Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bomb squad fatalism


This is one of the most horrifying things I've seen in Nigeria.

This video shows Kaduna Bomb Squad Officer Sunday Badang walk up to a bag suspected to be a bomb and poke it with a stick, with horrifying consequences.

Saharareporters are saying that this officers life could have been saved by the use of a $17,000 armour suit.

I'm not so sure of that. Firstly, in the Thai example they show the bomb is in the confines of a car, and the car could have taken some of the power of the blast. The Kaduna bomb was out in the open. Officer Badang would have been subject to the full force of the blast.

It can't be discounted that Officer Badang went because he was ordered to by a superior officer.

But there is something else. If Officer Badang didn't believe it was entirely safe to go out and poke the bag with a stick, would he have done it without further precaution? Or at the very least... some trepidation?

The Daily Trust reported Kaduna police commander Aminu Lawal said:

“If you were at the scene, you would have seen that the officer did not just go to defuse the explosive. He and his colleagues have tested the polythene bag and the area with bomb detectors before he went to defuse it. What he has done was commendable because his action has saved many innocent lives.
“The officer is a well-trained and highly competent personnel. He was involved in defusing bombs at many places here in Kaduna. You journalists can testify to that because you were witnesses when he defused some bombs at Gonin Gora and other places.
Contrary to the belief in some quarters that Badang has acted foolishly, his colleagues said the deceased took all the necessary precautions before he went close to the bomb.
“It was after he was convinced that the leather contained no explosive that he went to see the content. It was unfortunate that he was deceived by our instrument.”

Clearly this is a different definition of the phrase "all necessary precautions", from the one in common use across the rest of the world as we know it.

Even if the machinery used for a test came back with a negative for explosive residue on the bag, clearly that's not a reason to walk up and poke it with a stick without taking further precautions than ones shown in Officer Badang's death.

I don't know for sure, but I suspect that if you spoke to bomb squad officers around the world, you would find few who would go to a suspected device as Officer Badang did, even if a test had been done and returned negative.

But the Nigerian police disagree. Why should the Nigerian definition of "all necessary precautions" be so much different to the rest of the world?

A Nigerian friend, when I shared this video on Facebook, said:

"Here's what I think - never mind who's asking: life out here is so desperate that fatalism has become cultural for us. Unfortunately, for us, death has lost its horror - completely stripped of its mystery!"

I think my friend is right, a degree of fatalism has come to live in the hearts of many Nigerians. It manifests itself in the many things that people do every day in Nigeria, which to an outsider appear to be devoid of what we might call "common sense".

But that is slightly different than saying "life is cheap" or suggesting that people in Nigeria don't care for their lives or the lives of others. Far from it.

In Nigeria, culturally, the belief in charms with the magical power to protect, is common; among the educated as well as the illiterate.

To me, investing power in a totemic object of protection is an indication that you value life, but that the forces that influence it are wild and unknowable.

If what the police commander says can be trusted, this officer's mistaken belief that the bag did not carry explosives comes from a faith he placed in the test for explosive residue they carried out on the bag.

Has this officer simply placed an unconditional belief, not in a charms but in a piece of western-provided machinery, and bypassed what you or I might identify as "common sense"?

When people's charms don't work, the reaction from others is that somehow they were not invoked correctly by the user, not that the concept of the charm itself was misplaced, and there really is nothing to be done.

In the video we briefly see Officer Badang's colleagues, looking away, not really knowing what to do.

It has been suggested to me that they might be in shock, and that is true.

But to me, the faces of the onlooking policemen say one thing: Nothing to be done.

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