As the year 2012 draws to an end today, one of the mysteries it is leaving behind in Nigeria is this one: why is misfortune suddenly bedevilling some of this country's most powerful people in the form of illness, death and accidents?
Last Friday, Kogi State Governor Idris Wada's convoy of cars was involved in a nasty accident. The governor suffered injuries in the thigh and needed urgent orthopaedic surgery. His police ADC died on the spot while his driver was badly injured. Wada's accident came less than two weeks after the helicopter crash in Bayelsa State which claimed the lives of Kaduna State Governor Ibrahim Yakowa, former National Security Adviser General Andrew Azazi and four others, including the two Navy pilots.
Seven weeks earlier, Taraba State Governor Danbaba Danfulani Suntai crashed in a plane he was piloting. Although everyone on board survived the crash, the governor's injuries appear to be serious because he has not yet made a public appearance after eight weeks. Even as these were happening, Governor Sullivan Chime of Enugu State has been out of sight for 110 days while his Cross River State counterpart Liyel Imoke is also undergoing treatment in a US hospital.
There were other VIP tragedies in Nigeria before these ones, the biggest in recent years being the sickness and death in office of President Umaru Yar'adua in 2010 and the earlier death in office of Governor Mamman Ali of Yobe State. Accidents involving VIP convoys are relatively common in Nigeria. Though the biggest guys often escape unscathed, Katsina's Governor Ibrahim Shema had a close shave years back when his jeep somersaulted and his ADC was killed in the crash. Senator Ibrahim Saminu Turaki was also injured in a car crash in 2008 and was treated abroad.
Now, many people will of course say that for every big shot that died or was injured in an accident, tens of thousands of lesser Nigerians had a similar tragedy. While the newspapers would devote but a few paragraphs to an accident in which 20 women and children drown on their way to the village market, whole acres of stories, pictures and commentaries would be devoted to an incident involving a VIP.
Political power does not make anyone immune from sickness, injury or death, but because there are relatively few people with political power compared to the multitudes that have no power, events involving them are rare enough to be interesting to the media. That so many such events happened within such a short time is a lot of fodder in the cannons of soothsayers, marabouts and doomsday prophets. There are many such men and women in Nigeria who claim the power to foretell misfortune, especially where it stalks the rich and powerful. They collaterally claim the power to ward it off; hence a stampede could be on right now to their houses and forest "offices".
Actually, the American political theorist Harold Lasswell wrote in his 1935 book that of the many societal goods in which the elite have a larger share than the masses, safety is not one of them. He cited 17th to 20th century figures to show that a Pope or a French Emperor were more likely to die from violence than the ordinary person. In Nigeria here, VIPs are likely to have a longer life span than the ordinary person because they are better protected and have access to better health services.
Yet, Nigerian VIPs clearly court danger due to excessive travel. I don't know if it is a similar case in other lands, but in Nigeria here, ministers, state governors and the president are almost always on the move. Maybe that is the first definition of power. Weekly meetings of cabinets; monthly meetings of Economic Council and Council of State; frequent meetings of regional and national Governors' Forum; regular and irregular meetings of party executive committees; endless travels for weddings, condolences, turbanning ceremonies, graduations, project inspections, visits to disaster sites and political gatherings. A wild card in a governor's schedule is to be "summoned" to Abuja. This should have ended with military rule, but it didn't, and governors regularly abandon scheduled events in their states to respond to urgent summons in Abuja. Many also seem to enjoy it; a wild and unpredictable schedule is a measure of power and importance. The question is, how many times does a man have to travel in order to qualify as an effective ruler?
Most of these travels are done on roads. Anyone who knows the state of roads in Nigeria in recent times will know that whoever travels very frequently on them is daring fate. Especially if you charge on them at break-neck speeds as the VIPs do. Nigerian leaders willingly make themselves slaves to protocol and security. You are supposed to be the big guy around, but protocol officers will step up and snatch away your right to make important decisions about your own safety and well-being. They will determine how long the convoy of cars must be, that it must travel at speeds like a bat out of hell with blaring sirens, with policemen brandishing whips in the lead vehicle and must push other motorists off the road.
These VIP convoys ignore the hapless traffic warden; they charge past traffic lights and they do not stop at military check points. Even a convoy of cars that has dropped the governor at the airport will still charge on the road at the same devilish rate, while a bank bullion van carrying the bank manager's grocery will still charge at the same rate. Once they are involved in an accident, it is guaranteed to be a multiple one.
A common thread to Nigerian VIP sickness and accident is foreign medical treatment. From General Babangida's radiculopathy to President Yar'adua's pericarditis and all the governorship accidents in between, top guys always went abroad for treatment. One cannot help but wonder why a group of men who between them control at least N10 trillion a year in public funds still believe that it is not possible to build and maintain one good hospital in Nigeria. At least, by agreeing to be treated at the Cedar Crest Hospital in Abuja after his accident, Governor Wada has shown a rare confidence in Nigerian hospitals. I personally share his confidence in Cedar Crest Hospital because in 2010, when I was still limping four months after an accident, I went there to see Dr Ogedegbe. After reviewing an X-ray of my leg, he said nothing needed to be done and that the limp will soon go away. Within two weeks it did; if I had listened to many people, I would have been on a plane to India.
Why is it impossible to build a few hospitals in Nigeria and spare VIPs the pain of having to go abroad for every limp, bruise and scratch? Maybe no one told the big guys here what a top American surgeon told me at the Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. We were on a visit to their Trauma Resuscitation Centre. It was an awesome sight; a helicopter with a doctor on board took off from the hospital's roof to bring in a patient from an accident scene. Before she arrived, 15 surgeons were "paged" and they all rushed to the theatre. We watched through a glass window as they went to work on the patient, each surgeon going for something. When they finished and wheeled her into intensive care, the chief surgeon asked us to check our watches. He had earlier asked us to time how much time it took from the time someone phoned to report the accident.
It took 50 minutes from the time of the accident to the minute the patient was wheeled out of the theatre. The chief surgeon then said, "That's the Golden Hour rule. Survival chances are greatly enhanced when a trauma patient is out of the theatre within the first hour." Now, imagine if you arrive in Germany three full days after the accident. You are talking of the brass hour.