One version of the historical narrative on the Egba Women’s Revolt of the 1940s, led by Mrs. Olufunmilayo Kuti, had it that as the women marched through the streets of Abeokuta, they were confronted by the colonial Nigerian police. The policemen, who sometimes acted as puppets of the British colonialists, attempted to stop the women. The women, nuanced in the mores of the time retaliated and stopped the police action by threatening to use their menstrual pads to curse them. The policemen, history records, ran away out of fear of incurring bad luck on themselves forever if those women carried out their threats!
Readers will recall a scene in the final pages of Things Fall Apart. The Umuofia clan had called a meeting to address the cataclysmic changes that had befallen their community since the white man imposed his idea of jurisprudence on them. While the meeting was going on, some court messengers marched in and ordered the assembly to break up. One of the court messengers said, “The white man whose power you know too well has ordered this meeting to stop.” As the story goes, the main character, Okonkwo, who could no longer stomach the indignities the colonial officers had piled on them drew his cutlass and chopped off the head of one of the messengers.
The events listed above – one historical and the other, fictional – have a similar theme: law enforcement taking sides with repressive forces of the state against their own people at moments when they were fighting for self-preservation. The question for me is, why do these law enforcement agents consider themselves immune to the anxieties and angst that drive the people whose protest and activities they try to restrict? In the case of the Egba women, did the law enforcement agents not have wives or mothers who were negatively affected by colonial policies that drove the women to revolt? Why was duty to the colonial state more compelling for them than siding with their own people? In the case of Umuofia and Okonkwo, did the court messengers presume that running errands for the white man ultimately put them beyond the cause that consumed the community?
Over the weekend, as I read the press statements of the police warning pro-Biafra separatist groups to call off plans to stage a sit-in on Tuesday, May 30 in commemoration of 50 years of Biafra, I am reminded of the court messenger stopping a village meeting in the name of the white man whose power the villagers were supposed to know “too well.” One after the other, police commissioners in Anambra, Enugu, and Imo states were practically falling over one another to make the loudest threats against those whose protest is, in fact, more of a passive resistance.
Whether one supports the pro-Biafra secessionist agenda or not, the idea of asking people to sit at home in remembrance of those who lost their lives to the Biafra cause is a commendable one. If Nigeria were a country that takes itself seriously, 50 years of Biafra would have been a national affair. We would have been taking stock on the issues of our nationhood, casting that backward glance on the roads we have travelled to arrive at this point, the lives we have sacrificed along the way, and collectively, we would be issuing a firm resolve that never again shall we waste the blood of our kith and kin. We would be having solemn assemblies where we – all of us as a nation – would talk about issues of social justice, human dignity, self-determination, and the definition of citizenship.
Unfortunately, at the national level, there were no such activities to memorialise the 50th anniversary of Biafra. Nigeria, presently, is at best a headless country. We are bereft of meaningful leadership. What we have is a tentative arrangement where some folks have been urged to self-restraint and diffidence so they do not outshine the underperforming President or upset his cult followers. At the regional level, one would have expected the South-East governors to organise activities to mark 50 years of Biafra similar to the way the South-West governors used to do for June 12. IPOB and MASSOB took the initiative only to be confronted by the pseudo-patriotism of state agents who do not seem to understand that the national conversations that are propelled by issues of secession and self-determination will ultimately impact their own lives.
Interestingly, some of these police commissioners making the loudest threats against the sit-in are themselves of Igbo extraction. I do not mean to advocate a groupthink but how can they not at least understand the feeling of disenfranchisement and discontent driving the Biafran agitation. If they do, was the best they could offer in return promises of “crackdown” and “show of force”? How about compromise – protection for those who chose not to sit in and cooperation with those who chose to? Why should the police be all about force and fight with civilians? These are legacies of colonialism and the military era, they should do away with them. In democratic societies, people get police protection to protest against the police. Why should Nigerian policemen be hostile, aggressive, insensitive, and undiscerning of the times and the mood of the people?
Police spokesperson, one Jimoh Moshood, said, “The fact that freedom of expression as one of the dictates of democracy is being observed by the police should not be misconstrued as liberty by any group(s) for sectional or group interest to violate the laws and cause mayhem, confusion, and apprehension in the minds of more than about 170 million Nigerians.”
Why did Moshood think the sit-in would only be about “mayhem, confusion, and apprehension” when it could be structured to be a day of reflection and introspection on the condition of our nation? The police could have reached out to the organisers and ask how they might work together to ensure they expressed their democratic freedoms without infringing on the rights of other. Taking a belligerent stance against Nigerians will not always work. Nigerians survived the military era and its brutalities, remember?
The unhelpful culture of “Bloody Civilian” has not helped in the past and will not serve Nigeria in this period. All over the world, protest movements are “talking” to power. It is left for the agents of power to understand that disillusionment and disenfranchisement come in several hues; that their paymasters are not lords but ordinary citizens like themselves who have been put in office to serve and protect the people. Threatening fellow citizens is the hallmark of dictators and tyrants, the Nigeria Police should strive to rise above its characteristic show of power. The tax and other revenues that pay the salaries of the police come from the citizens -be they agitators or pacifists.
Since the police spokesperson is aware of the “dictates of democracy,” he must also know it is well within the rights of those pro-Biafran groups – men, women, and children – to gather and protest, or carry our various activities in remembrance of the people that have been lost. As individuals, the police might have their own agenda or biases against the methods employed by the pro-Biafran movement (like some of us do too). However, what drives the people (some of whom have lost their lives to police brutality) is no different from what drives the rest of us. We all want a better nation where we can exist as free citizens and live a qualitative life. We will not achieve it by drumming up a false sense of allegiance to a nation that does not care that we exist.