When news of the fatal crash of Dana Airline’s flight 992 filtered through social media networks on Sunday evening in Nigeria, reactions ranged from disbelief to talks of the incident being an accident waiting to happen. Moments after the crash was confirmed, previous complaints about airline near-mishaps resurfaced. Other public comments included the worry about travel safety, in general, in Nigeria. “Scared to travel by road because of armed robberies, accidents, fires and gridlock due to bad roads. Scared to fly because nothing works… just scared,” tweeted popular TV personality, Funmi Iyanda.
As I write this, my heart is heavy still. How do you explain to the families of the 153 passengers and crew on-board the ill-fated airplane that air accidents are rare? What will one tell the innocent children and parents whose family members were relaxing at home on Sunday afternoon when an airplane crashed into their homes? What about families that lost loved ones to an earlier bomb attack on a church in Bauchi state earlier in the day?
Following the air crash, the aviation minister has promised that investigations will be thorough. She even shed tears while addressing the media. The president also wiped tears from his eyes when he visited the site of the air mishap on Monday. However, this is not the first time such accidents will be followed by promises. The tears shed, 5 years ago, by a minister over the state of Nigerian roads are yet to produce better conditions. In fact, it can be argued that Nigeria is fast replacing the culture of resignation – as an admission of inability to prevent avoidable mishap – with a culture of public tears. While stories emerging from the accident, including that of 7 members of the same family who perished in the crash, are disheartening, they also draw attention to a general problem with the value of human life in Nigeria.
A member of staff of Dana Airlines, owners of the airplane that crashed, told Channels Television that they were “forced to fly the airplane.” Even if that is not true, the level of corruption in Nigeria makes it believable that airline owners may be able obtain falsified Airworthiness Certificates from the regulator or have them look away while an aircraft is being “managed”. There have been calls for dismissal and resignation but I fear that this problem is more systemic than sectoral. As with aviation, so with road transportation. In 2011 alone, 17,464 people were injured in road accidents which are mostly due to the bad roads that dot the Nigerian landscape. Annualised data from the Federal Road Safety Corps also shows that 161 deaths are recorded per 10,000 vehicles in Nigeria.
The bad roads, as with many other death traps in Nigeria, are often a reflection of the corruption within the system and the inability of government to fix the multi-year rot that seem to be managed every four years until the next set of politicians promise to fix the same problems that have annual provisions in various budgets. The fact that anyone can bribe to get most services, including obtaining clearance for structures that pose obvious danger to human lives or making security agents at the airport look the other way so that banned items can make their way past screening points, adds to the already complex problems.
Government has announced that security problems mostly traced to Boko Haram bombs will come to an end in June, but most people are not holding their breaths because as long as no one is brought to book for crimes, the message to anyone planning such is that they will likely get away with it. President Jonathan has a unique opportunity to use Sunday’s multiple mishaps to send a very strong message that goes many steps beyond public tears and a promise to ensure that “no stone is left unturned” and that “perpetrators of the act will be brought to book.” Punish the guilty, uphold the law and make it clear that human life is valuable in Nigeria too. Here’s another opportunity to fix lingering aviation issues, and get all existing airlines to stop “managing”. But it’s not just about aviation and the Dana mishap; it’s about the reasons why Life Expectancy in Nigeria is at 51.9 years.
While government must stop paying lip service to the protection of human life, Nigerians must also expect more and report incidents that may bring any form of harm – refusing to accept less. Each time we “manage”, we set up an environment for possible loss of life. As I write this, the news of the collapse of a hospital building under construction in Benin and of an imposing billboard (also under construction) along the busy Third Mainland Bridge just came in. The extra work we have had to put into a training facility we leased recently also demonstrates the way we “manage” things as long as they are not seen as immediate disaster. When disaster strikes, our weakness in emergency response is also revealed. As long as we don’t fix the bigger problem of the lives that are put at risk through many acts of commission or omission daily, we are simply stating that human lives don’t matter much and that life expectancy does not need to improve.
It’s not just about Dana, it’s about the next disaster that is waiting to happen because of government inaction, citizen neglect or the corruption that keeps Nigeria’s life expectancy low.