Atomic Junction. Death. Disaster. Horror. Pandemonium again visited Ghana with this gas explosion. Ghana has a trained response to such disasters: tears, mourning, short term blame game and long term silence. A call for prayer. There is always call for prayer. Prayer is powerful. Prevention is even more powerful.
This was preventable. That much we already know.
As questions of journalistic quality swirl with emphatic statements blaming kebab sellers for such devastation, I want us to focus on more substantive matters.
Institutions. Their power. Their failure. Our faith. Our future.
Institutions. The National Petroleum Authority (NPA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These two bodies in conjunction with the Town and Planning Agency (a government agency), decide petrol station sites. For more than 48 hours, we have been treated to analysis that excuses, explains, exorts, extorts, exhausts and ultimately FAILS. Institutions fail to do that simple necessary thing that would mean prevention of the inevitable next disaster. That is: a willingness to change from business as usual.
What is business as usual?
Disaster strikes. Experts, politicians, heads of institutions and bodies visit the site and various radio stations to explain what should be inexplicable – because it is inexcusable.
It is frankly ridiculous for any focus to be on a kebab seller when the bigger question is why is he there at all? The bigger question is: why does unloading of petrol occur during such a busy time? The bigger question is: why do petrol stations continue to sit cheek by jowl with urban life, threatening our safety and lives daily? The bigger question is: what sanction does NPA face when it consistently fails its duty to sanction those who fail to adopt required safety measures? The bigger question is: what specific action and follow through was taken post the Labadi Beach gas explosion? The bigger question is: why can’t we make safety regulations and law retrospective when lives are at stake, futures have been snatched and and failure has occurred already?
Blame games serve no-one. Accountability, responsibility, sanction, consequence, changes. That needs to be the order of this day. It always has.
There are bigger questions. There are too many Whys? There is the inevitable ‘next time…..’
News from NPA that 300 safety auditors will be deployed is unhelpful. News of this government’s commitment to fresh policy is unnecessary. Both fail to fully address the actual issue.
We have an enforceability problem. We have an implementation issue. We think follow up and follow through really means do nothing. And we slide back into deadly routines. That is except those who wake up daily to loved ones buried in graves marked institutional failure, inexcusable inaction and insincere institutional commitment that change is coming.
My profession the media could contribute powerfully to ending this cycle.
It is the body that stands between the political gas guzzlers who exude momentary outrage but lack long term implementation or political will; the business men for whom petrol stations are profit and who essentially invite us to put profit before people; and we the people who insist on putting our lives at risk as we seek to earn a living. Investigative journalism, campaign journalism, activism journalism – the kind that sends journalists to petrol stations, and the NPA that asks different questions, that minimizes the expert analysis and does the crucial work of follow up, follow through, name, reveal, shame, follow up again and again. This is the bread and butter of journalism; the type that perseveres, persists, follows through, follows up. Unrelenting and unapologetic.
Ghana is not an island. Petrol stations and safety is not a unique issue for us. Others have faced this, grappled with it and resolved it. Why not Ghana?
What if we asked different questions? What are other questions we should ask as media but don’t?
Ownership. Who owns these petrol stations?
Why are there so many stations? is becoming the wrong question. Who owns these stations should be our question. Why that question? Because we are a nation who can be shamed into doing the right thing; after being asked, being required and being requested but failing to respond. After that, sadly, shame works.
Lives continue to be at stake. I listened as analysts and members of the NPA explained business interests meant new regulation and law could not be applied retrospectively.
Does this makes sense? Who writes the laws in this country? Who decides whether a law can be retrospective? What weight does the loss of life hold in comparison to the loss of profit?
I am exhausted by this cycle of inexcusable failures. Aren’t we exhausted as a nation?
Good. So, let’s agree on some specifics.
On one radio station, one analyst explained that petrol stations should have safety manuals regarding leakages and evacuation procedure. The next time you go to get petrol, ask to see it. If they don’t have it – note down the name of the petrol station and its location, Tweet out the name, call a radio station and tell them. This is not about blaming the workers – something institutions are so often quick to do – it is about demanding the institution - whose duty is safety – more effectively carries out its own mandate.
What if each of us who drives a car, or is driven in a car took that one step? What if a radio station then undertook this campaign – citizens standing up, contributing to our own safety?
Isn’t it time for citizens to help ourselves and demand a different action from our institutions? Of course, the other thing that would help is the passage of the Right to Information Bill. Again, media – and citizens - could heap pressure on politicians that such disasters make this Bill a crucial shield for the public and an important weapon against ongoing institutional incompetence.
That is something that is too rarely exercised post the grief, trauma, tears and prayers of such disasters. Our blame game is short sighted and seeks easy scapegoats as targets upon whom institutions can heap blame.
This doesn’t serve anyone except those who continue to fail us but serve their own profit-filled future.
I am angry. Aren’t you? Beyond fear and sadness and mourning – aren’t we angry?
Are we angry enough to do more than complain?
Are we angry enough to do what our president asked – become citizens – not spectators – to another inevitable disaster?
We can all do one thing. What one thing will you do?