By ‘Fisayo Soyombo.
In April, a former Nigerian public official lost his daughter under questionable circumstances. The young lady’s death was avoidable, and who knows, maybe her spirit is already haunting a UK hospital and another one in Nigeria. A hospital in Birmingham misdiagnosed her condition; the one in Nigeria performed surgery on her without having a life support machine. When her condition deteriorated post-surgery, the hospital could not artificially ventilate her heart. She died as a result.
I was hurt to read about that needless loss of life; anyone should. A premature death is hurtful enough, but an avoidable one is shattering. In seven months of this tragedy, the father has written two public notes on his grief. One could tell he deeply loved his daughter. In the latter, he talks of bereavement hallucination and its redemptive and therapeutic powers. It is clear that this father will not get over his daughter’s death anytime soon; it is an agony no one should experience.
In that same piece, he urges the government to “grade and classify” hospitals as “first, second and third tier, the same way banks are categorized in Nigeria”. He wants a first-tier hospital to have “an agreed high standard of medical equipment installed and top-quality personnel working there” so that “patrons can know the level of service to expect when attending any hospital based on its classification as 1st, 2nd or 3rd tier”. To rewrite his thoughts, the rich should be able to patronize truly first-class hospitals; the poor can settle for the second or third-tier. Or, who would third-tier hospitals serve? The rich? First-tier hospitals will care for first-tier lives; third-tier hospitals for third-tier lives. But this is not where I am going.
Two weeks ago, 26 Nigerian “third-tier” lives perished at sea while attempting to cross the Mediterranean from the north coast of Africa. All 26 were women, two of them even pregnant. This wasn’t the first time that Nigerian migrants would die, or the first time the public would gett a sniff of their travails while on the risky sail in search of green pastures. Anyone interested in knowing the grim dangers of the average migrant journey should please google ‘Europe by Desert: Tears of African Migrants’. Thank me for the link if you wish, but you should compulsorily thank Emmanuel Mayah, the writer, one of the most daring journalists to ever emerge from Africa. At great risk to his life, Mayah went undercover for 37 days with illegal migrants, traveling across seven countries in an attempt to cross the Sahara Desert. On his return, he documented the dangers involved in such journeys: rape, armed robbery, fraud, blood oaths, hunger, dehydration, death.
That was in 2009. Eight years after, very little has changed. Year on year, migrants keep dying in their thousands — from the hundreds of thousands who’d rather die than remaining on the continent. This year alone, 150,985 have arrived in southern Europe via North Africa, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM); 2,639 others died while trying to.
In May, Nigerians were among the 44 migrants to have died of thirst after their truck broke down in the Sahara Desert in northern Niger while en route to Libya, where they were to cross to Europe. Ghana was the only other nation represented in that tragedy. In August, Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO), quoting data from the IOM, said Nigerians formed the majority of the 1,500 migrants to have died in the first seven months of 2017. Both NIDO and IOM have always acknowledged that these figures are an underestimation of migration casualties; it is never easy to account for deaths in the desert, at sea, and at the various stages of an illegal trip.
Migrant casualties are literally an everyday affair, but the latest round is generating an above-usual notice for various reasons. This is one of the very few cases where Italian officials are suspecting that migrants were deliberately murdered after they had been sexually assaulted. An investigation is already ongoing and five people are in detention already. The nature of this investigation has to be harped on: Italy is investigating the death of 26 Nigerians who tried to enter Italy illegally; given the circumstances, it is under no obligation to do so. Italy also gave dignity to the migrants, organizing a burial ceremony for them, even going ahead to place a picture and an information card with copies of dental scans and a list of traits like tattoos and scars “that might someday be used to identify the victim if a family member ever comes looking”.
In all this, the Nigerian government was conspicuously absent. The girls were buried without Nigerian presence at the solemn ceremony. Meanwhile, the Embassy of Nigeria in Rome has been sleeping — no interest in the investigations into the cause of the deaths. On the day the 26 were buried, Geoffrey Onyema, the Foreign Affairs Minister, was quiet. Meanwhile, when Nigeria beat Argentina in a World cup friendly three days earlier, he was quick to pen a congratulatory message to the Super Eagles, announcing: “Russia, here we come!”
Okay, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, SSA to the President on Foreign Relations and Diaspora, issued a statement describing the death of the girls as “avoidable and preventable… tragic and lamentable… just not worth it ultimately”. But to know what she truly feels, look no further than her Twitter engagement with those implicitly blaming the tragedy on the government. When one person tweets that “Everybody is trying hard to blame the gov for their death as if they were sent on a mission by the gov,” Dabiri-Erewa retweets. When another berates the Federal Government for its absence at the interment, she asks if the Nigerian mission was “duly informed of the time, date and venue”. Finally, as contained in the press release, and as she generously argued on Twitter, Dabiri-Erewa believes the solution to persistent migrant deaths is to educate Nigerians about the dangers of such journeys. Absolutely not!
Talk to anyone in Edo — the state with the highest contribution to Nigeria’s migrant population — and you will hear that migrants are well-aware of the risks. The problem is that they’re in so much suffering already that they wonder if death can be any worse. There is something migrants are running away from; and unless the government addresses it, more deaths are bound to happen. What they are chasing after are the simple things of life: food, shelter, clothing, employment, dignity, a sense of belonging in their own country. Only people who have experienced the lack of these basics can understand and interpret the frustrations of migrants.
The ex-public official who lost his daughter, for example, was failed by the health system. Seven months after, he hasn’t healed. Now, consider a poor Nigerian who has been failed numerous times by the health system, uncountable times by the job industry, many times by the education system. Imagine the travails of a man who has lost his wife because he couldn’t afford first-tier healthcare, whose children are out of school because he couldn’t pay their fees, whose family has been thrown out by his landlord because he couldn’t pay his rent. Many years of multiple frustrations will convince him that there is better life abroad, and he’d rather die trying to get it than remain in penury in Nigeria.
In case Nigerian public officials do not know, many of them are culpable for the death of these migrants. By their daily abdication of their responsibility to take decisions in public interest, by filling their pockets at the expense of building the structures that could have kept the dead migrants back in the country, by constantly travelling abroad and experiencing the way normal societies work yet failing to replicate the same at home, by their blithe contempt for the life of the common man so long they and their families are sorted, so many Nigerian public office holders — not all — have blood on their hands. The migrant’s life doesn’t mean a thing to the government, but no problem; karma hasn’t stopped being a bitch!
Soyombo, Editor of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), tweets @fisayosoyombo