The days after Black Tuesday, that fateful day when soldiers committed atrocities at the Lekki tollgate, was the Apocalypse, the revealing of the vulnerability of our collective existence. As the artifices that have upheld our fragile civilisation ripped off, the reality of the horror that underpins our everyday existence was un-concealed.
By Wednesday morning, law and order had virtually broken down in Nigeria, especially in Lagos. Given the number of people killed throughout the state during the #EndSARS protests, it was not surprising that some people decided to hit back at the government in a spectacular manner. From BRT buses at the Oyingbo bus terminal to the Lekki-Ikoyi link bridge tollgate, banks, police stations, media houses, private businesses, and public facilities, these people set fire to many things. I cannot claim a full understanding of the perpetrators’ motivation, but given the trauma of violence unleashed on the state, it was unsurprising they took advantage of the moral breakdown.
On Tuesday, from the screen of my phone, I watched several amateur videos of people in their homes who used their mobile phones to capture scenes of those on the streets being killed by security operatives. Apart from the case of the Lekki tollgate were those who on the mainland who were labelled “hoodlums” and shot execution-style. While their deaths might be overlooked as both Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu and the Nigerian Army deflect responsibility for the Black Tuesday events, we cannot forget that some people out there see them as family. The road that leads home might be lost, but even the slave has a father. The people who felt their deaths so keenly must have looked at the public infrastructure that the Lagos government takes pride in and decide to set them on fire. Those that sat on social media slapping one palm against another and wondering how people could be so destructive of their “Yoruba heritage” miss the truth of the moment. They have no idea of how exhilarating it is to torch a world that takes no notice of your existence and watch it raze to the ground.
By now, we have all been justifiably appalled by the looting that happened in Nigeria in the past week and a half. We have seen people looting the warehouses where COVID-19 palliatives donated by CACOVID, a private organisation, were stored. The desperate struggle for food in those warehouses combusted all the lies the Nigerian government has told about their progress in ensuring food security and alleviating poverty. Typical of this regime to reach for juvenile lies, I am certain that despite everything, they will still claim fantastic achievements and then blame the pandemic for setting the country back. They can spin this anyhow they choose, but the truth already revealed itself in its inglorious nakedness.
Nigerians have only grown poorer in the past few years. Nobody outside the ruling class cohort is better off than they were in 2015. Part of the overall problem is that the government treats poverty as a matter of having food to eat. That is why they share pittances and typically urge “lazy youths” towards inane ideas like mass agriculture in a world where no serious country needs more than five per cent of its population to farm. The more they invest in poverty alleviation, the more acute people’s precarity gets. The crowd at the Jos warehouse looting food looked like the sea of heads that used to flood Archbishop Benson Idahosa revivals. Those are people at the margin of existence and who have seen even that edge get thinner than a razor. Their looting and vandalism are despicable, but a morality lesson is presently useless.
Watching all of that crowd raiding, looting, and vandalising is an expose of the truth that underwrites our Nigerian reality. First, democracy is not working for us. We have been shortchanged of its promises so badly that the country has bred a vast army of people with nothing to lose. They are ready to pull down the house pillars and gleefully watch the country collapse on everyone. As security operatives rout the looters, we should put it in mind that unless things improve, those that are spared from attacks this time might not get away if another round occurs. More poor people who have seen the vulnerability of our society will happily exploit it. It will not matter whether you are a nice person who buys Christmas clothes for your domestic staff’s children. They will not care that the lovely life that you post on Instagram was only possible because of many years of hard work. All that will matter at the moment of violence is how much you represent the symbol of their impotence.
The CA-COVID initiative to distribute palliatives to 1.7 million households is a commendable ambition. Yet, all that raiding of warehouses also clearly showed that the most important factor capable of lifting people out of poverty is still well-reasoned and well-executed government policies. There is no other way out. That is why we owe it to ourselves, as an urgent imperative, to flush out the current set of our leaders and find those who know what they are doing.
Finally, while watching Isale Eko people carrying out public rituals to restore the legitimacy of their Oba Rilwan Akiolu, whose palace was vandalised and looted, I thought it is crucial to still ask the kabiyesi how he ended up in that indecorous corner in the first place. When the videos of his palace being raided first circulated, those who assume Yoruba people’s customary deference of their elders was a given sought for outsiders to blame. They tried to deflect their shame by accusing IPOB members, but the truth quickly outpaced their wilful denials. Anyone who saw the videos of those youths running out of the palace with Oba Akiolu’s staff of authority while his supposed subjects stood passively by would have instinctively understood the truth of the moment.
It is amusing that those who have commented on the attack on the Oba’s palace have used words like “violated” and “desecrated.” People do not violate or desecrate what they consider sacred. They also would never allow it to happen without a fight. If the people of Lagos Island did not rally to defend their king’s royal integrity, that says a lot about how they consider the relevance of his obaship to their lives. The Olowo Eko became so embroiled with the toxic politics of Lagos APC that he probably did not notice when he became a king without subjects. Like all other artifices that a king uses to perform his role, the staff of authority is a mere physical symbol of the king’s moral authority over his people. For his people to watch as it was being taken away, a bitter truth unveiled itself.
When we say we respect “ori ade”, it is not because the king has two heads. We are only willingly buying into an illusion that the Oba is an elevated being. Every leader so treated owes it to their people to return the courtesy. That practice of mutual civility between the leader and the follower is a lesson for our leaders, especially those whose houses were raided by their constituents. Look at the case of Senator Teslim Folarin that had up to 300 motorcycles in his house. In a country where people’s frustration about their depreciating quality of life is pent-up, it is not surprising they looted his house. Those who looted him were those who could have known he had that much goodies in his house, and that is because their services were employed in storing them. I hope Folarin and others learn that to be considered a respectable leader, it is not enough to hoard tantalising goods in anticipation of the next elections when you can dispense them in exchange for people’s subservience. No, the courtesy of leadership demands you nurture the conditions necessary for people to exist and flourish as human beings. If not, the truth of your poor judgment will unfold and slap you in the face.