Frankly, I used to think I was a strong-hearted person until Monday, June 4, when I began sieving through tons of photographs of the Dana plane crash of Sunday, June 3, 2012 on the Internet. I didn’t know when tears began to stream from my eyes. Although the Dana air crash was not the first air travel disaster in Nigeria, I was particularly struck at the way and manner over 160 human beings, bustling with vitality, lost their lives. Photographs posted on the Internet by family and friends of the victims revealed the faces of ambitious and energetic men, women and children, people who had a world of bright future ahead of them. Looking at these images sent cold shivers down my spine. I didn’t know what to think or say. As I sobbed, I tried to pray for the dead but I couldn’t say a word. I have never felt this way before. I then remembered what the German philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, once said: “Wherefore we cannot speak, we must be silent.”
In truth, like Wittgenstein wrote, there are times when words become incapacitated in expressing the depth of human feelings. The Dana crash was one of those moments when I stood before an unspeakable experience in silence and marvelled in awe at the profundity and futility of human life. Life is just a fleeting reality. This is what the writer of the Book of Qoheleth was reflecting upon some 2200 years ago when he says: “Vanity of vanities, the preacher says, vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit can we show for our toil, toiling under the sun? A generation goes, a generation comes… The sun rises, the sun sets… All things are wearisome. No one can say that eyes have not had enough of seeing, ears their fill of hearing” (Eccl. 1:2-8).
The author of Ecclesiastes simply observes human life around and draws the logical conclusion: ‘This is life under the sun, life as we see it.’ The author imposes no preconceptions. He finds life on earth short, futile, meaningless, bleak and empty; and concludes that it has no point. He cannot understand the purpose of it all. Nature and history go round in concentric circles. There is nothing new. Add up the profit and loss of human life and you are better off dead. Life is unfair, work is pointless, pleasure fails to satisfy, good living and wise thinking are rendered futile by death. Having observed these things by means of his inquiring mind, Qoheleth makes a sorrowful catalogue of sundry social phenomena. Of these social phenomena, he is stricken more by fact that the same fate – death – comes to the wise man and the fool (2:14) and then sets to question the meaning of life. In the thoughts of Qoheleth, merit does not yield happiness for it is often tried by suffering. Riches and pleasures do not avail. Existence is monotonous, enjoyment fleeting and pain; darkness quickly follows. Life, then, is an enigma beyond human ability to solve.
This idea of life’s futility brings to mind the experience of the Seventeenth Century Italian artist Salvator Rosa. Rosa painted perhaps the most moving of all memento mori, entitled simply L’umana fragilità (‘Human Frailty’). It was inspired by the plague that had swept his native Naples in 1655, claiming the life of his infant son, Rosalvo, as well as carrying off his brother, his sister, her husband and five of their children. Grinning hideously, the angel of death looms from the darkness behind Rosa’s wife to claim their son, even as he makes his first attempt to write. The mood of the heartbroken artist is immortally summed up in just eight Latin words inscribed on canvas: conceptio culpa/ nasci pena/ labor vita/ necesse mori (‘Conception is sin, birth is pain, life is toil, death is inevitable’). “What is man that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you care for him? Human life, a mere puff of wind, days as fleeting as a shadow,” the ancient Psalmist asked (Ps 144:3-4). He is here today, tomorrow he is gone. As the Psalmist further says, “Ordinary people are a mere puff of wind, important people a delusion; set both on the scales together, and they are lighter than a puff of air” (Ps 62:9). These thoughts from the Scripture teach us something fundamentally important, that human life is frail. We are like grass which springs up and blossoms in the morning, but by evening withers and fades. Our lives are simply like a sigh (Ps 90:9).
Right now, I feel that perhaps like the three friends of Job (Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar) who came to visit their sick friend and found the burden of his sickness beyond human comprehension, we too as Nigerians find ourselves in a similar situation. For as the Book of Job tells us: “Looking at him from a distance, they could not recognize him; they wept aloud and tore their robes and threw dust over their heads; they sat there on the ground beside him for seven days and seven nights. To Job they never spoke a word, for they saw how much he was suffering” (Job 2:12-13). For us Nigerians, this is a critical time in our history when it seems nearly impossible for us to make sense of the kind of things happening to us. However, even if we cannot fully comprehend the state we are in, our faith traditions compel us, at least for the moment, to try and see God’s hand in all of the things happening to us. Perhaps, if we listen attentively and are granted the gift of insight, we might be able to understand what God is saying to us through the painful experiences of the moment.
The tragedy in Iju–Ishaga during the afternoon hours of Sunday, June 3, 2012 has received more than national attention. The systematic liquidation of over 160 human lives in the Dana Air crash is a misfortune that forces us to think deeply about where our nation is headed. I am convinced that if that air disaster happened in a place like America or Britain, every activity would literally be on a standstill until serious efforts are made to unravel the probable causes of the catastrophe as to forestall a recurrence in the future. But not in Nigeria. In Nigeria, we have become so used to the wanton loss of human lives such that the Dana tragedy in the eyes of many people happens to be “one of those things.” We will talk and mourn for a few days and get on with life as usual. This attitude has become sickening because it appears to me that we have acutely lost our sense of moral sensitivity. We have become accustomed to scenes of bloodshed and death. Death and disaster claiming multiple human lives no longer seem to make any meaning to us, as a result of which we have become stupidly resilient for the wrong reasons, claiming to be people who rise above those conditions and circumstances that cripple other people. But the truth, like Dele Giwa once said, is that “Nigerians are unshockable.” 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?
Over 160 people died for no apparent reason. I personally do not know any of the victims, but I know friends whose friends were sucked in the vortex of that tragic incident. This kind of happening forces upon one the burden of critical thinking. How did Nigeria get here? How did our collective will allow so many to die such a senseless and callous kind of death? If you are reading this you know the drill. Let’s face the truth. The air disaster of June 3, 2012 was preventable. It was no mere accident. The government was negligent in regulating the airline industry. The fatal incident has its roots in a rotten and corrupt society with weak state institutions incapable or unwilling to enforce the rules and regulations governing air transportation. It is the pernicious system of corrupt and sharp practices which makes it attractive and possible for people to circumvent legislations and get away with it that has put us in this kind of situation where human lives worth less than the life
of a chicken. If not, how come a flying coffin was still allowed a convenient niche on Nigeria’s airspace?
At least, emerging information has it that Dana Air possesses many faulty planes flying around the country even after its management was cautioned by a state governor and its own employees. But Dana Air officials cared less about human lives and placed more premiums on the craze for money, giving allegiance to nothing more than the blindness of profiteering. This would not have been the case if the regulatory agencies of government were doing their work. But I’m not surprised because that is precisely how it is in a decadent and rotten society where people with more financial power are allowed to seal the mouth of the law and bypass regulations which seek to impose stringent measures on their activities. Today’s Nigeria has become notorious for lawlessness and this lawless situation is leading almost everybody to the grave. We now find ourselves in a society that claims to stand on respect for the rule of law, but which in reality is something closer to the Hobbesian state of nature where life was solitary and poor, brutish, nasty and short. The painful aspect is that in Nigeria, life is not only brutish, nasty and short. We are all under the burden of the death penalty. If you do not die out of poverty, you will die from the curse of bad roads. If you are lucky to escape these, you have the risk of air travel to face. You scale through all these, don’t forget that terrorists and armed robbers are still around.
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. The leaders of our governments will not be accountable out of the goodness of their heart, but they will have to be if we the people demand for it. As Michela Wrong, the renowned British journalist said during her speech on the occasion of Nigeria’s 51st Independence anniversary, “Societies only make substantive change when their members insist upon it. You have to want it.” Therefore, drawing from our experiences, we must note that God has a message for us in the midst of our troubled situation. First, these times call for prayer. Second, they demand our solidarity. Third, as citizens we must stay together and try to work out lasting solutions to our problems. Writing about the Dana Air crash on YNaija a few days ago, Temie Giwa distilled what she thought was the pressing lessons for us as Nigerians. In her opinion, we can make something out of the tragedy if we make the tragedy count. This is what she means: “It is our collective duty to channel this anger and rage into actions that will not only save our lives when the time comes but that will be a monument to the lives lost. Our task here is to build a monument to the Dana 200, a monument of good governance, inspired citizenry and bold actions. It is our collective responsibility to make sure those who are dead become the heroes they never meant to become. We have got to use this tragedy well.”
She continues: “When tragedy happens, I believe that three rapid steps must be taken immediately to make sure it means something to those who died to create this opportunity. Tragedy is an opportunity to do better, to create better systems and a better world. It is a chance to be the very best of us, to try harder and make it worth the lives lost. 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. All of these steps must happen otherwise it means nothing. History tells us that Nigeria is good at finding out what happened, punishes shoddily and then everyone moves on. I must stress that all three of these steps must happen following each other for it all to mean anything. To make this worth the price we as a country have collectively paid.”
I have decided to offer a good abbreviation for Temie Giwa’s three steps to resolving our present crisis. I call it the RPR solution. RPR is an abbreviation for Report, Punishment, Reform. In terms of Report, she says: “There is an agency whose job is to find out exactly what happened with this crash… the Accident Investigative Bureau. I call you to send emails, and make phone calls to this parastatal for the report of the accident. If just 1% of Nigerians can send an email and make a phone call, this might force the hand of the authorities to make public exactly what happened on Sunday evening.” In terms of Punishment, she says: “After the report has been released, it is our collective responsibility to make sure that the people who are responsible for the accident are prosecuted for criminal negligence or at the very least lose their jobs. This will require that we pay attention all through the process.” In terms of reform, she says: “The Aviation sector needs desperate reform. Fortunately there is no need for new laws if current regulations are rigorously implemented. Businessmen do not particularly like to be regulated and often government officials want to please these businessmen but regulations protect the health of the citizens and we must put the pressure on the regulators to do their jobs.” This tragedy is therefore a good opportunity for us to do better, to learn to create better systems and conditions that ensure that such tragedies do not happen again.
Memory is important because it is a means of strengthening our resolve to move forward. One thing that is most common with Nigerians is that we are a forgetful people so impervious to the lessons of our own troubled history. In the face of every single national challenge, we have often seemed bewildered, perplexed and clueless. If not, how come we did not learn anything from previous crashes involving ADC, Sosoliso and Bellview Airlines? Wole Soyinka captures these sentiments when he says that: “We are a nation of short memories. The season changes. Rain falls and blood is replaced by mud on our walls, our streets and – alas – even on our minds. Mud settles on the eyelids of memory.” Indeed, as he concludes, “Nothing lasts in this nation, nothing.” If we are to surmount our present challenge, the burden of history and memory is very important. It is only possible for a people to move forward by going back. This sounds ironical, but it means that we have to come together to understand our past, to talk about it and to learn from our experiences, so that we do not fall into the same pit again. This point has being reinforced by the former German President, Richard von Weizsacker, who once said: “Whoever closes his eyes to the past becomes blind to the present. Whoever does not wish to remember inhumanity becomes susceptible to the dangers of a new infection.”
Without our past, we have no present and no future. 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 Nigeria. It is on this note that I choose to end by appropriating the words of Pope John Paul II in his address to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in 1995. He said: “Humanity has a duty to learn from the past so that, never again, will there arise a set of factors capable of triggering s