No one had a premonition of the tragedy that befell Nigeria on Sunday, June 3, 2012 when a McDonnell Douglas MD-83 plane belonging to Dana Air, on a domestic flight from Abuja to Lagos, crashed into Iju-Ishaga, a crowded neighbourhood near the Murtala Mohammed Airport, following what was alleged to have been a total loss of power in both engines. Apparently landing on its tail, the airplane soon burst into flame, resulting in the deaths of all 153 people on board, as well as approximately 10 deaths and an unknown number of injuries to people on the ground. That day was indeed a black Sunday. For many years to come, that day will remain unforgettably etched in the memories of millions of Nigerians. To forget this day is to forget a part of history that has characterised our nation as a land where blood gushes forth unrestrained like an overflowing stream.
Preliminary report issued by the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) confirmed that the airplane was on the fourth flight segment of the day, consisting of two round-trips between Lagos and Abuja. The accident occurred during the return leg of the second trip, as the aircraft made its final approach for the runway. Being the second deadliest air accident on Nigerian soil, the Dana Air crash came to reveal the stark reality of poor post-disaster management system in our country. Journalists and reporters at the crash scene reported how chaotic the scene was, with thousands of Lagos residents attempting to approach the site.
Crowds attempted to bring hoses to the site while soldiers attempted to disperse onlookers with punches and rubber whips. The onlookers then threw stones at the soldiers in retaliation. Water for fire fighting was scarce for several hours due to the city’s shortage of fire trucks, and civilians attempted to fight the fire by hand with sachets of ‘pure water’. Water trucks commandeered from nearby construction projects had difficulties reaching the site due to the neighbourhood’s narrow roads. At the end of the day, over 160 precious human lives were systematically liquidated in an air disaster that was, to say the least, preventable.
Like a national ritual that follows every breaking news of tragedy in our nation, President Goodluck Jonathan visited the crash site, wept before media cameras, declared three days of national mourning and pledged that “every possible effort” will be made to boost the nation’s aviation safety. End of discussion. We return to business as usual and wait until another tragedy happens. This is the sorry order of things in the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Frankly speaking, there is something downright sickening about a nation that has no regard for human life. As a people and as a nation, we have become so accustomed to scenes of bloodshed to such an alarming degree that the wanton destruction of human lives no longer generates any sense of moral revulsion in us. Every day in this country, the consciousness of human life being sacred and inviolable is gradually being depleted as we witness violence, bloodshed and death in alarming proportions. Our country is fast becoming an endless theatre of blood. The sad part of it is that in the eyes of millions of Nigerians, tragedies and disasters claiming multiple human lives have become “one of those things.” We talk about them soberly, mourn for a few days and get on with life as usual.
But the truth, like Dele Giwa once said, is that “Nigerians are unshockable.” If not, let us ask ourselves: What is it that can go wrong that has not happened in Nigeria in order to make us stop and think about our lives and about the future of our country? I believe that when tragedies happen, they should force upon us the burden of critical thinking. We must ask ourselves how we got where we are today. How did our collective will allow so many to die such a senseless and callous kind of death? Sincerely, we need to start asking fundamental questions about how our country is organized and governed. Our questioning attitude must lead to demanding accountability from those who govern us. Reform does not come unless a people demand for it. Societies only make substantive changes when their members insist upon it.
Therefore, drawing from our experiences, we must note that God has a message for us in the midst of our troubled situations. As citizens we must stay together and try to work out lasting solutions to our problems. We can make something out of our tragedies if we make our tragedies count. Put differently, it is our collective duty to channel our anger and rage each time something goes wrong into actions that will not only save our lives when the time comes but that will be a monument to the lives lost. With every tragedy comes the opportunity to build a monument – a monument of good governance, inspired citizenry and bold actions. Tragedy is an opportunity to do better, to create better systems and conditions that ensure that such tragedy does not happen again. To do this we must find out what happened, punish those who let it happen and reform the system in question in order to prevent another breakdown.
That is why memory is very important because it is a means of strengthening our collective resolve to move forward. Unfortunately, Nigerians are a very forgetful people, impervious to the lessons of their own troubled history, and as Matthew Hassan Kukah has said, “This amnesia has contributed to diminishing us as a people.” In the face of every single national challenge, we have often seemed bewildered, perplexed and clueless. If not, how come we have failed to learn anything from our previous experiences? The answer, as Wole Soyinka once wrote, is that “We are a nation of short memories.”
Memory and history are inseparable; and that is why the loss of memory is not just the absence of facts, it is the loss of personal identity, family, friends, and indeed the whole complex of life’s meaning. It is very difficult to function in society if we do not know who we are and how we got this way. If we do not know our personal and community histories, we are like children who are easily manipulated by those who would use the past for their own purposes. Historical identity is rooted in community. It is passed to us through our conversation with our mothers and fathers who have gone before us.
My concern therefore is that our leaders must recognize that the idea of human rights includes something called the right to security of life. This right reflects a real sense of the need to protect human dignity. Man is not only entitled to live in a free society; he also has a right to enjoy the full range of human possibilities guaranteed by the right to life. We need a good government that can build a policy marked by an extraordinary combination of sober realism and visionary idealism with respect to human rights. This is something more than just a theory; it has to be a doctrine that can be translated into practical politics. I believe that if we do this, we might be able to make the Dana Air tragedy a positive dawn for the emergence of a new Nigeria. We have a duty to learn from the past.
For the families and friends of those for whom June 3, 2012 has become an unforgettable day. Widows and widowers learning to cope, children growing without a father or mother, friends coping with the broken bonds of friendship and so on. If the government can take the appropriate steps to ensure that this does not happen again, then the tragic loss of precious lives will not have been in vain.