Nothing speaks better to a time like this than the message embedded in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’. Particularly in the Southeast. I have deployed the 18th century poem by German writer and politician, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe several times on this page. It tells a compelling story that begins as an old sorcerer departs his workshop, leaving an apprentice with chores to perform. The apprentice, who had apparently observed his master at work, enchants a broomstick to help him with the task of fetching water, deploying a magic he was not yet fully trained in.
Although the magic instantly began to work, the apprentice soon realised he did not know the command to make it stop. And the more he tried to control the enchanted broomstick by splitting it into two with an axe, the more he compounded the problem as each of the pieces took up a pail to fetch water at twice the earlier speed. Eventually, after much damage was done and the entire house submerged in flood, the old sorcerer returned to break the spell.
In the world of scholarship, it is generally believed that the story captured in the poem embodies a powerful moral about the danger of setting in process forces over which one may have no control. And it has been used by philosophers and writers, including Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who, in ‘The Communist Manifesto’ alluded to the poem while comparing contradictions within the capitalist society to “the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”
When the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) madness began in the Southeast with pronouncements of ‘policies’, including a sit-at-home command in all the five states, only a few foresaw the danger ahead. But I recall that the former Enugu State Governor, Chimaroke Nnamani, who is currently a Senator, warned of the consequences. “How does enslaving our people, denial of means of livelihood add value to our quest for equity and justice? If others reject us, should we also reject ourselves?” Nnamani asked. “In our struggle for equity and justice in the Nigerian federation, we cannot inadvertently inflict more injuries on ourselves by this sit-at-home. Let wise counsel prevail.”
Sadly, because wise counsel did not prevail, that initial order soon gave rise to brutal enforcers deluded by IPOB into believing they would occupy political positions once Biafra was realized. Not long after, these hoodlums masquerading as ‘unknown gunmen’ turned the entire five states into a killing field. At the last count, dozens of prominent people have been hacked down in broad daylight. Two weeks ago, for a third time within a period of 12 days, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) office in Imo State, was attacked by gunmen who killed no fewer than five persons, including two policemen. That the attack came on the day INEC started distributing Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs) to registered voters suggests the motive of the perpetrators.
With INEC officials as well as police, military, and security personnel at risk, conducting elections in the region is becoming increasingly difficult. But the real tragedy is that this kind of fire is easier to ignite than stop. Nnamdi Kanu has been in detention for almost two years. In his absence, Simon Ekpa is giving orders from Finland where he resides with his family. Of course, it is the poor and uneducated (those who live at the margin of society) that are being manipulated to becoming foot soldiers for this ill-defined cause while Ekpa, who has repeatedly threatened that there will be no election in ‘Biafraland’ next year, calls the shots from the comfort of his residence in Europe. This confirms my oft-repeated thesis that there is a class.
Meanwhile, as I pointed out in the past on this issue, we must admit that hate speech is never self-driven. It erupts when signals in the political space dredge up buried subliminal impulses. Biafra, as I also once argued, is an emotional injury in the Igbo collective psyche. While memories remain a nightmare that members of the older generation don’t want to relive, the younger generation romanticizes it for different reasons. I understand that the IPOB cause, especially among Diasporan supporters, is tempered by below-the-radar issues, hence difficult to deal with. As one writer surmised, “The most dangerous part of an iceberg is not the part you can see, it’s the part you can’t.” But it should also have been obvious that the violence being canvassed by IPOB offers no practical solution to any problem, real or imagined.
As things stand today, the largely IPOB initiated violence in the Southeast has created fertile ground for all manner of mischief motivated by diverse factors and interests. Many politicians in the region now have fully armed private armies of thugs that periodically clash among themselves in a contest for supremacy. For all you care, the ubiquitous ‘unknown gunmen’ may be free-range criminal gangs on paid missions for politicians and disconcerted business interests. Official security personnel are also reportedly having a field day in extra-judicial executions in the name of enforcing law and order.
The more far-reaching implication of the violence in the Southeast is its impact on the 2023 general election. Homegrown or ‘imported’, violence in the region could disrupt and disfigure both the process and outcome. If the violence leads to low voter turnout as many predict, it could be read as a voter suppression strategy by political interests. If the election is completely disrupted, that will be interpreted by IPOB and other separatist interests as a triumph of their agenda. Meanwhile, the ordinary people would see either of the two scenarios as further evidence of the exclusion of the Southeast from the Nigerian equation.
Whichever way we look at it, the situation in the Southeast today requires the intervention of an ‘old sorcerer’. I hope there are enough stakeholders in the region who can collaborate with relevant authorities to play that critical role.
From President Muhammadu Buhari to Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu and other prominent Nigerians, there is hardly anybody who has not expressed outrage at the death of a legal practitioner, Mrs Omobolanle Raheem, killed by a policeman on Christmas Day in the presence of her husband. I commiserate with the family of the deceased. But it is important for us to understand that this is not an isolated case. It is a recurring tragedy and will continue to be so, unless we find lasting solutions to a problem that is systemic.
There is hardly any Nigerian who has not, at one time or another been accosted by a policeman who would threaten to “waste” the person, often without provocation. Unfortunately, police authorities apparently do not see the correlation between such mindset and the number of Nigerians who are indeed being wasted by the callousness of their personnel. Two months ago, there was an uproar on Twitter, following a tacit endorsement by the Police Force spokesman, Olumuyiwa Adejobi, to verbal assault. “Is there any reason for a police officer to threaten to shoot someone when the said person is not armed or poses any threat sir?” a Twitter user had asked the spokesperson. He responded: “Mere words of mouth do not constitute any offense. Take note please. Let’s read the law. There are decided cases on this assertion, even many popular cases that one can cite here.”
What Adejobi doesn’t understand is that these are no mere words. They constitute a threat which ordinarily means “a communication of intent to inflict harm or loss on another person.” And they have been carried out again and again by trigger-happy police personnel who believe they are licensed to kill. Dealing with that will require re-orientation, beginning with the recruitment process and training, including in weapons handling. But as I have also argued on this page, we should ask ourselves whether we have not unwittingly created a situation in which many of our policemen, having themselves been brutalized by the state and society, are now lacking in compassion when dealing with fellow citizens. That is one of the issues we need to address if we are to deal with this menace that has been with us for decades.
Upon assuming command as Inspector General of Police in February 2012, Mohammed D. Abubakar, held a session with senior officers to highlight his priorities. But he started by painting a sordid picture of what Policing had become in Nigeria. “The Nigeria Police Force has fallen to its lowest level and has, indeed, become a subject of ridicule within the law enforcement community and among members of the enlarged public. Police duties have become commercialized. Our men are deployed to rich individuals and corporate entities such that we lack manpower to provide security for the common man,” Abubakar told the senior police officers. “Our investigation departments cannot equitably handle matters unless those involved have money to part with. Complainants suddenly become suspects at different investigation levels following spurious petitions filed with the connivance of police officers. Our police stations, State CID and operations offices have become business centres and collection points for rendering returns from all kinds of Squads and Teams set up for the benefit of superior officers. Our Special Anti-Robbery Squads (SARS) have become killer teams, engaging in deals for land speculators and debt collection.”
The then IGP was not done, as he catalogued infractions associated with police personnel: “Toll stations in the name of checkpoints adorn our highways with policemen shamelessly collecting money from motorists in the full glare of the public. All of these and so much more have gone ahead under the direct supervision of all of you seated here today! Justice has been perverted, peoples’ rights denied, innocent souls committed to prison, torture and extra-judicial killings perpetrated and so many people arbitrarily detained in our cells because they cannot afford the illegal bail monies we demand. Illegalities thrive under your watchful eyes because you have compromised the very soul of our profession. Our respect is gone, and the Nigerian public has lost even the slightest confidence in the ability of the police to do any good thing…”
More than a decade after that public lamentation by the retired IGP, I doubt anything has changed. But while we speak of a few bad eggs within the police, it is important to also acknowledge that we have many professionals who risk their lives for us. On 22nd February 2017, for instance, there was a bank robbery in Owerri that claimed the life of a policeman whose family was abandoned until the footage of the CCTV camera which captured the incident went viral. In the video clip, Sergeant Chukwudi Iboko was seen engaging the robbers in a gun duel, killing one of them before he was himself shot. He died the next day from the wounds. Regrettably, if the case had not been brought to the public, his family would have had to carry their cross alone like many of their colleagues, including two other Sergeants who sustained injury from the same operation. We need to bear that in mind, especially at a time like this when the police are under scrutiny.
Therefore, beyond bringing the killer of Mrs Raheem to justice, we must deal with the bigger issue of police reform in Nigeria.
I wish all my readers a prosperous year 2023.
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