March 28, 2019

Cyclone in Africa: Going to Afghanistan

Cyclone in Africa: Going to Afghanistan

By Banji Ojewale

IN 1984, when we all stood in awe of Decree Four, to differ from officialdom as represented by Nigeria’s military junta headed by Muhammadu Buhari was a perilous path to perdition. The soldiers brooked no dissent as they waved the draconian law before all, notably newsmen.

The law, the most outrageous and pernicious by any military dictator in Nigeria, forbade reporters from publishing or broadcasting what the authorities “calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the Government of a State or a public officer to ridicule or disrepute.”

Then this scary one: The martial ruler was given the power to prohibit the circulation of an “offending” newspaper for one year. He was also at liberty to revoke the licence granted any broadcast medium or order its closure or forfeiture to the government if he was satisfied that its untrammeled existence was “detrimental to the interest of the Federation” or any part of the country. Still more frightening and utterly alien to jurisprudential convention, this: “the burden of proving…the charge is true…shall, notwithstanding anything to the contrary in any enactment or rule of law, lie on the person charged”. There was no escape if this law caught up with you.

One of the two journalists of The Guardian newspaper jailed under Decree 4, Tunde Thompson, would later write in his book, Power and the Press:  “…those charged under the decree were first to be regarded as guilty and to prove they were not, whatever the odds against them”.

Thereafter journalists were shy to write on local issues. You didn’t know when Buhari’s Procrustean-bed law could make you lie in it, regardless of your size. It was an elastic contraption that took in everyone, fat, skinny, tall or short, or averagely formed. So, Nigerian journalists, columnists especially, would opt for far-flung foreign events. And the Soviet and US proxy war in Afghanistan was the talk of the day. The writers suddenly became experts in global conflict resolution, leaving the larger domestic challenges unattended to. Their own home was on fire; but what sweet relief they got on flights away from hell. If you wrote on such issues in order to dodge the radar of the military, you were said to have gone Afghanistan.

I also want to go Afghanistan today. Not because home issues are too hot to handle. No. I think running from them would keep them hot and make them hotter. But then we need to discuss something close home: the visit of a devastating cyclone to Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi last week. It’s a week after Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, all in Southern Africa, leaving hundreds confirmed dead and levelling communities and sending hundreds of thousands into refugee camps.

A Mozambican government spokesman declared that human casualties could go up with the records indicating that 15,000 persons are missing. Even the military struggle waged to liberate Mozambique and Zimbabwe did not throw up such statistics of fatalities and destruction at a go. But this did.

Tribunal judgment already on appeal, Gov. Oyetola

There are also security and grave health concerns. Those displaced are diseased and hungry and revolting. There are food and fuel shortages in the three countries. The United Nations World Food Programme coordinating food flights says it needs to sustain supplies over the next three months to stabilise the situation in Zimbabwe. In Mozambique where Idai began its march of death, the director of a Christian charity has warned Africans to prepare for a long recovery.

“This is a catastrophe,” Edgar Jone of Tearfund, a charity body laments. He adds: “Cyclone Idai has destroyed so much in an instance and it will take years for people to recover what they have lost.” And a couple of international aid agencies have sent an SOS saying they are “racing against time” to rescue the perishing, because they can’t reach survivors trapped in areas of Mozambique where some villages are buried in floods.

We should not be consoled by the flood of aid stuff and messages from African leaders commiserating with their counterparts in Southern Africa. Nor should we be unduly stirred by the presence of US military teams joining the cyclone rescue effort in Mozambique. We should be more elated to see African nations and the African Union with the other regional bodies on the continent rise to the occasion to supply the needed succour to our brothers and sisters in the afflicted areas.

This is an international humanitarian crisis brought about by nature, requiring all humanity to come together to battle. But our leaders go to sleep and expect the outside world to seize the initiative from them. It is a disease of lethargy that has bedevilled our leaders continent-wide.

Even Cyclone Idai we are all demonising didn’t spring on us. For instance, BBC’s reporters Jack Goodman and Christopher Giles have quoted the Zimbabwe Minister of Defence Oppah Muchinguri as saying her government was alerted by the meteorologists on the imminence of Idai and its route, but the authorities “failed to anticipate its strength”, and that undermined the level of preparations for evacuation of those in the trajectory of the cyclone.

That is what we are saddled with in Africa. Our governments are not anchored on vision that looks into the next century. They live to exhaust the perks of office of the moment. Our town planning strategies are for urban centres that don’t see beyond five years or so. We are compromised such that we approve buildings put together that wouldn’t withstand sharply inclement weather.

Years ago, while shooting a documentary in Delta State, I was stupefied at the shapely sight of the General Hospital, Ughelli. There were no cracks. Our guide told me it had been in that pristine state over the decades. The plaque corroborated him: it was built in the days of Obafemi Awolowo, first premier of the old Western Nigeria that stretched from Ikeja to the banks of the Niger. The hospital block and wards with the steel beds were as though they were commissioned yesterday by Awolowo.

Only leaders with an agenda set for the next century and beyond deliver a citizenry and monuments that stand against the treacherous elements of misgovernance and nature.

Ojewale, a social commentator, wrote from Lagos