Wednesday, October 28, 2020 1:20 pm
By Adebayo Lamikanra
In 1971, I was twenty-one years old and one year away from graduating from Pharmacy School at the University of Ife which at that time was accommodated in Ibadan, just across a tattered barbed wire fence from the University of Ibadan. Life in general was much less hectic then than now but there were quite a few problems to battle with even then. The civil war had just ended and the country was in a state of flux, not really sure how to move on with working out how to get the expressed government policy of ‘no victor, no vanquished’ to work. On balance however, it has to be said that living in Nigeria could not be described as anything near cavorting on a bed of roses but it was far from far from loitering in the anteroom of hell as some may be persuaded to describe our present situation.
Whatever the situation of Nigeria was in 1971, two incidents crashed into our lives that year which with the benefit of hindsight can be said to have pushed us in the direction of the devil’s anteroom where we are now languishing.
The first day of February that year started on campus deceptively quietly. All I had on my mind was how to come through a proposed Dispensing test without making a fool of myself as the results of the test were going to be made public as soon as marking was over. I went in for the test with some trepidation a little after lunch and afterwards was elated to find that I had acquitted myself quite well in the test so that I emerged from the Dispensing laboratory with an unlikely smile on my face. That smile was wiped off my face when I heard someone say that at the University of Ibadan, a student, Kunle Adepeju had been killed when he took a heavy Police bullet to the head in the course of a non-violent demonstration against the University administration. My immediate response was one of utter disbelief which was quickly replaced by profound shock which left me paralysed. Looking around, I found that many of my classmates were taking the news as badly as I was and some of the ladies present were in tears.
There were no social media in those days to amplify news of the tragedy but within a few hours the news had spread and the nation as one was thrown into deep mourning. Contingents of students from virtually all the tertiary institutions in Nigeria at the time arrived in Ibadan within a couple of days. Two or three busloads of students led by Sunmade Akin-Olugbade the youthful President of the Ife Students Union arrived at the Ibadan campus at the crack of dawn the following day by which time, those of us in Ibadan were waiting for them. Within a few minutes of their arrival, we were off to Agodi to confront the military governmenor of the Western State at that time Colonel Adeyinka Adebayo as befitted the spirit of the time. The sober crowd of students which arrived at the governor’s office was graciously received by the governor who promised to convey our polite but strongly worded grievances to the Head of State in Lagos.
Kunle Adepeju was brutally slaughtered on Monday and was buried the following Saturday, his body conveyed through the silent and grieving streets of Ibadan on which not a policeman was to be seen in what was a humbling demonstration of student power and the extreme sensitivity of a shocked nation. Human life appeared to be so much more precious in those days than now when a halfway decent cult clash may generate six corpses without anyone breaking a gut over them. They are quickly buried and life goes on regardless.
The other incident from 1971 that made that year brutal occurred not long after Kunle Adepeju was wantonly wasted right on the campus of Nigeria’s premier university. For a few years before but certainly after the end of the civil war the scourge of armed robbery descended on the nation and quickly snowballed to become a menace which defied a meaningful or effective response. In the end, the military government at the time, in the manner of a group overcome by fatal indecisiveness decided that the best thing to do under the circumstances was to execute convicted armed robbers in full public view. From the wisdom of my twenty-one years, I was appalled by this stupid decision, knowing instinctively that the outcome was going to lead to a gross devaluation of human life. I confess that when I saw pictures of the first batch of three men who were slaughtered in the presence of thousands of thrill seekers on the Bar Beach in Lagos, I wept, wept unrestrainedly for my country which had just taken a wrong turning and committed future generations of Nigerians to a life bereft of innocence even from the days of their natural innocence. The spirit of innocence of the nation was brutally deflowered by the bullet which terminated Kunle Adepeju’s life and was then deliberately and repeatedly defiled by her unelected rulers who replaced the nation’s guardian spirit with a spirit so virulent that it extinguished pity and plain human empathy from the heart and mind of the people of this country.
Rather than serve as deterrence to armed robbery, the public execution of armed robbers seemed to serve as an incentive to them. All around Nigeria, the news of armed robberies came in thick and fast and not only that, the accompanying brutally of attacks suggested that armed robbers were making a clear statement of their intentions to even the score with society. It was as if we were dealing with a hydra headed monster as for every armed robber executed, at least six sprouted from his blood and proceeded to wreak havoc on all and sundry. In the end, the government had to give in and put an end to this mindless orgy of bloodletting, this cruel and unusual punishment which separated us from rest of the civilized world and made us a pariah state but not before Nigerians had become inured to casual but extreme violence and the ensuing massive devaluation of human life.
That the government had put an end to public executions did not mean that it had called a truce in the relentless war against armed robbery. It only moved it underground. A Police outfit dedicated to hunting down armed robbers was set up, not primarily to arrest them but to take them off the streets and into the ground and this is what SARS has been doing with the unexpressed connivance of Nigerians. SARS is therefore the mirror to the unspeakably dark soul of a nation that took a wrong turning all of fifty years ago and more. We created a monster which has grown to overwhelm us and we are now appalled by our own lack of basic human virtues and compassion. SARS is as much part of our national psyche as say the Super Eagles and it is only the economic choke hold across our throat that has propelled that notorious police unit so forcibly into our collective consciousness. Judging from the current harsh realities, it is clear that taking SARS out of our social equation is unfortunately not going to turn Nigeria into a progressive or modern nation any time soon.
-Professor Adebayo Lamikanra, Faculty of Pharmacy, OAU, Ile-Ife. 08037000773