By Abimbola Adelakun
There is a Yoruba proverb that says, "When the Oba’s palace burns down, it results in building another with higher aesthetic value". This proverb expresses a certain truth: the loss of a palace in a fire incident is a motivation for the Oba’s subjects’ to pool resources and build a bigger, more luxurious one. Considering that people generally regard their traditional rulers an extension of their cultural persona and spring source of their identity, it is a matter of self-pride to ensure that the Oba’s palace is rebuilt quickly and of course, with more resources.
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While the proverb is observatory enough, it does not reflect on other consequences of a palace going up in flames. First, and depending on the status of the Oba, centuries of history and symbolic capital imbued in ancient cultural artefacts could be irretrievably lost. It does not matter whether there are artists and historians who can make these things all over again, a rebuilt palace cannot easily acquire the antiquarian value of an older, ancient one. If culture and history were considered, in this case, a newer palace is not necessarily a better one.
So, it was disheartening to read reports that the palace of the Alaafin of Oyo, Lamidi Adeyemi, was razed — and this is not the first time — as a result of an electrical spark. From the description of the places consumed, it is likely that there is more to what was burnt than just buildings.
Since the incident, the Alaafin has, expectedly, received many sympathisers and one of which is the Minister of State for the FCT, Ms. Olajumoke Akinjide, who was quoted as saying the inferno was the will of God and the Alaafin should be thankful no life was lost. Just when you think our leaders can no longer surprise you, they outdo their own selves. What has the will of God got to do with an electrical spark? It must be convenient to leave things in God’s hand even though He has never taken a job with the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, He didn’t wire the Alaafin’s palace and it is not His business to stop the palace from burning down as a result of someone’s irresponsibility. The way we use God in Nigeria is funny. God is so elastic that an average Nigerian will use Him to block a kitchen sink rather than get a stopper.
In months down the line, the Alaafin’s palace will be rebuilt by Oyo State as promised by the state governor, Abiola Ajumobi, and would probably result in a more beautiful structure. But where do we go from there? What about others who have suffered one fire disaster or the other and who do not have the privilege of having their houses rebuilt by the governor or have access to visit Aso Rock to be consoled by the President ahead of 2015? Who ensures that their houses are rebuilt with more opulence? There have been too many fire cases in Nigeria in the past year and the losses, unquantifiable. Who indemnifies victims if they are not an Oba?
About the same time as the Alaafin’s incident, the Independent National Electoral Commission Headquarters also suffered a second fire incident and again, it was unambiguously blamed on electrical spark. Despite similarity in both incidents and reports, one has not heard a word from the PHCN either taking or repudiating blame.
By keeping mum, one can easily infer that they are not likely to set themselves to task to prevent future incidents.
But these are not the only fire incidents in recent times in Nigeria. This year alone, fire raged in an urban slum in Ebute Meta, Lagos, and 3,000 people were reportedly displaced. It was around the same time when a fire incident occurred in Apapa. The incidents of fire were not limited to Lagos alone even though the numbers were put at 188 incidents. In Ibadan, within the past one year, several markets – Ogunpa, Gbagi, Ifeleye, among others — have gone up in flames and a lot of livelihoods burnt.
It is time something radical was done about the incidence of fire other than the usual stop-gap solution. In the case of market fires, it is time we built modern markets or, at least, restructure the existing ones. In Ibadan for instance, some of her markets are ones that started around “agbooles” where people put out their wares from spaces they can squeeze out from their clustered network of houses. These places have grown to become major markets. Some that are relatively new sites are no better in terms of lack of foresighted planning. As a result, we have overcrowded markets where nothing is allowed to breathe. When an inferno starts in these places, people are so tightly packed together that the rowdiness prevents rescue operations.
There is an urgent need for redesigning these markets. In fact, I find it awkward that the way these markets were when I was a child is no different from what they are now even though a number of contemporary and sociological realities have taken a toll on these places and require them conforming to a better standard.
It is important that the government provides emergency services, but equally expedient to teach people to protect themselves from such incidents. It is not too much to require people to have fire extinguishers in their shops in market places so they won’t have to throw sand and leaves at a fire when it breaks out. These are not lofty ideals, just plain common sense.
The case of Jankara market is quite instructive in this regard. It is shocking that someone would fill a building in the middle of a commercial and residential area with combustible items like firecrackers and would sleep at night. The pretend-warehouse had no fireproofing, no security features and you can bet safety was the last thing on the mind of this unscrupulous trader. It is doubtful if this trader even thought of insuring those items.
And that brings me to one more thing: insurance. I think people, especially market men and women, should be drilled in the practice of taking insurance. Sometimes when you read the woeful tales of traders who lose their goods in the fire, who lament that their lives are totally ruined, you wonder why insurance companies exist. Maybe, there should be some compulsion to make people develop the culture.