“May we never walk when the road waits, famished” – Wole Soyinka, The Road
Two major road accidents in the last week brought to the fore again the dangers that lie in wait on Nigerian roads. The Minister of State for Labour and Productivity, James Ocholi, SAN, his wife and son lost their lives in a vehicle accident that occurred on the Kaduna- Abuja road, when their Lexus SUV vehicle somersaulted, following a burst tyre and the driver’s loss of control. There was also the death on the Maiduguri-Damaturu road of Major-General Yasha’u Abubakar of the Training and Operations Department of the Nigerian Army. Both accidents have been a source of enormous grief, perhaps because of the status of the persons involved, but the truth is that Nigerian roads are treacherous and deceitful, marked as they are everyday, by a harvest of deaths and sorrow.
To report that the state of the roads is bad is to proclaim the notoriously obvious, and to say that more people die every minute on our roads is to iterate that the road in Nigeria is no respecter of persons or class. In its annual reports, the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) has tried to identify the primary and secondary causes of road accidents, and in the current Ocholi case, it has offered a preliminary report, which reinforces the notion about every death being in the long run, a revelatory comment on man’s existential crisis.
The regret is that the death that occurs on Nigerian roads, is more often than not, man-made, regretfully self-invited and for that reason, mostly avoidable. Anyone who has ever travelled on Nigerian roads would readily admit that going onto those roads is like taking a risk and no man can call himself safe until he returns home in one piece at the end of the day. Many of our roads are pothole-ridden, bumpy and poorly maintained. Before the ad hoc resurfacing of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway from the Lagos end, there were uneven portions, which always made it seem as if the road was struggling with the driver to seize control of the steering wheel.
One moment of distraction, you could find yourself careering off the road. From the Ibadan end of the Expressway, there were hidden, deep potholes. Many motorists found themselves suddenly landing into those potholes only to lose their tyres or lives. So bad is this dilemma that many motorists require prior knowledge of the state of the road to be able to drive on it; that knowledge means knowing where the potholes are at what point and where dangerous contours need to be avoided. Years of neglect and lack of maintenance have reproduced this pattern across the country. It takes repeated and costly accidents before the appropriate authorities would rush to mend the roads. And this is not just on the highways; even inner city roads are problematic. When it rains in most Nigerian towns and cities, life grinds to a halt, because the roads are transformed into streams, overflowing with water, due to poor drainage, and from struggling to turn the vehicle into a boat and avoid unseen potholes, the worst may happen. We are almost in that season again, and soon the stories will be told, of accidents caused by slippery, water-logged and dangerous roads.
This fact of administrative and official failure is an important footnote to the FRSC report in the Ocholi case which draws attention to the driver’s negligence, over-speeding, his criminal conduct -driving without a licence (but note that he is a government driver!- who on earth assigned him to drive an official vehicle without a licence (?) and then, the non-use of seat belt by the deceased persons, who in the event of the accident were flung out of the vehicle, in addition to the wrong orientation of the vehicle’s tyres. The revelations by the FRSC Investigation Team should serve as necessary warning to drivers, passengers, vehicle owners and all road users, indeed all of us. Too many Nigerian road users behave as if life has a duplicate. I have seen drivers who insist “Oga don’t worry”. When you remind them about speed limits, their standard response is “Oga don’t worry”. Every Oga who sits in the owner’s corner should worry. There is no guarantee that accidents won’t occur. Reckless driving is the bane of the Nigerian road.
Commercial drivers are drunk most of the time, or they are under some kind of influence including the metaphysical which induces them to tell you that the vehicle is covered by the “blood of Jesus”, or that ‘No weapon fashioned against them shall prosper.” The more traditional ones insist that they have killed a dog for Ogun, the god of iron and so, Ogun will not forsake his own. As the FRSC has indicated, there are thousands behind the wheels on Nigerian roads who have never bothered to undergo a driving test, and these include persons working as official drivers. There is also the problem of vehicle maintenance. Half of the vehicles on our roads are either not roadworthy or they are poorly maintained. Have you not heard the drivers who are fond of saying: “we can manage Oga; I fit manage am”. The tyres are worn out, the wheel balancing and alignment are bad, but the Nigerian driver will rather “manage”. Even when the brakes begin to fail, the natural response is to “manage.” We don’t “worry” enough about safety; we cut corners and procrastinate, when the vehicle gives warning signs, we ignore, when the road breaks down, we look the other way.
It is this mentality that has made many of the employed drivers corrupt. When you give them money to buy fuel, they short-change you; when the vehicle is to be taken for repairs, they undercut you; when anything goes wrong, they refuse to inform you until it is too late. And yet, there are too many big men in Nigeria relying on drivers and not paying enough attention. It is a sign of status and class, to employ a driver or to be assigned one, but very few big men and women bother to monitor the men into whose hands their lives are entrusted.
The point about seat belt deserves to be properly underlined. Following the accidents under reference, there has been much talk about the importance of seat belts. According to the FRSC, “the ejection of the minister and his son, who occupied the rear seat, confirmed the fact that their rear seat belts were not in use and on the contrary, the driver and the orderly survived because the front seat belts were in use”. It is sad that many big men don’t worry about using seat belts. It is considered too much of an effort for a man to own a vehicle, or be big enough to be driven by another, only for him to tie himself down in the back seat. The widespread assumption is that the space called owner’s corner is meant for sprawling; it is regarded as a place of comfort from where the master backs orders at the assistants in the front seat! This owner’s corner syndrome has caused the death of many “big men and women”, there must be a vigorous campaign launched at all levels by the FRSC, civil society groups and other agencies to remind everyone that it is better to be a big man or woman alive than to ignore a simple safety task and lose one’s life.
The FRSC is threatening to prosecute late Minister Ocholi’s driver as soon as he is discharged from the hospital. But the FRSC must see in this experience, further justification for it to be more vigilant and assertive with its vehicle accident prevention strategies. It must launch a fresh and vigorous campaign against reckless driving, set clear speed limits, acquire the relevant technology to determine the abuse of those limits and raise its organizational capacity to prevent motorists from willfully committing suicide or killing others, by apprehending the reckless and enforcing the relevant laws. This should include descending heavily on persons who use the phone while driving. I can’t count the number of times other motorists nearly drove into a vehicle or constituted pure nuisance, just because they are busy driving with one hand and using the other hand to wield a phone while chatting heartily as if they are in their living rooms. When you call such persons to order, they have no qualms telling you to get lost or mind your own business!
The FRSC used to have many volunteers, otherwise known as Special Marshals, who effected citizen arrest or helped to make the roads saner either by controlling traffic or checking the excesses of other motorists. That volunteer corps should be re-energized. And anyone who does not have a driver’s licence should be sanctioned. The current penalties appear cheap, and so motorists are tempted to do as they wish. Speed violation attracts only a fine of N3, 000, driving under the influence – N5, 000, vehicle license violation -N3, 000, driving without seat belt – N2, 000; use of phone while driving- N4, 000; only dangerous driving attracts a fine as high as N50, 000, but of course by the time that N50, 000 is paid, lives may have been lost! These fines and penalties should be reviewed. Nigerians often choose which laws to respect or not and damn the consequences, particularly if they can easily pay a fine and walk away.
The various tributes on late Minister Ocholi have been touching, the story is sad, and may the Lord grant him, his wife, and son, peaceful repose, but after all the tears have been shed and the tributes delivered, what must be done is not to walk away until another tragedy occurs, but to take concrete steps to prevent similar accidents in the future, especially for the sake of the many unknown victims who die daily on our roads, and whose tragedy is unreported and unmourned. At the level of policy and action, note this: the first step is to separate the all-important task of making our roads safe and motorable from corrosive, partisan politics, itself a principal stumbling block.