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July 9, 2013
African Voice
Life in a Dictatorship
by Imo Eshiet

Spending fifty years under maximum military and civilian dictatorships can be an instructive though nasty experience. During these painful five decades, I came to know that the ultimate insult dictatorships serve is the assumption that force can silence any opposition.

In both, harsh abuses and harrowing indignities frequently and intensely regulated everyday life.

Truncheons, teargas, hot water and pepper spray, tasers and live ammunitions were modes of persuasion favored by the state against protesters. Anyone who lifted a finger against scalping abuses such as violation of rights and brazen embezzlement of public funds was a marked state enemy.

The social contract between the government and its citizens not worth the paper and the ink it was printed was stonily ignored. In this inky, fetid atmosphere, life was of cheap and low quality. It also was a contradiction, for arch-villains were celebrated as leaders, while those who had meaningful contributions to make to social progress were degraded, jailed and killed.

Those who dared to ask questions critical to the health of society were not seen as intellectuals but rather, maligned by government as "miscreant elements and troublemakers." To be thus profiled meant soldiers and the police were at liberty to use such individuals for target practice and to waste them.

Those most exposed to such abuses were high school and college students and university professors. Others such as government workers with a backlog of unpaid salaries, market women, unionists and the general public when restive, also received a good dose of jack-booting. Irate government agents high on absolute power routinely visited state terror on anyone suspected of subversion.

To this day I carry imprints of military boots viciously stamped on my feet by state agents. During one of the regular strikes by college professors against state neglect of education, one such agent was irate because I had the nerve to ask why he was so brutal. He threatened that he would not only "rearrange" my dental formula but teach me a lesson I should never forget for life.

Perhaps if I had the presence of mind to think of the rolling relevance of William Makepeace Thackeray's counsel that "To endure is greater than to dare," I wouldn't have been so impetuous.

For when I made the mistake of daring the brute, he instantly made good his fiery threat. A deftly thrown uppercut shattered my molars, while a combination of punches cracked my incisors. Later in the United States, doctors and dentists would examine the abused parts of my body and take pictures of the troubles I have seen!

My dentist warned that I should avoid biting things even as soft as apples if I did not want my incisors to come unstuck from my gums. To get round the problem, I was counseled to cut apples into tiny manageable pieces before chewing them. Not wanting to take chances, I frequently use my tongue to pass on to other teeth most stuff that my incisors ordinarily could have taken care of.

In another attack, I was kicked so hard in the midsection that I have a scar that is certain to last a lifetime. In addition, I have a pulverized knuckle on my right palm as a souvenir to constantly remind me that in a dictatorship I need to keep my opinions to myself. The cold comfort I get when the palm hurts is that the physical beatings I have received are enough to last me several lifetimes and so I now stay out of trouble best as I can.

The effect of these intimidations is an unsettling feeling whenever I see anyone carrying an assault rifle or wearing military boots. Though I have come to learn to live with the past, yet I am occasionally overwhelmed as I involuntarily remember the abuses or hear stories of other victims.

One day I met a Nigerian my age now living in the United States. He too had lived through the searing political turmoil before migrating to the States. In the course of our conversation, he recalled an experience that forced him to betray the abuses he had lived with back home.

He had secured three jobs here. He needed the money to send home to pay the school fees of his siblings, support his aging parents and of course, pay his bills here. So for days he would go without sleep to work and meet his commitments.

One day on his way back home, he was stopped by a police officer who mistook his drowsy driving for driving under the influence of alcohol. When he noticed the flashing blue light he was so hit by a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach he almost smashed into a power line pole. When he managed to stop, he jumped out of the car and fell to the ground with his hands stretched out.

Getting to him, the puzzled officer ordered my friend back to the car. He then asked my visibly shaking friend what he had been drinking. My friend replied he didn't make enough money to afford such luxury.

Asked why he jumped out of his car, my friend explained that it was a life-and-death matter in his country for anyone stopped by the police in a siren-blaring and light-flashing car.

Afraid that his car might be sprayed with bullets, he further explained, he jumped out for cover. To prove to his pursuer he was unarmed, he lay prone on the ground. Without the telltale stench of alcohol on him, the officer found the explanation of his situation credible.

What shocked the formerly drowsy but now fully awake man was that unlike home he was not asked for any bribe. Rather, and to his profound relief, the officer offered to escort him home so he could take a rest!

Using an Igbo proverb, I assured my friend that, "Anyone on whom God bestows a crown cannot lose it to mere mortals."

Although I was amused at the drama he narrated, I also came to realize how protracted brutality can sap the self-confidence of its victims. Those whose lives have been smothered by a dictatorship know that living in it is like an impossible nightmare from which it is difficult to awake. Graces taken for granted under democracies are matters of grievous struggle under the crushing weight of dictatorships.

However, since one is in mortality to be tested and proven, surviving the chastening circumstances of tyranny can be a learning experience depending on the choices one makes amidst impossible alternatives.

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