It Can Never Happen Here

First, a confession: I do not own the copyright to today’s headline. It belongs to the late Chike Akabogu, one of the most gifted writers Nigeria has ever produced. He was a member of the defunct National Concord Editorial Board in the late eighties and early nineties. Unfortunately, he died at a very young age. Akabogu once wrote about how Nigerians like to delude themselves that they are different; that bad things that occur elsewhere have no place in our country. Even though he was writing about the socio-political situation of the country at the time, we can actually extend it to all spheres of our national life.

I remember when the wave of terrorism heightened at the beginning of the last decade, it was considered too distant a phenomenon to worry about here even when there had been explosions at the United States’ embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. When Farouk Muttallab was caught trying to blow up a Delta Airlines flight in December 2009 and the United States’ government wanted to link our nation with terror, we easily wriggled out by claiming that Farouk caught the bug abroad; afterall, he was not schooling in Nigeria. We all took the ugly incident in our strides, believing it could never happen on our shores. Now, the chicken has come home to roost with last Friday bombing of the United Nations head office right here in Abuja. With no place to hide anymore, we can no longer live in denial as a nation: In Nigeria, as in other countries, anything and everything can indeed happen!

The philosophy of ‘it can never happen here’ is actually responsible for the state of our nation today because both the leaders and the led have come to certain conclusions that feed not only the culture of impunity that has become a national ideology but also our state of unpreparedness for any eventuality. Yet for us to develop, we must accept that anything can happen here and not only in terms of criminality and violence but also in our polity.

For instance, our leaders must accept that the ’Arab Spring’ which has consumed several leaders from Egypt to Tunisia and has now birthed at Muammar Gaddafi’s shores in Libya can happen here. We should also never lose sight of the fact that the journey to Mogadishu began with the orgy of violence we have witnessed repeatedly in Jos where no fewer than 20 people were killed with several property destroyed in a renewed hostility last weekend. We should expect that we could have an earthquake, a Tsunami and other tragic occurrences as forces of nature fight everywhere in the world.

As pessimistic as all these may sound, that is the way most serious countries now think by building negative scenarios and working to ensure they do not happen; while also planning towards mitigating such occurrences in the event that they do. But by living in denial of anything and everything, we prevent ourselves from learning useful lessons. That is why we were surprised that we now have suicide bombers in our midst. Because we never came to terms with the fact that if it could happen elsewhere, it can also happen in our country.

I have heard heart-rending recollections by families and friends of some of the people caught in the UN building bombing and these stories speak to all of us about how innocent bystanders often get caught in things they know nothing about. That is why fighting terrorism requires the cooperation of all citizens, considering the fact that anybody could be victims at anytime and anywhere. On Monday, the Inspector General of Police, Mr Hafiz Ringim, said that three suspects have been arrested in connection with the bombing and that some clues have been established with regards to those responsible for the attack. He said the president would brief the nation on the details.

While we await the promised broadcast by the president, we need to highlight a few issues. The tragedy of our nation today is not that we don’t learn from the example of other countries but rather that we don’t learn even from our own experiences. We can use a recent incident to underscore that fact. Just a few weeks ago in Lagos there was heavy downpour which practically sacked the city with loss of several lives and property. Last weekend in Ibadan, we witnessed a far bigger tragedy. Given that we have a body called National Metrological Agency (NIMET) whose men are supposed to warn about impending adverse weather where were they before Ibadan went under the waters? If we find it difficult to deal with the simple issue of rainfall and flooding, how then can we handle bigger tragedies?

As I write this, I just received a mail from one Mr. Dayo Akinuli which speaks for itself: ‘Please we the residents of Alpha Beach and its environs are appealing to you to help us use your column to sensitise Governor Fashola and President Jonathan who came to the Ocean almost two months ago with a promise that everything would be done to make the place habitable. Between then and now, over a thousand residents have packed out. The ocean has gradually found its way into our neighbourhood through Bode Ajakaye Street very close to the GLO Building. All these claims can be verified by paying a visit to the beach. We all know the project is beyond what the state government can handle but they must not wait until the ocean sweeps all the residents to the great beyond before they do something.’

The forces of nature and that of terrorism represent the biggest threat facing mankind today yet experience of the past few weeks has shown very clearly that we are ill-prepared to tackle either of these challenges. On the first one, as a former resident of Ajah, I never fail to entertain fear about the vulnerability of the Lekki Axis of Lagos. Not only do we have no capacity to handle emergency in the event that nature strikes along that coast but indeed that we may not even have anything to warn of an impending danger. Somebody must begin to think along that line: Anything can happen here!

On terrorism, as many stakeholders keep pointing out, our security agencies need to beef up their intelligence gathering capacity. But they will require the trust and cooperation of all Nigerians for the requisite information without which they cannot be effective. For the security agencies to protect us, we must be alert in our environment and to say something the moment we see something sinister. These bombers live in our midst and there are people who know some things about their operations. If those people keep quiet, they would not know who the next victims might be. It could be them or people close to them.

On a final note, Nigerians demonstrated once again that we remain our brothers’ keepers given the way people rose up to support the victims of the blast by rushing to the hospital to donate blood last weekend. Happenings like that always give hope that even in the midst of all our challenges, we will neither surrender to the threat of terrorism nor be defeated by the entrepreneurs of violence.
• This piece was first published in THISDAY on 1st September, 2011

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