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State of the Nation: Impunity got us here (1)

The foundation of the security troubles in Nigeria is often misconstrued to be owed to the shenanigans of politicians. That is partly true. It is impunity that got us here. However, the politicians are us. We jump queues. We bribe our way through. We steal examination papers for our kids. We have scant regard for property rights. We forge documents. We sell our votes. With little recourse to the oft-tainted law enforcers, citizens take the law into their own hands.In this column series, I reflect on Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s 2021 novel “Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth”, a satirical rendition of what is a most bizarre living experience of many Nigerians. Soyinka uses fiction to depict the trap most Nigerians, curiously even the highly educated, supposedly refined and well-to-do, fall into with seers of all sorts as they try to gain a conjured up spiritual advantage that is no more than an affected phantom engineered by the nefarious networks that benefit from such superstitions and needless metaphysical machinations.

Soyinka masterfully shows how the strange problems that beleaguer many Nigerians are not necessarily mere coincidences. Instead, an elaborate network of people across classes and vocations commune in a conspiratorial web to lure unsuspecting victims towards utopian larger-than-life solutions when more realistic and sustainable resolutions could be achieved by patient and diligent exertion. A strange beheading during a forced bus commute, a lizard strangely lands on his head, his old rickety jeep breaks down on the day he is at the wheel, having relieved his driver to a 3-day leave, when just before, a black cat had taken residence on its bonnet: These are some of what motivates one of Soyinka’s protagonists into the waiting arms of a conjurist clothed in the garb of clerical probity. These incidents were not entirely random, of course. There was an element of the nudge.

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The targets, usually of some wealth or standing in society, are thereafter pressured by wisdoms from trusted affiliates towards seeking solutions from, unbeknownst to the hapless victims, people who were the original authors of their perturbations. Many Nigerians have personal examples. You could be on a queue at a fuel station and suddenly be harangued by a latecomer for an undeserved spot at the head of the line. A road contractor could simply use your lawn as a dump for his tools in the knowledge that a resolution of his impropriety would take too long to matter. In mass transit buses, popularly called “Danfo” in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, the conductor’s preoccupation tends to be how to filch his passengers of a part of the fare. Fuddle the numbers a bit, a shouting march ensues; a naira here and there, it begins to make sense. Best to embark with the exact fare in hand. In mosques and churches, many religious leaders collect tithe and sadaqah without giving proper account. In their case, it is not so much that the collections are pilfered as it is they are spent for the upkeep of the beatitudes, who flying First Class, say, has increasingly become demeaning in their eyes. A private jet is more befitting.

The Nigerian experience is filled with many examples of this strangeness and our culpability in its entrenchment. Yet, we are also the ones quick to lament the poor state of the country, the lack of jobs, the rampant corruption in places high and low, and the continued insignificance of the vote. Impunity underpins all these. Ask a Nigerian why he is behaving so, and the resignation you encounter is so jarring beyond bewilderment. In response, many acquire firearms, join occultic associations, become politicians! Their subsequent successes vindicate the “wisdom” of their “misguided” decisions. Point to many a Nigerian of timbre and calibre today, the probability that the person is either a criminal, corrupt, or involved in politics is very high. Young people, longsuffering without employment despite higher education soon realise their penury might endure if they do not similarly “wise up” to this Nigerian reality.

A vicious cycle results. Northern youths take up arms to kidnap friends and friends of friends for ransom. Thereafter, they graduate to becoming taxing authorities, garnering more “revenue” than some subnational states! Others take an even more extremely violent and fundamentalist path. The result is Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria and banditry just near west, a malady that has begun to spread south to central Nigeria, the main agricultural belt of the country. Similarly, in the southeastern part of the country, where citizens are still yet to recover from the ills of the civil war barely more than half a century ago, schemes learnt during the war long evolved into international criminal networks, have found utility in the secessionist agitations over there that increasingly involve indiscriminate killing of civilians, including those the agitators are supposedly fighting for.

The ill wind has depth and breadth. Herders rampaged farms in southwestern Nigeria with impunity till finally the fatalistic population came to its senses and enacted anti-open grazing laws to still shaky enforcement. But not before allowing a power vacuum that saw the emergence of a pretentious rascal attempting to usurp the legacy of sophistication in the region built on the back of incarceration and strategic patience of leaders past. Even this southwestern oasis is increasingly at risk of running dry. For instance, in my part of Lagos in southwestern Nigeria recently, one new tenant decided to “disappear” the lawn of her neighbour out of sheer provocation. What was she expecting in return? There are many such silliness around. The estimation of the aggressor is that the typical Nigerian would give way, entrenching the aggression, with the pecking order re-arranged in favour of the hooligan. In some cases, dastardly violent acts by the victims ensue, who instead decide topreserve their place without thought for the potentially life-damaging consequences, becoming bandits, Boko Haramists, and secessionists, say. Soyinka’s exposition is not really fiction. It is the Nigerian reality. One we shall explore here with history.

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