One Lesson Too Many

The adage, “experience is the best teacher”, wrongly assumes that experience is efficacious in delivering instruction. What that adage failed to consider is that “fools despise wisdom and instruction”. In other words, for a fool, even experience is not good enough to serve as a teacher. Trying to teach a fool, even using experience, is like explaining how a colour looks to a person who was born blind. Unfortunately, this is the kind of situation Nigeria finds itself. At the risk of seeming unpatriotic, I still say that Nigeria is like a fool for whom thirty lessons is insufficient.

On Thursday, 20 April 2017, while Manchester United and Anderlecht were slugging it out for a Europa League semi-final place, some Man United fans in faraway Calabar, Nigeria, were unknowingly taking their last glimpses of life. These fans had gathered in a viewing centre to watch the high-stakes game, when a high-tension cable from an overhead line dropped on the roof. In all, at least thirty persons lost their lives that night. Expectedly, support messages emanated from different Nigerian leaders and even from FIFA and the football club whose fans met the sad fate.

Unfortunately, after all the condolences have flowed, nothing concrete has stemmed from that incident. Apart from a call by the House Speaker and some others for an investigation into the incident, there has been no push to prevent a reoccurrence. This is an attribute of classic Nigeria—there is no time to be bogged down with past incidents. Life goes on, until it happens again, then more messages flow, move on, repeat. It is a horrendous cycle.

If Nigeria learned from experience, it would have been in a better state of development at this point. Despite repetitive losses of lives on roads, there is hardly any “real” concern about preventing or at least, reducing the severity or consequences of the road crashes. Whether it is the deplorable roads, unfit vehicles or hazardous driving, a lot of lessons should have been learned from these incidents, yet, Nigeria remains at the same spot. Instead of wisely learning from the numerous incidents, Nigeria relies on luck and “God’s protection” to keep its citizens safe, or at least, ensure not everyone dies or loses a body part.

The same culture is seen in the building industry. Periodically, Nigerians hear of the collapse of one building or the other. Sometimes, lives are lost, while other times, only the buildings are lost. Each time a building collapse, there would be some chatter depending on the area and kind of building. While high profile collapses such as a famous collapse in Lagos draw a high level of chatter, it ends at that chatter. No lessons are imbibed to be applied going forward in order to prevent further building collapses.

Coming back to the thirty lives lost in Calabar, a question arises as to why that incident occurred. Why was a viewing centre underneath a high voltage line? Since it is common to see structures below or very close to high voltage lines in Nigeria, this is an indictment of the government at all levels; the building professionals who have some leverage over policy and enforcement; the electricity professionals who ought to pressure the government to enforce safe distance rules; the individuals who build in unsafe locations, and the people who enter such unsafe buildings.

Some persons may consider it inhumane to blame the dead. However, those who died and those who were injured have a share in the blame pie. It was unwise to be in such a decrepit structure, no matter how much they loved football. I have used “decrepit” because I infer that it why there were deaths. If the structure were sound, even if it would still be stupid (and illegal) to build under a high voltage line, the consequences of a fallen line would have been less severe. Unfortunately, poverty, ignorance and nonchalance make decrepitude acceptable to many Nigerians. While a few persons may be unaware of the risks posed by a high-tension line, I would argue that most Nigerians know that electricity is potentially dangerous, especially when they hear the phrase “high tension”. Hence, we can take poverty and/or nonchalance as being responsible for Nigerians accepting the risk of entering a decrepit structure so close to a high voltage line.

Returning to the government and the professionals who ought to know better, it is sad that learning from experience is anathema to their operations. If standards published in developed countries are reviewed, it would be noticed that several standards are influenced by incidents. When something bad happens in wise countries, responsible people sit and review what happened to see how a repeat performance can be avoided. Even when no losses occur, incidents are still reviewed. This is how countries develop, and is a reason Nigeria is still termed a “developing” or third-world country. We just refuse to learn from experience.

Life is a project, and like any good project manager would note, learning from experience is key in any project. Wise people and organisations learn from the experiences of others. How much more, their own experiences. The onus is on Nigeria and Nigerians to begin to learn from experience. Without such a learning culture, the developed world would remain centuries ahead of Nigeria. We do not have to wait until we lose another set of thirty Nigerians before we act. If the government would not act, you can choose to stay safe, educate others about safety issues and highlight hazards whenever you notice them. It is better to tell a friend to avoid the next high-tension incident than to send condolences to that person’s family.

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PS. Here’s a friend’s article addressing the role of corruption in enabling sad incidents like this Calabar fiasco.

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