo of Abuja, their momentary fantasy turned into a nightmare.
For most Nigerians, life is one marathon of the dismal and the grim, unpunctuated by any cheerful news. Most Nigerians face a harsh, harshening menu of misfortunes. If it’s not death by fuel tanker fire, it’s death by Boko Haram. Death lurks in every corner. It’s ever present on the death traps we misname roads. It lays ambush in ill-equipped hospitals that are simply the last bus stop before the mortuary. There’s death at police checkpoints if you don’t have the N20 that’s often the obligatory bribe for passage. And then, there are the death-dealing leagues of armed robbers and their allied professional cousins.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s handlers issued a bland, yawn-inducing statement. For him – and for his fellows who fly to Rio, DC and Brussels as fire consumes the Nigerian mountain – some expendable Nigerians had perished – so what? If the outside world regarded what had happened in Rivers as a tragedy, for Nigerian “leaders” – who, after all, are the country’s main disaster factories – it was just fodder for tasteless, cynical jokes at their unbroken opulent feasts.
It’s a safe bet that the tragedy will not nudge Mr. Jonathan to tackle the rehabilitation or construction of federal roads with any sense of urgency. Nor will he realize that those who perished were driven to the risks they took by the desperate quality of their wretchedness. Mr. Jonathan as well as the overpaid, idle legislators who infest Abuja must have woken up last Friday, the day after the tragedy, as confused, detached and nonchalant as ever. For them, leadership is, above all – if not exclusively – a matter of self-aggrandizement.
That explains another shameful event last week, this time in President Jonathan’s home state of Bayelsa. The newly installed administration of Governor Seriake Dickson announced that the president’s wife, Patience Jonathan, was one of seventeen newly promoted permanent secretaries in the state.
When I first read the news, I was willing to wager it was some kind of crude joke. As far as anybody knew, Mrs. Jonathan lives with her husband in Abuja. As far as we knew, she’d not been working in any capacity as a civil servant in Bayelsa State. Why, then, would her name show up on a list of permanent secretaries?
Then it hit me: as farcical as it seemed (in fact because it all sounded so farcical), it was bound to be for real.
Did the president know that this indefensible appointment was in the offing? Even if he wasn’t alerted before the booboo, why did he fail to recognize, a, that the appointment was untenable and, b, that it was liable to taint everybody involved: himself, his wife, the state governor? Let’s suppose that neither the president nor his wife was aware of the ethical minefield presented by the ghastly “promotion” of the First Lady. But what about the president’s advisers? Did they all lack the spine to tell the man that the “gift” to his wife was patently improper, and should on no account be countenanced?
Sometimes, one has the sneaking feeling that the president pays his advisers handsomely in order that they may misadvise him. All attempts both by Mrs. Jonathan and the Bayelsa government to justify her appointment have been decidedly unimpressive. Her office has said she plans to work from Abuja, and collect no pay. What job, exactly, is she going to be doing? And how – and by whom – is she going to be supervised?
It’s near-impossible to shake off the impression that Mr. Dickson, favored by President Jonathan to move into the Government House in Yenogoa, was out to extend a gesture of gratitude to the president. But Mr. Jonathan should know better than to accept the bait; and, if he didn’t know better, then some aide or other ought to have saved his already troubled presidency from this another ridicule-rich misstep.
The rare cheery news from last week – the triumph of Governor Adams Oshiomhole in a heated governorship election in Edo State – was not without significant hiccups. In what’s become a terrible signature, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was woefully late in providing ballot materials to numerous polling centers. The agency’s delinquency meant that accreditation of voters could not proceed smoothly.
Even though the highly favored incumbent governor emerged the run-away winner – humbling a retired general fielded by the PDP – it’s disturbing that INEC continues to be confounded by the far from extraordinary task of making hitch-free arrangements for elections.
Of profounder worry is that thousands of soldiers were sent into Edo in the days before the election. Countries that know what they’re doing reserve their soldiers for wars – or summon them to domestic assignment only when some grave natural disaster strikes. The fact that soldiers are deployed to oversee something as routine as elections is another sign that Nigeria – in the words of Karl Maier – is a house that’s fallen.