Friday, 7 June 2013

All quiet on the north-eastern front

During the long years of military rule the Nigerian press was consistently singled out – along with civil society organisations – for fulfilling its role as ‘the people’s parliament’ in its opposition to what Wole Soyinka called ‘this denigration of the popular will’ that had reduced Nigerians to ‘a second-class breed of humanity’. The military itself was quick to return the compliment. Those were the days when newspapers were proscribed by decree, journalists were imprisoned for coup-plotting and the concept of ‘guerrilla journalism’ entered the national lexicon.
All that changed with the advent of democracy in 1999. In place of a once vibrant press, which was sometimes forced to publish on the hoof in order to evade the security forces on their trail, we now appear to be saddled with little more than mouthpieces for power-drunk politicians waving brown envelopes - when indeed they don’t own these same newspapers. In a ‘normal’ country, which is to say one that is at relative peace with itself and with a more-or-less coherent road map of where it is going, this would be alarming; in a country which is very much at war with itself and without any sort of map, road or otherwise, this is tragic.
Consider the following from The New York Times (5 June 2013): ‘The military just opens fire and kills people, and throws bombs and kills people, for no reason... That is why you see these people here... That is what is happening now in Nigeria.’ The ‘here’ referred to by the speaker, a shoe salesman, is a border town in neighbouring Niger, where up to 10,000 people have fled the fighter jets and helicopter gunships of the avenging military in full flow against Boko Haram insurgents. But you wouldn’t know any of this from the Nigerian press, for instance the ‘flagship’ Guardian (6 June 2013), which simply quotes the Chief of Army Staff - ‘It would... interest you to note that the communities in places where these operations are being conducted are very happy and they have been expressing their joy to the officers’ – in the course of his visit to Ebonyi State to sort out some obscure community clash that got out of hand. Coincidentally – but perhaps there is no such thing as chance – the military has also flooded Onitsha in order to ensure that the MASSOB-directed stay-at-home this Saturday is averted, the better ‘to ensure that lives and property of the people are protected’ given the people’s propensity to loot their own homes.  But that’s Nigeria for you, wahala everywhere.
More worrying still is the seeming indifference of a populace which believes itself immune to the incipient civil war in its midst on account of the fact that President Jonathan, in declaring the current state of emergency in three north-eastern states, has at last shown the resolve it feared he lacked – if only! - even as his peace and reconciliation committee continues to trundle around the country looking ever more foolish. No doubt everybody is heartily sick of Islamic fundamentalists who think nothing of blowing up churches and generally terrorising innocent people going about their business in what is already a harsh economic environment, but giving the military carte blanche merely results in the same terrorism which is otherwise deplored. Moreover, as many have already observed, a previous emergency in selected local government areas only resulted in greater hardship for ‘the people’ who had to stay at home whether they would or no. As for the terrorists, they simply relocated elsewhere, as indeed they appear to be doing now.
The problem isn’t only a Nigerian one. The War on Terror has justified any number of human rights abuses against natives and foreigners alike by supposedly more enlightened countries, including, above all, the US, which is now anxious to assist us to get rid of this scourge in our midst. Again, according to The New York Times article quoted above: ‘They are killing people without asking who they are,’ said Laminou Lawan, a student who said he had fled here 10 days before. ‘When they see young men in traditional robes, they shoot them on the spot. They catch many of the others and take them away, and we don’t hear from them again.’ As many have also pointed out, nothing is more calculated to drive the insulted and injured into the arms of the terrorist group they are supposed to be fighting.
The apparent quiescence of the populace in what is being done in its name, aided and abetted as it is by what appears to be a supine media, can hardly bode well for the civil liberties of all Nigerians as we approach the 2015 elections that some have seen as the tipping point in what is already a fragile polity. Jonathan has not hidden his second-term ambition, hence his current struggle to unseat the chair of the duly elected governor’s forum, and now the way is left open for him to use the military to achieve his ends almost a decade-and-a-half after we thought we had jettisoned this ‘denigration of the popular will’.
Seen from this perspective, the activities of the terrorists provide the perfect cover for him to achieve his ends. Indeed, there is nothing to stop him from deliberately fomenting trouble in any part of the federation and then imposing a state of emergency in the interests of ‘peace and stability’. To that end, he will also be able to count on the support of an international community which has proved itself inimical to the values it claims to hold most dear when confronted by anyone deemed to be a terrorist on mere suspicion alone. One might even go as far as to say that the real threat to our corporate existence – always assuming this to be a desirable thing given our experience so far – is not the terrorists but our own complacency.

© Adewale Maja-Pearce

Adewale Maja-Pearce is the author of several books, including Loyalties
and Other Stories, In My Father's Country, How many miles to Babylon?, A
Mask Dancing, Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka?, From Khaki to Agbada,
Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays, A Peculiar Tragedy, and
Counting the Cost, as well as the 1998 and 1999 annual reports on human
rights violations in Nigeria. He also edited The Heinemann Book of African
Poetry in English, Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, Christopher Okigbo:
Collected Poems, The New Gong Book of New Nigerian Short Stories,

and Dream Chasers.

Click here to see Maja-Pearce's page:

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