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February 19, 2013
African Voice
Not without Laughter
by Imo Eshiet

In 1930, Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance poet’s poet, published Not without Laughter. His narrative spoofed the dualities of the beautiful and ugly in black life. I feel impressed to borrow that title to explore the incongruous in Nigeria where nothing adds up, try as I do to understand it.

I wonder if Bob Marley had Nigeria in mind when he crooned in “Rat Race” that, “In the abundance of water the fool is thirsty”. The rat race metaphor aptly captures how high profile villains controlling state affairs here run over themselves, recklessly scarfing resources entrusted to their care. If Britain had not hastily foisted the name Nigeria on us to help her easily identify the area a Papal Bull carved out to her to pillage, perhaps an appropriately logical name would have been Bountiful, for we have everything, both the good and the ugly gratuitously yoked, and contrary to commonsense.

I am not merely thinking of the impossible paradox of Nigeria being the greatest exporter of oil in Africa while 80% of its population grovels on less than a dollar daily. I am not thinking of our squandered oil wealth or even the contradiction of having a federal constitution but running a unitary government where many states produce nothing, but greedily feed on oil proceeds stolen from the minorities. Rather, I am stumped by how we foolishly abuse other resources highly esteemed in other countries.

I am thinking of the drenching rainfall and blinding sunshine we fritter away. During our rainy season, the skies open their floodgates and throw cats and dogs at us. The sodden rain puddles everywhere as drainages are scanty and the existing few are clogged by putrid refuse dumped by despairing folks who find no meaningful disposals for their waste. The inability to create reservoirs for use when the sun turns everything into a boil months later highlights the absurdity of poor stewardship and politics that care nothing about the wellbeing of the people.

Consequently, during the dry season, water is so scarce people have to catch what they use in bathing -- germs, scum and all -- to flush their toilets. Such dirty practice contributes scarily to low life expectancy.

Then there is our fiery sun which chars everything during its season. If we were not so bum-kneed we would have tapped and stored all that sunshine rather than allow incessant power outage to blanket and snuff out our nights with an indescribable darkness. Instead of exploiting our unfailing sun, we busily import generators with questionable value from Asia. Apart from entire families dying in their sleep inhaling toxic fumes belched by these generators, criminals cash in on the inky, pitch black nights to wreak havoc on their victims.

The political clowns who nicknamed Nigeria the Elephant of Africa had an uncanny humor given how we plod clumsily and heavily, trampling everything of value along our path. Before it was looted clean, we had a national airline that had the elephant as its mascot. Who ever heard of a flying elephant?

Our Police Force is a misshapen and pathetic thing. Ironically, the so-called Force’s motto is, “The Police is your Friend”. But don’t be fooled; it is actually the most unfriendly thing you would ever encounter in the country, especially if you cannot come up with the bribe it demands. The craven friends the police know and respect are the rich and the criminal who pay whatever bribes demanded.

A Reverend Father once narrated how he was harassed by the police in a manner in tune with the egregious violation of citizens by state power. While on a night trip, his car had hit one of the many vicious potholes that pockmark our roads. The furious crater ripped off the back axle of his car and, while trying to figure out what to do about his misfortune, a police patrol car drove by.

Asked what he was doing traveling alone at that time of the night, the gentleman bantered that he was not actually alone, as every space in his car was filled by the Spirit. His response provided a chance for the police to demand a bribe. When he refused, the police instantly slapped two charges on him. He was booked for “wandering in the night, reckless driving and carrying more passengers than was allowed by the law”!

In Nigeria, mission homes and Church property, especially cars and van,s are usually soft targets for armed robbers. In one incident, a certain mission president was returning from a temple lighting ceremony. On the way home he was kidnapped. His kidnappers drove him deep into the jungle and demanded he hand over his car and all the money on him to them. The missionary told his captors that the car belonged to the Church and what money he had was the Lord’s.

The thugs thoughtfully considered his explanation and said they would let him go. However, they said, they would keep the car and all the money they found on him for it was safer, they reasoned, to steal from God than man! They drove him to the roadside and gave him just enough for his fare back to his destination.

The poor missionary reported the matter to the police on getting home. The policemen asked him what he expected of them. They dismissed him with the advice that he ought to be grateful to have escaped alive. If he was observant, they said, he would have noticed that the path to the jungle hideout of the kidnappers was littered with dead bodies of victims who were not so fortunate!

Before rushing to a condemnation, consider that the police is an animal of its environment. A patron saint of Nigeria’s best known brand, the Force thrives on corruption. The Police Academy where cadets receive training is a sordid eyesore. Some of these colleges with over two hundred trainees have only four broken and roach infested bathrooms. Often these are moldy, without running water and no shower heads. Yet each year, the Nigerian authorities pour $250 million into each of its several police academies, but the money is routinely embezzled by the police chiefs. The few who get caught get away with a slap on the wrist. To get recruited into the Force, candidates have to pay hefty sums as bribes to the recruiters. When they graduate and are sent on patrol, their superiors expect them to routinely turn over money extorted from members of the public for driving offenses and other crimes.

Often policemen would kill their victims for refusal to pay a bribe as paltry as two cents. The Nigerian public has various nicknames for its police force, the most fearsome being “Kill-and-go”. This suggests the culture of impunity which such trigger-happy policemen enjoy when they murder innocent civilians.

Typical of the sordid collapse of our state functions, what masquerades as government lacks the basic will to secure the lives and property of its citizens. While it budgets billions of dollars yearly for security, only the dubious rich who can afford bullet-proof doors and windows, coats of mail and armored cars can lull themselves to sleep without fear of being cut down by marauders.

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