Global Perspective

NEMA and the Challenge of Managing Disaster in Nigeria

Air Vice Marshall Mohammed Audu-Bida of NEMA

Can one guess what makes news in the media? Disasters: the real bad news, especially on emergencies, conflicts and strange occurrences that are either natural or man-made, are some of the newsworthy events that draw attention and influence mass readership and viewership. And guess! Nobody wishes to be a victim of adversity.

A year ago, from a seeming obscurity the Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) came to the limelight of the media, not on good news but from harshest criticisms over the loss of an aircraft, Beechcraft which disappeared in our airspace without a trace. During the period most of the editorials, news headlines and commentaries feasted on the missing aircraft, ignoring other developmental issues in the country.

Apart from the media mentions in the aftermath of the missing plane, there were also negative impressions on the agency, sometimes created by mischievous faceless writers. The director general of the agency, a retired Air Vice Marshal Mohammed Audu-Bida viewed the criticisms as challenges to be focused and devised strategies to prevent a reoccurrence or to respond immediately in case of similar emergency. Not many would be willing to work in an organization whose major responsibility is to manage disaster because of the fear of being caught in the flame of the tragedy, but Audu-Bida and staff of the agency have developed passion for the job in saving people in distress.

Though stubbornly principled, Audu-Bida’s aura of simplicity and humility influenced him to open up the agency to the as he engaged the media to regular interactions on the activities of NEMA while encouraging the formation of a staff union in the organization for constructive dialogue in meeting their obligations and demands of the public.

The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) was established via Act 12 as amended by Act 50 of 1999, to manage natural and man-disasters in Nigeria. Basically it formulates s policy on all activities relating to disaster management and coordinates the plans and programmes for efficient and effective response to disasters at national level.

It does not have a full complement of fire-fighters, security personnel, road marshals amongst other outfits to combat such related disaster-outbreaks, like fire, flooding, landslides, epidemics, communal crises, it is nevertheless statutorily empowered to mobilize and coordinate respective agencies such as Fire Service, the Police, Nigeria Security and Civil Defense Corps, Federal Road Safety Commission, Federal Ministry of Health and even the non-governmental organization like Red Cross to raise to the occasion in managing disaster in the country. This it displayed during the last communal crises in Jos, landslides in Cross River, Flooding in Kwara and Market Fire in some states by coordinating the evacuation of displaced people and providing succors to them in the forms of relief items.

Even though NEMA is widely known for distributing relief materials for victims of disaster, in its effort to deemphasize reactionary approaches to crises, one of its effective proactive methods is to educate and inform the public on disaster prevention and control measures. For these reasons it organizes press conferences, seminars and workshops regularly for different stakeholders on basic rudiments and actions to be taken on emergency situations. Past participants at some of the capacity-building programmes included community leaders, civil society organizations, NGOs, teachers, youths and students. The staffs of the agency also undertake advocacy and sensitization campaign to communities and markets to sensitize artisans and petty traders on the need for insurance covers for their wares in case of fire outbreaks so that they could be compensated over their losses.

It was at one of the workshops organized for media representatives that an idea was mooted for the establishment of a forum known as Journalists Against Disaster (JAD) to independently monitor, review and report disasters in any part of the country.

Realizing that since most disasters can be prevented through adequate education and effective coordination of voluntary organizations engaged in emergency relief operations, NEMA launched and promoted the establishment of volunteerism for disaster management in the country. So far it has mobilized and registered thousands of volunteers in its Grassroot Emergency Volunteers Corps (GEVC) and Emergency Management Vanguard (EMV). While the former draws volunteers from the local communities at the grassroots, the latter is a platform for members of National Youth Corps who are keen in making impact in disaster risk reduction. The essence of the volunteerism is to ensure that the volunteers not only engage in advocacy and awareness campaigns but with adequate training they can immediately respond to any emergencies when it occurs before the arrival of relevant agencies. The volunteers underwent training and are provided with information materials like fliers, booklets and guide books. They are also kitted.

In achieving its desire to monitor the state of preparedness of agencies which may contribute to disaster management in Nigeria, it regularly organizes simulation exercises with the participation of the stakeholders. The recent simulation was on the aviation sector which was held at Abuja International Airport. The stimulation exercise witnessed mobilization of Fire Fighters, Health Workers, Security personnel and emergency agencies struggling to rescue and evacuate presumed passengers within few minutes from a mock aircraft that was assumed to have crash-landed in thick of smoke. The purpose of such simulation exercises is to test the capabilities of the first response agencies in the event of an unexpected incidence.

Because it is mandated to collate data from relevant agencies so as to enhance forecasting, planning and field operation, NEMA continues to give early warning signals on impending disaster and epidemics. As early as January 2009 it warned on threats of Meningitis and Lassa fever before it later consumed some people in some parts of the country. It has consistently, before the rainfalls, alerted communities located along rivers and flood belts on looming water surges. Those who refused to heed the early warnings became victims of fury of the natural disaster. The agency’s forecasts are not based on mere speculations or fake prophecies but through analyses of data from various sources including the use of satellite technology which the agency has acquired.

Its proposal to have six federal universities to offer postgraduate programme on disaster management was approved by the government. With this, it achieved another feat in its mandate of coordinating and promoting research activities relating to disaster at the national level. NEMA would provide the takeoff grants to the institutions to enable them commence the programme this year.

Not many Nigerians including the press realize that NEMA has attained a Full Operational Capacity (FOC) of its Mission Control Centre (MCC) by the COSPAS-SARSAT Secretariat. The technology which is available in few countries in the world and only in three African nations is satellite-based equipment that provides distress alert and location information for Search and Rescue services, for Maritime, Aviation and Land Users in distress. The equipment employs spacecraft and regional facilities to detect and locate the signals of distress beacon. It was in view of this attainment and to avoid a repeat of a missing aircraft in our airspace that stakeholders at a meeting organized by NEMA recommended the banning of aircrafts without latest Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) beacon from operating in Nigeria. The beacon once installed sends out signals in distress situation to COSPAS-SARSAT for promptly action of relevant agencies.

As the representative of Nigeria’s government in distribution of relief materials to other needy nations, NEMA’s successes in such efforts have earned it the respect of some foreign institutions and bodies who partner with it mostly on capacity building. Recently the United Nation’s humanitarian agency, World Food Programme (WFP), visited the agency and commended its initiatives and programmes in addressing disaster related problems. WFP used the opportunity to seek a partnership with NEMA towards addressing food security in the West African region.

While the agency has succeeded in its advocacy and the coordination of emergency organizations during crises, it is finding it difficult to persuade operators of telecommunications in Nigeria to commence the implementation of 112 as the National Emergency Call numbers for quick access to assistance in distress situations. It has held meeting with the stakeholders but it seems some of the telephone operators are not willing to provide the toll free emergency call services which could link the public and response agencies. Such a service is provided in other countries free which are a link between the public and an emergency organization where distress alert calls can be received, processed and forwarded to the relevant response agencies.

The challenges of disaster management in Nigeria is everybody’s challenge, most especially the media who can use their platforms to alert the public on looming dangers of epidemics, natural and man-made disasters that are easily forecasted nowadays through advanced technology. While the media has the right to give priority attentions to big news on disaster happenings, they should also be fair enough in informing and educating the public on disaster management which is quite cost effective to save lives and properties of our people.

This article by Yushau A. Shuaib was originally published in Economic Confidential April, The Guardian April 6, New Nigerian April 6, Leadership April 6, Daily Trust April 7, Daily Sun April 8, Sunday Tribune April 12, The Triumph April 13, Vanguard April 13 and Thisday April 16, 2009,


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Yushau Shuaib

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