It says so much about our country that the government as well as our citizens appear oblivious to the monumental human misery in Morocco and Libya. Given the magnitude of the catastrophe in the two North African countries, the federal government should have offered relief measures aside coordinating efforts at the level of individual citizens and corporate bodies to render support to the beleaguered people. Unfortunately, I would not be surprised if Nigerians are too consumed by their own existential challenges to be aware of what happened in Morocco and Libya. For such people, I will attempt to break it down.
It all started the evening of 8th September when a powerful earthquake struck a densely populated area near the Moroccan Atlas Mountains. The earthquake struck at 11 PM local time, which explains why in some cases, entire families were wiped out. With communities in the foothills completely flattened by massive boulders loosened from the mountains, no fewer than 2,946 people have reportedly died while the number of injured has been put at 5,674. Since when it rains on the continent, it pours, less than 48 hours after the tragedy in Morocco, ‘Storm Daniel’–regarded as the deadliest and costliest Mediterranean tropical-like cyclone ever recorded in history–landed in Libya after wreaking enormous damage in Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Two dams in the Libyan coastal city of Derna were destroyed, turning streets into rivers, as thousands of desperate people were swept away with their houses and other possessions into the Mediterranean Sea. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) last weekend put the figures of death at 11,300 with 10,100 people declared missing.
I have read numerous heartrending stories describing these two African tragedies, some of which are almost of apocalyptic proportions. In the Morocco earthquake, for instance, Tayeb ait Ighenbaz was faced with the kind of choice nobody should pray to make: With his parents and his 11-year-old son trapped in the rubble, he had a few seconds to decide who needed his attention first. At the end, he saved his son but lost his parents. “It all happened so quickly. When the earthquake happened, we all ran to the door. My dad was sleeping, and I shouted at my mum to come, but she stayed behind to wait for him,” he lamented while recalling how he had to dig quickly to pull his son out of the rubble. “I couldn’t help my parents because the wall fell over half of their bodies. I saw my parents dying,” Tayeb reportedly said with tears.
Meanwhile, the situation in Libya has been described as “disastrous beyond comprehension” by an official of the World Health Organization (WHO). When the two dams collapsed in Derna, according to him, “the water was released like an atomic bomb.” In a note of anguish, the Libyan Minister of Civil Aviation, Hichem Chkiouat, lamented on Monday that many of the corpses have remained where the water left them. “Bodies are lying everywhere – in the sea, in the valleys, under the buildings. I am not exaggerating when I say that 25% of the city has disappeared,” Chkiouat told Reuters. A female local blogger, Sondos Shuwaib, recounted her horrifying experience. “There were corpses next to me, and corpses above me, and corpses beneath me…I am not able to comprehend what happened,” she wrote. “Sometimes I thank God for my survival – but when I remember my family…I wish I had died with them.”
The account of Husam Abdelgawi, a 31-year-old accountant, who spoke to the BBC, is equally gripping. Woken up by a barking dog, he was confronted with what he described as a “ghastly, unimaginable scene, worse than death itself to witness”. When water flooded his house, Husam and his younger brother were lucky to float on power cables still tethered to their poles which helped to ferry them towards a nearby building they entered through a third-floor window. It was from there they made it to a fifth-floor rooftop. “The bodies of women and children were floating past us. Cars and entire houses were caught up in the current. Some of the bodies were swept by the water into our house,” Husam recalled.
With heavy rainfall accompanied by storms increasingly becoming a problem in a desert country, we need to learn the lessons of Climate Change we are yet to imbibe in Nigeria. But those are issues for another day. Video reports of what happened in Morocco and Libya resemble scenes from horror movies. But while people all over the world are showing solidarity to the traumatised survivors in both countries, Nigerians are moving on as if nothing happened. It is true we have our own challenges, but I have also heard that the worst kind of poverty is when you believe you have nothing to give, especially to others in distress. As it is with individuals, so it is for nations.
With almost a million people affected by the tragedy in a country of 6.88 million people, where there are already more than 300,000 displaced people because of war, Libya faces a very difficult future. Morocco is also challenged but it has enough capacity to pull through. Climate change, according to President Bola Tinubu in his maiden address at the United Nations General Assembly, “severely impacts Nigeria and Africa. Northern Nigeria is hounded by desert encroachment on once arable land. Our south is pounded by the rising tide of coastal flooding and erosion. In the middle, the rainy season brings floods that kill and displace multitudes.” But he also did not forget to highlight the tragedies in Morocco and Libya, with a pledge: “The Nigerian people are with you.”
The president must match his word with action. The federal government, corporate bodies, and our citizens must rise for the people of Morocco and Libya in the spirit of African brotherhood and human solidarity.
Endorsing The ‘Dave Umahi Protocol’
Concrete roads require significant technical expertise, whereas laying bitumen roads is simple. This has resulted in all manner of people with political connections, including certified crooks, being in the business of road construction in Nigeria. It is therefore little wonder that many of the expensive asphalt roads across the country hardly survive beyond two rainy seasons before they collapse. Apparently determined to change that narrative, the Minister of Works, Mr Dave Umari has decided to go for concrete roads. And not surprisingly, the contractors are fighting back.
I have never met Umahi, but it is difficult to fault his argument that concrete roads are better suited for our environment. “We’ll redesign our roads in reinforced concrete pavement…I know that there are a lot of fights from contractors, but I am David, I am known for fight, and I will fight this because I have reported myself to Mr President” said Umahi last weekend at the State House. The former Governor of Ebonyi may be a David but if he imagines the only Goliath before him are the contractors then, he needs to be schooled in Abujapolitics. The real fightback will come from the National Assembly where budgets are usually cannibalized to take care of ‘constituency projects’, including perishable roads without designs–the kind of thing that Umahi wants to fight.
Arguments for concrete roads are quite compelling and I will rehash some that I once highlighted on this page. One, concrete roads have a long lifespan of between 25 and 50 years and do not require frequent repair or patching, unlike asphalt roads. Two, concrete roads can support trucks and articulated vehicles carrying heavy loads with less impact than asphalt roads. Three, concrete roads do not get damaged by such things as leaking oil from vehicles or by weather conditions like excess rain or extreme heat. Four, it is now empirically proven that a vehicle, when run over a concrete road, consumes between 15 to 20 percent less fuel than when on asphalt roads. Five, concrete roads are more environmentally friendly since asphalt (bitumen) produces highly polluting gases at the time of melting. Six, asphalt (bitumen which we import) is produced from petroleum, a wasting asset, whereas concrete (cement) is produced from limestone that is available in abundance, especially in Nigeria.
However, a major concern about concrete roads is that of safety. In rainy seasons, vehicles tend to slide on concrete roads, making them easily susceptible to accidents. In our kind of environment where motorists hardly obey traffic rules, that is a serious issue that we should not gloss over. There is also the challenge of maintenance. Since repairing concrete roads means replacing damaged slabs, that may also make its maintenance cost higher than that of asphalt. Notwithstanding, my vote is for concrete roads.
We can learn from India, which has the second largest network of the roads in the world (6,331,791 kilometres as of December 2022) after the United States. In India, the first concrete road was built in 1914 and because it remained pot-hole free for about 60 years, that has continued to encourage the trend in the country. If insanity means doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different outcomes, there is no reason we should continue to build asphalt roads that are often washed away after heavy rainfall when we have the option to build concrete roads that are more durable.
On Monday, I received a mail from a reader who wrote “with a sense of despair on how far things have degenerated in our dear country”, as he related his experience last Sunday on the road from Lagos to Auchi, Edo State. He left Lagos at 9am but ‘was fortunate’ to have arrived his destination by 8.30pm (11 and a half hour for a journey that ordinarily should take no more than four hours) whereas many other travellers spent the night on the road. Around Sabongida-Ora, according to him, two trailers got stuck and blocked the road. “Communities along the road had erected barriers, but the tragedy of Nigeria was such that it became an avenue for youths to collect money from truck drivers before opening the barriers. Now this was where my luck came. I saw people going and coming by Okada and immediately hired one to take me to Afuze, a distance of about five kilometres”. He eventually continued his journey from Afuze to Auchi on another stretch of terrible road. “Next day I left for Abuja and that road is another sad story of where we are as a country.”
Why must we continue to waste money on building seasonal roads? Yes, I am following the debate. The contractors are protesting because they consider what I now describe as ‘The Umahi Protocol’ abrupt. I believe the Minister should dialogue with them on a transition plan. I also believe there should be a national policy on this issue. Unlike concrete roads that require specifications, asphalt roads, especially the kind being built by most contractors in Nigeria, are easily washed away after a heavy downpour. That explains why as many as five contracts can be awarded on the same road within a decade. According to Umahi, the president has already bought into his idea to change from asphalt to concrete for road construction in Nigeria. He can also count on my support.