Changing Tires in the Sky
By Sonala Olumhense
Almost predictably, another Nigerian aicraft fell out of the skies last week. The statistics of crashes and the dead are becoming routine, sadly.
Yet this was not our biggest tragedy. After all, in the assault on Odi by federal government forces in 1999, hundreds were killed. Hundreds more have been killed in pipeline fires, in the Ikeja military cantonment explosions, in the riots in some of the states, in assassinations, in the Okija shrines. Hundreds are killed monthly on Nigerian roads, but those people are not of much relevance in today's Nigeria. They are not on CNN.
And we have the routine well established now: in our new information-soaked world, the news is all over the world in minutes. The President of Nigeria, wherever he is, is informed. He returns to his sleek, well-maintained jet where the technicians are always making certain that everything is in great working order and well-fed pilots are on standby. He heads for the scene of crash where his officials, on cue, execute well-publicized, well-photographed condolence visits. Prayers and promises are plentiful.
As we know now, once the President is involved, governance screeches to a halt. No no minister wants to be seen as being less mournful than the President. Permanent Secretaries and Managing Directors must make every effort to support the President's grief.
In other words, as we have done this week, a national tragedy brings out the best in officialdom: public relations. Governance sputters to a halt because the President needs to demonstrate that he is gravely concerned, and in charge.
That explains all the public weeping and grieving last week. We have all heard the speeches and promises about a complete investigation. Actually, the template was written in 1999; since then, all that government officials need is a few minutes to dust it up to reflect the new tragedy. In minutes, the President is ready for BBC World Service.
Yet, none of these is our real tragedy.
Our real challenge is the illusion that we actually have a government that is honest in its output, or even knows what it is doing. Between tragedies-not in response to one-how you really know that there is a government?
When there is a great tragedy, our government springs to action, filled with all the concern and power of good in the world. They know that the world is paying attention, so there is a lot of cursing and swearing and promising. They set up panels of enquiry. They promise to get to the bottom of the matter.
But what happens between these tragedies? Our governments are not falling over themselves to implement the law, or to see loopholes plugged. Nowhere is there a true crusade on behalf of right and wrong.
I am not saying the government does not budget money or appoint officials or launch schemes. Indeed, governments are always budgeting money, appointing officials and launching new programmes. Once the announcements have been made, however, the President returns to his executive jet, not to the implementation of any of his numerous previous "initiatives." For him, there are always new countries to revisit and old speeches to recycle.
The governors have been similarly impressive; some of them spend more time in Abuja and overseas than in their own states. And even when they are there, they are preaching about what needs to be done, not doing them. How many states are safer or more productive today than they were in 1999 or 2003?
It is the power of drama, and further demonstration of our hypocrisy. Setting up special enquiries might make news, but it does not make sense because there are already procedures for these investigations. In any case, what is the contribution that these enquiries have made to aviation safety in Nigeria either since 1999, or since 1960? Whatever happened to all of the government's previous investigations?
The real question is what happens when CNN and the BBC are not all over the map with their cameras. Where is the governance that ensures that the law is being fully implemented so that unnecessary tragedies do not occur? No serious government waits for the drama and opportunism of a tragedy, or even has time to hang around to celebrate success because there is always so much yet to do.
In any case, is easy to misinterpret an accident such as last week's plane crash. It may be misinterpreted, for instance, as an aviation issue or a technical issue. It is not. As in case of other incidents before it, the crash is a reminder that our nation still runs on bluster. President Obasanjo did not cause the plane to crash, and I do not blame him for that. His guilt has always been that his government is long on promises of reform and short on practical action, particularly the implementation of its schemes.
Mercifully, we are not able to see the graphic effects of the failures in agriculture, or education or health. We cannot see horrifying images of the failures in the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS), or in the sub tenanted battle against corruption. But in last week's crash, we have a brutal reminder of how reforms that are not implemented may come back to haunt Nigeria. A plane crash is graphic, violent and tragic, and nobody likes to think about it, let alone of being in one. As a metaphor, however, it is the ultimate image.
The crash is another reminder of the temporal and geographic failure of public policy in Nigeria. It reminds us that while the President has been sparing with his Vice over who did what to certain funds, we still do not have uninterrupted public power supply. It reminds us of the spate of assassinations in Nigeria that includes a former Attorney-General and Minister of Justice. It is also a reminder that the President would not abort a visit to Guinea Bissau if two buses in a high-speed collision leave hundreds dead but none of the victims is a member of the government or of the PDP.
Last week's crash is a graphic reminder of the poor road network in our country where not only are people slaughtered unacknowledged everyday, but thousands of man-hours are routinely lost as people sit in traffic. It is a reminder of the chaos in the Delta, and of the poverty and hunger and high unemployment.
To prove that nothing has changed, the Minister of Civil Aviation, Professor Borishade, was removed from office. This is great of the President; it sends the message that officials of government have to perform, and not just answer titles. It suggests impatience with official indolence and mediocrity, which would have been a wonderful tone for the Obasanjo Years had it been the marching instruction in 1999.
Nonetheless, it would have been far more useful if the Minister had been removed before the accident, removed weeks ago because he was not doing the job, removed for obvious incompetence months before a situation where, without the benefit of any investigation, he opened his mouth and blamed a dead pilot
It is the same way many of us hope that President Obasanjo would have given up the Presidency a long time ago, because he is an ineffective, and therefore dangerous President. Borishade may have been a weak and ineffective Minister, but he was led by a weak and incompetent President. One of the reasons we cannot go forward is because we have a Mistra-Know-It-All as President in whose heads are all the answers and in whose hands government is a favour.
And having relieved the professor of his post at Aviation, what does the President do with him: he asks him to exchange places with Mr. Femi Fani-Kayode at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism!
It is a joke, of course, because it is the same Mr. Fani-Kayode whose claim to fame is abusing his elders on behalf of the President; the same minister who has yet to achieve anything in Tourism and Culture.
It is problems like this that prevent us from focusing on using competent people or getting answers. It is true that we have all kinds of okada, molue and tuketuke aircraft in Nigeria airspace, most of them belonging to friends of the President. As long as the European Union and the United States are not asking questions those aircraft are allowed to remain in the air, untroubled by anyone.
There are other significant issues that lead to all kinds of dislocations and compromise at airports and in the air: jet fuel problems; "VIP" aircraft, the most arrogant of which is Obasanjo's fleet; animals and potholes on our runways; and airports that have no functioning emergency systems.
Because there is no place in the sky to get an oil change, these-not empty speeches-are some of the things that help to avoid air tragedies. They reflect a nation where anything goes.