Human Cattle, Not Capital

Nigeria’s rulers behave as if the country’s residents are mere cattle. In fact, there’s a chance that they see Nigerians as worth less than animals. Two or three events from the last two weeks illustrate the point.
First, there’s the flooding that deluged wide expanses of land in numerous states, and (by some estimates) killing more than 150 people. The natural disaster has hardly registered on the brains of those who run the country, at the federal, state and local government levels. President Goodluck Jonathan has not bothered to visit any of the worst hit areas. Nor has his government come up with a coherent plan to ameliorate the condition of millions of displaced victims. In times of crisis, nature-inflicted or man-made, Nigerians are left to their own devices.
State governors have hardly displayed more compassion. Governor Peter Obi of Anambra received praise for wading through waist-high floodwaters to see the devastation. That was a commendable first step. But did the state government offer any help after the photo-op moment? Many hapless residents of flooded communities insist that they never received any relief whatsoever. It was all gesture, little or no action.
If the victims’ claim is true, then the state government can have no excuse for inaction. Why take the pains to capture a people’s agony in Technicolor, only to walk away with indifference? What about officials of local government councils? If any of them rose to the occasion to bring succor to flood-ravaged communities, then it’s been a well-kept secret.
You can tell a country that takes its citizens seriously by the official mode of response to disasters. When a mudslide buries a mountainside village in the Philippines, or an earthquake shatters a remote region of China, you can count on an official response that is swift, well coordinated, many-pronged and sustained. When this is not the case, the citizens wax indignant. Take the example of President George W. Bush. The man’s flat-footed, lackadaisical response to the suffering unleashed by Hurricane Katrina on millions of Americans in the Gulf Coast has forever tainted his legacy.
In Nigeria, by contrast, victims of any disaster must know that they are “on their own.” If a president or governor deigns to cast them a sympathetic glance, Nigerian victims are expected to immediately forget their woes. They are then to launch into effusive praise of the big man. If they demand concrete help, they are chastised for bad manners and accused of ingratitude.
Do I exaggerate? Hardly! We need only revisit the spine-jangling explosions at the Ikeja cantonment in late January 2002. The explosions and the ensuing panic claimed more than 1000 lives. Despite the scale of this horror, then President Olusegun Obasanjo saw fit to scold survivors who demanded to get more than mere presidential words. Mr. Obasanjo ordered these distraught hecklers to “shut up.” Then he reminded them, “I didn’t need to be here to see anything because my being here will not solve anything…I don’t need to be here.” Later, he apologized, an extremely rare moment of presidential contrition in Nigerian history.
October 1 is ostensibly the grandest day in Nigeria’s political calendar. It commemorates the day Nigerians (as the saying goes) achieved independence from imperial Britain. But Nigeria’s story is thoroughly bereft of inspiration. That’s why many view the so-called Independence Day as a misnomer.
Last week, October 1 became a nightmare. As the president and governors assaulted Nigerians’ sensitivities with rehashed, unimpressive speeches about the prospects of a failed country, heavily armed assailants struck in the town of Mubi, Adamawa State. In an operation carried out with morbid efficiency, the armed thugs executed some forty people, many of them students at the Federal Polytechnic in Mubi.
For me, the killings themselves were not the most disturbing part. The more troubling fact was the ease with which Nigerians seemed to move on. Nigerian newspapers treated this blood-chiller as just another “incident.” The world media, used to the frequency of acts of sheer evil in Nigeria, appeared to yawn and look the other way.
On July 20, an apparently deranged American graduate student sneaked into a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and opened fire, killing a dozen people. For two weeks, that crime held the attention not only of the American press but also of much of the western world. It went to prove that, in many countries, human beings still count for something.
Not in Nigeria.
Here’s a bet I’m willing to make: In many parts of the world, if some anonymous gunmen had shot 40 cows, goats or chickens, the act would have generated more press than the Mubi killings. Alas, Nigerians and the world are now accustomed to senseless slaughters of humans in road accidents, armed robberies, and terrorist attacks. The deepest reaction to such all-too frequent gruesome events is to pause for the briefest moment, to shrug, and then to move on.
On the part of the Nigerian government, the nonchalance is compounded by cynicism. After each dastardly episode of what’s become Nigeria’s blood-drenched soap opera government officials dust up and release the same tiresome statement. They “deplore” the horror, promise that law enforcement agents would apprehend the perpetrators, assure Nigerians of the government’s “resolve” to continue to “maintain law and order” and ask the people not to “panic but to continue with their normal lives.”
Civilized people recognize students as a nation’s most treasured asset, highly prized human capital. Not in Nigeria. Our students and youths in general are esteemed no more than cattle. That explains why few Nigerian reporters, editors and people lost sleep over the cold-blooded massacre in Mubi. The victims were not “stakeholders.” None of them belonged to the league of “prominent Nigerians” or “political chieftains.” There was not a single “political godfather” among the executed youngsters. None of them was a candidate for national honors. So why worry? Why should anybody but God care?
And God, exactly, is the refuge of Nigeria’s human cattle. Recalling the harrowing experience of the bloody night, a lecturer at Mubi Polytechnic gave a wrenching glimpse to the Daily Sun. “Nobody could come out, scream for help or do anything,” he wrote. He then added: “It was an outright waiting only on God, knowing you are unarmed and defenseless.”
Those who misrule Nigeria want it that way. They are content to abandon the harangued hordes of Nigerians to a divine security plan. Meanwhile, they barricade themselves behind tall, reinforced concrete fences and bulletproof cars. They move with a fearsome retinue of guards, soldiers and police.
They don’t realize that their so-called security is a lie, a huge illusion. They don’t reckon that the monster abroad in the land is growing stronger and fiercer by the day, and will soon lay siege on their doors. But their reprieve is only temporary. We are all in this mess together, the chieftain and the minimum wage earner.
There’s no inoculation against the ravages of nature any more than there’s immunity from the rampaging murderers such as unleashed mayhem on Mubi.
More than a week ago, Nigerian newspapers and websites reported that gunmen had kidnapped Hope Eghagha, the Delta State Commissioner for Higher Education. I was stunned by the news. Mr. Eghagha, a PhD in English, is a quiet giant of a man. Our paths crossed in 2002 when I taught at the University of Lagos as a Fulbright lecturer. The university had failed to assign me an office. Not to worry: Hope invited me to use his office.
Nothing gave him greater joy than to read lines of poetry, some of them his own composition, to the small audience of faculty, students and friends who would gather daily in his office. I came to recognize him as an exuberant spirit, a generous and gregarious man who delighted in both journalism and literature and who loved to tell stories and to shake with loud, hearty laughter.
At the time of my writing, there’s been no further news about Hope. Why, I wonder, have reporters, academics and officials of Delta State maintained silence on such a high-profile kidnap? Is it a case, again, of a nation that puts little or no store in its human capital? Are we so fatigued by our unceasing suffering that, like our man The President, we just don’t give a damn?
I hope that Hope would have been released by the time this column is published. If that’s not the case, I use this medium to plead with the abductors of this fine man to set him free today.

Okey Ndibe

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