Last week, an 18-seater bus taking 14 children home from their school caught fire. Three of the pupils died in the burning vehicle. The rest managed to leave the vehicle but reported various degrees of burns. The school, Je ‘Nissi Little Drops International Academy, is located in an estate in Lugbe, a sprawling suburb of Abuja, Nigeria’s fast growing capital. Its structures consist of a bungalow apartment and a metal container. It is said to be 7 years old.
Eye-witnesses said the bus developeed a fault and was pushed into a nearby compound . A mechanic was called to repair the fault. It was while he was working on the engine that the bus went up in flame, trapping the school pupils. A security man, employed by a private firm, saw what had happened. First, he revealed the school bus was always breaking down and often had to be pushed to restart the engine. Secondly,he said the fire began in the driver’s compartment where the engine is located and quickly spread to the passenger section. “When I rushed here, I heard children crying inside the vehicle”, the man said. “The driver was able to bring one of the pupils out, but the two children remaining were in the middle of the vehicle; there was no way they could be rescued”.
We, at Peoples Daily, commiserate with the parents of the 3 children who died in the fire and the injured. As for the owner and staff of the school, we offer unreserved condemnation for their callousness. The mother of the little girl who lost her life complained that she called the school repeatedly after she noticed the girl had not arrived home at the time she should have. First, the staff she called told her they would find out what had happened and report back to her. But they never did, and her subsequent calls were not answered. A father who lost 2 children narrated a similar experience. This is callousness at its worst.
As for the government officials who ought to have done the right thing but failed to act, we only marvel at their reaction to the tragedy. First, Mr. Ayuba Didam, the Director, Quality Assurance Department of the FCT Education Secretariat, refused to speak with journalists. Second, Mr. Anthony Ogunleye, the spokesman of the Secretariat, agreed to talk. But what came out of his mouth was unbelievable. Yes, the school was approved by government, but its operating licence had expired. “The authorities of the school were supposed to come for a renewal of license but they didn’t, so they will be sanctioned. If they had followed due process, the education management would have inspected the school and their facilities to know if they were fit for operation”.
They were waitiing for the school owner to report that he/she had breached the law before taking action against him/her! Was that failure to renew the licence not a sufficient reason to suspect something fishy was going on? If the govrrnment officials had been alive to their duty they would have found out the condition of the school bus and prevented the tragedy that occurred. We strongly recommand the officials be reprimanded and the Secretariat overhauled.
With regard to parents, what happened in Abuja should “open the eyes of their understanding” to know that “not all that glitters is gold”. One of the parents of the dead school children confessed he showed greater interest in his boys’ homework than the condition of the bus that brought them home. If he had learnt that the bus often broke down on the way, he would have raised the matter with the school authorities. He found out rather too late and to his chagrin too.
We want to warn that the Little Drops International Academy tragedy should not be investigated as an isolated case. It should be the basis for a comprehensive review of the operations of private schools in the FCT, and stringent punitive measures must be taken in cases where corners have been cut.