My pastor, Evaristus Azodoh is a retired army colonel and a medical doctor; in fact, one of Nigeria’s foremost consultant urologists. His experience and exposure, quite naturally, reflect in his exhortations. So, when last Sunday morning, he asked us at the Workers Meeting to pray what he prefaced as a “medical heresy” but spiritually important prayer, it was obvious he was concerned by the seeming hopelessness of the situation. His prayer point was for a divine intervention on the prevalence of all manner of cancers that is now ravaging the country.
Less than 24 hours after that prayer, Dr Chidi Amuta posted on an online platform to which I belong a short story in ‘The Economist’ titled “Fuming mad: the war on diesel”, which reveals why major towns across Europe are now charging diesel drivers 50 percent more to park their vehicles in the bid to discourage its use. “What if your major urban centres depend on millions of diesel generators for power? No wonder there is this epidemic of all manner of cancers”, Dr Amuta wrote in a pithy comment before he added, “Diesel is in fact less toxic in cars than from our millions of generators. Cars move around over wide open spaces. But the generators are fixed in place and have all of us trapped and poisoned for hours daily; so, the longer the hours on diesel generators, the worse for the trapped victims.”
In June 2012, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified diesel exhaust in Group 1 in its ranking of carcinogenic substances because it emits a lot of nitrogen dioxides into the atmosphere. Indeed, diesel exhaust fumes have been scientifically proven as a major contributor to asthma, lung disease and heart attacks. And in most countries where supply of electricity is not dependent on diesel like it is in Nigeria, there are increasing regulations to reduce, if not eliminate, the use of it to power vehicles.
However, in Nigeria, no house or company is complete without a diesel-powered electricity generator meaning that we have practically imported death into our households by virtue of our inability to organize ourselves. Since everything must flow from up to bottom, electricity, like most other public utilities, have to be supplied by the federal government which, even at the best of times, is notoriously inefficient. That way, everybody is now their own power supplier; just like everybody supplies their own water and run their own security outfits. Even with all the private schools around, there is hardly any family that does not engage in some form of home lessons for their children which means we are also running our own schools. The way we are going, everybody will soon begin to run their own hospitals.
Aside the waste associated with this situation of grand systemic failure, there are far reaching implications for a society where virtually everyone is running their own government. For instance, the sad part of our approach to the hopeless power supply situation and the mismanagement of our oil and gas sector is that hardly any administration has thought about their linkage to public health issues, forgetting that the driving force of any economy is the wellbeing of the people.
Even as European and American cities prepare to use taxation to outlaw Diesel engine vehicles, there has been no response from the Nigerian authorities on what to do about diesel automotive and generator pollution any time soon. In fact, the ability to afford a diesel generator has become a status symbol that separates the urban ‘wealthy’ from the mass of ordinary ‘I-better-pass-my-neighbour’ petrol engine generator owners. But the rich are poisoning themselves and everyone else because there is no one to protect all of us.
What worries is that our problems seem to be mounting without anybody responding to them. Just last Sunday, the United Nations estimates put our population at 190,594,019. We are breeding like rabbits without much thought on how we would take care of the people we are bringing into the world. With Nigeria now accounting for 2.55 percent of the world’s total population, comprising largely young people with the median age at 18, what future do we prepare for them?
Climate change, environment, a growing unproductive population etc. are some of the problems that should challenge those in authorities but these hardly attract any meaningful attention in a milieu where our lawmakers are no better than clowns churning out home videos. Yet, the dangers are there for all to see. For instance, Abuja has practically been on the boil for many weeks as a result of heat waves that defy even the most powerful of air-conditioners. And within a matter of weeks, we have lost hundreds of our citizens to meningitis whose spread has been aided by the oppressive weather conditions in many of the northern states.
Of course, Governor Abdulaziz Yari of Zamfara has been waxing spiritual on the scourge that has taken the lives of several people in his state where it all started. “People have turned away from God and he has promised that ‘if you do anyhow, you see anyhow.’ That is just the cause of this outbreak, as far as I am concerned. There is no way fornication will be so rampant and God will not send a disease that cannot be cured” he said on Tuesday. A friend said yesterday that the governor is very clever to have left out adultery, “which is what married people like him commit while focusing his libidinal exultation only on fornication”.
Yari’s intervention would have provided comic relief but for the fact that we are dealing with a national emergency situation. On Monday, the National Coordinator of the Centre for Disease Control, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu said the outbreak of the disease which started in December has spread to 16 states. While an official of the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHDA) has estimated that we would require $1.1bn to purchase vaccine for the immunization of 22 million persons in five states ravaged by the disease, Ihekweazu painted a gloomy picture of the financial situation: “The budget we have is like sending soldiers to the Northeast without guns.”
Ordinarily, there should be money for this kind of health emergency that originates from the environment given the constitutional provision for Ecological Fund. For instance, within a period of four years when oil price was high between 2011 and 2014, the sum of N245.7 billion accrued into the Fund based on 2 percent deduction from the Federation Account, on a first line charge. While the Fund is meant to provide “handy resources for amelioration of ecological problems such as soil erosion, flood, drought, desertification, oil spillage, general environmental pollution, storm, tornadoes, bush fire, crop pest, landslide, earthquakes etc.”, there is hardly any evidence of that.
In 2012, a Senate Committee uncovered a litany of unwholesome practices in the application of the Fund over a period of ten years. For instance, in 2006, the former Governor of Plateau State, Mr. Joshua Dariye, disclosed that he diverted his state’s N1.6 billion share of the Ecological Fund to the 2003 general elections campaign of the then ruling PDP. From road construction to fighting food shortages to “treasury management”, the Ecological Fund has been deployed as a slush fund by every administration in our country.
That Nigerians still take the environment with indifference accounts for why money constitutionally provided for such emergencies would be so cynically mismanaged; just as our country has become a dumping site for all manner of toxic wastes. A House of Representatives committee is currently investigating one of such cases in Koko, Delta State. While some unscrupulous community leaders are believed to be aiding and abetting the criminal dumping of highly toxic and carcinogenic wastes in their town for money, nobody should expect anything to come out of the House probe. It is a familiar story in Nigeria.
About three years ago, trucks loaded with waste allegedly from the then just reactivated Kaduna Refining and Petrochemical Company (KRPC) dumped their contents in an open field in the neighbouring Rido community. “It was when the air became hot like pepper as if tear gas was released that we became apprehensive”, said a representative of the community, Salihu Yahaya. Few days later, many of the residents who had been to the dumpsite to pick items, started falling sick and dying. Notwithstanding all the noise at the time, the House investigation came to naught.
It is unfortunate that we find it so convenient to condemn our citizens to avoidable calamities that governments elsewhere strive to protect their peoples from. But now that the issue of diesel is in the front burner, I hope it would set the authorities thinking of the dangers staring us in the face. But it remains baffling that on the bigger picture of environmental common sense, the attitude of most Nigerians and those who decide for us is a strange combination of ignorance and crass insensitivity fuelled often by primitive greed and outright stupidity.
May God protect us from ourselves!