By: Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie
It’s tempting to let despair sink in. Why us? I hear people asking. But we have no hope of changing our fortune until we understand the systemic nature of our problems and apply systems leadership to solve them.
Take the tanker tragedy, for instance. According to one eye witness account (a WhatsApp audio by a bike rider who identified himself as “Omo T”) I heard on social media, the lorry that crashed into the tanker had experienced brake failure, had already hit a pedestrian, and the driver was struggling to control the vehicle when he hit the tanker. If this version of events is true, we have questions of the roadworthiness of heavy goods vehicles (HGV) on our roads to contend with. We have the skills of HGV drivers to address. We have to inquire into the incentives that would induce a driver to continue struggling on to his destination with no brakes despite the obvious difficulties and risks.
What about the road design itself and traffic flow? Given how busy this part of Freetown is and the hazardous nature of goods carried, were the risks taken into account?
Did the tanker have the right anti-collision protection to minimize risks of fuel spills in the event of an accident? If such measures were introduced, would they be enforced? What incentives might there be in our system to create perverse incentives?
How quickly after the accident was the area cordoned off? A senior citizen living in the Wellington area where the incident occurred warned the Sierra Leone Police Local Unit Commander (LUC) four months ago of the need for vigilance in the area. Did the police have the resources, the training, the data to guide deployment and response?
Despite the pleas of the tanker driver who recognized the grave risks and warned people to vacate the area, people rushed toward the tanker to collect fuel. Many of us will have seen the video of the young girl who even does a little dance as she approached the stricken tanker. One can’t help wondering, knowing what happened soon after, whether she survived the ensuing carnage.
Some did. Indeed our WhatsApp commentator “Omo T” tells us he filled up his bike’s tank and went on his merry way. He was in Brookfields, several kilometers to the west of the incident when he heard what had subsequently happened.
How well did those who approached the tanker appreciate the risks of remaining anywhere near such an inferno in the making? Yes, people are poor and opportunistically scooped up fuel to fill tanks or keep for later use (the latter itself another fire hazard).
But even onlookers didn’t appreciate the risks. One local CNN-style citizen journalist shared a video commentary from a distance in which the fire is travelling inexorably toward him as the vapor ignites but he’s quite unperturbed and carried on reporting.
Once the inevitable happens and the fire starts, how quickly are the first responders able to mobilize? Do they have the vehicles, the communications equipment, the access through congested streets, the training?
How well-equipped and resourced are our hospitals? Do we have the essential drugs, bandages, burns units? How well-resourced is our National Disaster Management Agency? Do we have a disaster management plan? Have we had drills? Do all the relevant players know what to do? How well coordinated are they? Do they have the training, resources, personnel?
In other words, there are numerous moving parts that we need to align to prevent such disasters from happening in the first place and to ensure that the response when things do go wrong protects lives and property as best as possible.
We tend to default to pointing fingers of blame at individuals (whether victims or officials or leaders) for their behavior at times like this. Indeed, maybe some people may be found wanting. But the bigger and deeper problems we must first recognize and then tackle are systemic. Of course, government agencies have key roles to play here. In particular, they need to be joined up and work in unison for a common cause. But we as citizens and budding systems leaders need to recognize our individual and collective responsibilities in all of this. If we don’t, we condemn ourselves to superficial gestures of limited value, handing out blame, food packages, and bandages while we wait for the next tragedy, lament once again, ask our gods why they cursed us with such bad luck, and start the whole process over and over and over again. This cycle itself is disempowering and demoralizing. No wonder we see ourselves as helpless victims of fate.
We can do better. We must do better. We have it within our power to shape our destiny and change our fortune. We owe it to ourselves to transform our systems and thus our lives.