Onitsha fire incident and the power of empathy

By Prof. Jideofor Adibe

The recent Ochanja fire incident in Onitsha, in which a petrol laden tanker exploded into balls of fire after ramming into buildings in the Upper Iweka axis of the city, has brought untold grief to those affected but also untrammelled compassion from several Nigerians. Several lives were lost and properties worth billions of Naira were destroyed by the ensuing inferno. It is estimated that no fewer than 50 storey buildings and 30 vehicles were destroyed by the fire. NEMA estimated that over 2,000 traders suffered huge losses in that tragedy.
What I found quite remarkable about the fire tragedy was the unusually empathic response of the Federal government. Barely 24 hours after the incident, the Federal government dispatched the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Hajia Sadiya Umar-Farouq to condole with the victims and generally commiserate with the people of the State. The Minister’s speech was especially moving. She was quoted as saying:
“We are here on behalf of President Muhammadu Buhari, who directed that the Ministry should come and condole the government and people of Anambra, especially the Ochanja Market traders mostly affected by the fire incident.
“I came here with sadness and utmost priority. Billions of Naira have been lost by this fire incident.
“I have directed the acting Director-General of NEMA to immediately send relief materials through the South East zonal office to the affected victims of the incident,” she said.
The minister, who interacted with some of the victims, was further quoted as assuring the victims and the people of the State that her ministry would work closely with the state to see how they could prevent further occurrence.
Buhari had in the past often been criticised for a seeming lack of empathy in moments of tragedy across the country. That this new show of empathy took place in an area where he got only “five per cent” of the votes, and where it is believed – rightly or wrongly – that there is no love lost between him and the people of the area, is instructive, and further dramatizes the compassion and empathy shown. Many people were so moved by the President’s unusually quick response and show of concern that one of Buhari’s most ardent critics, Reno Omokri, an ex- aide to former President Jonathan, promised to stop criticising Buhari if the federal government compensated the victims of the incident – as the Minister implied that the federal government would do during her solidarity visit. To further underline the mileage Buhari probably gained from his critics from that singular show of concern, ‘common sense’ Senator Ben Murray Bruce, in a recent tweet, reminded Omokri that he must honour his words if the federal government compensated the victims. It should be underlined that markets, under our constitution, are state and local government matters, not federal concern.
IPOB’s attempt to use a conspiracy theory to explain away the tanker accident failed to gain traction. The Biafra separatist group had argued that the accident was a terrorist attack by “northerners”. Its theory failed to gain traction probably because the general mood appeared appreciative of the show of empathy by the President. Earlier the President had approved N10bn intervention fund for the upgrade of the closed Enugu Airport and also, in my opinion, showed remarkable leadership in the way he handled the recent xenophobic attacks against Nigerians and nationals of other African and Asian countries in South Africa. Most of the Nigerian affected by the attacks in South Africa were Igbos.
Could these be the beginning of the softening of the relations between the Igbos and Buhari? Time will tell. But what is certain is that empathy, of the sort demonstrated by the President during the recent Ochanja market fire incident, is a potent tool in the battle for the minds and hearts of Nigerians, especially those critical of his government. I am not sure that Buhari’s approach to governance for the most part of his first term where he seemed to revel in playing the tough Sheriff really worked. For instance I had never seen Igbos resist any government as much as they resisted the Buhari government during his first term in office. Prior to Buhari’s government, Igbo politics at the federal level was often derided for being largely driven by the philosophy of the ‘goat follows the man with the palm frond’. Under Buhari many Igbos appeared to adopt an attitude of ‘no retreat, no surrender’. In my opinion, Buhari himself has a big share of the blame for this because of his macho approach to conflicts and scant regards for managing the optics of governance. He may well find out that empathy is a more potent tool for dealing with his adversaries than the macho show of toughness.
While I join others in applauding the President’s evolving statesmanship, we must also interrogate the growing incident of accidents by articulated vehicles, including petrol tankers. For instance just 48 hours after the Ochanja market inferno, another petrol tanker caused yet more damage in the city when it fell at the middle of Onitsha/Enugu Expressway about 3.30 a.m. on Friday, October 18, 2019, destroying property worth several billions of naira including buildings, vehicles and other valuable property at Omaba Phase two.
The menace of articulated drivers was underlined in January 2017 when the House of Representatives set up an ad hoc committee chaired by Wale Raji, to investigate the remote and immediate causes of frequent accidents by such vehicles with a view to finding enduring solution to the menace. The committee interfaced with critical stakeholders including the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC), Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers and the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW). Some of the issues that came up during the committee’s interface with the stakeholders included a revelation that many of the accidents by such vehicles are caused by the drivers flagrantly disobeying traffic rules, taking advantage of their sizes to intimidate smaller vehicles on the highways, driving vehicles that are not road-worthy, the poor state of our roads and carelessness or tiredness by the drivers. It was also pointed out that many countries have since abandoned the practice of transporting crude or refined fuel by road, preferring to do so through an expansive network of pipelines or through interconnected rail networks and ocean tankers. There were equally suggestions that installing weighbridges on petrol tankers could help to curb the sharp practice of overloading them – a practice believed to be common with many oil marketers – and which contributes to the tankers falling.
In July last year, the lingering problem of accidents by articulated vehicles prompted the Secretary to the Government Boss Mustapha to convene a Stakeholders’ Forum on Haulage Transportation in Nigeria to discuss the rising cases of road traffic crashes involving tankers/trailers in the country and its effect on human lives and property. Following from this, the federal government directed relevant agencies to ensure that tankers and trailers which do not comply with minimum safety measures should be prevented from plying our highways. Given the number of accidents and death tolls from articulated vehicles (over 306 persons were killed in accidents involving 338 fuel tankers and 629 vehicles across the country in 2016 alone), it may be time for the country to get more serious and confront with resolve the menace of articulated vehicles.