Citizen Distrust Affecting Usage Of Nigeria’s Emergency Helpline

As of 2016, the NCC had expended over N10 billion in setting up emergency communication centers but many Nigerians still do not dial 112 during emergencies for reasons bordering on lack of trust and ignorance about the existence of the number.

In Nigeria, the most common sign that there is an emergency is a crowd of people gathered somewhere (usually at the scene of an incident), some with hands atop their heads, some with their arms akimbo and others occasionally exclaiming to express shock or sympathy.

In many cases, no one in the crowd ever thinks about dialing 112, Nigeria’s emergency number.

“If I had an emergency, I wouldn’t even think about the Nigeria Police or any emergency number. I would first yell at the top of my voice and hope that a neighbor hears me, or I call a family member on the phone to come to help me out,” Deborah Onuoha tells HumAngle.

Deborah does not know the toll free emergency number by heart and expressed shock when informed that the number is active and functional. 

Uzo, a nine-to-five worker, also seemed surprised at this information.

“About three years ago, my neighbour from the next compound called the police to come to his aid during a midnight robbery. They answered and told him that they didn’t have fuel,” she said with a laugh.

“Another time, it was a different compound. They called the police, they answered and said that they were coming, but did not do so till the next morning when people around my neighbourhood gathered in front of the house.

“They were flicking their cameras and taking pictures,” she said disapprovingly.

Ifeoma, a POS operator in the Jabi area of Abuja tells HumAngle that a house belonging to her relative in Enugu, Southeast Nigeria, had caught fire. The fire service could not do anything about the situation even though they had been contacted.

“This incident took place in Enugu yesterday. People that had the number of the fire service called, but nothing happened. Luckily, a water-supply tanker that was on its way to supply water to a customer passed by that place, saw the fire and put it out,” she said.

Deborah, Uzo, and Ifeoma are not alone. Many people do not know that there is a toll free number that they can call in case of emergencies. Some others know the number but do not know it by heart.

In polls conducted by HumAngle on some social media platforms, it was discovered that there is a general apathy towards the Nigerian emergency number.

In the Twitter poll for instance, out of 74 persons, only 31.16 per cent were able to guess that the Nigerian emergency number is neither 911 nor 191. Twenty-seven per cent think it is 911, a code which is in fact, the American emergency number.

Out of 165 people, only 7.9 per cent have used the Nigerian emergency number while the remaining 92.1 per cent have never dialed it.

Is the emergency number functional?

Not many people are aware but the 112 emergency number has been in existence since 2003 (but was available in about five states at the time), after the National Assembly (NASS) passed an Act for the use of the three digit numbers as the Nigerian emergency number.

In Dec. 2019, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) launched the 112 emergency number in 17 states of the federation, including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja.

According to Umar Garba Danbatta, Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, one of the reasons for the establishment of the number is “to provide a one-stop-shop for receiving distress calls from the public and dispatching same to appropriate Response Agencies (“First Responders”) who will respond to the need of the callers.”

In essence, the short code, 112 is supposed to serve as an umbrella number for all emergencies such as fire outbreaks, flood and road accidents.

HumAngle dialled the emergency number to find out if it was functional. At the first attempt, the call center responded to the call, but the responder handling the phone was not audible enough.

At the second attempt, the call was terminated by what could have been a poor network connection.

On the third attempt, the responder handling the phone inquired how he could help the HumAngle reporter but had abruptly terminated the call upon learning he was speaking to a journalist.

Why people do not use the number

Out of 103 persons who participated in the Twitter poll asking why they do not use the 112 emergency number, 8.7 percent said that they do not use the Nigerian emergency number because they do not trust the operators to answer. 49.5 percent do not use it because they think the number is not functional, while 41.7 percent of the participants do not use it because they are not aware that an emergency number is in existence.

HumAngle conducted another poll asking Nigerians who they would rather contact during an emergency situation, and of the 88 people that participated in the poll, only 4.5 per cent said they would contact the Nigerian emergency while the other 95.4 per cent said they would rather contact family or neighbours for an emergency.

In a poll on other social media platforms, it was deduced that while some persons are completely unaware of the number’s existence, some others are aware but do not bother to try because they lack faith in the system.

“Is it not our Nigeria?” a woman asked rhetorically. “If you call them to put out a fire, they might tell you that they don’t have water in their tank,” she laughed.

As of 2016, the NCC had expended “more than N10 billion to set up the emergency communication centers in accordance with the directive given by the government through NASS.”

As at the time, the 112 emergency number was active in only five states. Today, it is active in 17 states, including the FCT. Given the current expansion, Nigeria may be losing more money daily to a project that Nigerians seem to be apathetic to.

Is there a solution?

Commenting on the issue, Confidence MacHarry, security analyst at Lagos based geopolitical risk analysis firm, SBM Intelligence, told HumAngle that the hesitation shown by Nigerians is simply because Nigeria is a low trust society.

“Trust in government is possibly at its lowest ever and it translates into service reception,” MacHarry tells HumAngle.

“Many people are not even aware that such a service exists. When it was first rolled out, the publicity got massive airplay across media channels. Over the years, the trail has gone cold. We have a whole generation growing up wondering if the Nigerian version of 911 exists,” he continues.

According to MacHarry, the only way to get Nigerians to use the emergency helpline is through a sustained campaign by the emergency services. He explains that they would have to boost the campaign by showcasing cases where someone was successfully saved through the use of the emergency helpline.

The security analyst notes that emergency first responders outside the 112 helpline must be seen to be responsible and trustworthy, as the failure of such responders, such as the Police, is “feeding into the general feeling that it (using the emergency helpline) is probably not worth it.”

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Chigozie Victor

Chigozie Victor is a journalist and a creative writer. Her work focuses on SGBV, policy and security infrastructure. The graduate of English and Literature from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka is passionate about helping audiences understand salient issues through clear reporting and multimedia journalism. She tweets at @nwaanyi_manaria

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