It is a measure of the collective amnesia that defines our country that Nigerians are hardly paying attention to what is happening in Lebanon. Perhaps more significant is the contrasting response from the two countries. A similar tragedy 18 years ago in Lagos actually claimed more fatalities, but no one was held accountable. In Lebanon, the entire cabinet led by Prime Minister Hassan Diab, has already resigned amid widespread protest. No fewer than 16 officials have also been taken into custody pending completion of the investigation into their roles.
For those who may not fully understand what I am talking about, let me cut to the chase. Last week, Beirut experienced a huge explosion at the port resulting from 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored for six years without safety measures. As at Tuesday evening, the death toll had risen to 171, according to the outgoing Lebanese Health Minister, Hassan Hamad who also confirmed that “the number of missing people ranges between 30 and 40.” As huge as that number of casualties may be, it is still far less than what we had on 27th January 2002, when Lagosians were greeted by series of explosions later traced to a large quantity of ‘high calibre bombs’ carelessly stored at the Ikeja Cantonment.
As windows were being shattered and roofs blown off in several axis of the Lagos mainland on that fateful day, residents unsure of what exactly was happening began to run out of their homes in different directions. In the process, stampedes resulted with children trampled upon on crowded streets. But the real tragedy occurred at the Oke Afa canal along Oshodi – Isolo Expressway. Without knowing what was pursuing them, many jumped into the lagoon that had been covered by water hyacinth. By the next day, local divers were carrying out hundreds of dead bodies in a heart wrenching scene that still haunts us today.
In its 29th January 2002 edition, The Guardian of London reported: “…as the sporadic explosions gave way to artillery shells and mortars raining down over thousands of homes, these long-suffering Nigerians began to think it was a war. In the panic, as thousands streamed on to the streets not knowing which way to run, a few asked if America was bombing. If it had been a coup or an air strike, the death toll among the residents of sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest city would not have been nearly as large…The bulk of the victims did not die under the exploding shells. Most were hauled from canals into which they jumped or were driven – some still in their cars – by the huge crowds fleeing the shrapnel descending from the sky…”
While the exact number of the dead has never been ascertained, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs stated in its 7th February 2002 report that “over 1,000 people are known to have been killed, but local sources estimate that this figure could range as high as 2,000”. Most of the victims, according to the report, ran to their death, “with around 800 bodies pulled from the canal site so far and more bodies are suspected to be in the deep mud at the bottom of the canal.” The UN report painted a graphic picture of the tragedy: “As the explosions continued and the area affected increased, still more people joined a rush to escape in darkness and without guidance on where to go. Many perished when crowds spilled over into the Oke-Afa canal some three kilometres from the cantonment; many small children were pushed into the deep mud in the canal and drowned. Others were injured because of jumping from height or being trampled underfoot, and some were killed or injured by heavy traffic whilst trying to cross the main Ikeja dual carriageway.”
Most Lagosians will never forget that black Sunday and the explosions that shattered the peace of the state. But just as we are now learning from Beirut, an investigation conducted at the time by the federal government revealed it was an accident that should never have happened, because there were several warnings that went unheeded. The military admitted as much after the tragedy. Investigations revealed that following a mild fire that nearly triggered explosion a year earlier, the Army had been directed to decommission the base but failed to do so. “These are old ammunition depots and there are high-calibre bombs in there. Efforts have been made in the recent past to try and improve the storage facilities,” said the commander of the cantonment, Brigadier-General John Anda. “Unfortunately, I think this accident happened before the higher authority could do what it is supposed to.”
The UN report described the Lagos tragedy as “a typical example of a technological, or man-made, incident when hazardous materials are located in densely populated areas without the necessary prevention and preparedness arrangements for surrounding populations.” Yet nobody was held accountable for what happened. All that Nigerians got was a terse apology from the Commander of Ikeja Cantonment, not even from the Chief of Army Staff or the then Commander-in-Chief, President Olusegun Obasanjo whose intemperate “I don’t have to be here” retort to an angry crowd at the cantonment became the defining jibe. “On behalf of the military, we are sorry … efforts were being made in the recent past to try to improve the storage facility, but this accident happened before the high authorities could do what was needed.” That statement from the army commander at the Ikeja Cantonment tells a compelling story about our country.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, President Obasanjo pledged that the federal government would construct a link bridge between Ajao Estate and Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) depot in Ejigbo. That promise is yet to be fulfilled. With thousands of people injured and displaced, victims did not receive any support from the government either. Even today, there are several families who cannot account for their relations who may have been buried alive at the Oke-Afa canal. But more significant is the lack of accountability. It is perhaps only in Nigeria that such a monumental tragedy could happen and not a single person would be sanctioned for criminal negligence. I must also add that in Lebanon the people did not just resort to peddling gossips on WhatsApp or throwing tantrums on Twitter; they have been demanding accountability of their leaders for the port tragedy.
In democracies, nothing matters more than accountability which simply means that operators recognize that in any position involving public trust, there are consequences for bad behaviour. The reason is simple: Accountability not only benefits citizens, it ensures that when things go wrong, there are people to hold responsible. Even with all its challenges, Lebanon’s recognition of this has resulted in officials being detained and the government resigning. In our climes, officials entrusted with onerous responsibilities, including those involving the lives of ordinary citizens, are never held to such standard by their superiors or the public they are supposed to serve. Two examples will suffice.
In April this year, the Chief of Army Staff, Lt General Tukur Buratai, in a public display of bravado, said the war against Boko Haram had “lingered for too long.” After announcing to Nigerians that he was moving to the theatre of the war against insurgency, he told the troops at Ngamdu, a border town between Borno and Yobe States, that he would “not leave this camp until we substantially degrade these criminals…We will be with you in the valleys, on the hill, in the jungle, in the river and so on…We are here and we make sure that we get ourselves properly motivated, properly equipped and I assure you will have the best of time.”
Not only has Buratai since left the warfront for his cosy office in Abuja, Boko Haram insurgents have in recent weeks regained strength to the extent that in one fell swoop last month, they killed 37 soldiers. We now hear that the insurgents are trying to strike a strategic alliance with international terror networks to expand their base to the North-West. But Buratai, who has overstayed his tenure, knows he will not be held accountable for the promise he made to the fighting troops or his stewardship in the war against insurgency, despite recent damning allegations from Borno State Governor, Babagana Zulum.
Perhaps it is on the issue of graft that we see the clearest absence of accountability–in both the private and public sectors. While banks now credit the accounts of some clerics to the tune of N573 million in ‘error’, the acting Managing Director of the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the grossly mismanaged Niger Delta Development Commission (NCDC), Prof. Kemebradikumo Daniel Pondei has told us that he illegally paid out billions of Naira from the public treasury to contractors ‘under duress’ from the National Assembly. There are several other allegations against lawmakers by the IMC whose members also admitted taking “care of ourselves” from the public till. Today, Nigerians are being treated to a multiplicity of in-your-face scandals because the accusers and the accused are well aware that we are running a system that is devoid of accountability and that nothing will happen to them.
From the foregoing, it is clear that what we are dealing with right now are crimes for which there is a collective guilt given the way we have all conspired to elevate elected (and appointed) officials over and above the law. Therefore, whichever way one looks at it, the problem of Nigeria can be located in the lack of accountability that cuts across all sectors and all spheres of our national life, including the secular. And it is also clear, as I once argued, that where lives of citizens don’t matter to people in authority, it is futile to expect that there would be fidelity in managing their resources.
Accountability results in those who work for the people adding value to what they do and being aware that negligence has a cost. When those in positions of public trust know there are consequences for the choices they make or refuse to make, there is a level of commitment and responsibility that goes into how they perform their roles. If they also know they can get away with any infraction, then where is the incentive to do right? Against the background of what is now happening in Lebanon following the Port explosion, we can see the contrast between their country and Nigeria in terms of both public and official response to tragedies or matters of transparency.
The serial lack of accountability in our system on issues of financial probity or those involving lives of citizens is a subversion of democracy which presupposes that the government represents the people and accounts to (and for) them. Outside that accountability, public officers become outlaws and government becomes nothing but a huge burden. That is a challenge we need to collectively deal with.
Teens Conference 2020 Update
Year 2020 is remarkable for several reasons, none more significant than COVID-19. For the first time since its commencement in 2016, the annual Teens Career Conference 2020 will not hold this month. As a member of the organizing team, we have explored the possibility of a Conference Webinar but the limitations of this vis-à-vis our audience and the programme objectives are numerous. And so, with the approval of Pastor Eva Azodoh, Pastor in Charge of the Everlasting Arms Parish (TEAP) of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), health safety and security conditions permitting, the 5th edition of the conference is moved tentatively to December 2020.
The annual TEAP Teens Career Conference, which draws teenagers from Abuja and environs was conceived to, among other objectives, teach them to take responsibility for their future, fire their imagination through interaction with accomplished professionals in the society, make them realize that no matter the odds they can reach their goals; and also get them to understand that God still intervenes in the affairs of men. It is attended by people of all faiths.
Over the past five years of its hosting, accomplished Nigerians who have spoken at the Conference include Ekiti State Governor, Dr Kayode Fayemi, Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor, Mr. Godwin Emefiele, former Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) chair, Mrs. Ifueko Omoigui-Okauru, former PenCom Director General, Mrs. Chinelo Anohu-Amazu, comedian, Mr. Atunyota Alleluya Akpobome, popularly known as Ali Baba and wife of the Vice President, Mrs. Dolapo Osinbajo. Others are wife of the late former Kaduna State Deputy Governor, Mrs. Charity Shekari, former Education Minister, Mrs. Oby Ezewesili, former CBN Deputy Governor, Dr. (Mrs.) Sarah Alade, veteran actor, Mr Richard Mofe Damijo (RMD), Executive Vice Chairman, Famfa Oil, Mrs. Folorunsho Alakija, former House of Representatives Speaker, Hon Yakubu Dogara, former Deputy European Union Representative to Nigeria and ECOWAS, Ambassador Robert Young, social media influencer, Mr. J.J. Omojuwa and comedienne, Dr. Helen Paul.
While COVID-19 is still in the air, we are not downcast. To our teens, young adults and key stakeholders eagerly awaiting the annual August event, we say: Hold the fort, keep the flag flying and let’s link up in December, 2020.
To Chidi and Titi Anya
I commiserate with my brother, Chidi Anya on the passage of his father-in-law, Dr Abiola Olusegun Ajayi. May God grant Titi, her siblings and the entire family the fortitude that a time like this demands.
• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on wwww.olusegunadeniyi.com