by Sam Omatseye
Last year, I caught a glimpse of one of Nigeria’s familiar tragedies. It was at the Adeniji Adele part of Lagos Island. By instalment, the residents were parting with their homes and lifestyles. Most tragically, they were going to part with their lives.
They knew this and they did not know this. They, like people in other parts of the city and the country, abided in buildings and blocks of flats with all the shadows of extinction. Surrounded by soft earth, marshes and fragile foundations, the homes threatened to either sink like a shipwreck or collapse like an Iroko tree. In whatever direction, apocalypse peered,
That day, Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola of Lagos State met with the residents. It was part of a plan to relocate them before tragedy did it for them. If he relocated them, it would be to a home on earth and in the safe precincts of Lagos. But if tragedy relocated them, it would come like a thief in the night, and they might be in heaven or hell, or whithersoever they believed – my words! The response to the governor of example, who used tamer, conciliating register, reflected the quiet desperation of the inhabitants. The unanimity to his plans underpinned not just their plights but also those of other Nigerians whose homes sprang up into blocks of flats built without an eye to standards and the future. Down in their psyche, they knew they perched narrowly between life and death.
That is why Nigerians should not take slightly the gratuitous debate about the standards of cement in Nigeria. Cement was always a part of the vocabulary at home when I was growing up because my father, Moses, was a sales manager in a major cement company in the country. I cannot forget his perorations on the value of cement in installing the civilised world. Cement is modern home, modern office, modern infrastructure, modern joy and fear. So its abuse vouchsafes us to cataclysm.
So if the Standards Organisation of Nigeria is calling for a standard cement grade to be world class at 42.5 and some manufacturers are sticking to 32.5, we should worry. The SON has said that 32.5 is for pasting, and 42.5 for blocks. Yet, some of the cement makers are saying we have used 32.5 for 54 years. That is 54 years of tears. The sort that we have seen cause tragedies around the country. It is not just a matter of housing for me. It is a matter of standards.
We have always lived, especially in the past 15 years, with the substandard. It pervades our whole life. We live with fake drugs, fake furniture, fake food, fake water, fake lovers, fake priests, fake politicians, fake elections. Because of that, we have Nigerians, rich or poor, who now crave makeshift in place of quality and longevity. So when those in the board rooms are counting their humongous profits, they should realise that real lives are involved.
It is the real horror in homes. It is not for nothing that true horror movies happen in homes. Some of the homes are posh and luxurious. Others are derelict, hollow and abandoned. Whether it is the animal-sponsored fear with crocodiles or dogs, or the child-inspired trepidation, the tragedy of the house is the greatest tragedy. It is the shattering of intimacy, the loss of the basic unit of society, the implosion of the cell of civilisation.
I visited last year The University of Toronto, the first time since I left in 1992. I was in the graduate residence known as Massey College. It was as though I left the place six months ago. Everywhere remained as intact as in 1992. One of the officials who accompanied me to the suite I lived in as a student said that was the plan of the founders: to maintain the quality.
In western societies, standards are not up for compromise. The My pikin scandal that rocked the medical world in Nigeria is the same as the crisis of poor elections. Our education system has lived with what former president George W. Bush called the soft bigotry of low expectation. Just as Aliko Dangote has insisted, unlike others, that his cement is 42.5, others should follow suit. We need homes that do not fall. We want homes of laughter, not disaster; of faith, not fear; of solid walls not waiting for wailing.
While some Nigerians are gung-ho about celebrating our centenary, they should realise that some countries have passed an age of bellyaching over standards. They take it for granted. Rather, they are itching to reinvent the world. The United States is now working on a new technology known as quantum computer, which will disrupt the world as we know it, from aging, to robotics to health care. It ramps up the current digital world of ones and zeroes by collapsing them into one unit. The CIA, NASA and Lockheed Martin are now investing in it. Rather than go up, we are grappling with the false version of what the world wants to leave behind.
One thing that characterises this ominous addiction is the China syndrome. Now Nigerians go to China to make the counterfeit versions of world-class, blue-chip goods from electronics to fabrics to footwear. They have flooded the market, with the consequence of not only suffocating local initiative but also endangering our lives and currency.
A new survey shows that while we gape for China goods, Chinese citizens pooh-pooh even the top brands like Gucci or Chanel in their country and prefer to buy them in the United States and Europe, buoying those markets.
So if the world standard for cement is 42.5 as SON and Dangote have insisted is 42.5, then it is high time we criminalised any firm or group that insists on anything lower. It is not about the figure. It is about quality and safety of lives. I still recall the clear-eyed curiosity of the Adeniji Adele residents as they returned to their homes of quivering safety, and I still shudder.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Sam Omatseye/The Nation