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Once upon a time…

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once-upon-a-timeOnce upon a time, a merchant ocean-liner embarked on a long voyage in an uncertain weather. All seemed relatively well until about halfway into the trip. A couple of technicians manning the giant twin engines detected leakages along the fuel lines. The ship’s hard-drinking chief engineer was promptly informed. And just as promptly, the chief engineer reached for a nearby intercom-set in the engine-room and called the flagpole tall, taciturn captain at the upper deck. The ship’s speed has to be reduced to one-quarter of full cruise to facilitate repairs, the chief engineer informed. Deep furrows quickly formed on the broad forehead as its owner looked fixedly at his immediate aides. “Why do we have to drop the speed so much?” demanded the commanding voice of the captain, still staring at his nonplussed aides. “Because of the volume of leakages; the engines are vibrating too much, sir!” responded the chief engineer in military fashion. “Look engineer, you know our situation, I don’t like this; but do it and make sure we are back on full cruise within the hour,” the captain further commanded, thoughtfully replacing the receiver. “Yes sir!” uttered the chief engineer as he and his men quickly set to work.

Agitated white waters around the giant ship quickly grew less and calmer as the latter’s velocity dropped. Periodic breeze swiftly swept across the top deck. In less than 40 minutes the broken fuel lines were repaired. Upper deck was duly informed and the visibly relieved captain commanded the resumption of full cruise. As the ship made to resume full cruising speed more leakages appeared in different sections of the fuel lines. The ever dutiful chief engineer again called the upper deck and encountered a very angry “sheriff.” Notwithstanding, the ship was again returned to a quarter of its cruising speed as the fuel leaks were attended.

The ruffled captain quickly engaged his aides in situation analysis. Days of sustained strong headwinds have already taken a toll on scheduled arrival time, the captain prompted; “we cannot afford this irritants.” “You are right, sir;” impulsively responded an aide. “Particularly with the sensitive nature of some of the cargo,” assisted another aide.

As the captain made to resume speaking, the intercom-set came alive again. The second set of leaks have been successfully repaired, informed the chief engineer. Soon after, full cruise resumed. For interminable minutes following, both the concerned captain and his aides maintained graveyard silence as though silently praying that the chief engineer wouldn’t call to report another untoward situation. “Down below” in the clustered engine-room, the alcohol-merry bunch was as boisterous as ever. After a time some form of chatting resumed on the upper deck; but the captain’s eyes unwaveringly hovered between the navigation instruments and the intercom-set.

Some one hundred nautical miles after, and just when the captain was beginning to thank his stars that the sources of his headaches have been permanently eliminated, the chief engineer materialized on the upper deck and cautiously approached the captain. One exchange of glances was enough to pass the dreadful message. “I’m afraid, sir, the fuel lines’ integrity has been corrupted,” the chief engineer uttered under his breath, averting eye contact with his audience of one. “Corrupted? How? Where? When?” snarled the captain, pushing past his informer as he made a beeline for the engine-room. (In blind rage, the captain abandoned his command-post, compromising his ship’s navigation!) The captain’s body language spoke of a bull that has just sighted a red rag. The captain was something of a legend in his profession; his professional reputation was larger than life. He always placed great store on even the smallest details of seaworthiness certification procedure before putting to sea; a reason the captain was generally referred to as “Mr. Integrity.”

The fast descending duo soon reached the humming and uncomfortably warm engine-room. The flagpole tall figure visibly trembled with rage. “Where are the corrupted pipelines?” he demanded from the chief engineer. “Over there, sir!” responded the chief engineer, pointing out a set of stainless steel pipes running the entire length of the engine-room. The captain’s eyes fixedly set on the latest leaks; “Reduce the speed! Reduce the speed!” he thundered. The engine-speed immediately reduced to a quarter of full cruise. The captain’s eyes were still fixed on the broken section of the fuel pipes even as remediation work commenced. The chief engineer momentarily pointed out sections of the previous repairs, but the captain barely heard him. “Reduce the speed!” the captain yelled, darting a glance at the chief engineer with intent. The scanning eyes were soon directed whence they came.

Correctly reading the captain’s body language, the chief engineer started to explain to him how it was that the “corrupted fuel pipelines” slipped the usually water-tight seaworthiness certification procedure, which preceded their present voyage. “Reduce the speed!” blurted the irritated voice, much to the chief engineer’s surprise because the ongoing repairs were now nearing completion, and the ship was presently practically stationary. Apparently, thought the chief engineer, the captain was now more interested in finding out how corrupted pipelines passed through the eyes of the integrity needle than in sailing to harbour in good time. “Sir, pipelines’ integrity goes far beyond surface appearances; unfortunately current certification procedures are narrowly focused on material surface conditions. Metals integrity is a function of metallurgy…”

“Reduce the speed!” the captain bellowed again, giving all his attention to the unfurling lecture. Meanwhile, the ongoing repairs have been duly completed, and awaiting the captain’s command to resume full cruise. Rather, the captain stared expectantly at the chief engineer; the latter, dumbfounded, responded in kind.

“What are you waiting for, engineer?”
“For full cruise command, sir!”
“Don’t be silly, engineer; don’t you see I want to finish this corruption business…”

Once upon a time in Nigeria, catching thieves was a routine job delegated to a minor section of the Federal Government. Now, here’s the unnerving question about the fate of our country, Nigeria: Why has thief-catching today become a pre-occupation of the entire Federal Government, so much so at the evident expense of national economic thrust and direction?
Nkemdiche, an engineering consultant, wrote from Abuja.


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Afam Nkemdiche

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