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A tale of two disasters

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Emergency and rescue personnel are seen at the site of a building which collapsed in Lagos on March 13, 2019. – At least 10 children were among scores of people missing on March 13, 2019 after a four-storey building collapsed in Lagos, with rescuers trying to reach them through the roof of the damaged structure. The children were attending a nursery and primary school on the top floor of the residential building when the structure collapsed. Police said they believed scores of people were trapped under the rubble. (Photo by SEGUN OGUNFEYITIMI / AFP)

As far as disasters go, last week was not a happy one even for the shell-shocked people of our dear rumbling country. It is true that our ears, and may be our hearts too, are now used to routine news of disasters that we may have become immune to shock.

Yet the death on Sunday of the brilliant and prolific Nigerian-born Canada-based academic, Professor Pius Adesanmi, in the Ethiopian plane crash brought salty tears to millions of Nigerians, even to those who never met him physically. He was so outgoing and engaging that you were compelled to feel close, connect with him. 

Members of the academic community who had followed Adesanmi’s narratives, critical interventions and academic forays mourned the sudden, dramatic, tragic and public exit of a public intellectual, literally in the eyes of the world when that Boeing 737 Max 8 came crashing into hard ground in Bishoftu, six minutes after takeoff from Bole International Airport Addis Ababa.

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The total casualty number was 157, drawn from 35 countries, including two from Nigeria – Ambassador Abiodun Bashua and Professor Adesanmi who apparently carried a Canadian passport.

The aircraft was a brand new one and no one boarding the plane for one minute would imagine that such a newly-built powerful machine, a super-product of the American aircraft construction octopus, gleaming in the afternoon or morning sun would take a dive on account of a computer malfunction. But it did happen and we have been left to simply gnash our teeth.  

As we were yet speaking, news broke on Wednesday the 13th of March that a building which housed a primary school in Itafaaji on Lagos Island collapsed while academic activities were going on.

As usual the newspapers were not consistent in their reports of the number of deaths recorded. Social media reports, often sensationally exaggerated, initially put the figure at 100.

The Guardian reported that eight bodies were pulled out of the rubble, and 37 were rescued while The Vanguard reported that ’a pregnant woman, the proprietor of the nursery/primary school and 19 others, including no fewer than 12 pupils died in the collapsed building’.

Perhaps the true number of casualties will never be reported in the papers. Soon, the nation will move on when another event occurs and the deaths will remain mere statistics in our national history.

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The two events are only related by one word – disaster. These two disasters were caused by human negligence, failure of human intelligence, and criminality in cutting corners.

The Boeing 737 Max 8, we now know, is fitted with a sensor that is programmed to take control of the aircraft off the pilot in certain circumstances.

Apparently, not all pilots have been trained to handle this emergency situation when it arises. When the same make of Boeing 737 Max 8 operated by Lion Air of Indonesia crashed into the Java Sea on 29 October 12 minutes after takeoff killing all 189 passengers on board, no thorough investigation appears to have been done. Or if they did enough evidence was not gathered to re-visit the technicalities of the machine. That was when attention ought to have been called to the controlling censor in the plane. Boeing failed the world. But Boeing is a big name and nobody would like to take her on because she is protected by big business.

After the latest crash nations took notice. Ethiopia Airlines along with China, Australia, Canada and some other countries have placed a ban on that ill-fated craft. Even Donald Trump has made a ban on that product of the very iconic aircraft manufacturing company.   

Negligence, greed for profit and lack of respect for the sanctity of human life are behind the two disasters albeit in varying degrees. The primary school was in a bad shape. It had been marked for demolition three times and escaped the sledge hammer after bribes were offered.

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In the morning of the disaster, that is before the building collapse abruptly ended the lives of some twelve kids and some adults, the headmistress was told that the walls of the building was cracking and that the kids should be allowed to go home. But she refused and said that it would be repaired by weekend. Now, there is no need for a repair because for the dead kids and the headmistress, there will be no more weekends.           

The two disasters, far apart in geography are close to us psychologically. The world has taken notice of the Boeing error. Nigerians have taken notice of the negligence which led to the collapse of the building.

The appropriate actions must be taken against the owner of the school and the regulatory body which allowed the school to continue its operations even when it was clear that the structure posed a danger to the citizenry. We may treat the deaths like statistics; but we are really dealing with the lives of human beings, human beings who had hopes and dreams.

One parent whose kids had been sent away from the school because they could not pay fees was able to perform his fatherly duty on the day the school building collapsed.

The kids resumed school that sad Wednesday only to lose their lives! How do you console a 45 or 50year old mother whose three kids lose their lives on the same day? another child whose birthday fell on that day told his mother that he didn’t want to go to school that day. But his mother insisted that he must go. Today he lies in the grave. According to reports, a mother who lost two kids in the Itafaaji disaster has taken her life.

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Adesanmi lived a short but vibrant life. He died the death of a voyager- voyager into the quest for knowledge acquisition and dispensation. The night before his death he posted a passage from the Bible which had been shared with him by a Catholic faithful (courtesy of my friend Kennedy Emetulu). It would seem that Adesanmi had a premonition. He didn’t, in my view. It was just a coincidence. Pius wanted to live but fate dictated otherwise. And as we bid him goodbye we are reminded of our fate as human beings and how temporary is our stay in the cosmos.        

There must be sanctions against the perpetrators of the negligent actions which led to the deaths which we are mourning. There is no record that anybody had been punished for collapsed structures.

The Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE) and the Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN) and other professional bodies ought to sanction their members when such disasters occur.

The Lagos State government must not allow this to be swept under the carpet by prosecuting the offending individuals. In the usual Nigerian practice, pressure will now be mounted on government through politicians to ‘kill the case’. If they do, the blood of those children will forever haunt those who caused the disaster either by design or by default.  

Finally I sympathise with the bereaved in the Ethiopian Airline crash (the best airline in Africa I dare say) and the victims of the criminal neglect at Itaafaji. May we be saved from another disaster that will eat lives like a hungry crater in the middle of an apparently smooth road! AS THIS COLUMN WENT TO BED ANOTHER HOUSE COLLAPSED IN IBADAN!


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