Sierra Leone and the coming Nigerian eclipse -By Abimbola Adelakun

Filed under: Global Issues |

Workers are digging graves for mudslide victims at the Paloko cemetery in Waterloo, Sierra Leone


For weeks, the United States’ solar eclipse fever permeated everywhere as if it was Christmas already. Weeks before the eclipse, people took vacations to cities that were in the path of totality. On the day itself, counties organised science fairs for schoolchildren; scientists were on different media channels educating the public on the phenomenon they were about to witness. Amidst that festive spirit, the Nigerian in me quietly wondered what would happen if science turned out to be wrong. With the level of their fascination with the eclipse and the cultural economy they had built around the eclipse, I was curious to know what would happen if things turned out otherwise. Of course, I knew it would not be otherwise. Scientists have built a comprehensive knowledge about eclipses over centuries, and every time, they had been right to the hilt. Once again, they have predicted that in 2024, another eclipse would occur and given how much they have mastered complex celestial happenings, they would be right. As always.

Monday’s exactitude of the science of eclipse tells me that superstitious subversion of scientific facts leads to calamities. Even more pathetic is when science is denied based on politics, a valourisation of ignorance, or just sheer fatalism. In the past, people have died of AIDS because of their rejection of scientific evidence. Up till now, and even in advanced countries such as the US, the denial of the science of vaccination has triggered the return of diseases that should have otherwise been permanently eradicated by humanity.

In the past one week, Africa has witnessed major ecological disasters that mainly occurred because people shrugged off scientific predictions. At the last count, over 500 of Freetown residents had died (and another 600 declared missing) when a mudslide occurred after a torrential rainfall. Sierra Leone is one of those unlucky countries in the world that seem caught in an endless whirlpool of disasters – natural and man-made. After a debilitating war that lasted more than a decade, and only recently survived Ebola, this had to happen? With the acute shortage of facilities to manage the number of deaths, another catastrophe, waterborne diseases, loom.

The sad thing about the Sierra Leonean disaster was that science foretold it. Environmental scientists warned them except people ignored them. Environmentalists had predicted that the rate at which deforestation was taking place in Freetown to accommodate the burgeoning population in urban settlements could accelerate the risk of a mudslide. Like the Sodom and Gomorrah of old, people neither listened nor changed their ways. Some accounts of the incident reported that even high-ranking government officials who should enforce corrective policies joined the plebeians to destroy forests and thwarted efforts made towards planting trees.

Now that the mudslides have eventually happened and taken so many lives, we are left to wring our hands in despair and regret. I do not blame Sierra Leoneans for being impervious to the warning of science. That country is poor, and heaven knows that poverty breeds pessimism and an attitude of resignation that could result in destructive behaviours. How do you tell poor people to prioritise planting trees without them returning a snarky response of, “Na dat one we go chop”?

I recall that some years ago when I first moved to Lagos, it was the time Governor Babatunde Fashola started his flower planting activities on the streets. I took a public bus where some people were discussing why planting flowers should be the governor’s priority. The woman who sat beside me who had spent the whole time running down the exercise eventually hissed, “Iyen la fe je ni? Flower wa je gege bi Semo?” (Is that what will feed us? Are flowers Semovita?). I have referred to the woman’s words several times in conversations about strategies of development as an illustration of the gaps between the leader and the led in Nigeria. Her words still resonate with me when I think of the culture of poverty and underdevelopment; how it could become innately resistant to humanising aesthetics. You cannot tell poor people about the interconnection of the beauty of their environment with their self-conception as human when the angst of survival consumes their thoughts.

Is there a Sierra Leone’s scale man-made disaster soon to occur in Nigeria? Why not? With the crazed sinking of boreholes in most cities; the blockages done to drainage by plastic bottles and other petrochemical waste products; the abuse of our forest by unscrupulous business people and complicit government officials and, the incremental sea rises threatening island nations and coastal cities around the world, Nigeria needs to start listening to her scientists more than her Daddy pastors.

With a culture like ours that amplifies the voice of dogmatic shamans (masquerading all over the place as religious leaders) over that of scientific researchers, I fear that foretelling of disaster cannot generate the sense of urgency needed to forestall it. It is easier for Nigerians to be moved by pastors’ (supposedly) divinely inspired New Year’s predictions than by NiMET warning us of a coming flood predicted with the tools of science.

Due to Africa’s poor management of its ecological systems, we are regularly killed by things we could have controlled if we had bothered to learn how they work. Shortly after the disaster in Sierra Leone, some other 200 people were killed in a landslide in Congo, and again, the cause was attributed to deforestation and other uncontrolled human activities against nature. The story is not different in many parts of Africa where people are killed by what they are not equipped to understand.

In the mix of mudslides and landslides in some areas of Africa, one is troubled by at least two instances in Nigeria: First is a July 16, 2017, feature article in The Guardian newspaper entitled, “The Wood Merchants of Lagos.” The story is an account of the Makoko-Oko Baba Wood Market in Lagos and their mode of operations. While you will find plenty of lament in the story about how the forests where these timber merchants get their supplies have been depleted over the years, you will not find any conscious effort on the part of these people to push for environmental preservation. Now, they are worried about their future since they only recently discovered that the biomes that fund their living are, in fact, not inexhaustible. I am outraged by the damage done to the balance of nature with all those trees they have mindlessly hewed over the years, their lack of preservationist instincts, and the likely consequences for our future.

Second is the superhighway Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State proposes to build. The superhighway comes with all the trappings of a regular Nigerian white elephant: 12 lanes, Wi-Fi, and a pre-inflation cost of N200bn. Ayade has been warned several times about the financial and environmental implications of embarking on a project that reeks of the mega ambitiousness and unfounded zeal of Nigerian politicians who like to think that such gargantuan projects can convert the nation into a Dubai overnight. Conservationists have warned that human communities and park reserves that contain endangered species would be destroyed if Ayade goes ahead with his plans.

Last year, while attending COP22 at Marrakech, Morocco, Ayade defended the project, and while one can concur with him that such developmental initiatives come at a cost, we should also know better than disembowelling the earth in the pursuit of modernity that eludes us for more complicated reasons. The mode of development around the enlightened world today is to plan infrastructure around nature and not wilfully mow down natural habitats. Defying scientific predictions has inevitable consequences; those who ignore them end up wringing their fingers and wondering why God hates them.