Coming shortly after the disgraceful bomb blasts in Abuja that robbed Nigeria of glory on the occasion of its golden jubilee anniversary, Chile’s inspiring handling of the rescue of 33 miners, trapped since August 5 in the San Jose gold and copper mine, provides very useful lessons in national character, national solidarity, values and leadership that should be of interest to all Nigerians. The rescue operation was Chile’s finest moment of the year, nothing could be more memorable and moving than that moment shown on cable television all over the world when with the emergence of the 33rd miner, the Chileans broke out in song: their national anthem, and thereafter took to the streets of Santiago and Copiapo in jubilation. For them adversity had turned into triumph and history. When President Sebastian Pinera gushed: “we did it the Chilean way”, he underscored the sense of national pride and determination that defined the entire process. You know the worth of a nation by the way it treats its citizens in difficult circumstances.

The story of those 33 miners would have been different if they were Nigerians. They would have been left for dead or allowed to die. For almost 17 days, there was virtually no trace, no contact with the trapped miners. But the Chilean authorities kept searching and when they found traces of life, they set to work determined to rescue the miners. They spared no expense, nor effort. The initial projection was that it could take four months to get to the men, 2,041 feet below the earth surface, but it took 69 days and 8 hours. Even the rescue operation was completed earlier than scheduled in 22 hours 37 minutes. The entire will power of a nation, the spirit of the people, helped to propel the rescue team to success. In Nigeria, the accident would have been described as an “act of God.” The President would have gone on television to say that “this is the work of his enemies, an act of sabotage designed to bring his government to ridicule.” All the time that the Chileans spent thinking through the rescue process mobilizing international support, would have been wasted by Nigerians on unnecessary politicization of the incident. Our ever-ready army of opportunistic soothsayers, prophets and pastors would have come forward to claim that they had previously predicted that a serious calamity involving human lives would befall the nation. No serious effort would have been deployed towards rescue services. When a C-130 aircraft crashed in Ejigbo in 1992, many of the victims were alive for more than ten hours. They were left to die. In another plane crash, as the victims cried for help, other Nigerians looted the scattered luggage. There was something in the Chilean incident about the value of human life: its sacredness. The government of Chile demonstrated that it values its citizens no matter how lowly placed. The Nigerian government may not worry itself sick about an incident involving only 33 persons out of 150 million. Our governments treat us as if we, the people are expendable. Chile is a small country of 17 million people but it stands tall on the scale of humanism. Two weeks after the Abuja bomb blasts, government still has no record of the victims, or the survivors or those who were traumatized by the incident and who may require further help. In the Niger Delta where we have had many cases of pipeline explosion and fires, the victims are often accused of inflicting the tragedy upon themselves. In cases of oil spillage which damage the ecology of the area, the blame is heaped on saboteurs, vandals and militants and the government is unconcerned about the associated tragedy. In Chile, the devotion of the government in that moment of tragedy was instructive. As each miner was successfully rescued, medical teams were available to conduct tests and to take the person to a medical facility for further examination. The Chile mission was a multi-national rescue operation: American drillers, NASA officials, media crews from Asia, South Africa, Europe and the United States; different professionals were also involved: nurses, doctors, geologists, engineers, psychologist, counselors, physiotherapists, and so on. For the next six months, the government has promised to keep the men under observation. Mining accounts for 40% of Chile’s earnings, but the ordinary miner is a poor man (earns about $1, 600 per month); in Nigeria, working class people do not get such quality official attention as we saw in Chile. President Sebastian Pinera was in charge. He and his wife stood by as the miners were being rescued. One of the miners was a Bolivian. The Bolivian President, Evo Morales travelled to Chile to show that Bolivia cares. In Nigeria, that one citizen would have been ignored: “what is he looking for in Chile, for God’s sake? – would have been the question on every lip. And if in an attempt to share out of the international limelight, the Nigerian President decides to go to Chile in solidarity with the Nigerian miner, he would as usual travel with the largest delegation imaginable with representatives from every clan and ethnic group; the cost of the travel alone would have been nearly double the entire expenditure of the Chilean government on the rescue operation! But that is if the President condescends to travel to Chile because of one Nigerian miner. During the Ikeja cantonment bomb blast in Lagos, President Obasanjo showed up at the venue of the tragedy which claimed hundreds of lives and the only word of comfort that he had for those who dared to ask him a few questions was: “I don’t have to be here!” It took the Bola Tinubu government to provide leadership at that critical moment, while Obasanjo waltzed away. Leadership is about duty. Pinera considered it his duty to stand up for the miners. So also Evo Morales. President Goodluck Jonathan visited the victims of the October 1 Abuja bomb blast in the hospital but after the photo-op that this provided, he and other Nigerian leaders began to play politics with the tragedy. There has been no talk about political gain in Chile and neither the ruling party nor the opposition saw the accident as an opportunity to score political points. Character: the foreman was the last man to exit the mine, the first rescue worker to go down was the last to return. If it were in Nigeria, there would have been a fight over the order of exit. We saw in Chile, national institutions that are capable and effective. The rescue capsule was built by the Chilean Navy. In many countries of the world, when there is a national emergency, the military are usually the first to step forward to help. The Nigerian Navy and the other armed forces are under-equipped. Our military officers are busy intimidating the public with their uniforms, chasing innocent citizens off the road with their sirens. Chile’s success rallied the people around the national flag. They could sense correctly that their country had won the respect of the world. All through, the white, blue and red Chilean flag was on display. The capsule was draped with it. On October 1, there was no excitement over the Nigerian flag.

And did anyone notice the discipline of the crowd at the rescue site? There was no riotous behaviour, no ethnic associations turning the event into a cheap popularity campaign, no sachet water sellers. There is ethnic diversity in Chile but this was not an issue. If it were in Nigeria, there would have been a distractive national argument over the rescue process. If the first man to be rescued was Hausa, other Nigerians would have protested that this is an extension of the politics of Northern domination. The Yoruba would have called for a National Conference! If there had been no Easterner among the first ten to be rescued, there would have shouts of marginalization and how Easterners are the best of the miners and should have been rescued first. If no minority showed up early enough, minority groups would have called for a Constitutional Amendment to address the mischief of the majority ethnic groups always thinking that Nigeria belongs to them alone! There would have been demands for the application of the federal character principle even in the choice of drillers and engineers. The politics of ethnicity would have been so overwhelming; the world would again have been forced to ask: what is wrong with Nigeria? Not to forget the fact that in the course of the rescue, some of the foreign journalists could have been kidnapped; some of the officials will have their pockets picked! Human tragedies which should unite us as a people, often divide us further in Nigeria. Chile, Pablo Neruda’s country, has just shown us that national character can be built through extra-ordinary moments in history. For Chile, the tragedy has been a call to action. Questions are being asked about safety and the mining industry. Top regulatory agency officials have been fired, 18 other mines have been shut down. There are plans to convert the San Jose mine into a national monument, to be a symbol of hope for future generations. In Nigeria, we don’t teach history nor do we know how to preserve it; often we miss opportunities for progress. The change that we seek must begin at the level of national character, first by our learning to value human lives and working towards preserving the dignity of man in all ways through our institutions.

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