In the last two weeks the attention of the entire world has been focused on the storms in the Americas, starting from the dire predictions that preceded the coming of Hurricane Harvey to its touchdown and the rise of Hurricane Irma and its thunderous journey into the Caribbean. Clear pictures conveying the depth of tragedy from Texas and other towns and cities on the storm-path dominated our cable TV screens. Even our local stations copied footage from the cable networks. I kept musing: where are our TV Stations? Where is NTA? Where is Africa Independent Television (AIT)? I shall return to the AIT question presently. President Donald Trump's two visits to the disaster zone were so reported that we felt that we were part of the experience, of his blunders and his return to redeem his image of aloofness. Not so with our Sierra Leone and Makurdi tragedies!
The tragedy that befell our neighbours and brothers-in-human-suffering, Sierra Leone, was largely treated like the problem of a poor relation. There was no pre-disaster warning as far as I know. Some actually said that the affected houses should not have been built in the areas where the poor people lived. They lived poor, died poor and were buried poor. Emergency services and mortuaries were over-stretched. Even grave diggers had a hard time digging graves. The task of identifying the dead and giving them a decent burial started almost immediately. In all, about four hundred bodies were buried. Entire families were wiped out. It was surely a deep human tragedy for our sister nation, for all of us, for all humanity. Six hundred persons remained unaccounted for at the end of the tragedy. The fear of disease-spread was palpable. Cholera and other water-borne diseases were a real threat. In the end the poor would be forgotten. The already-scant media attention would move to something else. And the tragedy of living in the margins would continue.
Ironically, the tragedy that is geographically closer, the flooding in Benue State was looked at with less than half an eye. It was under-reported in the local media, that is, it did not get the type of coverage that Harvey got from CNN. Social media saved the day with frightening pictures of water-submerged houses. Government response was, as usual, abysmal. There was no President, no Vice President to condole, and no federal official to condole with the people at the crucial time. It was not a task for which a local government was prepared. It was a task for the State and Federal Governments. Perhaps the local stories did not excite us because we have always associated our people with suffering and death. As for the victims token acts of sympathy satisfied them. They do not expect much from government. According to Ayi Kwei Armah, 'the poor are rich in patience.' So, the tragedy did not deserve wide reporting, just as we never really get to see the pictures of the Boko Haram atrocities in mainstream media. Are reporters from the main newspapers and television stations stationed in North East Nigeria? The Nyanya bombing was well covered; was it because Abuja was involved?
The BBC did well to bring the Sierra Leone crisis that cost about a thousand human lives to world attention. Former President Obasanjo and Mr. Tony Elumelu made the headlines during their visit to Freetown with the latter generously donating a whooping five hundred thousand dollars to the victims. Some newspapers splashed the pictures on their front pages. But the passion and emotion which ought to follow was missing. May be I read the stories and pictures upside down!
The reportage of the anger and fury of offended nature showed the power of the media. It also showed our penchant for starting charity abroad. We were more interested in Harvey and Irma than in the flood of Benue and the mudslide in Sierra Leone. Channels Television and TVC did a fairly good job bringing home some pictures. But the Benue flood did not get the 24 hour media attention that it deserved. Sadly, these were our fellow citizens and the media treated the tragedy like just another event. Of course we also blamed citizens for constructing on water channels and circumventing building rules.
I remember how we blamed people when the Lekki-Victoria Island-Ajah areas of Lagos were flooded after the heavy rain about two months ago. Certainly, the reckless spread of buildings in those areas is part of the problem. But with our open eyes we are developing Eko Atlantic City by land reclamation from the sea. The danger which this poses for the future does not need any rocket science. With millions of hectares of land available why do we need to attack the Atlantic the way we are doing in spite of the waiting-tragedy that Banana Island poses?
The world is faced the climate change predicament. Although some powerful forces in America would rather live in denial, climate change is real. As time goes on, no matter how well we respect building rules, flooding and storms will get fiercer and fiercer. Earth has nothing to lose. We humans have everything to lose. The big question is how ready are we for the future?
On the lighter side, the names of the storms are interesting. At a point we thought that the names were mainly feminine, like Katrina and Patricia! Alas, we have Harvey and Jose. Whereas we thought that the floods were named for those discovered the storm we have been assured that each year names are assigned alphabetically. The storms with terrible consequences are never repeated. Further on the lighthearted side some fellows opined that the severity of the storms is the result of homosexuality in America. I find no correlation. It just shows how different interpretations can be given to a single experience.
The name AIT gives that TV Station a Pan African image and orientation. The indigenous names borne by all on-air staff attest to this. When will AIT start reporting Africa to the world and reporting the world to Africa, from the lens of African reporters? When shall we start telling our own stories through the media? Does AIT need help? As long as we wait for foreign TV and radio Stations to tell our stories to the world we will never make real progress.
It is possible that our stations are fully preoccupied with the permanent storm of official poor governance that is our lot than the temporary visitor that is flooding. May be! But even the American TV Channels removed total focus from the political disaster that is Mr. Trump while Harvey and Irma lasted. I sympathise with our brothers in Makurdi and its environs. I call on the Federal Government to massively intervene in the lives of citizens whose lives have been shattered by the angry forces of nature. That would be the only way to make up for lack of government presence while the Benue floods lasted.