Last Thursday on a busy Lagos highway bridge, a petroleum tanker laden with fuel crashed and exploded, igniting over 30,000 litres of petrol. The resulting inferno consumed over 50 cars almost instantly, as dozens of passengers fled in terror. It’s a miracle that the death toll has been reported as just nine victims, but many more people have suffered traumatic burns or have been declared missing.
As I combed through various media reports on the accident, the narrative that unfolded appeared to be uniquely Nigerian – a combination of factors that can only be created in an environment such as this. Now, don’t get me wrong – accidents happen and can occur anywhere in the world. However, some are ‘accidents waiting to happen’, due to the way some societies operate. For example, multiple-shooting incidents are much more likely to happen in the United States, by virtue of the fact that they have enough guns for every man, woman and child.
In Nigeria’s case, it’s a mixture of reckless driving, a lack of strictly enforced safety regulations and a raft of societal factors emanating from poverty, indiscipline and sheer desperation. Eyewitness reports suggest that the tanker was speeding, switching from lane to lane and the driver was waving at other motorists to stay clear of his truck. When it was time to stop, his brakes were not adequate and a sideman jumped down and tried to stop the vehicle with a block of wood. As the tanker climbed an obstacle, it swayed to one side and overturned, spilling combustible fuel that soon burst into flames.
Any Nigerian driver is used to seeing large trailers bullying other vehicles and, at night, traveling with almost no lights. The tankers look homemade sometimes and poorly maintained. Apparently, most of them have safety certificates that have expired. Like most aspects of Nigerian life, there are plenty of regulations but they are irregularly enforced and easily flouted with a well-judged bribe. Just this week, I observed construction workers near my home without a single hard hat, pair of gloves, boots or any other safety equipment between them – and that’s the norm.
The aftermath of the accident was equally unique to this part of the world. With no security cordon around the accident site, scrap vultures descended on the scene, grabbing any bits of metal that weren’t too hot to touch – even as burnt corpses were still being extracted from destroyed vehicles. Almost as quick were the ‘area boys’, demanding payment from the scrap collectors for the right to scavenge on their turf.
As the tragedy transferred to the nearest hospitals, the ‘Nigerian factor’ was unfolding in ways that outsiders could never imagine. Relatives of victims with horrific burns were making their way to local pharmacies, armed with lists of medication, bandages and other treatments, because they were not willing to pay what they considered to be extortionate prices from the nurses at the hospital. Even nurses need a side-hustle in this brutal environment and it seems that emergencies are good for business.
So many other stories emerging from this tragic accident hinge on the struggle of families trying to survive in a harsh economy. Some of the destroyed vehicles were bought with borrowed funds or someone’s life savings and were being used to make money ferrying passengers on their daily commute. Others were a source of pride for workers who had just managed to own their first car. In one case, a roadside mechanic was trying to figure out how he was going to replace his client’s vehicle, now burnt beyond recognition.
Coming less than a week after at least 135 villagers were slaughtered in Plateau state in the north of the country, these are tough times for Nigeria. Again, these killings are part of a wider trend, borne out of uniquely Nigerian issues that have been allowed to fester and proliferate. Tribalism, religious intolerance and general insecurity in large parts of the country have been on the rise for years, with no sign of a coordinated strategy from the authorities to tackle the issues. The incidents are now so frequent that indifference from the media and general population is creeping in.
There are no easy answers to the issues facing Nigeria but it is obvious that by ignoring the early warning signs, they are allowed to develop unchecked. The absence of safety regulations in many industries and on the roads has its own consequences. The fact that it’s almost certain that the tanker driver never had formal driving instruction, nor was required to pass a rigorous driving test, speaks for itself.
Unless the small problems are prevented or handled early, and Nigerians get used to a more tightly regulated society, we can look forward to more tragedies manifesting in the not too distant future. Misfortune can strike at any time, however it would be foolhardy to continue down a path that guarantees it.