Before We Are All Electrocuted

On Thursday, 20th April, 2017, not less than seven persons lost their lives as they were watching the Europa League tie between Manchester United and Anderlecht. An overhead high-tension electric cable dropped on the viewing centre which was made of galvanized roofing sheets. According to eyewitness accounts, the cable dropped after a spark from a nearby transformer.

The news quickly spread on social media with even Manchester United and FIFA tweeting about their sadness over the incident. Several Nigerians also expressed their sadness. Then Nigerian politicians, not to be outdone by ordinary Nigerians and international organisations, released statements. Even President Buhari also offered his condolences through the Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, GarbaShehu, which is a bit curious. The same Presidency which usually keeps mum when Fulani herdsmen decimate entire villages, leaving deaths and blood in their wake! It appears that our politicians saw the incident as a means to acquire cheap political capital.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against people showing concern, and certainly not happy over the incident. However, while expressing sadness and sharing condolences are good, and at least show that our humanity is still intact, the whole thing unfortunately appears very Nigerian; it all seems too familiar. We act shocked, express sadness, offer condolences, and then quickly forget what caused the deaths, till a similar incident occurs again.

The viewing centre is under an 11KV line, and I can bet that it has been there for years, and it is certainly not the only structure under a high-tension line in that area. In fact, there are many structures like that in Calabar. It means the deaths were avoidable, if only certain agencies of government carried out their duties. Sadly, that is the story of Nigeria: people die who have no business dying. That’s why I said the incident is all too familiar.

It’s easy to say, “Eeyah, that’s sad. But they shouldn’t have built under a high-tension line na!” and to argue that it was an illegal structure. But isn’t there an agency whose duty it is to ensure that people obey the set Right-Of-Way of electricity infrastructure? Or how do you explain the fact that people get approval from statutory government agencies to build under high-tension electric lines, along paths of pipelines, drainage channels, or restricted areas? Building under high-tension lines is a common sight in Nigeria, and we’ve accepted it as normal.

For example, there is a 330 KV transmission line along the Murtala Muhammed Highway in Calabar. There are shops, warehouses, office buildings, and kiosks under the line. There is even a filling station directly under the line close to Bebosco Bus stop. The filling station and most of the structures have been there for more than fifteen years. And almost all of them got approval to build from the government. If one of those cables should drop, the viewing centre incident would be like a child’s play. Yet, nothing has been done, or said, about it.

Sadly, it is the same all over Nigeria. There are several structures built under high-tension electric lines all over Nigeria, and it is a failure of government. There are government agencies tasked with regulating where and how people build. But such agencies don’t carry out their duties. They are more interested in collecting bribes. Before you build in Nigeria, you are supposed to get approval, and the site you intend to build on is supposed to be inspected to ensure that the building does not contravene existing regulations and plans before such approval is granted. However, no inspection is carried out. They only ask you to pay some sums of money and approve everything for you. All they are interested in is the money they will get. When a building is marked, “Stop Work!” or “Demolish!” it is usually because the owner has not “settled” everyone at the office. That’s why one can get approval to continue building after such structures had been marked, “Demolish!” Makes you wonder why the building was marked for demolition in the first place. What has changed? What has made the reasons for demolition to become so not compelling anymore?

During my service year in Lagos, I was shocked to find so many structures under high-tension transmission lines. And people went about their businesses as if there was nothing wrong with it! I never was able to understand why people could be so cool about death hanging over them so menacingly. Makes you think people in Lagos must have two lives. When you tell them about the risk of the lines dropping on them, their response is always, “Olorun o ni je!” meaning: “God will not allow it!” But wait, before you conclude that Lagos is populated by mad and stupid people, you should also consider that that mindset pervades the whole of Nigeria. We are not a safety-conscious society!

When it comes to safety issues, we leave them in the realm of the divine. We are not willing to invest the effort and resources needed to make our environment safe. We believe accidents would not happen to us; but that if it happened, it would not involve us. Rather, it would involve that person who doesn’t go to church or mosque as much as we do, or prays like us, or is hated by God. That attitude is why we continue to disdain safety in ways that can only be described as madness!

I don’t think Nigeria has a safety policy – whether workplace, residential, or environmental. If we do, I have never seen or heard of it. Most work places are death traps. The likelihood of coming to harm is just too great. When people leave their home for work, they should be sure that they would come home safely – and live in their homes safely. That is not too much to ask for, is it? But without a safety policy, everyone does whatever they like, putting other people’s lives at risk.

We must take safety issues seriously because we – and others – deserve to work and live safely. When we leave our homes, whether for work or leisure, we should be sure that we will come back with our lives and body parts intact. Also, it is only when we take safety seriously, when it becomes our priority, that we can force our government to take it seriously. We need to have, not only clearly articulated safety regulations by the government, they must also be enforced. The government, through the National Orientation Agency, and Civil Society Organisations have the responsibility of educating Nigerians on the importance of safety. The safety of Nigerians should be paramount irrespective of ethnic, religious, or political affiliations.

In saner climes, the owner of that viewing centre would have been arrested and charged for murder. Those whose duty it was to ensure that that structure wasn’t there would also be prosecuted if found culpable. And then, the safety policy would be reviewed to ensure that such incidents do not occur in the future. But here in Nigeria, we’d rather blame it on evil spirits. Nobody is responsible; nobody is held accountable. Spirits can’t be arrested, can they?

The culture of corruption in our regulatory agencies is why we have so many structures under high-tension electric lines, and cannot be excused. However, that culture is encouraged by our attitude towards safety. Until it changes, we shall continue to have avoidable deaths like the one that happened last week in Calabar. When you are building under an electricity line or in an unsafe place, and you bribe government officials – who are just too happy to indulge you – to get approval, don’t forget that you are the one who would live or work in the house. You are the one who would become part of statistical figures when you are electrocuted. Yes, people will express sadness over you, and even offer condolences. After that, they’d all forget about you and move on to the latest distraction!

But then, I do not suppose that you’d agree with me. After all, isn’t it cheaper and less stressful to outsource our safety to God?

A word has always been enough for the wise. Those who require paragraphs are otherwise” — Leke Alder

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