A few weeks ago, shamed by the inaction of the police after I had reported the presence of a rotting corpse in a gutter not far away from a police post in Ikeja, I wrote an article entitled “the worth of a Nigerian life”. Some of those who read that piece criticized it; perhaps because of the rather critical tone, while others; who felt I had a right to be critical of government failings, praised it.
Despite the article—which I endeavoured to post to several national and international group pages on facebook, published in my blog and two leading Nigerian online media—it took about three weeks to move the body, then thoroughly decayed, from the gutter where it lay. It was a painful episode for me, for overcame with self-doubt, I constantly tried to reassure myself that by reporting to the police, I did enough.
Though it is surprising that a corpse would occupy a busy road with people walking and driving by with only a shake of their head, but even the police, who I presumed were mandated to handle matters like that, were culpable in the general apathy that pervades the Nigerian sphere.
I know it might sound absurd to anyone who does not live in Nigeria or has not spent considerable time in the country, but in truth, seeing dead bodies by the roadside is common enough to elicit the earlier mentioned reaction from the populace. Proof that this statement is factual can be inferred from the fact that on 15 December 2011, a few weeks after publication of “The Worth of a Nigerian Life”, I was again at a police post reporting another corpse lying in the middle of a busy road, this time in Agege.
The intention of again writing about this issue is to bring to light my attempt to find answers to why our society have gotten so thick skinned about death and even kids are allowed to look at death and think of it as commonplace. The issue on discuss here is not the fact that many of the police officers at the station were baffled at my taking the time to report the incident even though the dead man was not an acquaintance, a friend or a relative. The issue I intend to address is the extreme laxity with which everyone—yes everyone—handles issues of corpses on the streets on Nigeria.
Unlike what I did during the other incident, this time I reported to an established police station and went as far as seeing the DPO and getting him to instruct that the DCO go to the scene and investigate. It does not bother me much that it took the police about one hour to get ready to go investigate something that is a short walking distance from their station. It also was not much of a bother that I was asked to write my name, address and phone number or that the tone many of the officers used when addressing me sounded more like an interrogation than conversation. However, it bothers me that there appears to be no laid down procedural guide for police officers to follow on matters such as this, or if there is, many do not know it or choose to ignore it.
Yes, many of the police officers sounded and acted sorrowful about the apparent demise of a fellow citizen, but they were not willing to put off their personal plans to do anything about it. Therefore, after explaining why I was at the station repeatedly, I got remarks like, “why not go and report at the general hospital? They have ambulances for things like this”; “you should have gone to the local government or Alausa”. Baffled, I had thought to myself then, these guys are the law keepers, how come they are sounding like I should be doing their job?
However, some police officers felt I did the right thing and it was with two of them, The DCO, a female plainclothes officer and a female photographer (most probably a civilian) that I finally went back to the place where the corpse was.
The DCO who gave his name simply as Mr Thomas inspected the body and declared that there was no visible injury and judging from the emaciated nature of the corpse was probably a case of “sudden and unexplained death”. As we walked back to the station I inquired from Mr Thomas about something that has been bugging me for years, “who exactly has responsibility of removing corpses from the streets of Nigeria?”
While I was expecting the usual shifting of responsibility, Mr Thomas agreed that the police have a lot to do with it but that much of the responsibility lies with the local councils who have a unit for that. My intention was to stay with the police and make sure something was done, but Mr Thomas promised to contact the council and make sure the body was moved immediately.
The lady in pink is a police officer and Mr Thomas's hand is to the right of the picture
I continued onwards to my office, feeling elated, that I had put the wheels in motion and left the right designated drivers with the steering wheel. As with most things Nigerian, it was not surprising that my elation turned out to be premature, for heading back home later that evening I passed the body, laying there, on the same spot. After a not very happy night I woke up with a determination to give the day over to finding out exactly why corpses are left to rot on the streets of Lagos even though a law was passed not so long ago to curb situations like that.
The Ojokoro LCDA office is located in street-ward facing flat on the first floor of this building. the sign post is the green one with white lettering
My first port of call was the Area Development Council office at Ojokoro where an attentive staff told me they were not aware of the situation and immediately put a call through to what he said was the phone number of the person in charge of matters of that nature in their LGA headquarters at Ifako/Ijaiye. With the person at Ifako/Ijaiye admitting that he was aware of the situation, having being informed by the police the day before, I asked what was holding them back from removing the body and was told that they were waiting for a police report before they can act.
Baffled by the dilly-dallying when hundreds of schoolchildren must have been exposed to the unflattering scene on their way to school and back, I thanked the helpful LGA officer and decided to check back with the police station. There, a visibly annoyed Mr Thomas expressed sadness that the body had not been removed even after he had expended his personal phone credits to get in touch with the person responsible in the Local Government office.
My decision to go to the seat of the State Government in Alausa Ikeja after talking to Mr Thomas, stemmed from a sense of helplessness and a determination to find answers about the actual arm of government responsible for cases like this and the right procedure when confronted with such. One tricycle and bus ride later, I was in Alausa proper and was immediately conscious of the aura of importance that perpetually hung around the place. Quick questions, deft responses and pointed fingers led me after several false self-starts to the office of the Lagos State Environmental Health Monitoring Unit (SEHMO). Before then, someone had given me an emergency number (767) that was to my surprise answered at first ring by a female staffer that courteously took details of the incident and promised to dispatch someone to go pick the body. At the SEHMO proper, one Mrs Oyewumi who attended to me informed me that I was actually at the right place and that they had just received information about the body from a dispatcher. To reassure me that they were on top of the situation, she took me to their head driver who was at that moment arranging to go pick up the body, apparently the lady from the emergency office called them with the information I gave her.
I left Alausa happy, envying the bags of Christmas rice that could be spied here and there, knowing that the chances of the body being moved was this time more closer than before.
Not that this justifies laxity, but as I left Alausa, I wondered at the crisp environment and the professional manner of the Lagos State Secretariat workers compared to the grimy, dilapidated nature of the police station and the local government office I went to before. I took one thing away; the working condition must surely play a role in how workers perform. The people at the SEHMO lived up to their promise as the body had already been removed by the time I passed that route on my way home later that evening.
The well groomed environment of the Lagos State Secretariat, Alausa
The promptness of the people from Alausa was a breath of fresh air, and a reaffirmation of the mantra that Lagos, even if only at the state government level, is working. However, one prays that something drastic is done about the way the citizens of Nigeria and the Government treat the dead. This is not just a call to heed the health implications of leaving animal and human corpses to rot on the streets, but also that we remember our culture and what should be human nature—respect for the dead, who, lacking the ability to HELP themselves, depend on us.