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Such a Hard Road to Travel

16 Dec 2012

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Simon Kolawole Live!: Emailsimon.kolawole@thisdaylive.com

Is it me or are we not losing too many lives on our roads? Maybe I’m a bit emotional about this because of my own story. I lost my dad in a road accident 36 years ago. He was just 31.  He left behind five children, with the last child barely one-month old. My grandmother has not got over the death of her first child till today, and she shudders anytime she sees his picture with me. She told me years ago: “Maybe because you are young… that is why you are not distressed holding Kola’s picture. I just can’t bring myself to look at it.” Imagine the agony of his mother, the pain and hurt of his widow and the uncertain future we faced as little children when the tragedy happened in November 1976.

But, come to think of it, is that not a familiar story in Nigeria? There are many widows, widowers, orphans and traumatised parents being produced everyday through road accidents. Unlike me and my sisters and brother, many children have had their lives dislocated or fractured forever. The tragic stories are fairly familiar – a truck runs into a bus; a container falls off a trailer and crushes a car; a commercial bus plunges into a river, killing all occupants; a car rams into a stationary, broken-down tanker; and so on and so forth. The causes are all too commonplace: bad roads, poorly lit highways, poorly maintained vehicles, over-speeding and other forms of dangerous driving, poor road signals and quack drivers, among others. I hold recklessness, especially over-speeding, responsible for most fatal accidents on our roads.

Just last week in Ogun State, 14 lives were lost in three accidents in one day! Youths took to the streets in Itori, Ewekoro LGA, when five secondary school students were killed by a truck loaded with granite. At Ogere, Ikenne LGA, five persons lost their lives when a truck lost control, causing multiple accidents. At Olodo, Odeda LGA, four other persons died in an accident. All in a day’s job! As I write, parents are weeping and grieving for their children whose promising futures were crushed in one instant of road carnage. Can they ever get over the pain of losing their loved ones in avoidable circumstances? The trauma is better imagined than experienced.  I am saddened by every death on our roads. I always tell myself: this is mostly avoidable.

Former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, set up the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) in 1988 to tackle accidents and make the roads safer for everyone. Under the leadership of Professor Wole Soyinka and, later, Dr. Olu Agunloye, FRSC not only revved up awareness about safety on our roads, the commission adopted novel strategies to tackle the menace. We saw results. Road accidents did not disappear, but there were clear signs that things were getting better. Even though things have changed at FRSC over the years, the solid foundation laid by Soyinka has made it a different kind of government agency that is fairly efficient and largely trustworthy. It is amazing that in this age of inept public agencies in our country, one can still point to an agency that is business-like.

But despite all the work being done over the years by FRSC, we are still battling the scourge of road crashes. What if there was no FRSC? Meanwhile, a lot of politicking has also gone into FRSC, with establishment people trying to turn it into a military set-up with retired officers as the head. When a young Osita Chidoka was appointed the Corps Marshal and Chief Executive of the FRSC in 2007, the old order fought it vehemently, insisting that a retired military officer must be the chief executive. I’m not even sure Chidoka received any handover notes from his disdainful predecessor. There is also the unending argument over whether or not to merge the commission with the police force. In all these controversies, safety on our roads was obviously not top of the agenda of the agitators.

Chidoka has, however, been bringing a lot of dynamism into the FRSC, and he was recently rewarded by the World Bank with a special recognition for the work he is doing at the commission. At a recent workshop under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the FRSC was adjudged “the best lead agency on road safety management in Africa” by the World Bank. Despite the global recognition, Chidoka has expressed his worries about the current accident statistics in Nigeria: 161 deaths per 10,000 crashes. Compared to the figures of decades past, you would say this is an improvement, even though I will argue that every life is precious.  But given Chidoka’s target of 2 deaths per 10,000 accidents by year 2020, we have a hard road to travel.  Nevertheless, a journey of a thousand miles, it is said, starts with a step.

How can we reduce deaths on our roads? How can we put a stop to the avoidable waste of lives? Perhaps we need to know these facts, as outlined by FRSC itself in the Safe Road Nigeria campaign, for us to get a better grasp of the problems and the way forward. One, road crashes kill more than HIV/AIDS and malaria every year. Two, there’s every chance that someone you know has been killed or injured in a crash. Three, people are killed or injured in road crashes every day. Four, all road crashes can be prevented. Five, most crashes are caused by the driver’s behaviour and not always as a result of bad roads. Six, the idea of a “safe road” in Nigeria is more of changing our driving behaviour than advocating good road infrastructure. Seven, we can reduce deaths and injuries by 50 per cent if we make a commitment to not drink and drive, not over speed, wear seat belts and helmets, not use phone or eat while driving and obey traffic rules.
It is not just the job of Chidoka to make the roads safer – it is a task for all, including all tiers of government, churches, mosques, social clubs, schools, labour unions, transport unions, everyone! Life has no duplicate. My sympathies go to the families of the bereaved in Ogun State. But we must now move forward with determination that this carnage must stop. FRSC’s recognition by the World Bank is a big encouragement to Chidoka. He now has to approach the task ahead with all determination and commitment. To get to the top is one thing; to remain there is another matter entirely.

AND FOUR OTHER THINGS

DEATH AT FUNERAL
I was at the Port Harcourt airport yesterday evening on my way from Bayelsa State when I heard rumours of a chopper crash. Then it emerged Governor Patrick Yakowa of Kaduna State and former National Security Adviser, Gen. Andrew Owoye Azazi, died in the mishap. What a tragedy. They were reportedly persuaded to use the Navy chopper on their way from the burial of the father of presidential aide, Oronto Douglas. What a tragedy. My heart goes out to the families of the deceased and to Oronto, who was celebrating the life of his father who died at a ripe age of 88. Terrible. This life…

THIS SUBSIDY THING
After the return of fuel queues to the filling stations, the Federal Government has finally got the nod of the National Assembly with the approval of the supplementary budget of N161 billion to settle the arrears of subsidy payments to marketers. If I’m not mistaken, this brings the total subsidy bill in the 2012 budget to N1.049 trillion. With the arrears of 2011 payments alone accounting for N450 billion of the sum, it means we will effectively pay N599 billion (I hope I’m right) for subsidy in 2012. This is a far cry from the N2.19 trillion we incurred last year. Maybe we are getting closer to the real figure for fuel subsidy finally.

LAMIDO’S LAMENT
Jigawa State Governor Sule Lamido is embarrassed by the arrest of his son, Aminu, at the Aminu Kano International Airport for money laundering. The man was reportedly found in possession of $40,000 which he allegedly did not declare in his Customs form. Lamido has explained that the money was meant for the treatment of Aminu’s daughter in Egypt, contrary to insinuations that Aminu was laundering money for him. Legally, Aminu could take any amount out of Nigeria; failing to declare it is the real offence. As for laundering money for his father, that is a different matter entirely - $40,000 appears to be chicken feed.

I WAS AT ‘THE MEETING’
I am a domestic animal. Socialising is big deal for me. But I finally went to the newly opened cinema at Ikeja Shopping Mall, Lagos, to see the much-talked about Nollywood movie, The Meeting. It is the story of a company executive who travelled on appointment to see a minister in Abuja to pitch for a contract. The story is that of Nigeria: political patronage and dysfunctional public service. The frustrated executive eventually did the unusual to grab the attention of the minister. As a bonus, he also found love. The movie lived up to the hype and, once again, I am proud that this is a Nigerian product.

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