LET OUR LIVES ALSO COUNT

In my last piece I had pointed out that one of the questions the post-election violence raised was on our claim to nationhood. Another question which that outburst of violence which left many dead raises is whether we are still in the state of nature. A state of nature, as postulated by Thomas Hobbes in his legendary work “Leviathan”, is one in which the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. And this question arises because there seems to be no proper value placed on human life in this country. As it stands now, human life in Nigeria seems to fall perfectly into Hobbes’ description of that in the state of nature.

Some may want to castigate me for dwelling too much on this post-election violence but the fact is that I cannot afford to close my eyes to reality and pretend as if nothing happened. In my interaction with people immediately after the outburst of the violence, I got the impression that people generally had a “wetin concern me” approach to the issue. And that was really a source of concern for me because we are talking of several innocent human lives that were cut in their prime. Human beings, not animals, were slaughtered and wasted and you want us to just close our eyes to that? I knew I couldn’t just walk over that because I am in the middle of it all, firstly because I am in the north and secondly because the worst hit casualties of the madness were members of my constituency, youths. I saw pictures and read stories of young people being wasted and I knew I couldn’t just turn my eyes away. The spate of such inordinate killings has continued till this time, in part, because we kept quiet.

Kevin Carter’s story illustrates why it’s not so easy for first hand witnesses of man’s inhumanity to man to just let it pass. Carter was a South African photojournalist who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for photojournalism in 1994. The prize was for a picture he took of a starving girl being stalked by a vulture during the Sudan Civil War in 1993. Carter however committed suicide two months after winning the world’s most coveted prize for photojournalism. In his suicide note he stated that he decided to end it all despite his recent achievement and apparent better days ahead because of the human sufferings he witnessed in Sudan. In the note he said,
“I am depressed. … I am haunted by vivid memories
of killings and corpses and anger and pain, of starving
or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen.”
(Browse the net to see the heart-rending picture and read Carter’s full story.)
The death toll in the northern violence was reported as running into hundreds with many more wounded and at critical conditions on hospital beds. So for me, I can’t pretend as if nothing happened. I can’t consider such a human disaster and catastrophe as one to be swept under the carpet because I was at the centre of it. One of the rescued corps members from one of the states could not be calmed down from profuse weeping; I guess she had seen too much blood for a life time. I am not depressed though, but I will, at least, lend a voice to see that such is not repeated again.

For about a week after the maiming, I couldn’t summon the courage to step out of the house. I was however challenged by my hosts to take a ride out and I reluctantly gave in to the challenge. On getting to the streets, I was however surprised to note that barely one week after this holocaust the roads were busy as if nothing had happened. I saw everyone interacting without any feeling of guilt for the blood already shed. It was back to business as usual. Just yesterday, we were on one another’s throat and today we pretend that we are friends, I mused. Please, don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that there is something wrong in us reconciling and moving on in unity but I am saying that there is everything wrong in pretending we are friends when we hold unresolved heart-deep hatred for one another, albeit stupid, and have even gone to the mad extent of shedding innocent human blood. This could only be happening in a land where there is no respect for human life. This is only permissible and accepted in the state of nature. Human life is sacred and respect should be accorded it. I was expecting some form of soberness and sobriety, even if in respect of the dead, at least.

What I saw that day made me remember a discussion I had previously had, on whether Nigeria has really moved out of the state of nature. Back in my university days I offered a course on medical law and a common thread that runs through all medical procedures and which was the concern of lawyers is human sanctity. Human sanctity is the reason why law makers are interested in legislating on abortion, on euthanasia, on Assisted Reproductive Techniques (ARTs), on human experimentation, on cloning etc. Human sanctity encapsulates the sacrosanct reverence attributed to human life; it explains why we recorded a successful clone of Dolly the sheep in 1997 but are still not at ease with the idea of cloning humans, fourteen years after.

My long essay project was on cloning and the only texts available were foreign ones. So I had listed concerns for human sanctity as one of the reasons why I think cloning should not be allowed in Nigeria, as obtained in other climes. My supervisor however shocked me; he said there is nothing like human sanctity in Nigeria! I was taken aback. He illustrated his position by comparing Nigeria with the other nations he had visited. He told me that as an example, in those other lands where human life is held sacred, a human corpse is not allowed to lie on the streets for long. The first person who sights the corpse is likely to be the last person, as the next set of people to see it will be health officials who are there to move the body away for proper disposal; but in Nigeria, the situation is different as that corpse will lie on the streets for as long as possible and health officials who sight it will abandon it. The body will only be moved away by members of the community when it starts constituting a nuisance by its stench, and it will eventually be dumped in a nearby canal, stream or bush! You may not have ever considered this particular illustration from this point of view but the truth is that it goes a long way to show what value we place on human life.

Since the northern incident there has been no swift and coordinated reaction by the authorities to find ways of forestalling further violence against the corps members who seemed to be the target and easy prey, as obtains in saner societies. Rather than addressing this, all that we have heard from the relevant authorities is why the corps members should not be deterred in their service to the nation even in the face of death! The closest thing to showing respect for human life was the promise that the likes of Ukeoma ‘Aikfavour’ Ikechukwu, the 32 year old first son of his family who was butchered in Bauchi; Obinna Okpokiri, the M.Sc. holder who returned to Nigeria to heed the clarion call to serve his fatherland only for him to be brought down in cold blood; Ebenezer Ayotunde Gbenjo, the Economics graduate son of a poor retired 73-year old driver who scaled all financial hurdles to get a degree; Kehinde Jelili Adeniyi, son of a frail old mother who fainted twice on hearing the sad tale of her son’s death; and other corps members who lost their lives in gruesome and inhuman circumstances will be immortalized and their families compensated. We only pray that this promise won’t go the way of such earlier promises that past governments have made without fulfilling, one of them being that made to Samuel Okwaraji who died on the football pitch in Nigerian colours in 1987, the government is still yet to make good its promises after well over 20 years.

Human life is not worth more than a penny in Nigeria. Life is cheap here; it’s just about the cost of a sparrow in Bible times’ Jerusalem. If this one goes, there are still many others, the Nigerian government seems to be saying. The Federal Government and the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) did not consider it important to first ensure the safety and relocation of the endangered corps members who seemed to be the target. Rather it was the various concerned State governments that made moves to evacuate their citizens from the affected places while youth-centric organisations drew up petitions to draw the attention of the Federal government to the imminent danger the corps members were exposed to; since it was evident the government wasn’t seeing it! (Check Nairaland and TheFutureProject online to view some of the petitions).

Recently, the Bauchi State governor, Isa Yuguda raised dust by his statement on the issue of the slain corps members; he was reported as saying that he believes it was the destiny of the slain corps members to experience what befell them. Hear him,
“as far as I am concerned, these corps members
were DESTINED to experience what they
experienced during the course of their service
to their fatherland… You cannot hold (me) or
Bauchi state (responsible) for what happened to
those corps members, because it was the
responsibility of INEC to take care of them.”
I won’t be surprised to hear INEC or NYSC continue the blame game in the following weeks! This reminds me of the story of a Nigerian governor who was involved in a ghastly motor accident on his way to receive a VIP; the accident claimed the life of his ADC but the governor was not deterred by this loss of life as newspapers reported that he still went ahead with the reception, he might have also believed that it was the destiny of the ADC to go that way!

I know that our rights as citizens do not really count in this country. As a lawyer working in one of the support offices of “Lawyers without borders” I am involved in a programme which seeks to work against abuse of state power against the rights of citizens, and almost on a weekly basis I draft an Application for the enforcement of fundamental rights of a person whose rights has been greatly violated by an agent of the State, which in most instances is the Police. The abuse of State power against citizens usually range from assault on citizens, to unlawful detention, exploitation of persons and extra-judicial killings by trigger-happy armed men amongst many other vices; I found out in my line of work that ours is a country without the slightest regard for the rights of her citizens.

I want all our rights as provided for in the constitution to also count but if even for a start let’s begin with the most important right of a man – his right to life because this is what distinguishes him from other animals. Upon this single right hang all the other rights and privileges. The right to life is what differentiates a free society from its direct opposite – the state of nature. Here in Nigeria we only count lives but our lives don’t really count. As at our last census, we said we were a country of over 140 million people but that is all there is to counting lives but not making those lives count. Sometimes I wonder if our large population is the cause for our indifference to human life but I beg to disagree, the US has a far bigger population and yet it doesn’t play with the lives of its citizens. I am sure that our ancestors will not be glad in their graves when they look back and discover that the value of human lives has not appreciated over the years beyond what it was in the slave trade era when we sold our brothers and the best of our community to white men for a pair of ear rings, an umbrella, talcum powder or a looking glass! Nowadays, it even seems worst as parents voluntarily sell their daughters to Italy for sex trade and prostitution; the sons are given out to work in plantations in Brazil, Cuba, Mexico etc; our MBA and Ph.D holders willingly sell themselves to serve as nannies, mortuary attendants, valets, waiters, cabbies etc in foreign lands and our government displays a siddon look approach as the best of our people struggle to leave this land in droves. Our Professors have also been lost to other nations. We say brain drain and they say they are looking for greener pastures but the truth is that they want to opt out of a land that is apparently still in the state of nature to a land where their lives count and their intellect is valued and appreciated!

The government has a great role to play if rights and lives are going to be respected; this is because the government is the piper that dictates the tune. If the government respects the rights of its citizens, the citizens will follow suit. What we witness now is that since the government doesn’t care, people snuff lives out of others and threaten to do so at the slightest provocation. I was in a vehicle sometime ago and the man sitting next to me threatened to kill a man who offended him and added that if he kills him, nothing will happen, all in a brazen attempt to prove to us that he is a big man! Even in the gubernatorial elections that took place across the states on the 26th of April the political thugs sensing that the government doesn’t value the lives of corps members decided to waste even more. As I monitored and followed the elections on social network sites, it was painful to record the death of some more corps members in the hands of thugs. The thugs were only working in the steps of the government. The Yorubas say that “oruko ti onigba ba pe igba e l’aye a ba pe” meaning that “people will call your basin whatever name you christen it.” Call your water closet a cooking pot and you will discover that people will hesitate before defecating in same!

I believe that now is the best time to correct this national malady. Now is the time that our rights and lives should begin to count. My belief is premised on our successful conclusion of credible elections. Several accolades have been showered on the government and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) by both local and international media, observer groups, Non-Governmental Organisations, civil society groups etc for making a significant departure from the caricature elections of 2007 which was ranked to be one of the worst elections in the world to conducting credible elections in 2011. The successful conduct of credible elections is a sign that Nigeria is ready to tow the path of civilised and free societies. The next step is to consolidate on that success. Conducting credible elections is not an end in itself but rather a means to an end and that end being the attainment of a free, sane and egalitarian society. Conduct of credible elections is one of the fundamental indices of determining free societies, since it affords the people the opportunity to choose their own leaders. Another index using in judging free societies is the respect accorded the rights and lives of the people in that society. So, having overcome one of the problems that have bedevilled Nigeria for so long a time – that of ensuring that our votes count; it is then a good time to ask that our rights also begin to count and more particularly our right to dignity of human life.

It is not as if the right to sanctity of life is not provided for in our laws. Instructively, the first two sections in the Chapter 4 of our Constitution (chapter 4 deals with fundamental rights), that is sections 33 and 34, list the right to life and right to dignity of human persons and these two can be summed up as the Nigerian statement on human sanctity but unfortunately we have not given life to those provisions. This is therefore the best time for us to stop paying lip-service to the rights of the citizenry. It is time for our rights, like our votes, to count. We will only be able to say that we have moved out of the state of nature when our right to life and right to respect of human life count.

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