PHCN: Electrocution or execution? By Abimbola Adelakun

Electrocution or execution

Some years ago, by just a few tardy minutes I missed what could be described as a horrendous and atrocious sight. Around Mangoro area of Lagos, a man had just died. Eyewitness accounts said he had stood by the bus stop waiting for a vehicle when a “naked” or “live” wire fell on him. He was electrocuted but he did not die immediately. His body caught fire and after much agonising moments of screams for help, he fell to the ground where he eventually died. For a long time afterwards, I was haunted by that image of him lying on the ground, his charred remains silhouetted by the white powdery residue of fire extinguisher that had been sprayed on him by a security man of a nearby organisation.

The man was not identified and materials that could indicate his personhood had been burnt in the fire. Not long after, a pickup truck arrived from a government agency. They put the body at the back of the vehicle and drove away. The crowd that had gathered gradually dispersed, each going his way while talking about the misfortune that had befallen this soul like they were snacking pop corn with active gums. Some cried. Some stamped their feet on the ground. Some tried to understand the strange coincidence of that event – why him of all people? Why did the wire fall on him? As is typical of such gatherings, they put down the reason for his death on some metaphysical forces.

With such explanations shared out, it was easy to see why those in that crowd could not make the connection between the death of that man and irresponsibility of public agencies responsible for supplying the community with energy. They probably did not see that in place of that man could have been their own lifeless bodies, victims of same administrative negligence. When stories like that happen, even the Nigerian media is mostly content to reduce the account of the death to sensational stories, snack-y and cheese-y for an apathetic audience to chew on with superstitious teeth. The death of Ms. Oluchi Anekwe has followed this pattern – she had a premonition of her death; she wrote it on her social media pages; she prayed hard; she was coming from church; she was a first class student etc. Barely anything that pushes the envelope, barely anything that compels us to do more than stamp our feet in anguish before writing “RIP” on social media pages and moving on.

Ms. Anekwe had died when a live wire fell on her as she was returning from evening mass. Her tragic death, I confess, hit me in a most indescribably painful manner. A young bright woman with high aspirations leaves home and never returns because of a series of events that should never have happened. How do you end up dead so needlessly? But is that not the story of Nigeria? We are daily killed by events that should never have happened if someone had not slept on duty, if someone had not thought lives were cheap enough to throw away.

Electrocution, by the way, is not novel in Nigeria.

People have been electrocuted and for the most part, their deaths have gone unredressed. In February this year, a PHCN staff was electrocuted in Delta State and this September, in Lagos, another PHCN official was electrocuted. A number of innocent people have been killed but how many of these deaths have resulted in socio-technological and legal changes in the Nigerian landscape? It is not as if there have been no attempts but the trouble with Nigeria is that we have many great laws and decrees and powerful body languages but they achieve very little. In one instance, there was an attempt at redress. In 2013 in Benue, a judge ordered the Power Holding Company of Nigeria and Jos Electricity Distribution Company Plc to jointly pay N25m in damages to the family of a man, Akpenwuan Chia, who was electrocuted by an errant electricity cable in August 2012.

In 2008, the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission gave electricity distribution companies a 45-day ultimatum to submit their health and safety audit report of their installations. The commission claimed that the directive was necessary considering the high number of incidences of electrocution in the country. Like is typical of media reports, that marching order quietly receded from the newspaper pages without a follow-up on a resolution. Did, for instance, these electricity distribution companies submit their health and safety codes? If they did, was there follow-up on them to ensure compliance with best practices everywhere? How frequently are the compliance tests carried out on them? If, however, they failed to submit those reports, what were the legal and institutional implications?

In 2009, the same NERC claimed that following the death of the 65 people who were electrocuted in the previous years – 23 in 2007 and 42 in 2008 – it was embarking on the demolition of structures erected on electricity transmission and distribution networks by some people. At the workshop where this promise was made, the NERC administrator, Imamudeen Talba, disclosed that the safety guidelines and standards that were being used in the industry were last reviewed in 1988! It was safe to conclude therefore that safety practices were virtually obsolete. Health and safety issues are not ones where you rely on old ideas and plans. They are constantly reviewed to meet the demands of the times; which was obviously not the case here.

In September 2013, the Chief Executive Officer of NERC, Dr. Sam Amadi, threatened to start firing the Chief Executive Officers of power firms who do not take safety issues seriously. NERC claimed that its stance was based on the “unacceptable” high rate of deaths that resulted from electrocution between 2012 and July 2013. That in 2012, there were 102 deaths from electrocution across the country while another 72 people sustained injuries. In the first half of 2013, Nigeria witnessed another 59 deaths and 60 injuries. According to Amadi, the greater percentage of the electrocutions occurred in the electricity distribution companies. NERC would therefore punish those companies who were failing their health code and were endangering the public as a result.

So how many CEOs have been fired since then?

Assuming that it was possible in Nigeria to remove a company’s CEO for operational negligence, would it also not be highly significant if someone is prosecuted for instance? It seems to me that those who go to sleep in Nigeria leaving wires lying around forget that the deaths that result from these cases of negligence are actually crimes that can be prosecuted. When organisations fail to do the right thing and people die, they have not only been electrocuted but executed as well. How companies can use decaying wooden poles that are so weak they are an apology to nature, to hold up high-tension cables defies common sense. How many times are those poles checked as a matter of routine? How frequent are they replaced? How urgently do companies respond to emergency calls before a live wire electrocutes someone? There are germane questions about how this could have happened and importantly, to prevent future ones.

Now the Federal Government is sending a team to UNILAG to investigate Ms. Anekwe’s death. Hopefully they don’t stop at the level of sterile fact-finding, submission of report and leaving everything hanging. We hope they follow this through. It is important to prevent the next person from being executed – or electrocuted.