No emergencies here By Aisha Yolah

On November 10, 1935 a house in London’s Wimpole Street caught fire. London, the crowded capital of the United Kingdom, had an efficient fire service. After all, this was the great city that had survived all manner of disasters since its founding by the Romans, including the great fire of a memorable nursery rhyme (that is echoing in my head even as I write).

Fetch the engine, pour on water

A next door neighbour used his telephone to try to call the attention of the city’s firemen. This being 1935 England, the phone system was still being operated through an exchange operator. You would call the operator who would then connect you to your destination. The good neighbour’s call was put on a queue. By the time the operator could attend to him the fire had spread irredeemably. Five women died. Enraged, the neighbour wrote to the editor of The Times. The government enquiry that followed, resulted in the setting up of the world’s first emergency line – 999.

This emergency line – the system, technology and even the numbers (digits) chosen – were the result of a rational and logical process looking to the greater good. “The choice of 999 was because in the dark or in dense smoke, 999 could be dialled by placing a finger against the dial stop and rotating the dial to the full extent three times. This enables all users including the visually impaired to easily dial…” (Wikipedia)

Where deaths are not in vain

It started with the death of five women by fire and the anger of a concerned neighbour, whose sense of compassion and civic duty spurred him into action. The action – publication of a ‘mere’ letter – was sufficient information to galvanise action by those in authority whose mandate to work in public interest is real.

Most of the rest of the world’s nations have followed suit with setting up emergency call lines – except for the most backward and poor of countries. Since that day in 1935, who knows how many lives have been saved, helped or rescued the world over, through the establishment of emergency response systems that use the telephone? All because of a good neighbour and rational politicians who really ‘sprang into action’! (E.g. Australia – 000, Brazil – 190, 192, China – 110, Europe (most) – 112, India – 100).


Societies work if leaders work

British politicians in debate at the House of Commons  always give one a sense of how much effort – intellectual and emotional – has gone into creating the Western democracies that we so admire. Their political and intellectual class strove to evolve systems, processes and a society that works. (Current economic troubles prove only that there are no perfect human systems and that therefore a functioning society is always a ‘work-in-progress’). This way of always aspiring for better and working hard towards it, is why even my countrymen have been migrating to Britain and the West in droves.

And what have most African Politicians been doing? Many have worked hard. And such countries are functioning ‘works-in-progress’.  For instance, Ghana has a number of emergency lines for ambulance, Fire Service and Police, namely 193, 192, and 191 respectively.  South Africa uses a single line: 10111. Note: an emergency line is simple, easy to remember, generic and toll-free. Confusing digits, long or personalised GSM numbers are not emergency lines.

Good systems are made.

The British welfare system – the unparalleled National Health Service (NHS) – did not just happen by accident or a fluke.  As the former Vice President of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar would say, good things don’t just happen, they are made. This, his 2011 campaign slogan, did not however, resonate with his own party who seemed to prefer the sing-song ‘good luck to you, good luck to me’ of the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. President Jonathan won the party’s nomination and is today running Nigeria. His general election campaign slogans offering ‘fresh air and transformation’ I suppose, were more …tantalising.

My country, Cartelopia, where net worth determines citizenship, does not have a functioning emergency line. This is not because Cartelopia is too poor to afford one or too backward to figure one out. There was an emergency line once – 199. I remember using it about twenty years ago – though the policeman at the end of the line hung-up on me when I informed him that our house had just been attacked by armed robbers. (The police complained that they did not have transportation to come to our rescue, let alone catch anyone.)

States of emergency

Apart from armed robberies, fires, building collapses, other possible crises like plane crashes, today Cartelopia is beset by an epidemic of kidnapping, bombings and a hideous terrorist insurgency. People are dying in numbers every day. ‘Unknown gunmen’ take human life as though they were shooting pigeons – even in provinces where a so-called state of emergency (?) has been ‘declared’ for months and months.

In November 2011 there were whispers –given the generalised state of insecurity – that emergency call centres would be set up. We are in June 2012. Nothing. The politico-businessmen who rule Cartelopia believe emergencies exist only to give maximum powers of harassment to security forces.

An emergency is defined as a sudden crisis requiring action. Since Cartelopia’s leadership believes in good luck rather than action, protracted crises is today our lot. Late last year, this column lamented at length that it was a little cynical  for all our security forces –from the secret police to the armed forces – to be constantly pestering us for cooperation and information without a functioning toll-free, generic emergency line for the country (Finally, SOS on Security).

From bad to worse

Until this security disaster befell us the police in particular have never really cared to facilitate communication with the public. We ordinary people did our best to stay clear of this corrupt and unpredictable police preferring to rely on neighbourhood surveillance (vigilantes), gates, guards and prayers.

Now , for nigh on two years they have been telling us that ‘security is everybody’s business’ and that  we should ‘inform’ them whenever we see or hear anything resembling a terrorist threat, no matter the risks to self. As the Minster of the Interior, re-echoed this week ‘we should share intelligence…so that together we can be secure.’

Still no emergency call centre

Yet, something as basic as a reliable, secure and easily accessible emergency call line does not exist. As all public services have crumbled, so has the very concept of public safety. Billions have been spent on security ‘gadgets’ that have little or no relevance where the basic building blocks of public security are missing. The minister of defence proudly tells us Cartelopia has agreements signed with no less than 17 other countries to help ‘secure’ us. No doubt certain coffers will also be filled securely.

I leave you with what one of those 17 countries currently thinks of Cartelopian security (see

“Avoid all but essential travel to the Niger Delta states of Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta, and Rivers; the South-eastern states of Abia, Edo, Imo; the city of Jos in Plateau State, Bauchi and Borno States in the northeast; and the Gulf of Guinea because of the risks of kidnapping, robbery, and other armed attacks in these areas. 

“Violent crime committed by individuals and gangs, as well as by persons wearing police and military uniforms, remains a problem throughout the country. … Since January 2009, over 140 foreign nationals have been kidnapped…. Local authorities and expatriate businesses operating in Nigeria assert that the number of kidnapping incidents throughout [the country] remains underreported.”


Aisha Yolah, a development economist, journalist and public affairs analyst writes from Abuja.



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