By Lasisi Olagunju
(Published in MaTaZ ArIsInG on Monday, 25 October, 2021)
I read Camara Laye’s ‘A Dream of Africa’ in secondary school. I still see the sky-high gate of his walled Africa; the murderous giants and guards; the cowering captives, terrorized and traumatized in their condemned prisoners cells. I remember the homicidal, militant ‘nationalists’ and the ‘revolutionary’ tyrants. I see homelands in the throes of fear and turmoil. The prisoners are many but the love of self won’t let them band together and throw off the yoke of their cruel keepers. The guards are hawkish but few, yet their many victims see no answer in rearing together to freedom. The African story is a dream of mass suffering, frustration and fruitless flight from torture and death at the hands of terrorist giants. It is a story of certain disaster, a crash that would happen while the people abet their tormentors. The novel, published in 1966, says that was the future fate of Africa. That future is here, tragic and certain as the prophecy. The hero’s dream genie was right and prescient; it was correct.
The writer is always a dreamer; a prophet. And Camara Laye was not the first storyteller to see the future. George Orwell, author of ‘1984,’ like Laye, the African child, had a vision of sorrow in tomorrow. His own prescience, however, covered the whole of human skies and his rendition of that vision is grueling and painful in its reality. Hear him: “There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always, — do not forget this, — always, there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever.” Orwell’s 1984 was published in June 1949. I hold, strongly, that the prophet’s vision was of today’s Nigeria. This is a very hard time to live.
‘The crime scene at the heart of Africa’ is the title of an editorial published last week by ‘The Economist’ to the discomfort of the Nigerian government. It is an attempt at dissecting the conundrum that Nigeria has become. I am interested here in the last of the 12 paragraphs of the piece: “The biggest barrier to restoring security is not a lack of ideas, nor of resources. It is the complacency of Nigeria’s cosseted political elite — safe in their guarded compounds and the well-defended capital. Without urgent action, Nigeria may slip into a downward spiral from which it will struggle to emerge.” Did you notice the warning in the last sentence?
Terrorist governance has mutated before our very eyes. The spiked boot of life is on the face of the helpless Nigerian. He is down and bleeding. The government is doing its own inadequate things in Abuja; bandits and terrorists are in the forests unleashing plagues on everyone of any value. They shot down a jet in Zamfara; they have paved almost all the roads as expressways to hell. Last week, they added to what we knew of their ruinous ability. They attacked a train and our rail lines in Kaduna. They have taken over the broad road to the farm and the narrow path to the stream. The question then arises: where now is the road to survival – and to escape? They are not done with us. Still last week, ‘unknown gunmen’ dashed across the Niger into Western Nigeria. On Thursday, they engaged soldiers in a shootout in Ikole Local Government Area of Ekiti State. The police said they abducted three persons during the confrontation. The following day, Friday, ‘unknown gunmen’ were in Akure, Ondo State where they abducted two schoolgirls at the gate of their home. Later same day, ‘unknown gunmen’ invaded a Nigerian prison in Oyo town, Oyo State. They shot their way in and freed over 800 inmates. What kind of country is this?
The state knows only what it wants to know. Shall we ask: who were those villains of the night who outgunned the Nigerian state in Oyo? Are they really unknown? Should they be unknown for more than 24 hours to a 21st century state? Reports said they were many and they came heavily armed. Was that not how Boko Haram started in Borno and Yobe; and the bandits in Zamfara, Sokoto, Kaduna and Katsina? How did the gunmen arrive in Oyo town undetected? Yorubaland is a very urbanized part of Nigeria. Oyo town, surrounded by a tangle of towns and villages, is just 51 kilometers to Ibadan, the state capital. You cannot travel five kilometers along that route and around Oyo Alaafin without entering a major settlement. And there are police checkpoints everywhere. Yet, no one saw the slithering terror as it came visiting. Is Nigeria so sure these are mystery men?
Fyodor Dostoevsky, 19th century Russian novelist and essayist, has an advice here: “above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect, he ceases to love.” Amidst all the horrendous happenings being harvested daily, the Nigerian state has a solution: It is asking the media and all storytellers to stop writing bad news about bad things – because they are no longer bad. In his Eid-el-Maulud message last Monday, President Buhari called on the media “to address the tone, content, and standards of reporting into security and safety measures.” He said “time has come to revise the prefix ‘rising insecurity’ with ‘declining insecurity.'” He added more sternly that “the reality of ‘declining insecurity’ should replace the inaccurate narrative of ‘rising insecurity’ in the country.” I do not seem to understand what the president is asking the media to do here. It is not raining, it is pouring; and we are out here with no roof over our heads. How do we then deny that we are drenched? Where I come from, there is a bird called Ayekooto (the world rejects truth). It says it at it sees it. But truth-saying has always been dangerous. And you remember what happened to Cinna the Poet in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar? On Saturday, a journalist, with cynical satirist fingers, typed a private message on the Oyo prison attack: “The correct headline of this story should be, ‘Firecracker men visit Oyo prison, take all prisoners out for picnic.’ What happened in Oyo on Friday was not a jailbreak. It was a terrorist attack. How do we ‘manage’ that story?
There is this character in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.’ He is asked if his name is really John. And he answers, standing rather proudly: “I could deny it if I liked. I could deny anything if I liked.” That is the character that has wormed itself into the heart of our state and its operatives. Did you notice how the government scrambled to play down the terror attack on the Kaduna-bound train and the rail line? How will a denial prevent the next attempt from an unrelenting enemy? This government denies anything it wants to deny. If you caught it in bed with its neighbour’s wife, it would shout: “it is not what you think.” It has no trouble calling its dangling dick corncob. What the media gives to Buhari and his government is not hatred; it is duty. If the president gets up today and makes assessment tours of scenes of attacks. If he flies one of his numerous jets to Ibadan in sympathy with victims of the Oyo attack. If he goes to Kaduna and rolls out measures to prevent another attack on rail lines and passengers. If he lands in the east with a message of peace, fairness and justice. If he declares bandits of all tribes and tongues as terrorists and leads from the front doing the job of a war-time president, the media will clap for him. It was one of the reasons he became president in 2015. But he promised a secure Nigeria, and it is not happening and his people think that failure should be fatal and the fatality should go unreported. No. It should not happen if the living would live beyond now.
We all know this government needs help outside its circle of bumbling cousins and nephews. It is employing denial as a self-help strategy. Its operatives want a passmark outside the pigeonhole of truth. Like failing pupils, they are copying the correct arithmetic answers from the back of their Larcombe. They said a key solution to our insecurity is for the media to start playing down bad news. And, I fear, some ‘journalists’ are echoing that thinking already. “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another,” celebrated American novelist, Ernest Hemingway tells people who think exactly as our government does. We are in a ditch, the way out for us is not by being pentecostally ‘positive’ that we are out in the safe field. We are not. We are trapped in an interminable spiral of violence and bloodletting – and terrorism of the worst strain. We need a lot of noise and shoutout to rescuers. The Federal Government should get up and work; the media is not the problem.
There are so many perks of office and enjoyment in the president’s office. Nigerian presidents (Buhari and his successors) need to take more than gold and diamond benefits from this presidential democracy. There are ropes of presidential empathy and responsibility with the Americans who gave us this system of government. Our leaders should learn leadership from the authors of what we run. In October 1983, a suicide bomber murdered scores of US Marines in Beirut, Lebanon. The lion of President Ronald Reagan roared out of the White House. He “stood in a downpour on an Air Force tarmac” literally calling the shots against the murderers. Reagan would recall this as “the saddest day of my presidency, perhaps the saddest day of my life.” That was a president. Let our own president – and those scheming to take over from him – go and read Bill Clinton, George W. Bush; Barack Obama; Donald Trump’s reaction to the many security challenges their country faced, home and abroad. They should read Biden’s tough take on the murder of American troops at Kabul airport in August 2021. “We will not forgive, and we will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” vowed Biden. And it was not an empty promise. The murderers paid within that week.
I listened to the Oyo State governor, Seyi Makinde’s broadcast to the state on the Oyo prison attack. He spoke well and I saw him doing what President Buhari ought to do. The governor said he was using the opportunity “to put the citizens on alert.” He said there was “no better time to repeat the call to action: if you see something, please say something.” Governor Makinde “directed the security agencies to deploy personnel to critical national assets within the state and to monitor all entrance and exit points across the state.” I think that was leadership, prompt and firm. But how much of control has the governor over the security agencies? Has Abuja, with all in its arsenal, said or done something specifically useful and impactful on this incident? Oyo is too far and too remote to Abuja for anyone in that city to feel the pangs of the carnage. Nigeria is a structural tragedy. A soldier was killed; an Amotekun operative was murdered. There are several others in the hospital critically injured so that we all may be safe. The governor has visited the injured; his government is paying the bills; he has mourned with the bereaved families. But, where is our Commander-in-Chief?
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