Houston is light years away from Makurdi. The American city and Nigerian town are separated by spatial and civilizational distances. They are also separated by the sensitivity of the disaster response mechanisms obtainable in their respective climes.
The historic flooding of Houston overwhelmed the city’s infrastructure, displaced people from 100, 000 homes, and created a vast visa which harks back to Noah-era deluge. But the government of the state of Texas, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Trump administration have managed the situation responsibly. They were alert, present, and actively engaged in a concert that required everyone to play their part to master the plague.
The sense of duty and humanity of the rescue teams shone through. On cable television, you saw them scrambling to ferry traumatized residents to safety. You also marveled as they extended lifelines to drenched pets. They touched the terrified animals with amazing solicitude.
A few days after Storm Harvey made a landfall on Houston and tested the city, a comparably less catastrophic flood swept into Makurdi and rendered communities closest to the bank of River Benue a watery wasteland. The flood steeped 24 villages in water, destroyed countless properties, and reduced about 110, 000 persons to destitution.
Unlike Houston where officials and institutions were on duty, invested in ensuring that keepsakes, cats and dogs did not have to go under the angry waters, Makurdi was a disaster zone worsened by the dereliction of government. Governmental authority was absent and untraceable although human lives were at stake. Victims were on their own.
Benue state government, the National Emergency Relief Management Agency, and the Buhari administration practically skipped out on victims of the Makurdi flood. They abandoned the people. They left them to swim, walk on water like Peter, or sink.
While the United States took care to treat the cats and dogs of Houston with dignity, Nigeria dismissed the human population affected by the Makurdi flood. The difference between Houston and Makurdi is the nature and purpose of government that define them. In Houston, the government would have argued against its own validity, if it was remiss in rescuing the endangered pets. In Makurdi, the government validated its character by idling away while human beings drowned.
There is a world of difference between a government that cannot allow pets die in a flood and a government that cannot reach out to citizens marooned in a flood. One government is aware that its legitimacy is defined by the efficiency with which it serves the people. The other is a power structure that owes the people nothing.
In Houston, the officials could not afford to be perceived as taking sides with the flood against the people. They knew they had to pass the test of humaneness. In Makurdi, the officials did not feel obligated to be interested in the flood. They ducked into invisibility. They stayed away. They declined to show up… even out of charity.
The Nigerian governmental system essentially denied the personhood of Makurdi flood victims. They counted the people undeserving of any expenditure of attention. They had no salvage value that could have been lost.
The Nigerian officials avoided the victims because ‘principled snobbery’ restrains the government from intervening in the suffering of the people. The government would not bridge the distance of disconnect that makes it far removed from the existential realities of the common man. The government had to keep its distance in order to maintain the inviolability of its uselessness to the poor.
The distance between Houston and Makurdi is the rough equivalent of the distance between the Nigerian government and everyday Nigerians. The government cannot see, touch and feel the people. An invisible but real gigantic apartheid wedge stands between the Nigerian leadership and the citizenry.
American officials prepared for Harvey. Using the meteorological forecast, they articulated an emergency response ahead of the hurricane and advised residents to brace up for what could turn out to be a ‘’a significant disaster’’. The warning helped residents stockpile supplies and evacuate in some cases.
Beyond readying the minds of the people of Houston for the storm, the government designated certain accommodations as shelters. The people fleeing the flood or rescued from the flood had places of refuge. Once they were there, they did not have to worry about basic provisions.
As for Makurdi, nobody deemed it necessary to make arrangements for a flood that was certain to happen. The flooding of that basin has become an annual certainty. It is a safe bet that at the peak of the rainy season, torrential rains would dump enough water into River Benue to cause it to overflow. Yet, the government of Benue state took no proactive measure to minimize the risk of loss of lives and property.
It neglected to evacuate the flood-prone areas. It did not organize rescue efforts. It did not prepare shelters or assemble relief materials beforehand.
As at the time of this writing, the mammoth crowd of displaced persons are still exposed to the elements. They have nowhere to go. Benue state officials are waiting for governor Samuel Ortom to wake up and approve the opening of IDP camps.
The governor of Texas has already conceived a reconstruction and resettlement budget. In Benue, you be sure that the officials are not thinking recovery. They are possibly brooding on a plan to make a fortune off the flood victims.
In 2002, the federal government of Nigeria earmarked 16.7 billion naira as relief funds after flood inundated 22 states, displaced over 2 million people, destroyed 2.29 trillion naira worth of properties, and took 363 lives. Victims of the flood ‘received’ relief only in the news bulletins of government-owned media. The officials pocketed the money. And nobody suffered… except the robbed.
The officials who went AWOL as the flood of Makurdi swelled and enlarged itself to swallow more, were probably huddled together somewhere, celebrating this gift of ‘an act of God’.
When they eventually appear, they would have agreed on how to use the flood disaster to swell their bank accounts.