I had almost overcome my fear of flying when the news broke that the door of a Dana Airline flight from Lagos to Abuja fell off on touchdown.
In a pathetic back-and-forth with passengers who had shared their experiences on social media, the airline’s management did not deny that the door fell off. Instead, it absolved its crew of responsibility and put the blame on imaginary suicidal passengers fiddling with the exit door.
As a regular traveller on the Lagos-Abuja route, I’m weighing my options. I’m asking myself if it would not be better to travel by road.
Before I’ve had time to answer the question, another Dana Airline plane overshot the runway in Port Harcourt.
Since the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has been irresponsibly silent, it’s only a matter of time before Dana issues another statement, claiming that unruly passengers distracted the pilot on landing in Port Harcourt.
I was still trying to make sense of this nonsense when it was reported that an Air Peace flight to Akure was forced to delay landing as cows, perhaps in search of grazing colony, had strayed into the airfield; and that was days after an alleged heist by suspected thieves said to have attacked the hold of one of its aircraft at the Lagos airport shortly before departure.
Memories of the tragic air crashes of the mid-2000s flooded my mind once again. After years of dodging, I’m thinking it’s time to travel to Abuja from Lagos by road.
I’m not crazy to think about road. That was how we travelled before government created a cottage industry of private jets, almost completely neglecting the roads – the same poor regulatory habit that now appears to be putting air travel in danger.
Stories of kidnappings, highway robberies and rickety, unmarked trailers driven by burnout drivers are common road hazards. But, strangely, you’ll hardly hear road safety being discussed as seriously as we’ve been discussing Dana. There are many who would swear that road travel is a suicide mission. But, believe me, it was worse.
When Wole Soyinka took on the dangerous task of serving as the country’s first Road-Marshal-In-Chief, over 40,000 people were dying every year from road accidents.
That figure has gone down over the years to fewer than 6,000 road traffic deaths two years ago and under 4,500 by last year.
The current Corps Marshal, Boboye Oyeyemi, also said during the Corps’ 30th anniversary on Monday that emergency response time has been reduced by roughly one-third from 50 minutes and that the corps, voted by the World Bank as Africa’s lead agency in road safety, are putting their best foot forward to meet the target of the UN decade of action for road safety.
So, why should planning a trip from Lagos to Abuja by road – a distance of about 750 kilometres – be a thing of misery?
Thousands of passengers, mostly ordinary folks trying to eke out a living, make this trip everyday. Many of them travel by night, and in spite of warnings, they just fill the potholes with prayers and cover whatever other dangers may be lurking with the blood of Jesus.
But big men and women have something to be afraid of because, in spite of the improving safety statistics, they have done – and appear to continue to do – their utmost to undermine road safety.
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Former President Goodluck Jonathan said that at the time he took office in 2010 only 5,000 kilometres out of the 35,000 kilometres of federal roads were motorable; and that he had improved quality road access by five-folds at the time he was campaigning for re-election in 2014.
Yet, just one year before he started campaigning a Gallup-NOI poll said that seven out of 10 Nigerians felt the roads were still dangerous and unsafe. And that was after an estimated N1.75 trillion had been poured out on road construction, repairs and maintenance.
It was possible that part of the funds were swallowed up by snakes in the Ministry responsible for fixing the roads, or that portions of the roads were washed away by the hypocritical tears once shed by Diezani Allison-Madueke when she was Minister of Transport. Whatever the case, the elite have maliciously neglected road maintenance because they have other travel options, especially flying.
With concerns about air safety rising yet again, we might as well ask ourselves what needs to be done to make the roads safer.
Big men and women often create peculiar problems for regular road users. They travel in bulletproof vehicles in long convoys that have no respect for traffic signs, speed limits or traffic officers. Often, commercial drivers who drink at motor parks, smoke and overload their vehicles are the poster-boys for bad driving.
Yet some of the bitterest battles for safer roads have been fought against politicians – big men and women – who will not use seatbelts or obey traffic signs and regulations.
Our big men and women have made our roads so unsafe that when their sirens cannot fetch them a right of passage, their armed escorts ride roughshod over other road users for right of way.
The other day, the Speaker of the Abia State House of Assembly, Chikwendu Kalu, ordered policemen attached to him to shoot road marshals for stopping his wife’s car, that was apparently over speeding. Not satisfied with her husband’s order, the Speaker’s wife came down from her car to personally supervise the assault on the road marshals.
Of course poor driving habits by many ordinary road users have also contributed to make road travel a nightmare but the collective attention and discipline that should make our roads safer are often taken for granted by the elite who somehow think they’re above the law.
Since our railways may not be ready for mass transit until perhaps the next five to ten years and the NCAA is sleeping on duty, it’s in our enlightened self-interest to take our fate in our own hands and make the roads safer.
It’s a measure of how bad things have become that travelling from Point A to Point B within the country can leave you with more than a few grey hairs.
Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview and member of the board of the Global Editors Network