Scene of the Dana Air crash, Lagos, Nigeria
I go through phases where I choose not to watch the news. Not out of disinterest but as a self-preservation mechanism. Because we want to be happy and stay positive, but hours of news have a way of reminding us that the world isn’t an easy place in which to be those things. And while we’re feeling down about the trivialities of our day, we are reminded that terrible things happen to good people everyday. One world, with totally different experiences and hardships for its inhabitants. And then there are the disasters. While these bring out the empathy in everyone, these do so most of all when they occur close to home.
A country we’ve visited, a place we are familiar with, a landmark that sits in our memory, a child that is the same age as your child, a familiarity that makes the reality of the news that much more real. When the first pieces of information from Sunday’s plane crash in Nigeria came through, we felt that familiarity. I immediately remembered the Kenya Airways plane crash of 2007. Many East Africans like myself had traveled with the airline several times, and there was the selfish and common ‘it could have been me’ reaction, even while our hearts bled as family members of the victims screamed and cried upon realising that their loved ones didn’t make it.
After the initial shock and saturated news headlines from most disasters comes the blame game. People want answers, people want to know how and why it happened. And as much as we love our countries, we are the first to criticise ourselves for mistakes whose causes are yet to be determined. We are the first to believe foreign products are far superior to African products and we are the first to feel safer in the hands of foreign services than our own. It’s like a mother with a problem child, she will defend him to the grave but she will be prepared to witness his many shortcomings; she knows his flaws and weaknesses, so she expects them. She may even have played a part in creating those shortcomings.
When I watched the news of Japan’s earthquake in 2011 and saw all the rubble, destruction and grief-stricken survivors, I couldn’t help but feel grateful that this hadn’t happened anywhere in Africa. Why? Because we couldn’t handle it. No matter how much relief-effort assistance Japan needed, it was clear to the world that they would pull through. Their systems are highly organised, and have been built with precision to accommodate the unpredictable. When I saw all the buildings that remained upright, despite of the magnitude of the quake, and all the people that were protected because their building didn’t come crashing down, I saw the benefits of well enforced planning permission requirements. Most of the newer Japanese buildings are built to be earthquake-resistant, built to bend but not break in the event of an earthquake. Built with the future in mind, because we have to plan for tomorrow as well as today. I know that my country has planning permission requirements, but are they enforced? I am pretty certain that a lot is overlooked.
A witness at the scene of the plane crash in Nigeria told the BBC that firemen attempted to extinguish the flames, but their trucks ran out of water, another reminder that our emergency services are nowhere near where they need to be. As the images continue to pour in, it’s apparent that the rescue and recovery operation is facing some serious obstacles. The crowds that formed at the scene are interrupting the relief teams and creating chaos. Not to mention the risk to their own lives from the spilled jet fuel, the debris and the overcrowding in the area. People in all parts of the world rubberneck at accidents, but nowhere more so than in Africa. And it happens all the time, everywhere, as it did recently in Kenya. We want to be right at the heart of it. True, some genuinely want to help, like the guys in the pic below, but most are usually there because they have nothing better to do, or because this somehow beats whatever it is they have to do. I mean, what are all the people in the background of the photograph at the top of this article doing there? Some, it has to be said, want to see what they can get their hands on, while others want to be able to tell a story, but you know that when the police have to use teargas to get rid of a crowd at a crash scene we’re not talking about regular rubberneckers.
Helpers on the scene
People came down hard on the US government for their slow response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I remember watching the news and the person next to me said that New Orleans was like Africa in the US. Why? Because not enough was being done. Because emergency-service management was poor. Because no matter that it was a tragedy, money was an issue. If you don’t have enough money to do things properly you have to cut corners. While most developed countries have budgets for emergency relief, we know that with the corruption in our respective governments and the mismanagement of our money in Africa, our emergency services will never be up to the task during a disaster because they will have been underfunded.
There were no survivors from the Dana Air crash, so now we can only wait for the recovery of all the bodies. There is already speculation that the crash might have something to do with an aviation safety error. In recent years, Nigeria has made attempts to improve aviation safety, but even though it recently marked 60 months of disaster-free flights - a new definition of tempting fate - major issues remain. One of the most ridiculous is that the airport’s generators sometimes fail – both of them – leaving gaping holes in radar coverage. That any airport in one of the world’s biggest oil-producing countries has to rely on generators in the first place is a consequence of a state-run power company in tatters.
There is so much to be done to better prepare our emergency services, and to prevent disasters in the first place. We’re at school or at work every day, but how fire-safety compliant are our schools and offices? And who’s checking? It is fairly easy to negotiate and buy oneself out of many situations in Africa, but we buy ourselves out of doing things correctly only to pay the ultimate price later.
A delayed response by emergency teams in the Dana Air crash has been reported. Residents in the neighborhood say they were on the scene for some time trying to extinguish the flames with water from sachets while emergency services were nowhere to be seen. And then the plane exploded.
One doesn’t want to draw conclusions from speculation until a proper investigation is conducted, particularly as you wouldn't now be alive if you were trying to put out the flames when the plane exploded, but I don’t think anyone will be surprised if said investigation reveals problems with the emergency services.
This is the seventh major crash in Nigeria since 1992. In the President's official statement he reiterated a commitment to improve aviation security, a message we hope will actually be followed up by the Nigerian government. By making safety a top priority, even if it comes at a high cost, they'll be proving to us that our lives are worth it.