by Baba Aye
From September, twenty seven out of the thirty six states of the Nigerian federation have been ravaged by what President Goodluck Jonathan aptly described as “unprecedented floods”, in his October 8, 2012 national broadcast. In a characteristic manner, a lot of motion is now being made and presented as movement to ameliorate the dire situation. But several questions remain unanswered. What led to the flood? What has been and could be the costs of the floods for the common man, woman and child in the affected states? Was the extent of the floods impact on poor working people one that could not have been avoided? Can the measures now being proposed by Mr President drag the country out of this catastrophe and its aftermath? If not, what is to be done? These are questions that require answers beyond just throwing money (much of which would not get to the supposed beneficiaries) at the real and perceived problems.
The impact of the flood has been devastating to say the very least. About five million citizens have been rendered homeless, representing some 25% of the entire population, according to the presidency. The floods have also claimed over a hundred lives. At least two of these were suicides by poor persons in Kogi state who had lost all they had, as well as hope. The immense majority of Internally Displaced Persons being not rich enough to fend for themselves have been quartered in the most despicable of camps, jam-packed like sardines. The likelihood of renewed spread of water-borne and air-borne diseases’ epidemics is rife. Eighty seven persons had earlier died in Nigeria from the cholera outbreak that has wreaked havoc on slums in the West African sub-region.
The flood is also most likely a harbinger of famine in the very near future. Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa state who described the flood as “a tragedy of monumental and unimaginable proportion” identified this when he noted that the state government would have to contend with the challenge of famine in no distant time. But the fact of the matter is that the worsening of poor people’s hunger has already started. Presently in the same Bayelsa state for example, a cup of garri, a staple food across the country,which used to cost N350.00 before the flood now goes for upwards of N1,250.00!
It is however rather unfortunate to have heard President Jonathan define the period of the flood as being “the past few weeks” of late September/early October. This period was merely the high point of a disaster that did not come out of the blues. The flood had started in July, sweeping through Lagos, Oyo and Plateau states with vengeance. More than forty persons were killed at that point in time by the flood in Jos alone, with another 35 declared as missing, while almost five thousand persons were displaced. Further, there had been warnings by the meteorological agency since March 2011, of impending flood like none seen for decades. But no concrete action was taken to prevent the calamity which the state and its representatives now shed crocodile tears over. Thus when the Senate President, David Mark who described the flood as an “unimaginable situation” claimed that it caught everyone by surprise, one cannot but heave a sardonic sigh.
This catastrophe was avoidable, pure and simple. But then, avoiding it would have meant that the social-economic and political situation in Nigeria is not what it is. To understand why this is so, a closer look at the root cause of the flood would be necessary.
Several reasons have been adduced for the flood. President Jonathan expressed his sadness that “this global phenomenon of devastating floods has time come to Nigeria at this”, but is not explicit on the causes globally and locally. At the heart of the problem, we are made to understand, is climate change, caused by global warming. This is very true, but makes us only grasp a half truth.
The other half of the truth has to do with the cause of global warming itself. While there are still a number of climate change sceptics, the blows that global warming is dealing the planet are quite visible for anyone to see. It takes the shape of heightened extremes of natural phenomena. Floods, hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes, and tropical storms have generally become “unprecedented” in their severity. But the rate of desertification in arid zones has also increased. Drought has equally claimed so many lives, across several countries in West and East Africa. The present drought which started some two years back is the worst since 1969, the same year Nigeria had an experience of flooding of a similar proportion to the current disaster. The devastation mother earth and working people face from global warming is not limited to the tropics. The spate of hurricanes and typhoons that the United States has faced in recent years is common knowledge. But winters have become worse in Europe too, being longer than they used to be and much more severe.
What is that critical half of the truth about global warming and climate change, one might ask? It is what Gareth Dale describes as “the growth paradigm”. As he rightly puts it, this model of human “development” “refers to the proposition that economic growth is good, imperative, essentially limitless, and the principal remedy for a litany of social problems.” Essentially, this paradigm is at the heart of capitalist development. The various owners of capital are driven by competition to expand production, and accumulate for accumulation sake, at the pain of being driven to ruin by other owners of capital. Neither the wellbeing of the billions of poor, working people nor the sustenance of the earth is the concern of the capitalist.
This general reality of the capitalist system has decidedly grown worse over the last four decades of neoliberal globalization. While growth has increased tremendously, poverty and avoidable deaths have increased even more. A cost of such mindless growth is global warming. But unfortunately, those who pay the price for this senselessness are those that benefit the least, if at all, from such unsustainable growth.
The challenge of saving the earth and avoiding such terrible sufferings as that which millions of Nigerians affected by the flood are facing is inextricably tied to the task of the working class’ self-emancipation. The reversal of climate change trends on the basis of capitalism is inherently impossible. It is part of the broader general crisis of capitalism, in the mould of the on-going long-drawn “global economic crisis”. There is the need for a revolutionary system change which will lead to and as well involve the enthronement of a new, socialist, paradigm of development. Essentially, this model of development, resting on the democratic control and management of economic and political life by the working people, would involve the subordination of growth to the sustainable development of humankind and the safeguarding of mother earth. This would have to be a global system. Climate change’s global character is one of the clear pointers to the fact that the greatest questions this generation has to find answers to are international even as the struggle to win such answers rage within our different countries.
It is however pertinent to point out that, while the broader picture of climate change cannot be resolved on the basis of capitalist development, it was very possible to have saved lives and livelihoods resulting from such disasters as the tragedy of the flood, even in the present period we live in. The Federal Government of Nigeria has to provide answers to some pressing questions beyond now throwing N17bn around, supposedly to salvage the situation. Why were no plans made since last year when forecast of the flooding was made? Why has Nigeria not been able to build a dam to capture waters released by the Cameroonian Lagdo dam since 1982 as earlier envisaged?
The Nigerian elite class, one cannot but conclude, is both inept and less concerned about the lives and livelihoods of the poor man, woman and child. While gross ineptitude on the part of the bosses might have a frighteningly Nigerian trade mark, being less concerned about the lives of poor working people is a trait which bosses all over the world share. This cannot but be so where and when neoliberal values and ideas are dominant, and central planning absent. A clear example of this can be shown with two contrary cases of how governments have responded to similar tragedies like the current flood in Nigeria.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina battered the United States. Over two thousand lives were lost, with some estimates projecting the loss of lives as being more like four thousand. The loss of property was $159.2bn, poor uninsured working people bearing the brunt of such material loss. More important than property is the agonizing fact that, most of those killed were poor working men and women. The rich had been able to find their ways out of the troubled eye of Katrina. But on the converse, Cuba which has witnessed some of the most powerful storms in the Caribbean has recorded much less deaths. There was no single loss of life when the terrible Hurricane Dennis struck the island country that same 2005, for example. Why was this so, unlike the situation in the “almighty” United States? Over 1.5million people were evacuated to pre-arranged shelters before the storm arrived, with buses provided by the government. These shelters which had thousands of medical and health personnel were stocked with food supplies, water.
The Cuban government had much less time to plan all this (just a few weeks) than the Nigerian government, with a one year and six months notice. Even the United States had much more time to have prevented the calamity of Hurricane Katrina than Cuba had for Hurricane Dennis. But central planning and a more humane system ensured that lives of citizens were handled with much more dignity than our liberal-democratic bosses within and outside Nigeria would ever consider as being necessary. It is thus just to be angry when officials of the National Emergency Management Agency criticize poor people for not finding moving out of the pathways of the flood after being warned. This is like the big bad wolf giving the dog a bad name so as to hang it.
At this point in time, what is to be done? While we must insist on answers from the government on the why it allowed the flood to cause such havoc, and continue to fight for system change to save the earth and emancipate ourselves from the exploitative shackles of capitalist development, ameliorating the conditions of the millions of Nigerians affected by the flood is of utmost significance. The establishment of the National Committee on Flood Relief and Rehabilitation is a welcome development. But this is not enough. The mass organisations of the working people, including the trade unions and community-based associations rooted in the peoples across all concerned localities must be involved in the processes of the committee’s work.
Finally, it is important for us all to realise that this year’s immense flooding might just be the beginning of more floods to come. Next year, from all available indices, the flooding incidence might be worse, if action is not taken now. The floods ahead will however not be limited to rivers overflowing their banks or heavy rain storms as the earth’s retribution to a capitalist world. The looming hunger in the land and continued oppression of the working people holds dark clouds of mass anger. The floods to come would most likely come not just as water, but as outpouring of the popular furry on the streets and in the creeks.