“I mean we were out to look for job and not to be treated like refugees.”
In the wake of the hullabaloo that greeted the unfortunate death of more than 19 applicants at the charade recently organised by the Nigeria Immigration Service, NIS, I reached out to Evelyn Abiodun, my niece, who participated in the event at the National Stadium, Abuja. Below are extracts from her account of the tragedy:
“Exams into Nigeria Immigration Service holds (sic) Saturday, March 15, 2014, at 7am in your preferred exam state. Come along with a comfortable fitness wear” was what we were told. Harmless message, so it seems, but with unexpected consequence.
“The day before the ‘exercise’, Friday, the 14th of March, I set out early to get all the necessary requirements ready. The preparation included shopping in the market for a pair of white shorts and shirt, white socks and running shoes. I also went to a government-owned hospital to obtain my medical fitness pass. I had arranged all my credentials, read up some past question papers and headed to bed with my alarm set for 4am the next day.
“At 3:50am, earlier than my set alarm time, I was up from my bed, as I couldn’t put my head to rest from revising and envisioning how the day would look like. I was ready at exactly 4:45am, waiting for the taxi I had hired to come and pick me up at 5am (which cost me more than I would have paid anyway). I took off for the venue of the exercise, National Stadium, Abuja. In my excitement, I was already wearing my sport wear in the taxi because I couldn’t afford to be late or sloppy as a result of not being properly dressed before the exercise would take off.
“On getting to the venue, my head stopped thinking for a while. I was startled by what I saw. Thousands of people were already at the venue! What! At 5:30am? What were they all doing overnight? Watching the clock tick all night? Or they just woke up earlier than I did? I thought that was shocking, not until I waited 10 more minutes to see troops pouring in. And it wasn’t even 6am yet! Then, the reality of how the day would look like kept sinking into my head. I was beginning to panic at the sight of the crowd alone. It then dawned on me that this must be the jungle for ‘the survival of the fittest’ – although many people didn’t seem qualified to me (they were so old, I could have sworn they were my grandparents’ age-mate).
“As the day went on, at 7am, there was no more air to breathe, even in an open space. I was suffocating many times, as well as the rest of us. Hungry and confused, (I didn’t have breakfast because I thought we were actually going to do a fitness test), I walked around, assessed people, listened to their conversations; at least, I thought, to console myself that the crowd might actually reduce, as I saw many people who didn’t meet the requirements and there could be other reasons to disqualify many. I saw a good number of pregnant women and nursing mothers. What were they doing in this kind of exercise?
“We were tossed around like ‘zombies’ most of the time. Walking and running around, whichever direction the crowd was going, even if we didn’t hear any firsthand announcement from the officers present. Yet, there was no sign of us actually getting into the stadium and we were drying up under the sun like damp clothes, with the officers watching helplessly across the gates. We waited and kept the hope of getting into the stadium, but no sign, not even a simple address from any of the officials present. Like marooned people, we were left alone and confused for hours!
“Sometime around 12noon, to my greatest astonishment, I saw people climbing over the gates to get in. Suddenly, we were all struggling to climb the gates together; it looked to me like it might be the only way into the stadium anyway. Men and women struggling to climb and jump over the gates; it was a jungle indeed! As I tried to squeeze myself through the squash, then I noticed they had opened a small gate on the other side. I began to change my direction towards the gate instead. But that was also not an easy way to go, as it was tightly guarded by the crowd of people trying to get through. Many sustained all kinds of injuries in the process of struggling, but I was lucky to have made it in one piece.
“Having finally made it through the squash, what next? We were told to sit according to our qualifications – higher degree holders were to sit upstairs and the rest to sit downstairs. I made my way upstairs and noticed all the seats there were as dusty as a desert. The usual struggle was not as bad as it was downstairs. I got my seat cleaned and sat down, awaiting the next call. We’ve been seated for more than one hour now; I was thirsty, hungry and tired at the same time.
“I later went down to get something to eat and drink. The prices of refreshment had astronomically increased! Gala (usually N50) was sold at N100; Nestle bottled water (usually N100) sold at N200; pure (sachet) water (usually N10) was sold at N50. The most ridiculous of them all, a pack of jollof (white) rice with no meat and obviously no flavour was sold at N300! Why? N10 pencil was sold at N50, for those who didn’t come with their writing materials. Some people thrived on the suffering of others and were making cool cash on the spot. So sad!
“As we sat, we noticed ambulances going in and out. People were being rushed into ambulances. Some of them had sustained serious injuries, while some had lost their lives in the midst of it all. May their souls find rest. That was the saddest point of the day for me. We still sat there for hours; no sign of anything going on at the venue. Everybody got impatient and frustrated at the long silence and lack of empathy shown to us. I mean we were out to look for job and not to be treated like refugees.
“In no time, the anxious crowd started doing things to keep themselves busy. Some of the applicants entertained us with performances on the tracks – parades, football matches (sachet water bags were turned into football), running competition, funny kung fu practices and so on. I was sitting up there, clapping and hailing them (out of boredom). But as I watched people perform, I came to a realization: we actually do have many wasted talents in this country. If people could be so creative and entertaining, why on earth are these talents not adequately trained and utilised?
“About 4pm, when everyone was tired and many had lost hope (including me), the examination kicked off. As if the wasted hours were not enough insult, the examination was the biggest of them all! The question papers could barely go round (of course, the crowd was more than the number of papers they brought in); the questions comprised 30 objective mathematics questions only. There was no supervision or rules guiding the exam – you could actually discuss the answers with the next person and just anyone around you who knew the answer. In fact, you could answer your phone calls while you write. Everywhere was noisy and rowdy. In short, it was my greatest point of discouragement because it was obvious to me that the examination was just a cover-up.
“After I had submitted my paper (only God knows what I did in there), I left for my house, looking like I just got out of a mud fight. On getting home, I didn’t even have the energy to speak with anyone as I went straight to bed. As I lay there, I thought to myself: ‘Was it really an examination or extermination?’”