The video clips are two. In one, the young man, bleeding and shackled, is in the trunk of a Hilux vehicle as he rails at policemen. In a futile bid to demonstrate he is still in control of the situation, he even threatens them as he scoops his own blood with which he rubbed both hands. In the second, he is lying on the ground. Sensing that his life is ebbing away, he makes a desperate plea: ‘Let me talk to my father before I die’. It is met with a stern ‘God punish your father!’ by one policeman and a cacophony of curses and abuses from bystanders.
Nothing tells a more compelling story of our country than these video clips. At the centre of the Nigerian tragedy is the absence of the rule of law. It explains why the state tries fat cats for abuse of public trust in their previous offices yet offers them new roles to superintend our affairs. It is why the state holds dialogue sessions with leaders of bandits in Zamfara while brutalizing members of a religious sect in Abuja. It is also why hundreds of Nigerians and corporate bodies will owe N5 trillion to public institutions without bothering to pay back. These above-the-law individuals, in the words of the managing director of Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON), Mr. Ahmed Lawan Kuru, “manipulated their way to emerge as members of the National Assembly, ministers, chairmen and women of big organisations and pro-chancellors of universities.” But if preservation of life is the starting point of human rights, as one writer captured it, intentionally killing innocent human beings is “the absolute limit beneath which free individuals cannot lower themselves.”
There is inherent value in every life. How we react, as individuals and as a society, when someone’s life is at stake reveals who we are. Invariably, we can begin to understand why nothing works in a milieu where the life of an individual can be casually taken. All the talk about quality of life, standards of living and human dignity are hollow. Before you begin to think of education, health, job security and things that advance the quality of life and livelihoods for the ordinary citizen, you must first be accountable for their life.
Now, let us return to the video clips. According to social media reports, the young man, said to be an undergraduate, was reportedly arrested for sporting a tattoo, a crime not known to our law. But in the official version as provided by the Ogun State Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), a Deputy Superintendent of Police said: “…He assaulted somebody and he was arrested. On getting to the station, he just took up an axe and was pursuing all the policemen. He destroyed 17 vehicles at the station; he broke their windscreens and side screens. All the policemen and suspects at the station had to run for their lives. But when he wanted to harm a policeman that was armed; in the process, that policeman shot him in the leg. Should they have waited till he (suspect) killed everybody? The suspect is a confessed member of Eiye Confraternity. At the station, he suddenly jumped up and drew the axe. He destroyed 17 vehicles; you can confirm from those present at the scene, including civilians.”
I do not want to dispute the police report of the young man’s violent behaviour. The officer who shot him in the leg was also professional, he at least did not target the head. But what followed when the boy was already demobilized is the issue. It was clear to the policemen and those milling around at the station that if he was not taken to the hospital he would bleed to death. Because that is precisely what eventually happened, we can easily conclude that it was a deliberate act of premeditated killing. The notion that someone accused of crime is deemed guilty and can be subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is the greatest challenge of our criminal justice system in Nigeria. I hope the Inspector General of Police will review the case to ensure that we do not continue to witness cases of jungle justice by officers of the law.
However, what I found most shocking in the video clips was the behaviour of the crowd. In one of those common conspiracies between the state and society, a life was brutally taken without court trial, simply because of broken windscreens. This is very instructive against the background that on 17th July this year, a 32-year-old Nigerian destroyed several vehicles at the High Commission office in London and is alive today to answer charges. If he had done what he did in Abuja or any other town, he would be long dead and Nigerians would have rationalised his death.
In our country today, life is important only if it is tied to a prominent identity—political, religious, ethnic or class. Yet as more and more Nigerians boycott the courts in favour of judicial black markets, we have enthroned a jurisprudence where vengeance equates to justice and has engendered an absence of proportion between offence and punishment. It is therefore little wonder that almost every day comes with stories of killings, most of them based on revenge for real or perceived injury. Numerous homicide cases remain unresolved, and given our collective amnesia as a nation, criminals in our midst also know this so they continue to ply their trade, almost certain they will get away with every murder.
The right to life is a universal principle contained in section 33 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). Sadly, as I once wrote on this page, the problem of Nigeria is a collapse of the mores that bind us together as a society, including the ease with which citizens are subjected to mob justice. According to Rebecca Saxe, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), most people feel a diminished sense of personal responsibility for collective actions whenever they are within a crowd. And in a society with a predominance of idle people, there are always crowds of judgemental Nigerians for whom jungle justice means nothing.
We are witnessing a breakdown of law and order in our country on a scale never seen before. Until we understand that life is sacred, it will be difficult to contain the situation. In what was generally believed to be a reprisal attack last weekend, Boko Haram insurgents invaded Nganzai local government area of Borno State, killing no fewer than 65 persons who were reportedly returning from a funeral procession. It is the latest in a series of killings that shows the increasing capacity of Boko Haram and other criminal cartels to hold our nation down and kill our citizens at will. It is also an indication that vigilantism cannot substitute for a coherent national security infrastructure.
That point was underscored early this week in Minna, Niger State at the Abdulsalami Abubakar Institute for Peace and Sustainable Development Studies which held a two-day roundtable to discuss issues militating against the peace a stability of our country. Although I was invited to participate at the sessions convened by the former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, I couldn’t attend. But I agree with the outcome that “a complex, multi-faceted crisis, such as the one currently confronting Nigeria, necessarily requires carefully thought-out solutions, predicated on an action plan, which is to address issues on short, medium and long term basis.”
As at the last count going by official figures, no fewer than 17,429 vigilante groups have been registered in Nigeria, the majority in recent years. This is the result of a criminal justice system that has failed us. For instance, with 2.2 million prisoners, the United States alone accounts for 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. It is not that the society is more criminal. It is rather that America is a society where crimes are easily detected and culprits punished by law. In contrast, Nigeria (with criminal activities every day and everywhere) has a total prison inmate population of 73,995 (as at 22 July) out which only 23,568 have been convicted!
That we are a state in serious retreat is no longer in doubt. What is more worrisome is that almost on a daily basis, each Nigerian is becoming progressively less capable of performing the critical role of responsible citizenship. That accounts for why the law of the jungle operates as we saw with the way a life was casually wasted at a police station without anyone calling for restraint or expressing outrage. While we complain so much about why our government, (at practically all levels) is not working, we may also need to look at ourselves in the mirror. If a society is not compassionate, it is futile to expect the government to be. If a society is indifferent to the plight of the poor, that will be reflected by government. If a society has degenerated to the level of everyman for themselves, then we delude ourselves to expect anything different from government.
The sanctity of life, as espoused by all religions and by philosophers including Emmanuel Kant is based on the supposition that “If laws were permitted to embody the idea that in some circumstances life loses its worth, or that some people lack sufficient worth to have their lives protected, individuals would no longer enjoy equal protection of the law so far as their lives are concerned.” When that happens, all other things are forfeit.
That is why Nigeria is what it is today.
Whichever way we look at it, the tragedy captured in the aforementioned video clips is a reflection of a disturbing reality of our time and society. In our new normal, the loss of human lives through insecurity is taking a daily toll that is measured in multiples of dozens. Gradually, the value we place on lives as measured by how much we are moved by violent deaths is almost nil. Our policemen routinely supervise the extra judicial killing of innocent citizens they are paid to protect. Sadly, our public would prefer to be spectators when the rights of citizens are grossly violated than act as protectors of those rights. The net result is a collective descent into a Hobbesian jungle where life is nasty, brutish and short.
16 days to go!
The countdown to the 4th edition of the annual conference which brings together teenagers and young adults within Abuja and environ has started. August 17 is the day and interested teenagers can visit www.rccgteapteens.org for all the details, including information about previous editions. The theme for this year is ‘Nurturing Your Talent; Developing Your Character’ while the speakers are: The Governor of Ekiti State, Dr. Kayode Fayemi; the Managing Director of Access Bank, Mr. Herbert Wigwe; comedian and media personality, Dr. Helen Paul and the Executive Director, YIAGA Africa, Mr. Samson Itodo. Usually a day of fun with music, food and drinks, attendance is free but pre-conference registration is mandatory. There are only a few slots remaining.
Between academic skills and fields
Today, I am repeating a piece, written by Todd Hirsch, the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial and author of “The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline”. I first published it on this page in 2014. It will serve our young graduates as they navigate the job market, especially in a milieu where senators openly ask ministerial nominees to reserve public job slots for them. I am well aware that the Nigerian terrain is quite different from the Canadian one on which the author based his thesis but the inherent lesson cuts across boundaries. Here is what Todd Hirsch wrote:
Dear Applicant: Thank you for your letter inquiring about positions in our economics department. At this time, we have no openings. However, I will keep your letter on file should an appropriate job become available. At least, that’s what I am required to tell you. But here’s what I’d really like to say to you – and to every recent economics graduate who sends me the same letter.
First, I know it’s lousy for Bachelor of Arts graduates looking for a job “in their field.” Twenty years ago, it was lousy for me too. It’s almost always lousy. In a way, it’s kind of supposed to be – a small rite of passage to welcome you into the working world. But if I may, I would like to offer some advice. Don’t be too fixated on landing a job “in your field.” The truth is, you don’t yet have a field. In university, you majored in economics, but that may or may not be your eventual field of professional work. The world is full of possibilities; limiting your search to an economist job is a terribly narrow way to start out.
You chose to study economics, which doesn’t necessarily imply that you’ll be an economist. Rather, it implies you have an aptitude for problem solving. You’re probably good at analyzing data. You can see different sides of an argument. And I’ll bet you’re excellent at finding solutions to problems. These are essential skills required in hundreds of rewarding (and lucrative) fields of professional employment. Your ultimate field may actually be in sales for a biotech firm. It may be analyzing crime statistics for the city police. It may even be a rock star (just ask Mick Jagger). The world is full of “fields.”
What you’re facing is a common problem: BA graduates confuse their major area of study with what they expect to be their eventual careers. It doesn’t matter if it’s a degree in history, film studies, sociology, or comparative feminist literature. You’ve successfully navigated your way through a four-year degree. Congratulations! That is no small accomplishment. But now you’re embarking on a totally different program of learning – one that will last the rest of your life. It’s called “What am I here for?”
That may sound all spiritual and existential, but don’t let it throw you off. It just means that your challenge from here on is to find what you’re good at, and keep getting better and better at it.
An apology, by the way, on behalf of society: We are sorry if we led you to believe that attending university would land you a good job. That’s not actually true. A polytechnic college will do this – and the job opportunities available right now are fantastic. A good option for you might be to continue post-university studies at a polytechnic. But your university education, at least at the Bachelor of Arts level, was never intended to land you a job. It was intended to make you a more complete thinker. It was intended to teach you how to absorb complex information and make reasoned arguments. It was, quite simply, intended to teach you how to learn. Those are skills that you’ll use in any field of work.
Open your mind to all sorts of job possibilities. Don’t be too proud to start out in the service industry, or where you might get your fingernails dirty. Talk to as many people as you can about their career paths. But never, ever, allow yourself to think you’ve wasted your time in university if you don’t land a job as an economist. Meanwhile, be encouraged and stay positive. And yes, I will keep your letter on file. But my guess is that when a position in my economics group eventually opens up, you’ll no longer be available.