Change, Randoms

One Emergency Away from Doom

On Friday, 23 November 2018, a seven-storey building under construction in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, collapsed. With conflicting figures being bandied about, one sure point is that there were a lot of persons in that building when it collapsed because that day was a payday for workers and suppliers. As at the time of writing this article, ten days later, many persons, dead or alive are still trapped underneath the rubble. 

I would not bother delving into what might have caused the structure to collapse. Noting that there are several possible reasons, it would take a conscientious investigation to pinpoint what caused the incident. Although I have little faith from past occurrences that any “real lessons” would be imbibed from an investigation, Governor Nyesom Wike has done well in directing the constitution of a commission of inquiry to uncover what drove the building’s collapse. While this is commendable, in my humble opinion, Wike deserves some knocks for running a state ill-prepared for this kind of emergency.

Arnold H. Glasow once asserted that “One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognise a problem before it becomes an emergency.” In a much longer quote, Winston Churchill elaborated this further:

“Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong – these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”

A tweet by Jennifer Nkem-Eneanya claims that seven days after the building collapsed, there were hardly any bulldozers nor heavy-duty diggers to lift the mangled reinforced concrete wreckage despite the Red Cross estimating up to a hundred persons might still be trapped under the ruins. Imagine how many centuries it would take to manually breakup the concrete debris and move them out of the way in order to access trapped bodies.


Is this the first building to collapse in Rivers State? Is this the first to collapse in Nigeria? No! Nein! Definitely not! If so, why are we not prepared for this knowing the commendable excellency of our regulatory environment? It is unfathomable that the government would be unaware of global best practices in undertaking rescue operations involving collapsed buildings having seen countless operations across countries impacted by earthquakes. Sadly, this is Nigeria where many persons see preparing for emergencies as a sign of faithlessness.

This is a country where some commercial bus drivers would disembark any passenger who complains that their reckless driving could cause an accident, preferring this response to actually driving like sensible persons. Such drivers would see the complainant as an evil person who wants to cause an accident. We prefer to “plead the blood of Jesus”, say “it’s not my portion” or argue our fate is fixed rather than use our brains to foresee possible issues and make mitigative plans.

Growing up in Port Harcourt, I witnessed a string of fire incidents. For most of those fires, the government’s fire service had one excuse or the other to arrive when the fire had had its fill. It was either they had no electricity to pump water or a pump was damaged or a truck had issues; there would usually be a reason to arrive late. In many incidents, rescue operations were led by fire trucks from the international oil companies operating in Port Harcourt. Imagine how many buildings would have been razed to the ground if those IOCs had combated fires with the passion of the government’s fire service.

As a country, we are never prepared for emergencies. If the Boys’ Scouts’ Baden-Powell were to assess Nigeria, he would baulk at our religious worship of the god of unpreparedness. I always argue that Nigerians are extremely lucky that hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and California-grade heatwaves are unaware of our location, else, we would be filling mass graves every month. Let me end with a charge by Robert Baden-Powell:

“Be Prepared… the meaning of the motto is that a scout [country] must prepare himself [itself] by previously thinking out and practicing how to act on any accident or emergency so that he [it] is never taken by surprise.” 

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