Onitsha: City of Sweat and Tears

Thanks to the tanker fires of last Wednesday, we now know that Onitsha, despite its huge population, lacks a functioning fire service station.  This means that the trillions of naira worth of goods in Onitsha markets are at the wind’s mercy. Do the traders in Ochanja or Ose know this?

A statement by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) suggested the Onitsha incident was a terrorist attack. We do not think so.  The first accident occurred when a tanker laden with petroleum products fell into a ditch, spilled its content, and ignited a ball of fire which quickly spread. The second and a third occurred in other parts of Anambra State. It was not the first time a tanker fire was happening in Onitsha or other Nigerian cities, though the southern part of the country has been hardest hit.

Despite the pretensions of the state government, men of the fire service did not arrive at the scene early. And when they did, they came with malfunctioning equipment (the fire pump failed), and so they pulled back. When the Delta State fire team came to support the state fire service, an angry mob scared them away.

The collapse of governance in the country could be illustrated with how Onitsha is managed. Here is a big city that hosts the largest market in West Africa and yet one so often neglected by the state and federal governments. Onitsha alone has the potential to make Anambra State financially independent – if better managed, the internally generated revenue from Onitsha alone could tempt the state government to ignore the monthly federal allocations from Abuja.

Onitsha has the largest concentration of five-storey buildings in perhaps Africa. They were all built by individuals with no government support. Residents buy transformers to extend electricity to areas heavily packed with tall buildings. Each house sinks its own borehole. The government could not do as little as construct good streets with drainage system. Each year, flood takes people down to the River Niger. Preventable accidents are left to fester every moment. People lose their years of effort to preventable and controllable accidents. Every so often, the residents of Onitsha are left bleeding or in tears.

Had the right things been done, the accident of last week would have been averted. A mother and her child burnt alive would have been alive today. Hundreds or thousands of traders impoverished by the loss of their shops on Upper Iweka Road and at Ochanja market would not be nervous wrecks that they are today.

What are the right things that should have been done? A law banning tankers loaded with petroleum products from plying roads in crowded areas during the day. Road marshals making sure that drunken drivers or those under the influence of drugs do not constitute dangers on our roads. A rail system that works – fuel would be better delivered by train, in the absence of a piped system. The rate at which malfunctioning trucks have been causing accidents in Onitsha should be subjected to critical check, especially at the Upper Iweka axis. Have the Road Safety Corps, VIO and other relevant government agencies ensured that the vehicles plying this axis are roadworthy? Already we are in the “ember” months — this season calls for thorough scrutiny of especially cargo vehicles on the roads.

Governor Willie Obiano’s message of sympathy to the victims is laudable. His panel headed by deputy governor Nkem Okeke to determine the cause of the accident is predictable. His promise to compensate owners of properties affected by the tragic accident — shop owners and family members of deceased victims – is a right step in the right direction. Those who have donated money for the treatment of the wounded in hospitals deserve commendations.

But prevention is better than condolences and compensation. Communities in Anambra and elsewhere should strive to have fire service volunteers and fire trucks maintained by the communities to supplement the inefficiency associated with public companies.

Governor Obiano has charged Onitsha residents to be their brother’s keepers in moments of grief and adversity, warning them not to take advantage of the present challenges to take the laws into their hands. He is right. Last Wednesday, criminals used the “opportunity” to loot shops. Vandals and bag snatchers savoured the moment; likely they were the ones who did not want the fire fighters to step in on their late arrival. Even some who are supposed to help people in danger were busy videoing and uploading pictures on social media. Has our society degenerated to this extent? People without conscience?  And police were still at large at the time!

When crime or failure to perform official duty is not punished, mediocrity reigns. Sacking the head of the fire service is not enough. Emergency services should be manned by responsible people who are always on the alert, who have human sympathy, who care about saving lives, and who love people. It is not every job that should be tied to political patronage. States would do well to borrow a leaf from the federal government which has now created a ministry of humanitarian affairs, disaster management and social development.

In a statement on the Onitsha incident, President Buhari called for “urgent action on the part of those concerned to stem these frequent fatal disasters on public roads” and for “the Ministry of Transport, the Federal Road Safety Commission and other stakeholders to urgently address the issue of safety standards in the country, with a view to stemming the embarrassing frequency of these tragedies”. We concur. Not with the statement but with the implementation of the president’s directive. Let us eschew insensitivity, incompetence and carelessness while serving the people.

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