When the sea level began to rise as though to test Nigeria’s capability to manage flooding during the October downpours, Kogi State was the first butt of what seemed like a joke then to distant observers. The story started with a donation of canoes to unstated submerged communities by the wife of the state governor, Rashida Yahaya Bello. This attracted scorn on social media, at first, because the dugout canoes bore her name and the ruling party’s logo and were seen as a tokenist intervention to an undermined disaster.
The unkind commentaries took a different dimension when, in the same week, she shared a video on her verified Instagram page showing off her home and luxury car, which was identified by a car-dealing firm as the 2022 Mercedes Benz S580 Maybach, and that “it’s worth over N200 million.” This tragic contrast between her posh lifestyle as the wife of a poor-performing politician and the squalor seen in the photographs of her “charity work” dominated the rage of her critics, and understandably so.
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Mrs. Yahaya Bello didn’t know she was damning optics in advertising such vanity online. She was, it appeared, just showing off the spoils of being a governor’s wife and it didn’t matter that her husband has a reputation for owing the state’s civil servants salary arrears for months. Her critics didn’t pull their punches in reminding her of that, and drawing the parallel between a Maybach and the dugout canoes she donated, a model of which was used on the Komodugu Gana River of Yobe State about 8000 years ago based on the carbon-dating of the Dufuna canoe, which was found in Dufuna, a settlement between Potiskum and Gashua in 1987.
A week before Mrs. Yahaya Bello was cited as a case of bad optics, Mrs. Aisha Buhari trended because, aware that Nigerian public universities had been on strike for about seven months, she still rushed to her social media to celebrate her daughter-in-law, Zahra Bayero’s graduation from a university in the UK. Nothing could’ve underlined disdain for the students and Nigerians by the federal government headed by her husband much worse than she did. Like her husband, she knew there are no consequences for refusing to pretend that she cares about the people her spouse was elected to serve. The only aspect of governance that seems to matter to the family of top public servants is the manufacturing of overnight millionaires and billionaires through contract racketeering.
This condescension of our tax-funded public servants and their families in dealing with the public is a culture they can’t attempt where accountability can’t be bought. Last month, Britain’s Suella Braverman resigned from her appointment as the home secretary because, as bizarre as this may sound to her Nigerian counterparts, she used her personal email for official duty. Braverman shared that she sent a draft ministerial statement that had not been published from her personal email to a colleague to seek support for her policy, an action she categorised as “a technical infringement of the rules.” A few days later, her principal, Liz Truss, resigned as Prime Minister because her economic agenda and promised reforms backfired.
While Nigeria’s public institutions are probably a century away from establishing the framework to guarantee such strict adherence to rules and ethics among political officeholders, the responses to the spate of flooding across the country have been uninspiring. When communities across the country began to cry out over expanding threats of submersion, the media and our policy circles were quiet. It’s not a posh tragedy like the COVID-19 outbreak. The nation’s elite are not immediate victims of the disaster, which, in the recent update has disrupted the lives of over 2.5 million people, including the 1.3 million displaced, 2,407 injured, and 603 persons reported dead across 25 states with severe incidents of the destruction.
As the death toll and displacement data expand, President Buhari’s message to the nation was, as relayed by Garba Shehu through his Twitter account, instructing “the Minister of Water Resources to lead and coordinate with the Ministries of Environment and Transportation as well as state governments to develop a Comprehensive Plan of Action for Preventing Flood Disaster in Nigeria,” and that the solution is expected to be presented to the President in 90 days.
Any of the drowning and dying communities reading this must be tempted to clap for their leaders. Or so the folks at the Aso Villa felt when they authorised such a disturbing update. I can’t wrap my head around the leader of a drowning country coming to announce that the government would find a plan in 90 days, and even more so that his image-makers, who are experienced media professionals, couldn’t advise on a more effective public relations approach.
There are several MDAs with duplicated roles that ought to have had such a plan ready before this day. Even the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, along with the ministries directed by the President, could’ve foreseen this disaster, prepared for it, or even prevented it if the billions allocated to them were indeed utilised for the purposes intended. The MDAs aren’t designed to just share and misappropriate palliative freebies. They are there to forecast and manage or prevent disasters such as this flooding. There are whole bodies of the workforce earning monthly salaries to think and propose the very plan the government has declared it would announce in 90 days. These MDAs aren’t ad-hoc committees; they are pivotal organisations with institutional responsibility.
The managers of Nigeria would’ve been as alarmed as they were when COVID-19 broke out if this disaster had affected the main settlements of the political class, even though some of them, including President Goodluck Jonathan, lost their country homes temporarily to the flood. The political formations in Abuja aren’t spared by the flood because the city has functional drainage systems and waste management or regulated urban expansion and effective implementation of applicable laws, which are the main reasons this disaster was hard to manage. The seat of power is spared because past policymakers chose a secure hinterland.
Unfortunately, Buhari acts like the bereaved who has no memory of his loss. Last Monday, he took to his Twitter to condole with the people of South Korea. “My heartfelt condolences to President Yoon Suk-yeol, the Govt and people of South Korea, and families of victims of the tragedy in Itaewon,” he wrote. “I pray for speedy recovery of the injured, and healing and comfort for the entire nation. Nigeria stands with you at this difficult moment.” But Nigeria, which has lost four times more than what South Korea is mourning after a stampede at a Halloween party led to about 150 deaths can’t afford to stand. It’s sitting helplessly, forlorn, and dying while the President is in London for a medical checkup. Another irony of his failure is to set aside a single healthcare facility to manage his health in over seven years of leading a country that purchases prehistoric canoes for citizens who’ve lost their families and farmlands.