Nigeria is under water, literally. From the Adamawa highlands where the Benue enters Nigeria to Lokoja where it joins with the more majestic Niger for a single course to the Atlantic via the massive alluvial fan we call the Niger Delta, the country conjures images of the primeval flood at the beginning of creation as told in the Bible.
Maybe not quite so but to the thousands swept out of their homes, especially those on the coastline, the boundary between land or creeks and sea grows increasingly watery. And they may well be reliving Noah’s flood without an ark. For the most exasperating thing about the catastrophe is the seeming conclusion by the government that it is an act of God. As if unseasonably heavy rainfall is the only explanation for the unfolding tragedy. Yet no one has stated the amount of rainfall that surpassed the natural absorption and drainage capacities of the rivers’ valleys and plains. Nor what was done according to standing, as opposed to ad hoc, plans for dealing with contingencies. Moreover, the cry of “natural disaster” flies in the face of damning evidence of gross irresponsibility which suggests that this is mostly a man-made disaster.
The swiftness and ferocity of the flood was clear from the start and pointed to a sudden deluge. It struck in the heart of the country, submerging homes in Benue and Kogi States and shutting off a good section of the Lokoja-Abuja highway. With officials still blaming God, the panicked public searched for a credible cause. And soon it emerged that the Cameroonian authorities had released flood water from Lagdo Dam on the upper Benue in order to save it from imminent collapse. They had even issued a notice, albeit a rather short one. But the Benue flows into the Niger and the released flood water was bound to overwhelm our own Kainji Dam. What did our authorities do in anticipation of the danger cascading from Cameroon? No word about that, for obvious reason. Due to neglect, the dam — according to the Daily Trust report, “Nigeria: Danger Looms at Kainji Dam” of 7 October 2012 — was already on the brink of a calamitous breach under the slightest pressure.
And so it is that a government so efficient at refurbishing official accommodations and furnishings, at modernising and expanding the presidential fleet of aircraft, and that is so adept at billion naira budgetary allocations for food and “welfare packages” at Aso Rock couldn’t be bothered with repairing the nation’s largest dam or flood management. It isn’t as if we need to be reminded of the kind of damage that broken dams can do. The Eleyele Dam tragedy of a year ago gave dire warning. How is it that a country neatly carved into three blocks by two major rivers and whose entire coastline and delta region is either below or barely above sea level does not have, or adhere religiously to, a flood control master-plan? The only thing that the government ever thinks of doing is dredging the Niger, though that is driven more by mercantile needs than flood management. Thus, with a good portion of his state under water, all that the governor of Benue State, Mr Gabriel Suswam, could do was ask the federal government to dredge the Benue in order “to boost economic activities as well as control the menace of flooding.” Yes, the menace of flooding! Our rulers need no encouragement to visit Europe, their favourite weekend getaway destination upon assumption of office, but we may have to urge them to make The Netherlands their preferred destination for the time being. In Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and other Dutch cities, they will learn of the vision and meticulous environmental engineering that keeps that aptly named country above water.
But Nigeria is also under water, metaphorically. While Boko Haram’s terrorism in the north and the dual scourge of armed robbery and kidnapping in the south have every one, high and low, going about their daily business with bated breath, three recent acts of blood-curdling savagery point to our symbolic drowning. The first is the brutal robbery, rape and murder in a Lagos hotel room of 25-year-old Cynthia Osukogu on the 22nd of July. The arrested suspects, all young men, had hardly spoken the last word of their confession when more bloody news came from Adamawa State. Casting, appropriately, a pall on an already sullen Independence Day. On 1 October, some persons armed with guns and knives went to a hostel of the Federal Polytechnic in Mubi, called out names from a list and shot or stabbed to death more than forty students. It was the campus variety of our do-or-die politics and is believed to have been perpetrated by students affiliated with Boko Haram or some other Islamic fundamentalist sect; they had lost the students union elections the previous day to their victims.
With the blood yet to cool on the dead students of Mubi, a viral video announced to the world the extent of our new-found depravity. For allegedly stealing laptops and blackberry phones, a mob in Umuokiri-Aluu stripped bare four undergraduates of the University of Port Harcourt, pummelled them with planks, wore tyre-necklaces on them, doused them with petrol and set them ablaze. Someone very thoughtfully documented the lynching. I swore never to view the horror movie, but then at the point of writing this column, I changed my mind. To my regret. Right from the first frame, the only words I could mutter till well after the match had been struck were, What has happened to us? What has happened to us? What has happened to us?
Answer: decades of unrelieved political and economic savagery have frayed the cord that connects us to civilised humanity. The result is that the one thing that most distinguishes humans from animals, the capacity for reflection and moral judgement, has been dying an incremental death in us. Whether or not we will recoil from the horror of our new lives now playing before our eyes remains to be seen. How telling that having let avarice, visionlessness and moral turpitude drive the country under water, crocodiles, hippopotami and other wild water animals have taken possession of many homes. I fear that our hearths now reflect the state of our hearts: soulless and drowning.