The youthful looking Director General of National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Mohammed Sani-Sidi is a risk-taker and crisis manager who sticks his neck to disaster spots. He relishes positive news and abhors negative information on his agency’s intervention during disasters and emergency situations in the country.
In his quest to ensure that only good news comes out from the agency, he personally visits disaster zones to see for himself the kind of assistance required of the victims and how responses from the agency and other stakeholders are reaching the distressed people.
Since death is bad news, NEMA is always cautious in releasing figures of deaths to the public even while the agency is always in the forefront in providing body-bags, ambulances and in the evacuation of dead bodies to mortuary. The excuse usually provided by NEMA for avoiding the release of figures on casualty is that its major mandate is to address the need of survivors rather than the dead.
The recent bomb blast on the eve of Xmas in Jos, Plateau State, is not only controversial on who were the actual masterminds of the incident, the conflicting figures on the casualties are also contentious. There were different official figures on the deaths. While one official figure quoted between 30-40, another quoted 80-100 deaths but the mass burial by Muslims and Christians, as indicated in the media is far above those figures.
When the New Year’ eve bomb blasts in Mogadishu Cantonment were detonated, the agency was the first responder to arrive at the scene mobilising other response agencies as well as condoning the place and evacuating the deaths and survivors to nearest heath facilities. The official figures released are far below what the media reported from alleged eye-witnesses.
There have always been conflicting figures on casualties during various disasters in Nigeria including those as results of flooding, thunderstorms, fire outbreaks, communal clashes, road accidents and activities of militants.
Since the National Emergency Management Agency, is neither a full-fledged security-outfit nor fashioned in the mode of the conservative civil or para-military service, the lack of a national contingency plan in the event of disaster put the agency in dilemma on whether it should be saddled with releases of figures on human casualties. A national contingency plan can provide a guide on specific roles of each response agency in the event of disaster and who should shoulder the responsibility of officially announcing the casualties.
Every figure released after any disaster whether from identified official channels or anonymous official sources are obviously based on one or combination of factors such as security implications, political consideration and factual reality.
In Nigeria, it is not strange for mischief makers to capitalise on figures of casualties to wreck further havoc on innocent people and their properties. We are living witnesses to how reprisal attacks were triggered by figures that are untimely released or gory pictures of death. The last year’s gruesome mass execution of Boko Haram followers and the unfortunate and deceptive extra judicial killing of former commissioner of Agriculture in the Borno State by security personnel which were videotaped and downloaded on the internet and mobile phones, are alleged to be fuelling the reprisal attacks that has continued ceaselessly.
The media too, would not see any good news from genuinely good stories of survivals and the relief materials being provided but could gladly give prominence to the death figures and mangled bodies of victims.
There seems to be stiff competitions among the foreign media and local press as well as among the national newspapers providing some partisan lines in their reportages. For instance a day after the reported over 80 deaths from the Jos Bomb blast, some national newspapers gave prominence to an alleged Islamic website claiming responsibility for the Jos incident, while in other press pictures of mass burial of Muslims by an Imam was flashed in front cover. Some media that realise the implication of such reports to the sensitivity of their readership balanced their reports from other perspectives.
Meanwhile considering the fact that Nigeria is in intense political dilemma as a built-up to 2011 elections, politicians are also culprits in overheating the system with provocative statements in blaming their opponents over every misdeed. In fact political campaigns are now focusing on actions and inactions of major players to the crises in the country.
While the release of casualties should be treated with caution and necessity, in this period of advanced technologies where ordinary citizens have mobile phones that could record video and photos of victims of disasters, it will be foolhardy to manipulate figures for any ulterior motive which could portray agencies as liars.
It is necessary that the government, apart from ensuring justice is done by prosecuting persecutors and perpetrators behind some of the unfortunate incidences including officials who failed in their responsibilities and leaders who instigate the crises, no figure either under-estimated or over exaggerated can prevent reoccurrence of disasters in the country.
The media have social responsibility to promote national agenda of unity, patriotism and being our brothers’ keepers. The competition is there, but could there be any sense of fulfilment in promoting editorial features and pictures that could aggravate the situation and give undesirable elements the excuses to strike?
The ordinary citizen needs to read between the lines and be conscious of happening around them to properly decipher the likely antics of masquerades behind some of those disasters when one juxtaposes the scenario to the forthcoming general election.
We should know that politicians have ways of sending positive and negative signals to their supporters as well as opponents in a season of do-or- die politics, we should therefore not play into their hands.
Yushau A. Shuaib
Finance Estate, Wuye, Abuja