Benue Flood NEMA's slow response to crisis is a national disaster

The emergency agency's handling of the crisis has attracted some well-deserved criticism.

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Flooded Benue play

Flooded Benue

(Twitter/@heritagebankltd)
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I don't want to flog a dead horse here, but Nigeria is a really dysfunctional country.

If you've been deceived into forgetting that fact, the ongoing flood crisis in Benue state has once again exposed the country for what it is at its core: an inefficient, carelessly assembled machine.

After days of torrential rainfall, communities in and around Makurdi started to fill up with water that soon made hundreds of homes uninhabitable for helpless families.

The first reports of the flood emerged on Monday, August 28, with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reporting that it had displaced 15,000 people from their homes.

Initial reaction, even from the media, was timid as not much was forthcoming about the flood until state governor Samuel Ortom was pictured visiting one of the flooded areas.

Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom arrives a flooded area play

Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom arrives a flooded area

(The Nation)

 

On Wednesday, August 30, Governor Ortom announced that the empty International Market and the Presidential Building at Agan Toll Gate would be open as camps for displaced victims to seek shelter while the flood receded.

The immense consequence of the crisis didn't start to properly register until the Benue State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) released a comprehensive damage analysis report, also on Wednesday, revealing that a staggering 110,000 people across 24 communities in Makurdi and its environs had been affected by the flood.

While thousands of distraught families lamented in anguish about the unfortunate erosion of their homes and livelihoods, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) remained notably silent.

At this point, benevolent individuals and civil society organisations had started relief campaigns to ease the pain of the victims of the flood.

Random individuals, with little to no personal ties to victims, and non-governmental organisations pooled together resources to soften the blow on displaced people while government institutions engaged in a competition of who could do the least amount of work.

While Governor Ortom promised to provide minimum comfort to all displaced victims while in camps, that comfort was not forthcoming in the early days as there were no government officials present to attend to them until Friday, September 1, according to Collins Uma, an unaffected Makurdi resident helping out with the victims.

By Thursday, August 31, social media buzz around the crisis had grown deafening as Nigerians online boiled with outrage at every sickening picture of the devastating flood that made its way to the internet.

Benue flood reportedly displaced a sum of 110,000 persons. play

Benue flood reportedly displaced a sum of 110,000 persons.

(Leadership News)

It can't be known for certain if this played a crucial part in what followed, but President Muhammadu Buhari finally addressed the crisis on Thursday in a press statement released through his spokesperson, Garba Shehu.

In the statement, the president went through the motions of expressing his sadness at the situation and offering the people of Benue his good wishes.

Crucially, he also announced that he had directed NEMA to coordinate relief efforts to manage the situation.

On Friday, September 1, five days after news first broke about the flood, NEMA announced that it was heeding the president's call, and started sending relief teams to the ravaged state.

It's important to see what the problem is here. Or, depending on how you see it, problems.

Not only did it take the president four days to directly react to a calamitous crisis in his backyard, he decided to do it in an impersonal manner, through a media drone.

However, this should hardly register as a surprise because it is true to the president's cold, aloof style of governing.

NEMA, on the other hand, has been culpable in failing to promptly and effectively carry out the one job that it primarily exists for: to manage an emergency properly.

Five days is too long a time to summon decent work ethic for a disaster that only needs a minute to get out of hand, but NEMA largely sat on its hands for that long until President Buhari's executive directive.

Flooded Benue play

Flooded Benue

(Collins Uma)

 

Before the agency could pull its might and flex its wealth of resources on the wet grounds in Benue state, everyday Nigerians had risen up to the occasion with an admirable sense of urgency that the institution lacked.

According to Uma who spoke to Pulse on Monday, before NEMA's intervention, many victims were stranded with nowhere to go.

He said, "People were just sleeping wherever they could find shelter, many of them went back to their houses at night trying to get some elevated platforms to sleep on because their mattresses were soaked.

"I know of some families with children; they just go back, get some tables and put the children on the tables to sleep. In the morning, they find a way to salvage as many properties as they could until the camps were opened."

According to Sueddie Agema who works with Gender and Environmental Risk Reduction Initiative in Makurdi, authorities dragged their feet where ordinary Nigerians admirably rose to the occasion.

He said, "SEMA was somewhat slow in its reaction. It was the civil society organisations, Benue NGO Network (BENGONET), NGOs like Red Cross, UNHCR and private individuals that jumped to the rescue. By the time, SEMA came through, a lot was happening already."

Despite the unfortunate delay with NEMA's intervention, there was a general sigh of relief when trucks drove into the state bearing the gifts of relief materials; but their arrival also came with its own attendant can of worms.

Due to unexplained reasons, the camp at the Presidential Building was never opened, making the one at International Market the only official camp that was operational.

Uma told Pulse that there were reports that indicated this was due to a dispute over ownership of the property. Sueddie said the unofficial reason that was making the rounds indicated that the contractor in charge didn't grant access to its premises.

When NEMA rolled into Benue on September 1, the agency's Director General, Mustapha Maihaja, showed up at the International Market camp for all of five minutes before he disappeared again, according to Uma.

Mustapha-Maihaja, Director General of NEMA. play

Mustapha-Maihaja, Director General of NEMA.

(NTA)

 

This was before he reportedly refused to answer the barrage of questions lobbed at him about the agency's efforts in managing the crisis and its teeming horde of scarred victims.

According to Uma, the DG said they should have been grateful for his presence especially since he had to abandon the Sallah celebrations to be there on a public holiday.

This followed several other reports making the rounds online alleging that officials were deflecting on attending to potential contributors and queries from the public simply because it was a holiday period.

This troubling development coalesced with reports that relief materials would not be distributed until victims had been properly registered in the camp.

Registration commenced on Friday through to Saturday, with victims still waiting on materials that the agency had announced to the public would be of immense help to displaced people.

Throughout this period, individuals and NGOs still largely carried the burden of catering to the victims, feeding and clothing them.

Uma said, "Between Friday and Saturday, registration was ongoing and they said they were not going to share anything until registration was over. Until Sunday, people were still cooking food and bringing to the camp."

Displaced victims of the Benue flood being registered at a shelter in Makurdi play

Displaced victims of the Benue flood being registered at a shelter in Makurdi

(Twitter/@nemanigeria)

 

After distribution of relief materials like rice and mosquito nets finally started getting round to victims, camp officials bizarrely placed a ban on cooked food making its way into the camp.

This was troublesome because crucial cooking materials like stoves had not yet been provided by any government agency at this point.

Uma said the ban was overturned after many people in the camp were hungry with the officials unable to provide an alternative mode of feeding them.

After close to 4000 people were registered at the camp that Uma describes as "just an open market with stalls", officials started turning people back, saying registration had closed and they wouldn't take on more people.

This started on Sunday and was still in effect on Tuesday when Uma spoke to Pulse again.

According to him, "There was rainfall last night (Sunday) and some people who were sleeping in some makeshift structures decided to run to the camp for shelter, but they were not allowed entry because registration had closed.

"They're not accepting new people who couldn't register on the days that the registration was open."

Again, individuals and civil society organisations came to the rescue to salvage the situation.

Pulse contacted the manager of the International Market camp, James Iorhuna, on Tuesday, but he strongly declined to make any comment on the state of affairs of the camp.

Despite these needless obstacles that government institutions have set for themselves in managing this crisis, their involvement is not something that can be treated with indifference because it is a very key part of relief efforts.

According to Sueddie, "At first, there was little or nothing but on the day the NEMA boss visited with some state officials in tow, two tankers of water was brought. It was put in the overhead tank in the camp and now, there is water flowing in the toilets and bathroom. A few of the taps there are spoilt but generally, there is water.

"Power has also been connected to the market so there is electric power. There aren't enough mattresses and mats so we have a number of people sleeping on the bare floors."

What this reveals is that the government could have done more in a prompt manner; and it still has a lot to do to even be close to offering anything deemed as satisfactory.

NEMA Director General, Mustapha Maihaja, and Director Search and Rescue, Air Commodore Paul Ohemu assessing flood damages in Makurdi play

NEMA Director General, Mustapha Maihaja, and Director Search and Rescue, Air Commodore Paul Ohemu assessing flood damages in Makurdi

Uma's frank assessment of the government's management of the crisis is the same thing on the minds of many Nigerians.

He said, "Let it be on record that the government is doing next to nothing for these people. Only individuals and civil society organisations have taken the burden upon themselves to cater for these guys."

His assessment echoes that of Sueddie who also shared the unsettling feeling that the worst might not be over just yet.

He said, "The government needs to do more, noting that there are a lot of people who aren't in the camp but need assistance; and that we have to brace up for the possibility of a bigger flood situation, depending on how things play out in the next two weeks.

"I fear that there might be darker days ahead. There are threats of the Lagdo Dam being released once more. We are witnesses to 2012. If it happens again, the situation will be far worse."

His mention of 2012 is a reference to the national flood crisis that caused the death of at least 30 people in Benue after the release of water from the Lagdo Dam in neighbouring Cameroon swelled the Benue River.

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo with Benue state governor, Samuel Ortom at the Makurdi International Market, Benue state on Wednesday, September, 6, 2017 play

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo with Benue state governor, Samuel Ortom at the Makurdi International Market, Benue state on Wednesday, September, 6, 2017

(Twitter/@NGRPresident)

Between July and November that year, 363 people died while a further 2.1 million people were displaced by flood incidents across 30 states in the country.

The fact that this tragedy happened only five years ago makes it more disheartening to see the response to this one currently causing havoc in Benue.

What the response translates to is that no lesson has been learnt, at least not well enough to put plans in place to do better.

An honest observer would find no trouble admitting that these calamitous developments are not surprising in a country with absolutely weak institutions and leaders that are not accountable or empathetic enough, but this does not make it any less saddening.

More needs to be done.

Nigerians have a fond habit of pointing to how the nation is so blessed to encounter little to no natural disasters like other countries, but it's hard to argue that the country itself isn't already its own biggest natural disaster.

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