By David Adegoke
VIEWPOINT IN BRIEF: Lessons from a tragedy
An oil truck explosion of apocalyptic magnitude occurs in Lagos, fatally charring a frightening number of lives and maiming several others. Many more vehicles are burnt, some to ashes, with scores of stampeding citizens severely bruised in the process. Pronto, denizens of social media go into action, sending pictorial, video and textual coverage of the gory scenes into the virtual space.
Soon, the phones of Nigerians begin buzzing with calls and messages from anxious compatriots in the diaspora eager to know the whereabouts of their loved ones in the country. Are they caught in the blaze? Are they close to the area of the accident? Are they safe? Where no immediate response follows, there is an urgent request to send back a message to reassure the agitated inquirer.
But in the midst of this bedlam, something else causes a stir: the sudden appearance of the governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, within hours of the tragedy, attired in simple short sleeves and trousers looking like jeans. Those around are surprised. Why? There are two reasons: Nigerians are not used to seeing their leaders arrive at locations of disasters just moments after such mishaps break.
Secondly, because he isn’t dressed in suit or agbada which is the ‘uniform’ of their leaders, there is more curiosity surrounding the presence of the man. Word goes around that Ambode has got to the scene without notice, without fanfare. That swells the crowd of onlookers. The entire development deepens the bond between the led and the leader who would make a difference in governance by his acuity of empathy when the people are bereaved.
A governor may build great bridges and roads along with other physical infrastructure. That would put him at par with others who do so too. A leader may deliver moving speeches such as the Gettysburg Address by US Civil War President Abraham Lincoln. But he would only be in the circle of other orators like the ancient Roman senator and late President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. None of these distinguishes him from the pack. You don’t excel if you walk the beaten track; history would trap you among the ‘also-ran’ group. It’s a footnote category, hardly reckoned with on the pages of a country’s annals.
When he showed up at the scene of sorrow, blood and tears (to quote the lyrics of one of legendary Fela’s songs), Ambode brought both hope, comfort and lessons in empathetic leadership that is missing in our clime. Assessing the situation, the governor commiserated with the victims and took solace in ‘’the fact (his government’s prompt response) was able to save more lives”. He added: ‘’We will continue to do our best and ensure that we mitigate things of this nature in future…Nobody knows when this kind of incident will happen next but the most important thing is that our response time should be up and running and able to save lives.”
Observers have commended the Lagos administration for putting in place a disaster management infrastructure that made it possible for rescue trucks to get to the scene within 10 minutes. This was fast, according to experts, who argue that given our environment and the choked traffic of the hour the casualty statistics would have been astronomical, exceeding the nine lives lost and over 50 vehicles burnt.
Truly, it could have been worse with a fuel truck carrying 33000 litres of PMS on the loose that fateful evening. “’That was death on the prowl,” as a commentator Tope Ajayi put it, even while he advised Ambode to continue to invest more in the personnel and agencies saddled with accident response functions. And seeing how the Lagos model has worked quite efficaciously, the writer admonishes that ‘’other states should learn from Lagos.”
But as we said at the beginning, if you had all these security and rescue paraphernalia in place without a human face, you’d end running a normal system, undistinguished by the exceptional touch that makes a difference. That evening the Lagos State governor provided the uniqueness we need in leadership and governance in Nigeria.
Ify Onyegbule, a well known radio presenter in Lagos, captured the superlative performance of Ambode in these hardly exaggerative terms on her Facebook timeline: “If you ask me, I think Akinwunmi Ambode would do well as Nigeria’s President! He didn’t wait till morning before going to the scene of the disaster. He never went to put on his danshiki and buba plus fila to go there just so he looks nice on camera. He never asked that a red carpet be spread so he can walk on it at the scene. Ambode didn’t get there blaming the tanker parked or the danfo that the brakes failed! In fact the presidency needs to come and the Lagos model…quote me on this! Enough of all the rubbish going on in Nigeria!”
Our leaders must not pride themselves in adulation when they provide us the dividends of democracy as we often term them. No doubt we shall always hail them when they do so. But there is more to administering human beings, just as there is more to being a father in the home than merely supplying money for the upkeep of the family. How about meeting the emotional demands of the wife and children, which represent the fiber holding the home? Nigerians, like the spouse and her children, only honour the male head of family they can identify with. They don’t cherish a distant leader, as it were. Of course, they expect he must fend for them. But the point is that he must be there, or show up for them at a short notice, notably when they are grieving. At that stage, nothing else matters, not even the multi-billion naira state-of-the-art projects you may have given them!
Ambode’s succinct understanding of these dynamics of leadership is what is earning him accolades.
But we should realise that in the long run, greater applause is for the government of which Ambode is a member. For, he without an equally committed group of administrators would have earned little praise. He has an accompaniment of capable accident management and rescue agencies that performed a yeoman’s job last week on Otedola Bridge.
What is the lesson here? Government must build on that success by strengthening such institutions for the security and welfare of the people of the state as they are poised to stand the burgeoning status of Lagos as Africa’s foremost megacity of our era. In other words, it is durable institutions of state that accord honour to government. That was what enabled us all to salute the Lagos government last week.
Adegoke, a journalist , lives in Surulere, Lagos