Friday, 26 July 2013

Whose country is it anyway?

Earlier this week the Lagos State Government packed 70 people into either a trailer or three buses (the stories differed) and drove them overnight under heavy police escort to Onitsha, where they dumped them. According to their own testimonies, they were arrested on the streets by officials of Kick Against Indiscipline ‘for alleged wandering and other minor offences’ and taken to a warehouse-like structure in Ikorodu Town, where they were initially held for a number of months. Some among them were said to be insane, unable to remember their names or where they originated from. The idea seems to be that they were all beggars although at least one among them claimed to be a petty trader and another an office worker. A terse statement by Lateef Ibirogba, the Lagos State Commissioner for Information, denied deporting anybody on the grounds that ‘everybody has the right to live in any part of the country’ while nevertheless ‘emphasizing that people must live within the law’, a non-sequitur if ever there was one and the reason why I choose to disbelieve him, especially since he is contradicted by, amongst others, the Red Cross officials who attended to the deportees.
Besides, this is not the first time the Lagos State government has shown its disdain for legal niceties, an irony given that it is headed by a SAN. It wasn’t so long ago that a different set of officials from Alausa descended on Epe and demolished over 200 houses while the matter was still pending in the courts. But we need not labour the point. This is the nature of the Nigerian ruling class with its disdain for the people from whom it derives its mandate - and never mind the claims of the party concerned. A ‘progressive’ in Nigerian politics must be measured in relative terms, which is why we are happy when a few roads are repaired and a few trees are planted, desirable though they are. It is one of the tragedies of Nigeria - perhaps the mother of them all, as it were - that our standards have fallen so low that we celebrate what others take for granted.
Nor need the story be literally true in order to resonate with so much that is wrong with Nigeria that it might as well be true, beginning with the vexed issue of who is and who is not an indigene, and whether any of it makes any sense. As the unforthcoming Lagos State commissioner acknowledged, any Nigerian citizen is free to live anywhere they like in Nigeria although bitter experience has shown otherwise; and it is hardly surprising that many of the comments in the few newspapers which carried the story should draw the obvious conclusion: ‘This is the beginning of sorrows, kill them in the North, deport them from Lagos...’ The only mitigating factor, perhaps, is that there is at least one Igbo representative in the upper echelons of the offending state but then he’s a ‘Lagos boy’ and a politician to boot, hence his silence, at least in public.
Then there is the matter of uniformed officials wandering about the streets arresting their fellow citizens under the pretext of a colonial relic we thought we had jettisoned but made worse in this case by the area-boy nature of the exercise. Since when did state officials usurp the powers of a police force which the state government itself has no authority over, much to its chagrin, and rightly so in a federal structure. And not only arrest but detain for months on end. This would amount to kidnapping in saner climes, and a capital offence in the US we pretend to model ourselves on, although given what the US itself gets up to, what with forcing down foreign presidential aircraft for wandering about the open skies, the lesson in hooliganism might have been learnt only too well.
But all this is wearisomely familiar. The police themselves are just as casual about the rights of Nigerian citizens who they routinely kidnap for ransom, as a visit to any police station in the country will demonstrate. This much is given and only made possible by the passivity of those they do this to. After recounting her harrowing story, the office worker quoted above thanked her God (always God) that, ‘I am now free and I want people to help me so that I can find my way home’, grateful perhaps that she wasn’t among the 29 she claimed she saw die during her incarceration. And there the matter ends. The media which broke the story have moved on to the next outrage, the human rights community is otherwise busy with more pressing concerns (pressing, that is, according to the criteria of their foreign funders) and the insulted and injured have little faith, less money and no time to invest in a criminal justice system which can in any case be safely disregarded by those who have done this to them, as who should know.
And then, of course, there is the all-pervasive, ever-present ethnic factor, exemplified by this very case; as another commentator put it: ‘Keep on fooling yourself with false propaganda that Igbo developed Alaba and Idumota, just go back and developed [sic] your Eastern region, Yoruba should not waste their resources to cater for miscreants and destitutes [sic] from Igbo States.’ In fact some of the deportees were apparently from other parts of the country, and few in any case were from Anambra itself, but these are just the details. In the meantime, the Senate President is trying to explain how it was that he and his overpaid colleagues were blackmailed (his word) into approving underage marriage, and the First Lady is seeking to impose her preferred candidate as the next governor of Rivers State even as she battles the incumbent with the help of the police commissioner. Why, it’s enough to make your head spin.
© 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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