By Muyiwa Adetiba
It was the morning after. Literally. I got into the U.K on a cold September morning after a mild storm had wrecked havoc in some areas of London the night before.
The area I was to stay in was one of the areas affected and I found myself having to navigate around fallen trees and leafy branches that had covered the walkway. It was hardly a warm welcome as electricity was also affected. I was, as it were, leaving Nepa for Nepa.
But within 48 hours, a semblance of normalcy had been restored. Electricity had been restored, and the roads had become navigable again. But the Press didn’t let go. It was irate to put it mildly. It wanted blood. I remember one national newspaper screamed ‘Why didn’t they warn us?’, referring to their meteorological department. I didn’t stay in England long enough to know how many heads rolled as a result of the ‘inadequate’ warning but investigations had begun before I left and certain ‘lapses’ I was sure,would never be allowed to happen again.
This was 24 years ago, and weather forecasts have since become more accurate and commonplace. Anybody, and I mean anybody, can access weather information if they so wish. So why were we caught so flat footed as if we are not part of the information age?
What I find more indefensible is that we were officially warned by the meteorological department. I don’t usually bother with weather forecasts because, for me, it is either raining or it is not raining, and neither will influence my activities for the day.
Yet, for some strange reasons, I pored over that official warning. I remember commenting to myself how weird it was that a low sea level area like Lagos was not included. Such was my naivete that I doubted the fact that ‘desert areas’ would be flooded while water logged areas would be spared.
So if I, as uninformed as I am, as uninterested as I am, could take some time to note the warning, why didn’t those saddled with the job take the warning serious? The weather people claimed it followed up with warning letters. Why were the letters ignored? And if they were not, what exactly did the minister for environment do? What exactly did the respective commissioners for environment in the affected areas do? We need to know.
Were those residing near the Niger/ Benue rivers warned to relocate? Was transportation provided for those who wanted to take that offer? Were transit camps set up in advance? Were health centres set up in advance? And equipped to handle the fall out? They were warned. What did they do? We must not allow this incompetence to be swept under the carpet.
I watched how some State Governors were running helter-skelter like headless chickens,and I wondered. This thing, like pregnancy, gave notice. I saw one or two governors wading through some shallow water in a show of solidarity and I almost laughed. It would have been comical if it was not so, so, tragic.
The real affected areas needed boats to wade through. And even with that, you needed to be careful not to be attacked by snakes and crocodiles which would not distinguish a governor from a peasant. One governor,that of Benue State, was not even around when his state was flooded. He was in the U.S rubbing shoulders with world leaders. I hope somebody there told him what it takes to be a leader.
The images one saw on TV were so touching. Images of people watching their lifelong belongings float away from them. Some of them will not know the extent of their loss until weeks, months after. Certificates, diplomas cherished letters, not to talk of valuables gone for ever. Most have lost their means of livelihood. Most, after the adrenalin of survival has subsided, will realize that there is really nothing to live for. Except faith. And hope.
Of all the images I saw, one that touched me the most, it was that of a middle aged woman who was pounding what looked like yam virtually inside water. The water was almost up to her waist. The mortar was on a makeshift stool. So was the stove. She was, like the widow of Zarephath, preparing a meal for herself and her family. The last supper? Who knows.
What I do know is that in preparing this meal, she was risking her health. Apart from the dangerous reptiles that could bite her, she was exposing herself to water borne diseases. She was also making herself a candidate for pneumonia. So were the two ladies I saw in another scene who were trying to catch ‘fish’ in the dirty ‘river’
He who feels, knows as they say. You never really feel the effect of something until it happens close to home. I saw the photograph of what the flood did to Chief Audu Ogbe’s home and farm in Markurdi and I winced. What I saw was a small lake where the farm and houses had been. I could barely see the roof of a house where I had had many happy moments. Seeing that picture, I wondered if it would ever be the same again.
And what would be the cost that would bring it back. Audu Ogbe has always been passionate about agriculture. Will this affect his passion? But at least, he and the other high profile Nigerians who have lost so much to the flood have alternative places to lay their heads. What about the poor who have no safety net? Those who have nothing, absolutely nothing left? What is their fate in a country like Nigeria?
The ineptitude of our leaders in the handling of the whole thing makes one to ask if the devastating effect could not have been mitigated if those who should had heeded the warning did. You also want to ask: what happened to the ecological funds that have been set up over the years for disasters such as this? Have they gone the way of security votes? When was the last time rivers Niger and Benue were dredged? Or are we not allowed to ask?