• Thursday, May 23, 2024
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The sad story of ‘Junior Pope’

The sad story of ‘Junior Pope’

This week’s column was going to be about OJ Simpson, his life and his recent death, and the complex emotions you had shared that day, long ago, with the people who lined the motorway cheering ‘Go, Juice!’ as his white bronco ran ahead of the chasing police and press pack after the murder of his estranged wife and her friend, while Larry King ran a live commentary on CNN. Or it was going to be about the new, young President Bassirou Diomaye Faye, his two ‘First Ladies’, and the promise of a new beginning for Senegal.

But a news item out of Anambra State knocked everything else out of kilter because it hurt you to the bone and evoked, once again, a sadness about your country, reminding you how much would need to be done in the new dispensation to make things right. It was the drowning death of Mr John Paul Odonwodo, a.k.a. ‘Junior Pope’, and three others in a boat accident on their way to shoot a film.

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You did not have the privilege of knowing ‘Junior Pope’, though a prominent figure in your household assured you he was a talented actor with a strong presence on social media. Your attention was drawn to a trending video he was reported to have shared on the same river on the day before the accident, in which he was riding in the bow of a boat, recording himself on his phone as he urged the boat pilot not to drive too fast as he had three children he wanted to be alive to bring up.

For context, in the time since the death of the Junior Pope, there have been other drowning deaths of less famous people—in Lagos and in other parts of the country. Drowning is one of the commonest causes of death in Nigeria, as in many parts of the world. It has remained so since over a century ago, when Dr. J.K. Randle, sitting on the upper floor of his posh residence on Broad Street, Lagos, observed the regular commotion as the bodies of market women who drowned on their short daily trading commute between Marina and Apapa ports were brought to the shore, with much wailing and screaming. As a concerned citizen, Dr. Randle decided to build the J.K. Randle Swimming Pool and to donate it to the people of Lagos. It was probably the first public swimming pool in Nigeria. He hoped the market women would learn to swim and so save themselves. Sadly, in the market, women did not learn to swim. But that is another story.

It is a cause for great sadness that four young Nigerians lost their lives in utterly preventable circumstances in Anambra, on their way to Asaba, last week. It has been a lugubrious exercise, surveying the events and reactions of officialdom and the public in the aftermath of the tragedy, which suggests to you that nothing has been learned and nothing is likely to improve.

 “The unpalatable truth is that the real criminal liability belongs to Anambra State and the Nigerian nation, which have allowed and will continue to allow the various gaps evident here to happen.”

There is, for instance, no evidence that colleagues and bystanders at the scene of the accident had any knowledge of how to get water out of the young victims’ lungs or carry out cardio-pulmonary resuscitation.

Instead, an unconscious Junior Pope was taken to a mortuary and a herbalist, in whatever sequence. There are photos of a beautiful hospital with neat corridors and gleaming equipment where he eventually ended up. There is even a photo of him with the leads of an ECG machine attached to his body. But, by then, he was long dead, clearly. The ‘window period’ for survival in a drowning accident is only a few short minutes.

It fell to the Federal Inland Waterways Authority (FIWA), and not the Anambra State government, to make definitive pronouncements about the tragedy.

An official statement declared that the Anambra Police have ‘begun investigation to unravel any criminal liability in the cause of the deaths of John Pope and others.’

The unpalatable truth is that the real criminal liability belongs to Anambra State and the Nigerian nation, which have allowed and will continue to allow the various gaps evident here to happen. Citizens are not deliberately encouraged to learn about CPR. Citizens believe, in this day and age, that they should take an unconscious victim of drowning to a herbalist for spiritual’ mumbo-jumbo’ instead of a hospital. The public is not targeted with education and information to deter such behaviour, with the enforcement of clear-cut regulations, and with the imposition of stiff penalties for non-compliance. And there is an absurd ‘federal’ Constitution that takes away a state’s responsibility for regulation and enforcement on its waterways in favour of a remote ‘federal’ entity.

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In such a context, the ‘Law and Order’ pronouncement from Anambra police, like the promised investigation of the Nigeria Safety Investigation Bureau (NSIB), is a case of medicine after death. If there is no safety protocol that has been enacted as law in the state, it is difficult to see how anyone in this sad matter can be prosecuted for ‘negligence’. If it is not mandatory by law for boats to be of a certain standard and to be well maintained, if safety jackets of the right quality are not mandatory for boat owners and passengers, even the publicised outrage of the Actors Guild of Nigeria and its suspension of moviemaking in riverine areas will be mere knee-jerk reactions without lasting benefit.

But if the death of Junior Pope and the other young creatives in this wasteful tragedy is taken as a wakeup call to galvanise state and federal governments to begin deliberately building knowledge, structures, and services, backed by appropriate legislation, to enhance the safety and survival of riverine travellers in Nigeria, some good may yet come to the nation and its people from the tragedy.


May the souls of Mr. John Paul Odonwodo and the others who drowned with him rest in perfect peace.