Forest of the Heartless

Lasisi Olagunju


By Lasisi Olagunju


“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience… Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”

Howard Zinn, author of ‘People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present,’ owns the above opinion. He was certain that it is mass suicide for a population to become generally sheepish and unquestioning. “Historically,” he said, “the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience…” And if we see in today’s Nigeria, ‘democratic’ and ‘legal’ barbed wires erected North to South to detain dissenters, it is because authorities here hate history, its warnings and its teachings.

Zinn told us that “protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.” It was protest beyond the law that defeated the military and gave us Nigeria’s fourth republic. Protest beyond (and even against the law) was the armoured tank used by the All Progressives Congress (APC) to level invincible People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in 2015. Ironies are subversive the way they creep into situations and make fools of strongmen. Is it not strange that brewers of trouble are today criminalizing their best product?

The world has several, complex layers of victims and victimization. The weak is always food for the strong in the jungle. Two weeks ago, the police rent the air (and our ears) with brutal lessons on how not to protest no matter the injustice. Obedient policemen fatally crushed Shiites in Abuja and flogged protesters in Lagos. Last week, it was the turn of the same police force to howl in protest because the army killed its operatives. The police went ‘beyond the law’ and cried and yelled for the whole world to hear. A friend said our police had repeatedly suffered at the hands of the armed forces – professional purveyors of violence. Repeatedly raped, assaulted, brutalised, beaten, ridiculed and now killed by the army, the police, like the bloodied Shiites, wailed. Should we now take the loud and unceasing protest over the Taraba killings as the police’s own #RevolutionNow?

We cannot build a just, peaceful nation by accepting what the police did to protesters in Lagos and by condoning what the army did to the police and to those gallant officers. It is sad and unfortunate and reprehensible. The killers of those policemen celebrated sallah with their families yesterday. Their victims are in the mortuary, cold and crying for justice. There will always be darkness as long as the fittest determine who lives.

One ex-US diplomat, John Campbell, recently reviewed our salad of crises and the clampdown and then said our “authorities are nervous.” He was wrong; I thought people from that clime are seers. So, he didn’t know that our government is the archetypal unmoved mover? It is thunder and lightening with all the claps. It shouts and strikes; it withers and buries all on the way, leaving its critics to wonder why. Such powers don’t get overwhelmed by nit-witted conspiracies and protests. You do not have the throne and be cowardly. Fortunately, there are video and photo evidences of the sure-footedness of our strongman and his government. The American should come study our president’s latest, cute, calm photograph – released just last week. Does a cowardly, nervous leader sit at ease, barefooted, eating, reclining, belching, in the presidential office – discounting and ignoring all the howling outside? Does a nervous president calmly hold a golden toothpick, and comb his denture of delicious power with relish?

A well connected friend pulled me aside last week and asked if I did not think the Lagos-Ibadan press axis was crossing the redline, becoming an implacable enemy of government. The question sounded like a warning – in general and specific terms. It was deja vu. We should get the message. That axis of the media and their irreverent operatives are historical troublemakers. Nigeria, its democracy and the beneficiaries (including today’s victors who were yesterday’s victims) owe them so much. But my friend said no one eats last year’s antelope in today’s soup. They need to be very careful this time around because not all leopards can be clubbed to death, he warned.

I heard him. I have always known that Nigeria is an Igbo Odaju, forest of the heartless. It is not a terrain for anyone without a father and a grandfather and ancestors of worth. There are telltales already pointing at yet another expedition pushing the Nigerian media into the long left jungle of repression and injustice. But how far can the forest owners go?

Listen to that 70-year-old woman, a fufu seller, who joined the Sowore #RevolutionNow protest of August 5 in Osogbo, Osun State capital. She was on the street, hawking her ware, street to street. She ran into the protesters, heard them, felt their message resonated with her condition and joined them. She explained later in a newspaper interview: “When I moved closer to the scene, I heard the protesters saying that Nigerians were suffering. I am a Nigerian and I am suffering. I dropped my fufu tray with someone selling soft drinks and biscuits nearby and joined the protesters.” Then she saw the police, she did not run. Why? She answered: “Why wouldn’t I stay? If those young boys were not afraid of death and they stayed there, why should I run away? I am old and do not have many years more to live but I wish to enjoy my remaining years on earth.”

She was roughened and beaten up by the police. She lost her health and her entire sales for that day. But what is her resolve? She said the police “should be ready to kill me next time there is a protest. (Because) if there is another protest, I will still join.” She is radicalized already; she needs no press or Facebook or Twitter to tell her what to do. She should be the worry of the authorities, not the press, not the ‘professional’ agitators. Those ones are old, stale and stingless. The real worry is the restless volcano of the hungry and the deprived in the bowel of Nigeria.

It is extremely dangerous in 2019 Nigeria to disagree openly with power. They tell us that not accepting obedience as the first precept is terrorism, and the courts have stamped it with an eager Amen of the indentured. The most dangerous word to use this moment is ‘revolution’; its guarded and unguarded usages birth tags of terrorism and its insidious offspring. Don’t speak it; don’t write it or you go to renewable, pre-execution jail for 90 days, they tell us. We consent and shout “Yes sir” because that is the only safe passage to safety. The revolutionary is the terrorist – that is the newspeak in 2019 Nigeria.

Should we also say then that terrorists are revolutionaries? How ingenious it would be to deck Boko Haram in patriotic garbs! Can you remember that a former PDP national chairman some years ago actually described Boko Haram members as freedom fighters? And the current avatar in power told us too (when he was a revolutionary struggler) that every shot at Boko Haram was a bullet in the heart of the North.

It is dangerous in today’s Nigeria to have an opinion. It is extremely dangerous to express that opinion without palace approval. Did you read what happened to that ex-Daily Trust politics editor who crossed the redline last week? (I don’t want to remember his name so I won’t be accused of being his friend. Do not befriend troublemakers if you want to remain a Nigerian; otherwise, you join the next train to Cameroon). This Kaduna journalist posted his opinion on Facebook; he said he was backing the southern renegades, their revolutionNow and their ‘terrorist’ politics. Their ways resonated with him, he said. He was promptly visited by the State and was put in protective, corrective ‘something’ somewhere. He needs to be weaned of poisonous ideas and be saved from his idle, suicidal self. By the time he is back, he will lead the gospel singers of obedient hymns.

But he is not the worry of tomorrow. The real threat is the old, hungry street hawker who would hear tomorrow’s cries of protest and drop her ware to join the #RevolutionNow. She is in all homes and towns; regions and religions. She is real.