A brilliant 300-level female student of Accounting, Oluchi Anaekwe, was electrocuted last week at the University of Lagos when a high-tension wire fell from an electric
pole and she unknowingly stepped on it. She was said to have been rushed to the school clinic where, according to many students, she was not given adequate attention until she died. Not being promptly attended to at a medical centre is of course a familiar Nigerian story and so is death by electrocution, one of the several tragedies which depict just how very cheap life has become in our country today.
[Image: The author]
In one single incident in Port Harcourt in 2010, no fewer than 25 people died when, after a heavy rainfall, a cable fell onto a bus and electrocuted the passengers and some passers-by. Last year in Oworonsoki, Lagos, five people were electrocuted while running from a high tension wire which fell on a car. And just last month, Justice Teresa Kume of the Katsina-Ala High Court in Benue State ordered the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) and the Jos Electricity Distribution Company Plc to jointly pay N25 million damages to the family of one Akpenwuan Chia, who was killed by electrocution. Justice Kume averred that if the high tension cable, suspended midair across the road, had been quickly removed after the report was made to PHCN, the 40-year-old man would not have been electrocuted.
So prevalent are deaths by electrocution, and especially by fallen cables, in our country that two years ago, the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) revealed that 161 persons lost their lives through electrocution within a period of 19 months between January 2012 and July 2013. “From statistics available to the commission, last year (2012) alone, the industry witnessed 102 deaths from electrocution across the country and 72 injuries. In 2013, between January and July, the country witnessed 59 deaths and 60 injuries,” said the NERC chairman, Dr. Sam Amadi, who threatened sanctions at the time.
Yet even when the statistics by NERC may be chilling, it still does not tell the whole story of the criminal negligence that has sent many Nigerians to their untimely graves. Three years ago in Ilesha in Osun State, a live wire fell on the ground inside a compound and when one of the occupants went to complain at “NEPA office”, she was instructed to “look for someone to fold the live wire pending a time the company would come to fix the fault.” That same day, a two-year-old boy stepped on the cable and died.
Against the background that most of the electrocutions have resulted from the carelessness of the electricity company workers, who almost always ignore early warnings about faulty wires, and given reports that the cable that eventually fell at the University of Lagos was an accident waiting to happen, it is evident that the authorities do not seem to place much premium on lives in Nigeria. But of course there are people who would argue that one should not jump to such conclusion since electrocution can happen anywhere. They have a point there but only if the electrocution is in spite of all actions and measures taken to ensure public safety. A look at another recent tragedy, also pointing to neglect, bears this out.
Three weeks ago, a heavy duty container skidded off the Ojuelegba Bridge, landing on a Nissan saloon car and a sports utility vehicle, killing three people in the process. While one account says the truck driver was drunk, there are also speculations that he might have been trying to overtake another truck when the container skidded off. Whatever was responsible, there had been a warning that was not heeded: In November last year, a container fell off a trailer climbing that same flyover and landed on an empty commercial bus (called ‘Danfo’) parked under the bridge at night!
So what am I driving at? I am sure many readers would say that accidents can happen anywhere and I agree; after all, a crane recently fell in Saudi Arabia, killing more than a hundred people. But that is precisely the point. That the Saudi tragedy resonates across the world is because cranes don’t just fall anyhow in the country. It is indeed an accident and we can all be sure that there will be investigations and lessons will be learned to ensure it doesn’t happen again. But can we say the same of our country today?
I am sure many have now forgotten that just a few weeks before the Ojuelegba tragedy, a container fell and crushed a fully loaded commuter bus, killing all passengers right on the Sagamu/Benin expressway. The victims turned out to be mainly students of Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago Iwoye, who were on their way to Lagos. Two years ago, a trailer carrying a container which was poorly latched fell on a female pedestrian along Berger axis of Lagos-Ibadan expressway. The trailer had lost one of its tyres and as the driver struggled to regain control, it tipped over and the container fell, landing on the woman. In June of the same 2013, a manager at SLOT, a phone retail shop with head office in Ikeja, Lagos, was on his way to work when suddenly the driver of a truck lost control and the container on top fell, instantly crushing the man to death.
In the bid to stop these needless deaths, the Lagos State House of Assembly in January 2012 enacted the Road Traffic Law stipulating the period such articulated vehicles could move within the state. According to the law, with the exemption of tankers, articulated vehicles should not be seen between 6am and 9pm daily. Violators, according to the law, would have their vehicles impounded in addition to a fine of N50,000 or imprisonment for six months. However, the law has been observed more in the breach. Indeed, a few weeks after the law was passed, about three people were crushed to death when a truck carrying a 40-foot container hit a pothole, tumbled and crushed a Mazda car on the Lagos-Badagry Expressway. Okay, these are road accidents that can happen anywhere. I also agree but let us look at water transportation that is easily the safest in most countries.
When in July this year, a motorised boat rammed into a canoe carrying 14 school children (who were not wearing life jackets) around Ojo area of Lagos, drowning six of them, not a few people felt moved by the tragedy. But within a matter of days, Nigerians had moved on; after all it was a common occurrence that had happened several times before. Four months earlier on March 28, Mr. Kunle Adewale, a Director in the Lagos State Ministry of Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, (the first son of the Olu of Epe, Oba Shefiu Adewale), drowned with five others after their boat capsized on their way to cast their ballots in the presidential election.
Hardly a week passes without news about such cheap and mostly preventable deaths. For instance, within a period of 20 days between March and April 2014, there were three such mishaps which claimed about 150 lives. First, a commercial boat capsized on a canal at FESTAC Town in Lagos, claiming the lives of 18 passengers. The same month, a passenger boat capsized in the waters around Cross River State, killing about a hundred people. And on April 2 in Majidun River, Ikorodu in Lagos, a passenger boat hit a solid object in the water, upturning and throwing all its 28 commuters into the open sea. The victims included some pregnant women and a young man and woman whose wedding was just a few days away.
Incidentally, one of the major causes of accidents on our waterways is collision with hard objects submerged in water and the authorities are quite aware. But what have they done about it? According to estimates from the United Nations (UN), there are more than three million shipwrecks in the ocean floor worldwide and Nigeria is one of the countries where numerous of such wrecks are said to be lying under the water bed. Other causes of accidents are poor vessel maintenance, over-speeding, poor lighting during night voyages, overloading of boats, collision with another vessel as well as navigational and human errors. But you don’t have to travel by water or in fact go anywhere to be killed in Nigeria. Even staying in your house could be hazardous.
Last Sunday, precisely five days ago, a two-storey building, housing an Islamic school, collapsed in Jos, killing ten pupils (as at the last count) while several others sustained serious injuries . “We rushed to the scene when the matter was reported to us this evening and our efforts yielded fruits as we were able to minimise the number of casualties”, said Alhaji Alhassan Barde, the Executive Secretary of the Plateau State Emergency Management Agency. While we commend Barde and his team for their timely intervention, the pertinent question remains: where in the world do buildings collapse at the rate at which they do in Nigeria?
On the Jos tragedy, we are already hearing a familiar story. “The foundation and all the materials were for a small bungalow, but the building structure was suddenly converted into a two-storey structure, forcing it to cave in as the foundation materials could not cope with the new weight,” said NEMA Zonal Coordinator (North-Central), Abdulsalam Mohammed, who blamed the collapse of the building on carelessness. “The materials used were even very poor. If you check the blocks, you will find that they did not have enough cement in them. If you check the rods, you will find that they were even too light for a building of that weight and magnitude,” he said.
So, if that is the case, would there be any consequence? Certainly not because two months ago, the Lagos Coroner’s Inquest into the collapse of a six-storey building belonging to the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN), which occurred in September last year, indicted the church for “criminal negligence” and recommended prosecution for the death of 116 persons. The Coroner’s Court, presided over by Chief Magistrate Oyetade Komolafe, said six of the victims were yet to be identified while 85 were South Africans, 22 Nigerians, two Beninoise and two Togolese nationals.
The Coroner’s Court held that structural failure due to a combination of designs and detailing errors were the cause of the building collapse and that the church did not get the necessary permit/approval before commencing construction. But now that Nigerians have been told of what led to such a monumental tragedy which claimed the lives of about a hundred foreigners on our shores and recommendations were made, the question then is: what follows? Nothing, of course! But as I leave readers to ponder over the loss of 116 lives in one fell swoop through the criminal neglect of some untouchables, there is perhaps the cheapest form of death that is also peculiarly Nigeria.
About five weeks ago in Ogbia, Bayelsa State, the ancestral Local Government Area of former President Goodluck Jonathan, a family of five slept to death after inhaling fumes from a generator. And it took three days for their neighbours to even discover, following an “offensive odour” that emanated from their decomposing bodies. “Preliminary investigation revealed that the deceased must have died about three days back, when they were last seen, as a result of inhaled fume from a generator exhaust, which was kept inside their living room”, said the Police Public Relations Officer, Bayelsa State Command, Mr. Asinim Butswat.
The incident was similar to what happened in Lagos last year when decomposing bodies of seven persons were discovered inside a house by policemen. It was gathered that colleagues of the head of the family, Etim Edet, then working at Nigeria Brewery Plc, began to worry when he failed to report on duty for almost a week. When they went to check on him at his home, they perceived a stench that was emanating from the building. The policemen who were immediately called in found the dead bodies of Edet, his wife, four children and a relative on their beds. They also found a 3.5 KVA generator, fumes of which was suspected to have killed the seven people.
In the case of a Pentecostal church in Aba, Abia State, what could have been a monumental tragedy was averted even though a six-year-old boy died while other worshippers survived. That was because help came promptly from the police Area Commander for Aba, ACP Peter Wabara, after receiving a phone call that some persons were dead at a church in town: “I mobilised my men and called in some doctor friends since the government doctors were on strike and they accompanied us to the scene of the event. There we looked through the glass door and found them lying unconscious in a scattered manner. Fortunately, some of them were breathing so we moved them to two hospitals”.
Unfortunately, an 80 year-old woman, identified as Madam Kuburat, and her four grandchildren were not so lucky at Ijoko in Ifo Local Government Area, Ogun State. The generator, which was placed in the veranda of the house, was left running all night while the doors and windows were locked. It took the traditional ruler of the area, Chief Olu Kujore, to mobilise the boys who forced their house open to discover the dead bodies the next morning.
What compounds the tragedy of death by generator fumes is that nothing depicts the story of Nigeria than a visit to any of our markets or complexes housing offices in the afternoon. There is hardly any cubicle or apartment that you would find without what is now known as “I-better–pass-my-neighbour” generating set. At night in most houses, especially in urban centres, you find as many generating sets as there are rooms. According to the Director-General of Centre for Management Development, Dr Kabir Usman, “there are about 60 million generators in Nigeria at the ratio of one per household of 2.5 people with an annual spending of N1.6 trillion.”
Even if we discount the environmental nightmare that such a state of affair breeds and the financial waste of everybody generating his/her own power, it is an established fact that the carbon monoxide (a dangerous invisible, odourless and colourless gas) emitted from generating sets is a silent killer that has accounted for the death of thousands of Nigerians, including in several cases, the entire family. Yet there is still no public awareness campaign by the relevant authorities on such danger. Nor is there any about lead poisoning, another harbinger of death that has claimed the lives of far more victims in recent years.
Four months ago in May, the Federal Ministry of Health of Nigeria reported a suspected lead poisoning outbreak in Unguwan Magiro and Unguwan Kawo communities in Rafi LGA of Niger State where artisanal gold mining is a predominant occupation. A total of 48 cases including 14 deaths were reported while the common symptoms presented by affected persons were fever, abdominal pain, vomiting, convulsion and altered level of consciousness. When the blood samples of four of the hospitalized cases were tested, they revealed high level of serum lead. In many of our communities across the country today, illegal mining has become no more than suicide missions. The statistics may not be available but hundreds of Nigerians are killed every year as a result of lead poisoning. But what are we doing about it? Nothing!
I can go on and on as there are a thousand ways to die cheaply in Nigeria. Last month, no fewer than 11 persons, including children, were reportedly injured in separate incidents of kerosene explosions in Delta State. Since adulterated kerosene, usually “refined” by pipelines vandals from stolen crude, is rampant in the Niger Delta region, such explosions are also very common and have led to the death of many Nigerians while several people today nurse severe injuries as a result.
Let us not even talk about convoy killings (since big men, including non-public officials, are driven as if they own the roads) or fire accidents like the one which recently claimed a family of five in Lagos without any help from neighbours. Now, one of the numerous other deaths that are peculiarly Nigerian is currently unfolding before our very eyes. In the last two weeks, from Delta to Anambra, Zamfara and Sokoto, flood has killed more than 60 persons, washed away hundreds of farmlands and houses while rendering thousands of people homeless. Was this tragedy preventable? Of course it is, since it is a perennial issue.
Incidentally, more avenues for cheap deaths are being created. Last week, Mr. Ali Baba Mustapha, the Assistant Superintendent in charge of Exhibits at the Sokoto State Command, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) warned about the increasing involvement of married women in drug abuse. According to Mustapha, many women are now in the habit of taking cough syrups that contained codeine, believing that it would enhance their sexual appetite in what may be another route to easy death. And we are all aware that you can get any prescription drug over-the-counter anywhere in Nigeria with all the attendant implications for the health of our people.
The upshot of the myriad dangers catalogued above is the near absence of safety standards in most areas of public exposure in Nigeria today. But we cannot continue to run our affairs like that. Federal laws need to stipulate the minimum standards for the location of power lines in public places; state laws need to limit the movement of articulated trucks in urban areas to late night times; environmental protection agencies need to have a strong enforcement unit to ensure that pollution from generators and industrial plants are kept at safe levels while our health authorities must do more in terms of advocacy.
Above all, those who man critical agencies of government at all levels, whether in enforcing compliance with building codes or in ensuring road and maritime safety, must not only be alive to their responsibilities, we as citizens must at all times hold them to account. The lesson is simple: Whichever way we look at it, the string of untimely, and sometimes brutal, deaths from preventable causes that have become our lot as a nation in recent times is a sad commentary on the value we place on human life in Nigeria.
The Verdict by Olusegun Adeniyi; email@example.com