Uzokwe's Searchlight

My advise to the family of Opere in Bodija is that the deaths of their sons and wife must not be left to go with the wind. This, in my mind, is a case of contributory negligence from NEPA and the fire brigade.
Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Alfred Obiora Uzokwe



could not help but comment on the news of a tragic incident, which occurred recently in Nigeria. The Tribune reported a few weeks ago, that at New Bodija in Ibadan, "a woman and her two children, just back from the United States, got burnt to death when their residence was gutted by fire"

The significance of this tragedy is not that they just returned from the United States, after all, fires do occur in the USA and people do tragically die from them. What is bothersome about this tragedy is that the fire "was caused by a power surge occasioned by sudden restoration of electricity by the National Electric Authority (NEPA)" This type of incident, attributable to NEPA's erratic supply of power, is not rare in Nigeria, even though it is under-reported. I recall the story of a similar incident, which occurred, in my hometown some years back: a family's house was completely gutted by fire, because, while one of the members was ironing clothes, electricity was taken away by NEPA. It did not occur to the member to unplug the iron. Many hours later, when every one had left the house, electricity was suddenly restored while the iron was still plugged on. The iron overheated and by the time the occupants returned home later that evening, their house was burnt and all their belongings wiped out!

There are other variations of horror stories directly attributable to NEPA's professional intransigence: in some instances, home appliances have been destroyed at the sudden restoration of electricity and because Nigerians have no legal recourse, they simply replaced their appliances without holding NEPA accountable. Some fledgling industries have witnessed the destruction of their production machineries because of sudden restoration of electricity or low voltage. Computer systems blow up in great numbers because of the same reason. On the surface, such problems seem trivial and deeply personal, but when aggregated, one would begin to realize the toll that the volatility of NEPA's power supply is causing Nigerians. If we throw in the loss of lives to the whole mix, the magnitude of the problem becomes unbelievable.

The Tribune further reported that the fire damage in Bodija would probably have been mitigated to the point where no lives would have been lost. This was however contingent on immediate response by the fire brigade. Well, not only did the fire brigade arrive late, but also when they eventually showed up, " they complained that they had no water in their tanker and so had to rush back to fill the tanker and only returned after the damage had been done". This is outrageous! What were they thinking, going to a burning house without water? Were they thinking that the call was to attend a party so did not bother to get water? As a matter of fact, I thought that the doctrine of preparedness necessitated that they should be prepared at all times with all needed resources in the ready?

Now, when one has to regret going back to one's land of birth, it underscores the need for very radical changes in our society. This is not just peculiar to Mr. Opere, I know Nigerians who went back home, only to start regretting it later.

In a country where things work well, whoever the fire chief is for that area, should not only have been fired, but should have been taken to court and charged with criminal negligence. What is so complex about knowing that the more you delay when called to an emergency fire scene, the more the victims are endangered? This is not the first or second time I have heard stories of the fire brigade lacking water in emergencies. When the plane crash in the north occurred, the fire brigade again, was out of water to quench the inferno. This is enough and must stop.

The other day, I talked to a contemporary about the ineptitude of the fire brigade and how their unresponsive behavior may be leading to countless deaths; his answer shocked me: "you cannot expect Nigerian fire brigade to be like the American firefighters", he said. I cringed at this response; it showed me how far Nigerians have sunken further into the abyss of low expectation for our country. There is nothing technically complex about the fire brigade filling up their tankers proactively, in anticipation of emergency calls. If this had involved a complex technology, it would have been a different case, but it did not. Their failure was just a case of bad management, ineptitude, indolence and very poor judgment, yet my friend was ready to hold brief for the fire brigade. I submit that Nigeria has continually weaseled out of a lot of things that they should be doing to further our development! Each time that happens, we blame the absence of complex technology. In this case however, I am not ready to defend or condone ineptitude and poor judgment. The idea of continually lowering our expectations and condoning the "uncondonable" has continued to set us back extensively. We "condone" the activities of deadly robbers who snuff out life from innocent citizens because as we put it, the economy is bad and they cannot find work. Granted, the economy is bad, but that does not in any way justify killing and dispossessing fellow citizens. Imagine what would happen if every one, who is out of job in Nigeria, takes to armed robbery? We "condone" the activities of 419ers who disgrace and embarrass Nigeria while besmirching her image because as we put it, "they are emulating our soldiers on the path of get rich quick" We pardon Obasanjo's ineptitude because we say he inherited a bad economy; we forget that he knew going in, that we had a bad economy and promised to fix it. Three years into office, that has not happened and yet we have people holding brief for him. We sing the praises of Nigeria's Maradona even though he presided over the worst case of naira devaluation and single-handedly plunged the nation into economic doldrums. We pardon NEPA's erratic power supply because as we put it, "they are doing their best" We pardon the importation of adulterated and fake medicines into our country because we say the perpetrators are "just trying to make a living" What we have forgotten is that many have died because of the use of adulterated medications. We condone non-payment of teachers' salaries in Anambra state and elsewhere and say that the Governors inherited a bankrupt economy. I can almost bet that if any one of these Nigerian apologists looses a relative as a result of any of these maladies I highlighted, they would immediately start singing a different tune.

Wake up Nigeria! When are we going to begin to set our sights a little higher and demand more from the people we elected to lead us? When are we going to start demanding the absolute best from those we elected to represent us? What bothers me most is that even those who have lived outside Nigeria for a long time and reaped the benefits of good government and democracy, still feel that Nigeria should keep taking baby steps forever. If the Nigerian living in LA or New York or Michigan knows to galvanize petitions and send to his/her representatives when he/she perceives that something is wrong with the system here in the USA, why can't the same person galvanize petitions and send to his/her local representatives in Nigeria when things go wrong in Nigeria? Mrs. Jumoke Opere, who died with her family in that fire in Bodija, because of what I term negligence by both NEPA and the fire brigade, should not die in vain. The people in Ibadan must demand answers. Even though Mrs. Jumoke has died, something good may yet come out of this, if citizens impress upon NEPA and the fire brigade that what they did was unacceptable, some more staff training and improved service may eventually result. No country is perfect, but out of tragedies, arise new and radical changes that ensure that the same tragedy does not ever occur again; that is the hallmark of a civilized society. We say that Nigeria is a civilized society; we must now prove it by doing what people do in civilized countries. It is tragic though, that some people just perceive civilization as opulent mansions, cell phones and luxury cars. That is not the yard stick my friends; the yardstick for measuring civilization is in little things like what the fire brigade does, their promptness and effectiveness in emergencies. Civilization is a measure of the level of comfort the totality of the masses enjoy like good drinking water, electricity, an economy that establishes and sustains a viable middle class and more.

I have blamed the fire brigade, but I must be remiss if I do not point out something that seemingly hampers their work and sometimes precludes them from answering emergency calls promptly. In Nigeria today, some people move around in siren cars without any obvious emergencies. For some, it is just a status thing; they get bodyguards and sirens just because they are wealthy. Could any one imagine what would happen in a place like the USA if every wealthy person traveled in siren cars? The streets would be closed for regular traffic because there are just very many wealthy people here. The case of unnecessary use of sirens in Nigeria must be promptly expunged!

This fire tragedy caused Mr. Biola Opere, the husband of the deceased Jumoke Opere, to lament the fact that they ever returned to Nigeria after living in the USA for nearly 15 years. In tears he stated that he regretted ever coming back to Nigeria from the USA. Now, when one has to regret going back to one's land of birth, it underscores the need for very radical changes in our society. This is not just peculiar to Mr. Opere, I know Nigerians who went back home, only to start regretting it later. Some have witnessed their relatives being felled by the bullets of armed robbers; some have gotten involved in avoidable accidents just because of Nigeria's treacherous and under-maintained roads. Others have watched inflation turn them into paupers even when they went back thinking they had enough money from abroad to establish. It is easy for someone who has not been in the shoes of all these people to see these as minor inconveniences, but be aware that no one is immune to these tragedies, any one who is in Nigeria or visits Nigeria, should be aware that the tragedies come in may forms and we never know who tastes them next. This is why we must start speaking up when tragedies like what happened in Bodija occur. We must write our representatives and demand action and those who fail to listen should be voted out when election time comes. Just about a month or so ago, it was reported that a young man from Nnewi, who had done well for himself in Britain in the field of computers and software, was killed by robbers when he visited Lagos from his base in London. This type of tragedy would be very heart breaking for family members and should not be happening. NEPA should not be arbitrarily taking and returning power thereby causing surge explosions, consequent fires and death; the fire brigade should not be delaying in responding to emergencies and they should always be in the ready with water and all other needed resources for responding effectively and efficiently when called upon. Non-emergency vehicles should not be equipped with sirens thereby downplaying real emergencies when they actually occur. Motorists fail to get out of their ways during real emergencies because they mistake them for moneybags who get escorts and sirens just by dint of their wealth.

My advise to the family of Opere in Bodija is that the deaths of their sons and wife must not be left to go with the wind. This, in my mind, is a case of contributory negligence from NEPA and the fire brigade.