By Sola Ogunmosunle
How much is the human life worth in our dear country, Nigeria? This question has become necessary considering the spate of avoidable catastrophes in which scores of lives of our countrymen are terminated and billions of naira worth of goods and property destroyed. In recent times, fire disasters particularly have become so incessant that it now occurs almost on a daily basis.
Even though the risk of fire outbreaks is higher in the dry season, it is very scary the number of fire incidents that have occurred in quick succession across the nation in the last few weeks. The fire explosion that rocked the heart of Lagos on Boxing Day killing one person and destroying over a dozen houses was still on our minds when the following day the news broke that the country home of former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, was on fire. The same day, Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria got burnt. Since then, more fire disasters have occurred at Ogun State Government Secretariat, Abeokuta; INEC office in Abuja; Feleye Market, Ibadan; NNPC mega station, Bashorun-Akobo area, Ibadan; Oko-Baba Shanties, Lagos, the palace of the Alaafin of Oyo, Oyo State; the Ogbomoso tanker fire, and most recently the Arepo explosion that killed scores of petrol pipeline vandals. All these happened in the new year barely a fortnight gone.
The statistics for the year ended 2012 coming from various states in the federation is equally frightening. In Rivers State for instance, the government has announced that 73 persons suffered different degrees of injuries and that at least 230 persons lost their lives in 222 fire incidents in the state in 2012. Another statement from the Oyo State Fire Service Department indicated that about N1 billion worth of property were destroyed and a total of 38 people were killed in 607 fire incidents across the State last year. In just the first two weeks of 2013, the Department has received 46 distress calls over fire disasters in different parts of the state in which 3 persons were killed.
This trend is worrisome because of its consequences on our socio-economic life. The cost of fire incidents is obviously enormous. It results in pains and death of victims, waste of time, money and materials and damage to equipment and structures. It is therefore, for these reasons, disheartening to know that most of these disasters are not acts of God but rather the products of human errors and carelessness. Nigerians’ attitude to accident prevention is lethargic! Some of these fire disasters could have been avoided if we have been more safety conscious. It is only in this part of the world that people can store petrol, a highly inflammable material, in their living rooms. This is usually the manifestation of that product’s scarcity. The Lagos Boxing Day fire disaster is reported to have been caused by the explosion of tons of fire crackers, warehoused in a crowded commercial area. This is sheer recklessness.
Our responses to catastrophes in this clime are usually reactive. The fire-brigade approach of rushing out to quench fire all the time, rather than figure out how to put in place measures to prevent fire outbreaks is a direct manifestation of our tendency for lack of prescience. We must accept that safety simply means being pro-active. Many of us still leave our offices at the end of the day without ensuring that all electrical appliances are switched off to prevent outbreak of fire in case of power surge. In almost every household in Nigeria, matches and other inflammable materials are kept within the reach of children.
A research conducted by Fire Disaster Prevention and Safety Awareness Association of Nigeria (FDPSAAN), a non-governmental organisation whose focus is fire prevention, control and management, shows significant low level of awareness on fire safety in Nigeria, less than 2% of 140 million Nigerians have the required basic fire safety knowledge. This is a shame of a nation. The ‘Not my portion or God forbid’ syndrome has also been the bane of developing an attitudinal change framework for achieving a safer society in Nigeria. Some people, out of ignorance, still harbour the cultural belief that to make provisions for the prevention of hazards is to actually invite the occurrence of such misfortune. This is why many of our people do not subscribe to simple fire and safety tips that can keep disasters at bay.
The issue of safety which once occupied a major place in the programmes and plans of every level of government is now treated with levity. Within the context of Nigerian laws on safety, the National Fire Safety Code, for instance, seems to have been dumped in the thrash-can. The code is a set of rules guiding fire prevention and control in all public buildings in Nigeria. If we, as a nation, are desirous of halting the embarrassing trend of preventable fire incidents in the country, it is therefore imperative for the government to strengthen and enforce strictly all existing laws on safety with a view to achieving a safer society. Those who breach the laws must be brought to book and punished accordingly.
The Lagos State Government initiative in establishing a Safety Commission for the state since 2010 is quite laudable. The Commission has since its establishment been at the forefront of creating awareness on the dangers of unsafe practices that cause fire and other disasters in the state. Its role in dealing with issues relating to safety practices in the state has been quite commendable. Since it is the primary responsibility of governments, at all levels, to ensure safety of life and properties of its citizens, all levels of governments, through their relevant agencies such as the fire services must immediately embark on a massive public enlightenment and awareness campaigns to educate the people on the dangers of unsafe practices, especially in the dry season as it is obvious that only legal approach cannot stem the tide of incessant fire disasters in Nigeria.
•Ogunmosunle wrote from Ikeja, Lagos.