Indeed, the Okogbe tanker fire disaster on Thursday 12th July 2012, in Ahoada West Local Government Area of Rivers State elicited mixed reactions from both within and outside the state. Reactions on the cause of the incident and the large human carnage were as varied as the actual death toll. Various reports quoting from different sources had put the figure between 95 to over 200. This disparity in the casualty figure is not unusual as no report of an incident even from among eye witnesses is ever the same.
However, while the probable reason for the large human carnage or the cause of the fuel tanker’s fall itself is divergent with the trading of blames accompanying each reaction, one could easily deduce two different schools of thought in the whole unfortunate episode and the reactions and target of blame depends on which side of the divide one belongs.
The first School of Thought represented by the Ahoada West Local Government chairman, Hon. Awori Miller, says the victims brought death upon themselves and so deserved no sympathy, compensation or any form of assistance
According to Miller, “Nobody sent them to go and scoop fuel,” from the fallen tanker. This school of thought which has been echoed by others, is unsympathetic as the victims’ greed for money cost them their lives. They swiftly countered the logic of poverty being responsible for the victims’ action citing the death of a car owner who parked his car to scoop fuel.
Those who hold this school of thought also believe that if the victims had not gone to fetch free fuel, they wouldn’t have met their untimely death. They also traced the initial cause of the incident to the tanker driver, saying his reckless driving on the road caused the tanker to fall and spill its content only for the greedy villagers to cash in. They cautioned other drivers to be careful on the road. In another breadth, the group posited that the villagers were so blinded by greed for money that they ignored the warning of the tanker driver to stay clear from the danger. This school of thought is the NO SYMPATHY GROUP.
The second School of Thought is a marked contradiction of the first school of thought. The proponents of this school of thought belong to the “SYMPATHY GROUP”. They openly sympathized with the victims. This school of thought represented by Senator Magnus Abe (Rivers East) and echoed by others traced the cause of the high casualty rate to poverty and also traded the blame for the incident squarely on the government.
This group seems to be more concerned with the root cause of the incident i.e. why the tanker fell, which according to them is avoidable in the first instance and not on the villagers whose excruciating poverty irresistibly attracted them to the site of the tanker to scoop fuel in order to eke a living at least for the day. They readily pointed to the persistent scarcity and high cost of fuel in this oil producing country.
According to this school of thought the cause of the tanker’s fall is traceable to the dilapidated state of the East West Road which again is traceable to the negligence and inefficiency of the federal government in fixing it.
To this group, if the government did not shirk its responsibilities and had fixed the road which contract had been awarded and re-awarded several times many years ago, the tanker wouldn’t have fallen into the ditch. They postulated that it is the driver’s rigorous meandering through the unending potholes and gullies with such a heavy tanker that caused it to fall, spilled its content for the hunger and poverty ravaged villagers to help themselves not minding the danger lurking around.
After all, to some of these vulnerable villagers, “he who is down, fear no fall”. They must have reckoned that their miserable lives occasioned by harsh economic conditions and accentuated by the naked contradictions of an unjust socio-political system were worth staking, if scooping fuel would put food on their tables at least for a day.
The sympathy group made their position very clear as they called on the government to immediately fix the East West Road without further delay to avoid a recurrence and also assist and compensate the victims. Interestingly some radical members of this group like Femi Falana are warming up to drag the federal government to the International Court for its negligence and dereliction of duty that is costing the lives of Nigerians.
However, having explained the positions of the two schools of thought on the Okogbe fire disaster which is likened to the clash of conservatives and progressives; the right wingers and the leftists, and also conscious of the fact that these are not the times for anyone to sit on the fence because of the seriousness of the issues raised, I am aligning myself with the second School of Thought, THE SYMPATHY GROUP, or the progressives.
Firstly, I believe that no matter the intensity of hatred or ill feeling you may have against your “enemy”, you don’t wish him or her dead. But since death is inevitable, you don’t put up a stone face or laugh at your enemy in death. At such tragic moment, at least in public, you express sympathy even if it means pretending for once.
Honestly, for people to express such unsympathetic feeling in public and go further to blame the victims of Okogbe disaster as responsible for their death and also insinuating that they deserved what happened to them is for me the height of brazen display of callousness and intellectual perfidy. More so, for a local government chairman in whose domain the unfortunate carnage took place and who is supposed to be the chief mourner to join in condemning the victims in their graves as the architects of the fate or calamity that befell them is indeed an inexplicable paradox.
Here is a local Government chairman whose LGA cannot even boast of any form of fire service or emergency response outfit to prevent or control the inferno and even its aftermath. Here is a local government chairman who waited helplessly until fire service trucks raced all the way from Port Harcourt, the state capital, to his domain to put out the fire. Here is a Local Government Chairman whose council cannot engage in simple immediate environmental remediation or clean-up to stop the stench oozing out from decomposing bodies littered around the vicinity of the incident and threatening the lives of those living.
For Hon. Awori Miller, his blatant, unpardonable utterances on radio could only mean one thing: that the loss of human lives or the sickening and gory sight of burnt-out corpses of even those who voted him into office meant nothing to him, not when in his thinking it is self-inflicted. Anyway, he is not alone in this heartless, myopic and morbid reasoning. His thoughts are only a reflection of the general mindset of our leaders in this country: contempt for the poor Nigerians created by their actions, inactions and incompetence.
However, I want to remind the likes of Ahoada West Local Government Chairman, Hon. Awori Miller that both the incident and his insensitive and unfeeling comments (instead of comforting statements) cannot happen in decent and organized societies where they have high regard and respect for even animal lives, where you can be imprisoned for causing the death of an animal.
Though such decent societies lack such a worse state of road as the East West Road that can overturn a fuel tanker, however, for the purpose of this argument, if such a fuel carrying tanker had fallen on the road, expect that within two minutes of the incident the area would have been completely cordoned off from human and vehicular traffic by the police.
Again, expect that within five minutes of the incident, the fire service and other auxiliary emergency services would have arrived at the scene to do what they are paid by the public to do to prevent the fire or stop it. No gathering of crowd. No scooping of fuel. And within one hour everything is cleared up and you are amazed or wonder if anything or accident ever happened there. Normalcy is restored and there will be nobody to blame or recriminations.
Now contrast the above scenario to what transpired at Okogbe and the blame game going on and you will appreciate the irony and complexity of our decadent situation. Where was the police to cordon off the area? Where was the fire service? Where was the local government council emergency response outfit, if any? It is so depressing and shameful that weeks after the unfortunate and avoidable disaster, the wreckage of the tanker has turned into a museum, a tourist attraction for visitors and travelers with environmental pollution and epidemic threatening survivors, and yet some persons in some high places who failed woefully in their duty before and after the incident had the guts and temerity to trade blames on hapless innocent victims for something that is clearly one of the many symptoms of the gross inefficiency, ineptitude and failings of the state.
Sadly, the asphyxiating unemployment and poverty in the community in the midst of oil wealth came to light when the Okogbe Community youth leader disclosed that 85% of Okogbe youths have been wiped out by the fire. For such a horrendous calamity, what the grieving community needs now is love, care, compassion, compliments and assistance and not curses, abuses, ridicule, pathological contempt and blame.
I ask, with recurrent incidents like the Okogbe tragedy and government culpability, would anyone still fault the international report which classified Nigeria a failed state?
a Media consultant writes
from Port Harcourt
By Samuel Joseph