Johannesburg - “You don’t want to die in Nigeria.” Another member of the international press, who had been based in Lagos for several years, was giving me her thoughts on the collapse of the Synagogue Church of Nations, or Scoan, hostel building.
“Hell, you don’t even want to get sick in Nigeria. You are just another number. You will be told ‘people die all the time in Nigeria, what makes you so special?’”
Tough words, especially since death carries such weight in other parts of Africa, but after what my team and I had witnessed and reported on the past week it was quickly becoming believable.
The rescue of those trapped in the collapse, and the recovery of those killed, seemed lacklustre at best. Officials – both from the church and then from the first responders the National Emergency Management Authority – seemed to be almost deliberately keeping the figures as low as possible, and releasing little information to the press. It wasn’t until news broke that 67 of those killed were South African (the number later jumped to 84) that the story got much attention at all.
I would have expected the Nigerian authorities to have done anything they could to accommodate the South Africans. Yet I was told countless stories of family members and caregivers being barred from entering hospitals and morgues.
The South African High Commissioner to Nigeria eventually had to seek permission for the Lagos State authorities to allow any form of identification process to take place.
As I drove around Lagos with my cameraman, Michael Loppoh, in blistering, inescapable heat and humidity and sitting in some of the worst traffic I have ever seen in my life, he explained to me just how much of a “hustler” nation Nigeria, and Lagos in particular, really was.
There are 13 million people living in Lagos during the day and just under half of those commute. That’s 13 million people competing for territory, food and the best business deals. Everywhere we went we were hassled. By police who claimed we had an incorrect fire extinguisher on board. By Lagos “Area Boys” because we hadn’t obtained their permission to shoot on a public street.
I could not believe a capital city in a huge African country could be this difficult to navigate. And I had not lost a loved one in a building collapse for which no one would take responsibility. I was not hurt or grieving, or trying to circumnavigate bureaucratic and physical barriers to allow me access to health care or my dead parent or sibling.
The bureaucracy was mindboggling, but the physical barriers were literally armed Nigerian military or police, and health workers who forced you to have your temperature checked by a little white gun that they held close to your head, to make sure you are not carrying the Ebola virus.
When I flew back to Kenya the story haunted me on the plane. An earnest passenger in a wheelchair told me he had travelled to Nigeria from Zimbabwe to visit Scoan but had been denied access to the church service two Sundays in a row. He said Scoan’s security stopped him because he was in a wheelchair and “healing ceremonies took place on a different day”.
George said he had just wanted to watch his prophet, TB Joshua, speak, not be “healed”. (TB Joshua promises to try to make the weak strong and cure HIV among other things in his healing ceremonies.)
It was just another reminder that one one should avoid dying, being sick or disabled in Nigeria.