Chukwujekwu was a very good and devoted father. With the uncanny nature of Nigeria’s politics, he was relieved of his meekly position as a Grade IV clerk in the State Ministry of Works because the new state governor wanted the civil service occupied solely by the governor’s kinsmen. However, in accordance with the Igbo ethos of hardwork and dignified labor, he took to selling shoes and bags in a shabby and hastily constructed wooden lock-up stall at the Upper Iweka axis of Onitsha metropolis. Even at that, they still wouldn’t allow Chukwujekwu rest as the numerous rates and taxes he pays leaves him virtually nothing to feed his pretty large family. On the days when business goes fine, he sells about five or six shoes. On this particular Sunday, the end of the month, he had no sense of impending doom. In fact, he had just sold an Aba-made shoe to a customer. The customer paid a 1000 naira. Chukwujekwu mentally calculated and came to the conclusion that the money would fetch a good pot of stew with at least five pieces of small meat, with maybe four cups of rice for him and his seven-member household as their lunch. He thought of packing and calling it a day since it was a Sunday; a day commonly regarded as a day of rest. Even so, not many co-traders came to sell. But then he remembered: his daughters, Obiageli and Ijeoma’s teachers had threatened to send them away from school the next day if they didn’t come to school with their school fees. He had just scraped through paying Okwukweka’s and Nchetachukwu’s school fees. The landlord was also on his neck because he had defaulted in paying his monthly rent of his one-roomed apartment. Landlords being most times impatient lots, and some times, insensitive, his landlord was threatening to throw out all his worldly possessions – which isn’t even much – if the landlord didn’t have his money in his palms by the weekend. And since his shop was in a busy location, he decided to wait some few more minutes. Maybe, one never knows, a customer might come along. Tall, swarthy with a fine tuft of black hair, large eyes and long limbs, Chukwujekwu decided to wait. If only he knew.
Lezianya was a doting and caring mother. All her life was devoted to her two-year old son, Ndubuisi. After suffering the scorn of a being childless woman for six years, God finally decided to bless her womb with a lovely boy. However after Ndubuisi, it seemed whatever prevented the babies from initially coming came back reinforced, and determined. She no longer had any issue. She then decided to take very good care of the only one she had. Even as a young wife, newly arrived from the village, Lezianya knew that she had to support her husband’s meager income as a nightwatchman. To support her husband, she became engaged in the hawking of pure water around major motor-parks in Onitsha. It was the most she could do. Her yard neighbor, Mama Blessing engages in hawking okpa but Lezianya could not do that. The stress of waking up very early to prepare the okpa, hawk round the whole of Onitsha, coming back late in the evening, going to the millers to grind the cowpea which would be used in preparing the next day’s okpa was telling strongly on Mama Blessing so Lezianya could not do that. Neither could she hawk akpu like Mama Uche. Preparing the akpu was a no-go area for a less strengthily endowed male, talkmore of a female like her. Mama Uche could do it because she was more of a man than a woman. Moreover, she needed to take care of her toddler son -whom she leaves in the care of Mama Uche when she goes hawking – since she couldn’t take him on her market trips and she needed to be with her husband since they were trying for another child. Thus pure water selling afforded her the time and energy to do just that. On this particular Sunday afternoon, a clear, cloudless afternoon, she was conducting her business around the Asaba Park area of Upper Iweka, at the other end of the flyover bridge. It was a very hot and clear day which is very good for drinking pure water. She had sold about four bags – a bag containing twenty sachets of pure water – of pure water. She was on her fifth bag and she had decided to call it a day after selling that one. Lezianya’s face beamed with joy as she pictured herself handing over to her husband her savings from the business to complement the house rent. When it came to counting beautiful women, Lezianya would be amongst those counted on the first five fingers. Tall as an Izaga masquerade with a well-proportioned body yellow and golden as the setting sun and as beautiful as the Adamma counterpart. If only she knew. If only someone could wound back the hands of time, Lezianyaechi would have seen tomorrow; because that was the meaning of her name: “look forward to tomorrow.”
Nnanna was a newspaper vendor. He had arrived the commercial city of Onitsha from his village after finally succumbing to the lures of urban life like many young men his age. But unlike many young men his age, most especially city-dwellers who blame their unmarriedness on the huge financial costs of executing marriages, Nnanna is married though he could not be classified as being rich. In fact he barely survives in his newspaper vendorship status. Nnanna had just recently done the ime-ego of Obioma, and the igba-nkwu ceremony was fixed for the next month. Thus he was married to Obioma, an innocent, beautiful young girl of about eighteen whom was brought from the village for him. In fact, his elder brother who brought Obioma to Onitsha had just returned back to the village. Nnanna, after seeing his brother off at the park decided to make some sales for the day before returning home to his new bride. Sales was very poor at the park where he had left Emeka, his brother, so Nnanna decided to cross over to Asaba Park to see if he could make more sales. The newspapers he was carrying all had the absorbing stories of the current fuel scarcity, so Nnanna thought they would make very good reads. Even though Nnanna barely finished Secondary School before joining his mates at Onitsha, he nevertheless could read and write a considerable amount of English words. He concluded in his native sense that the headlines ought to make good sales. Hence his decision to try the Asaba Park. The weather was agreeable for selling newpapers. Little did Nnanna know that on this particular Sunday afternoon he would breathe his last. Whoever told Nnanna that he would be a newspaper headline himself that Sunday must have been either a god or a demi-human. If only Nnanna knew.
Yusuf, the driver of the petrol tanker was in high spirits. With the current petrol scarcity in the country, his boss would sell the gas Yusuf was transporting to their filling station at double -maybe, even triple – the high price gas was currently being sold. The sun was high up in the sky. Other than the cackle from the tanker’s stereo, which was tuned to a Hausa station, and the occasional honking and zooming of a few cars, all was otherwise silent. Yusuf imagined the smile on his Oga’s face when he delivers his cargo of fuel. Since it was month-end, his salary will obviously be around the corner, also. But that thought could not be as pleasing as the thought of the bonus pay he was going to receive for this trip. They were rewarded extra pay for smartly reining in extra income into the company’s coffers. “Well done,Yusuf,” his Oga would say, handing him a fat pay envelope containing Yusuf’s salary with the added bonus. “You have earned yourself a pay rise. Take it, its yours.” The Oga would add. Yusuf looked across at his co-occupant in the trailer, his new conductor, Ahmed. Ahmed’s face was expressionless in sleep. Perhaps the boy – for Ahmed was barely an adolescent, the same age as Yusuf’s last wife, his third – was faking it because he didn’t want to converse with Yusuf, or maybe he was genuinely tired, for they had been driving the past six hours, even Yusuf himself was feeling sleepy. They were on their way to Asaba. Ahmed was unlike Nurudeen, his former conductor. Nurudeen could be called a man even though the boy was not yet twenty; with his broad chest, well-developed limbs, and stout frame. But it was good that Yusuf got rid of Nurudeen for the pay-rise he was going to receive would accompany only him home. Had it been Nurudeen, they would have shared it, and he was terribly afraid of Nurudeen because of the latter’s size which was twice his own. Nurudeen smoked indian hemp, too. The tanker was on high speed. It was a cloudless Sunday afternoon, and the Christians had gone to their church, so the road was free for Yusuf to speed as he liked. Had it been Lagos – a place filled with these or those laws -Yusuf knew the tanker would be parked at a remote corner of the highway. He could drive at night only in Lagos. The needle on the dashboard was pushing to 120. They were on their way to Asaba; they had just passed Zik’s roundabout on the Enugu-Onitsha expressway which then brought them on to the Onitsha-Asaba route of the expressway. A few minutes will bring them to the ever-busy, ever-noisy Upper Iweka. Yusuf stifled a long-repressed yawn. Because he was a devoted muslim, he never took those things other drivers take which keep them awake for long hours on the road. Nurudeen took such things, that was why he was always argumentative and quarrelsome coupled with the fact that little fiery sparks always emitted from his eyes. Yusuf snorted once, grunted twice and yawned again. He decided to increase the stereo’s volume so that it could keep him company since Ahmed had decided to go on a visit to dreamland. He thought of waking the lad up but on second thoughts, he decided to let the boy be. But the loud babble from the stereo worked. His eyelids were no longer heavy; they were only slightly weak. Ahmed was sleeping through it all. Out of nowhere, a loud, sudden boom! was heard. Ahmed jolted up, as though he was stung by an angry scorpion. Yusuf heard it too, despite the high cackle from the tanker’s stereo. Yusuf’s feet pushed the brake pedal but there was no response. He pushed again, harder this time, still no response. And harder again; yet no response. He frantically applied the hand-brake, still the tanker refused to respond. He finally tried the emergency brake, yet the tanker sped on with reckless abandon. It was then it dawned on him, them: the tanker’s brake system had failed! He looked terrifyingly at Ahmed. The latter’s face was contorted in horror. He was muttering a prayer, Yusuf could tell from the quivering of his lips, but the words refused to come out. He looked horrifically back at Yusuf: understanding passed between them at that moment. But each could not tell the other what each knew; that they were doomed. The air in the tanker suddenly became unbreathable. Yusuf did what a normal human wouldn’t do in an abnormal circumstance, he consistently pulled on the tanker’s horn, which was just overhead, so that people might be warned of oncoming danger and they might escape. Ahmed started shouting, at the top of his voice, which was not even loud: “Allah ya ki yaye!” But by then it was too late. The petrol tanker now somersaulted ferociously on the expressway. And on each completed revolution, it took whatever was on its path – cars, gala sellers, newspaper vendors, pure water hawkers – alongside it. By the time it finally stopped somersaulting – that was after Yusuf had earlier on decided to stop the tanker anywhere, no how – it had travelled a good 1km or so which brought it to the Asaba Park at Upper Iweka. It plunged into the park with thrusting force and immediately caught fire on impact. A handful or so are the things which can match the speed of burning petrol but nothing can match the speed of flaring gas. In the twinkling of an eye, Asaba Park became a desolate waste. Every building in the area was reduced to rubbles. Shops were razed down, such that nothing as small as a pin was left; cars were burnt down to the minutest nuts. If only Allah had ki yaye. Miraculously, Yusuf and Ahmed came out unhurt, untouched.
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon. A dry day with sunny skies. We were returning from church when we noticed the out-of-place massive fogs of black smoke darkening the skies as far up as the eyes could see. The smoke was bellowing forth with ferocious intensity. Brother Onyekwelu, my uncle, braked his car, pulled over along the paved gutter on the right side of the tarred road junction leading to Awka road from Nkpor after Zik’s round about, and wound down his side of the glass. I did same to mine. He beckoned to a commercial motorcyclist coming from the smoke’s direction after two had initially ignored his signallings. Thankfully, the bike-man stopped and came closer. My uncle asked him what was the source of the smoke. The Okada rider looked at my uncle as if my uncle fell down from space. Why asking him the source of the smoke when apparently a fire caused it? But on a later thought he made up his mind to say what the problem was maybe because the person he was addressing had never heard of the saying, “There is no smoke without fire.” You could trust Okada riders to tell you whatever current issue was in the news. In fact you could, of certain, trust them to be the very source of those news. “Nwanne m,” began the okadaman, feebly. He paused perhaps because he was wearied by whatever he was about to say next. “O kwa tanka petrolu na-agba oku n’Opi Iweka.” He added sorrowfully. (Literally: “My brother, a petrol tanker is on fire at Upper Iweka.”). Immediately, an unpleasant wave of desultory air descended upon us all in the car, because we knew too well what destruction a burning petrol tanker could do. We also knew very well how ghastly accidents at the Upper Iweka could be. We became sullenly silent. On a yearly basis, Upper Iweka claims nothing less than a hundred lives due to accidents alone, not to talk of the various unidentified cases of murder, victims of rituals and the rest. But Upper Iweka will always remain Upper Iweka; a place filled with the bad, the worse and the worst. Any time my uncle was driving by Upper Iweka, he made sure all the glasses were wound up and all the doors locked from inside. Upper Iweka was the sort of place where you could have your hand cut off by a blunt matchet just because you were wearing a nice wristwatch and passing there at night. My uncle thanked the bike-man for the information, started his car and drove off. We then went home in silence, feeling disturbed. On the way, Brother Onyekwelu tried lifting the moroseness in the car by telling us stories of how remarkably people have survived infernos he’s witnessed.
We arrived home, in silence and I went to my room to change my church dress, in silence. The picture of burning bodies kept coming to me. Since I couldn’t contain the anxiety any longer I quietly stole away from home and went to Upper Iweka to see things for myself, without waiting for lunch. When I arrived, I stood at a respectful thirty feet away from the inferno. The whole place was shrouded in a thick black smog. A large crowd, like the biblical swarm of locusts, had already gathered, all looking dejectedly at the scene. Someone from the crowd was saying something about calling some people called “Fire Service” who he said were skilled in putting out fires. Another person from the crowd promptly responded that they’ve been summoned, that they replied they were on the way. From where I stood, I could see burnt limbs scattered in different, odd directions across the road. Even at that distance, the bodies looked less than human; they looked more like artifacts or even artworks. Pools of burnt blood were also in large quantities. Everywhere about me was dense with choking soot; the air was toxic with the acrid smell of burning tires, and smoke; thick curls of dark stinging smoke. One could even taste smoke on one’s lips. The inferno had already wrecked considerable havoc. Yet it was still ragingly roaring to do more. The people around were all wearing doleful faces. Women were uncontrollably weeping out their hearts while they clutched their breasts. Some were jumping up only to land with a heavy thud on the hard ground. Men were sprawled on the ground, their heads bowed in despair and grief. Some men were visibly trembling the way leaves would tremble in an arrogant breeze. I couldn’t help but notice a further group which was clustered under a mango tree and they stared on, fascinated. From this fascinated clan, two women who had apparently earlier fainted were being resuscitated . The women were stripped down to their flimsy undergarments while three other women were fanning them vigorously with their wrappers. Where on earth was the so-called Fire Service? Since it was obvious the Fire Service were not coming, those people strong enough to go near were compassionately trying to salvage whatever they could save from the destruction. Far away, some residents were even bringing out all their properties; out of the fire’s path of destruction. I stood aghast at the sight of so much burnt bodies. At that instant, it was as if I was rooted to the ground where I stood. It was then I realized that I was looking at charred dead bodies, razed to their bone marrows, burnt beyond recognition.
On my way back, I mused upon lifes’ vanities. Such a short, worthless life. Here were people who had been alive just a few hours earlier, thinking of how to scrape a living through the country’s hard economy. So where are we really headed with all the grabbing, dragging? Then it occured to me: I could have been one of them. One of those bodies charred and blackened in death. While in secondary school, that was the very road I pass on my daily trek to my school, D.M.G.S., Onitsha; the upper Iweka via down-flyover road. But then I couldn’t have been there because I don’t go to school on Sundays. However hard I tried fixing myself there just couldn’t work. Could it have been fiction all along? Or was it that I had just experienced a cinematic flick? No, I confirmed after I pinched myself and felt myself. But even if it was a scripted performance, then it was badly scripted. And bad scripts receive no commendations – be it warm, hot or cold. I could pen this piece today just because I was not one of them. Them. They are now even regarded as them; not Lezianya, not Chukwujekwu nor Nnanna. They have become unidentifiable grostesque sights in the twinkling of an eye, banished to the deep, sometimes dark corner known as memory. Reliving such experience is not such a relished thought. I checked myself and found out I was still breathing. I am breathing just because I was not one of them.
And then I tried imagining what it would be like to be a bereaved relative -dependent, more accurately – of one of the burnt bodies. The utter desolation and despair. The sudden realization that a loved one would be seen no more; the writhing pains of hearing their voices no more; the heartaches and the searing heartbreaks of recalling cherished moments spent together. And yet I couldn’t. No doubt because I just wasn’t one of them. Perhaps they would have been consolable had it been that the deaths occured at old age, or maybe if it were just death due to natural circumstance, not this horrific, hazardous death. Indeed, there would be nothing compared to the stabbing, unconsolable pains of these dependents. The truth was that I just wasn’t one of them. I shuddered. Just because I wasn’t one of them.
Later it dawned on me that I was no better than any of them even if I wasn’t one of them. Did I ever thought I was any better than them? For them, there would be nothing more like anxiety over an unknown, perilious tomorrow; they’ve escaped the dangers of facing a stranger known as tomorrow. Neither would they be perturbed about the pettiness of stifes and competitions over nothing. There would be some who were more intelligent than I am. Some would definitely be richer than me; and, of course, there would those who were more blessed in physical features than I am. I even lack the skill to paint it accurately. Oh! What a folly this life is! In just a short breath, living humans became charred corpses. More sorberly, calling the incident tragic would amount to trying to put a name on it when obviously it defies every attempt at labelling. I wish it was all a dream. A dream could be accepted however horrible and nightmarish the dream because a dream was a dream.
Mercifully, the Fire Service came after some torturous wait for them. They then put out the fire with foamy water gushing from their long pipes. But by then, the fire had already done its damage. It had destroyed the lives of Lezianya, Chukwujekwu’s and Nnanna’s, and of course all the other unknown sixty-four bodies in the Onitsha petrol tanker inferno of Sunday 31st May, 2015. Also, the men of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) came, analysed the scene and put the blame solely on Yusuf. In their opinion, Yusuf shouldn’t had stopped the vehicle at a motor park – an ever-busy one as Asaba Park at that. He maybe should had stopped the tanker in a big, wide ditch beside the road, that way, there would be less casualties. Yusuf, according to reports, was arrested and detained in police custody, waiting for apparent prosecution for the deaths of fourty-nine souls lost in the inferno. That is to say, in other words, Yusuf was negligent, at the same time, reckless. Until then, May their souls find rest in the bosom of their Creator, and may God grant their families the fortitude to bear the losses.
While the tears were yet to dry from our eyes, we woke up to the sad news that a 911 trailer, another type of long vehicle as the petrol tanker, was involved in a fatal accident on the Onitsha-Owerri express road which is not too far from Upper Iweka. Three people died on the spot while eleven others were fatally wounded, and are receiving medical attention at an unknown hospital. This occured just three days after the accident of Sunday, 31st May, precisely on Wednesday, 3rd June. Indeed, these are sad times for the city of Onitsha – ndi Anambra; and, even, Nigeria, in general.
Now, unlike many commentators on the causes of accidents on our roads, I can’t specifically pinpoint one factor over the other to be the main source of accidents on our roads. But I can comfortably claim, without fear of equivocation, that accidents on our roads are majorly caused not by the negligent driving of motorists, nor by the misfortune of bad roads but by the sole miseries of misgovernance and nonchalance by our own law-makers and policy-makers. Time and Chance have proved that much. There can be no other clear case for progressive legislation and policy-making on traffic laws than the high rate of accident casualties on the Onitsha-Asaba expressway – most especially, the Upper Iweka end of the express.
A wait-till-it-happens approach to legislation is one which will obviously leave innocent citizens paying with their dear lives. With the lawmakers and law enforcers’ zeal and committment to duty, there would be no case of bad roads to cause accidents. Even if the accident had occured, where they are up and doing, there would be nothing like delay on the part of the Fire Service. At least the Fire Service might reduce the number of casualties and damage if they arrive promptly. There will, obviously, be no instance of overspeeding on the high ways due to inevitable presence of traffic regulators like the Road Safety, traffic police (Yellow Fever) and the likes. Most importantly, no innocent citizen would be right on the high way, in the path of vehicles, trying to eke out a meager living.
A clearer case of how bad misgovernance in traffic laws can be grim is this: surprisingly, after Sunday’s petrol tanker inferno, the Anambra state government promptly went into action, typical of Nigeria’s political talents at misdirection and sudden reactionary governance. The state government hastily made the order that heavy duty vehicles and other types of heavy vehicles should no longer drive on roads during the day but only at night. Lagos state, in faithful adherence to progressive legislation, already has such a law in place, and it is fully implemented to the letter. Now what stopped the Anambra legislation from earlier following suit? Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t blame my very good friend who calls our states Houses of Assemblies states Houses of Jamborees. With the exception of a few Assemblies which are invovled in legislative activism, many of our states Houses of Assemblies are filled only with slothful legislators. They are only concerned and engaged in the business of wasting more and more resources.
Of course, it is one thing to make laws and a different matter altogether to implement those laws made. And that is where the Executive arm, personified by the state governor, comes into play. That is why the order made by the Anambra state government would only be another one of the numerous other unenforced legislations dispersed over the state which provide another means of livelihood – no, extortionhood – for touts and vagabonds. For example, on my way back to my Benin base on Saturday, 6th June, another trailer was involved in an accident on the Onitsha-Asaba express, just after Onitsha Army Barracks. Now, instead of the touts who came there to help save whatever could be saved there, they were only busy looking for how the driver must pay a ransome – ‘fine,’ they called it. Instead of looking for how to save casualties, if any, from the accident scene. They were fully decked in the uniform of “Willie is working” emblazoned orange jackets; otherwise called “ndi oru Willie” in Onitsha parlance. Thank God that the accident was not as fatal and serious as the former two.
My personal grouse has always been with our own peculiar brand of governance and leadership – the failed one, that is. For one thing, a public office holder ought to have been a public servant, but the apparent lordly status of our public officials says the exact opposite of that principle, which leaves me with nothing but pains and disquietude. Another round of elections would soon be around the corner. Before the current crop of Anambra state government, the legislative and executive arms, take to newspapers and T.V screens to tell of their wonders-on-earth achievements while in office, and seeking re-election to office on that score, they should be made to understand that with a little common sense, something as demanding and expectatious as governance would be done with little or no damage to anybody’s reputation, and at no cost whatsoever. If anybody can sensitize them on this fact, such person should please do so before we all lose our dear lives.
May God continue saving us!
WRITTEN BY ARIKOR COLLINS.