Iyiola Akande is the Zonal Coordinator of the National Emergency Management Agency for the South West. In this interview with OLAOLU OLADIPO, he talks about the essence of emergency management in contemporary society, the interventionist approach of his agency since its establishment about ten years ago as well as the relationship with similar other agencies in his area of coverage as well as foreign assistance from donor agencies.
What is the responsibility of NEMA?
The responsibility of the agency is well captured in the law establishing it that is NEMA Act. It is Federal Government agency set up to tackle issues relating to disaster management in all ramifications. By this I mean to fulfill the vision of the founding fathers and the mission that has been set for it. The mission statement mandates NEMA to coordinate resources towards effective and efficient disaster prevention, mitigation and response to all types of emergencies. The essence is to ensure that the people embrace the culture of preparedness, mitigation and ultimately prevention. It was also founded with the mandate to make Nigeria less disaster prone.
How has the agency fared in terms of meeting its core mandate since it was created by government about ten years ago?
Actually, NEMA Act came into being in 1999, it coincided with the coming into being of the current democratic order. Looking back, I will like to give kudos to all the stakeholders, to the founding fathers of the agency. Before NEMA, there National Emergency Relief Agency (NERA) but when it was discovered that to give relief provisions to victims of disaster was not enough as it was mere palliatives, then came the need to address the issue of disaster management holistically. This I mean by how to manage, how to prevent it and how to respond when disaster occurs. The idea is to ensure that we nip it in the blood instead of waiting for it to happen. It was immediately realized that such was not the best way to go in terms of meeting up to international best practices. By this I mean, NEMA was saddled with fashioning strategies aimed at how to prevent it, how to manage it and to respond promptly when it occurs. That is not to allow emergency situation to occur and to give succor alone but to manage the entire chain in a more holistic manner. NEMA was then set up to fill that void, such that you can address the issue of preparedness, mitigation, response and relief.
Nigeria is a large country, how has the agency cope with the problem of responding to emergency in the country?
Nigeria is isolated from the rest of the globe, it is an integral part of it, and this goes to say that what affects a corner of the world far away will have its impact in Nigeria. In terms of natural disaster, we as a country are having our fair share of it when compared with the problems associated with global warming. Coupled with the peculiarities of the country, a nation of over 167 million, Nigeria is subject to vulnerability in terms of frequency of disasters. In Nigeria, we have both natural and man-induced forms of disasters. We must be ready at all times to take care of such occurrence when they happen, our response to fatalities must be robust, our preparedness must be top notch. NEMA has been well placed to tackle disaster in the country.
How you do this (responding to emergency)?
In the beginning, NEMA was operating from Abuja and people had to run to Abuja to get things done, virtually everybody was on his own when emergency occurred. When this became a huge challenge, the need for a zonal operating structure came into being, it became a realistic way of addressing the problem of prompt response. NEMA is now in all the six geo-political zone of the country. At the headquarters, what they do is to tackle strategic issues such as policies. At the zonal level, we have seven zones actually to take care of the six geo-political zones, so we have our presence in all the zones making up the federation. The seventh one is the Abuja operating office which was established because of the peculiarities of Abuja. This is so because of the dryness of the area and largeness of the terrain, so the Abuja office on most occasions complements the North Central zone in times of disaster management. As time went on, there was need to create area offices that would further bring the services of the agency closer to the people. The plan to establish this is ongoing.
What is the relationship between your agency and those established by the state governments?
The enabling law establishing NEMA stipulates the need for the creation of states emergency organs, since inception, we have been hammering on the need for the state governments to see the need for the setting up of their own emergency agencies. Not only that, to also ensure that these agencies are well equipped and well-funded to function appropriately. We also insist that they must have well trained personnel to man their operations. In the South West, we have four states that have set up their own state emergency agencies. We are still encouraging and Ogun and Ekiti States to put up their own outfit. That of Ondo is almost coming into fruition as the law is almost being passed by the state House of Assembly. Some of the state’s only set up such agencies only in name; these states usually rely on NEMA to assist whenever any form of emergency occurs. The law only states that NEMA can only come in when it is seen that the disaster that occurred is beyond the coping capacity of the state.
Why does the business of response to emergency so clumsy and cumbersome in the country?
This only occurs when personnel of agencies do not restrict themselves to their core duties, when emergency occurs, people who are not trained in disaster anagement will crowd the centre trying to do what they are not trained to. It is a case of trying to please their bosses who they want to assume that they are also working.
What other challenges does NEMA has in trying to fulfill its mandate?
One serious challenge that we have, especially in Lagos is the problem of traffic gridlock that personnel encounter in the course of performing their duties. When you try to make way by putting on siren, people won’t give you the right of way. The irony is that those who do this forget that these personnel they are obstructing are on their way to save a life which could be their relative. Secondly, crowd control, especially in metropolitan areas. We need to educate our people that though it could be said to be right to want to be a brothers’ keeper by involving oneself in emergency rescue operations but allow those trained for that to carry their assignment out.
What about equipment and training of personnel?
Not only that we train our personnel, we have gone ahead to engage in training of stakeholders on emergency management. I am yet to see a training course organized by NEMA where it is personnel from the agency alone that attends it. We involve all stakeholders and they all come along to participate in the numerous courses that we put in place from time to time. We even ensure that our personnel engage in capacity building even beyond the shores of the country. We are doing well also in the areas of acquiring necessary equipment and plants for our operations. I admit that equipment acquisition in a dynamic environment cannot be sufficient but we are trying our best to be up to date.
Looking at the country, which type of disaster would you consider as endemic and how is the agency meeting up with coping with it?
In some cases, man-made emergency might be very deadly than the naturally induced ones depending on the peculiarities of the environment involved. What we are trying to grapple with in Nigeria is the recurrent wave of man-made disasters. Though there is this issue of climate change which is making rainfall quite heavy globally, rainfalls are becoming heavier than what we used to witness before. But if you ask me, I will say we have more of made induced disaster than naturally induced ones. I am careful with the choice of words man made because no one will deliberately want to inflict pains of loss on himself but one can say that it is man induced due to some many factors such carelessness, negligence and ignorance.