In the early hours of Sunday 5th January, a devastating fire ravaged the well known Akesan market in Oyo, leaving in its wake the destruction of property and goods worth hundreds of millions, perhaps billions. The tragedy was effectively broadcasted live on social media, as helpless citizens watch the market burn, unable to do anything. No help came from firefighters for at least four hours, according to eye witnesses, until some firefighters came from Ibadan and Ogbomosho, each of them about 51 kilometres away from Oyo.
As it is often the case with tragedies of this type, many commentators and political office holders have been trading blames. In the ensuing muddle, the major, sobering message of the tragedy seems to be lost, to wit: this tragedy should not have happened, certainly not on the scale it did. According to the reports, the fire began from one stall in the market, and could have been contained for lack of quick action from fire fighters. And it wasn’t a failure of communication. The fire office is just a few metres from the market so much you can say it is part of the larger market area. In the end, it was a tragedy that exposed a deep and pervasive system failure.
The fire fighters allegedly said their “truck” suddenly developed gear problem, or something to that effect. Whatever it is, it is certainly not sudden. How was it, in any case, that an entire fire emergency office had only one functioning truck? How was it that help could not be mobilised for four hours, when Ibadan is now less than 40minutes away on the express way from Oyo?
Some officials of the current Oyo state government were quick to say that the system was in poor state, apparently left in such a dysfunctional state by the previous government. The new, it was suggested, should not be blamed for the present state of things. This reasoning does not hold much weight. It is true that the problem has been there before the current government assumed power, but it is disingenuous to abdicate responsibility eight months after coming to power. Even so, citizens are not interested in- or any rate should be preoccupied with- the question of who to blame. No, this is more about who is now responsible for running and fixing things.
The Seyi Makinde government needs now to declare a state of emergency in the state emergency services. It is not just about Oyo town, or indeed only about fire services, but the whole emergency services system in the state. This government has shown a good promise as a government of visionary doers. Now it the time to affirm that reputation, or otherwise sow seeds of doubt about the government’s Omi Titun mantra. I believe they will do the needful. I hope to be proven right.
Among others the government needs to undertake an inventory of equipment across all the stations for emergency services in the state. Whatever needs to be done to fix existing equipment and procure new ones should be done. As the Akesan tragedy aptly shows, the cost of prevention is way, way less than the cost of post-disaster reconstruction. This is a fundamental principle in total quality management. No cost should be spared. Make no mistake, the cost of destruction in Akesan is not just to those individual stall owners but to the government too, and to society as a whole. Also, there is need to take stock on quality of staff, and provide up-to-date training for workers employed in the emergency services.
Finally, there is a need for a more robust, socially accountable process of public engagement with emergency services. It became clear from the tragic event of Sunday that deep seated distrust exist between the community and the emergency workers, in all likelihood underpinned by past history. In order to be egg tube, emergency preparedness and response need to be a co-created process in which community members are co-opted as active stakeholders, not an inconvenience or passive bystanders. One of the constant truths in disaster preparedness and response is that ordinary citizens are almost always the first responders. They are usually the first to the scene, and should be empowered and trusted to provide necessary support within their capabilities. Even after government officials have arrived, community members will always be needed to provide logistical and other practical support. Of course, there would always be a minority trying to use tragedy as a cover for criminal activities, but the government approach should rightly recognise that hoodlums are always in the minority. There should, among others, be an active website and other digital interface through which citizens can interact and collaborate with government on disaster prevention, preparedness and response. Many of the disaster events that happen do not just happen suddenly. In many cases they have been preceded by warning signs that were largely ignored. Akinjide Ajisafe makes a good point about this, regarding the need for a comprehensive safety and risk assessment in all public facilities. This has to be part of a comprehensive government response to the current tragedy.
On this note we should a thought for the family of the person that was killed by security officers and others who were injured on Sunday.
The Akesan tragedy is still raw for us all, but there is also an opportunity here for both the government and community members to work together to birth an era of a new, functional emergency services in the state. This opportunity should not be missed.