A Space at the Mortuary...

16 May 2013

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The Verdict By Olusegun Adeniyi. Email:

If there is any development that depicts the state of affairs in our country today, it is what happened last week following the coordinated attacks by Boko Haram on police, army and prison formations in Bama, Borno State. As it is now well documented, Boko Haram gunmen had attacked the two police barracks, the army barracks, the main prison, the LGA secretariat, the magistrate court, the revenue office, the primary health care center and a public school in the border town. At the end of the invasion during which they also set ablaze the Divisional Police Headquarters, 22 policemen, 14 prison officials and three soldiers were killed.

According to an eye witness account posted on a listserv along with photographs of the mangled bodies of the policemen, “while the military brought the bodies of their three colleagues and five injured soldiers to the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital on the same day, the police left the bodies of their colleagues and those of the prison staff (most of them burnt, some beyond recognition) in the scorching sun until late in the evening of the following day. As the morgue was full with other corpses, the policemen still demanded that those that were there be removed and the 36 almost decomposing bodies they brought be admitted, a request the few staff available could not grant. Then early the next morning, men of the police mobile force came into the hospital and closed the entrance gate. They went on a rampage and started shooting; they beat up a professor and other medical staff and also shot a medical doctor before some military men in the hospital came to bring the situation under control…when the situation had calmed down, we saw the lorry still standing, filled with the decomposing bodies, families and friends of the dead were seen in a state of confusion, those who brought coffins were stranded as the corpses could not fit into them, while some of them brought mats and woven grasses just to wrap up the bodies for burial…”

The pathetic story of the families of the deceased policemen having to be confronted with such gory situation drew tears to my eyes yet the fight over non-availability of spaces in mortuaries is fast becoming a metaphor for a nation that is now practically at war with itself. As it would happen, just a few hours after the madness in Bama, there was a re-enactment of that tragedy in Alakyo Village in Nasarawa State where scores of policemen (exact number ranging between 50 and 90) as well as ten operatives of the Directorate of State Service (SSS) were ambushed and killed by “Ombatse” Cult members. At the Dalhatu Araf Specialist Hospital (DASH) Lafia where the evacuated bodies of those that could be found were deposited, a Red Cross official painted a heart-rending picture: “We tried to pack them but the bodies were breaking into pieces; so we used shovel to pack them.”

There are two tragic issues here: not only have lives become very cheap in our country, there seems to be no resting place for those who lost their lives either in service of the nation or as innocent bystanders of a new form of madness that is fast engulfing our land. The litany of shame is just incredible: a few weeks after the spectacle of about 30 unidentified dead bodies floating on a river in Anambra State, 60 other corpses believed to be civilian casualties were deposited at the Sani Abacha Hospital in Damaturu, Yobe State. Then followed other theatres of violent massacres: Baga and Bama in Borno State; Wukari in Taraba; Ogbokpo in Benue, etc. And today, we have a situation in which mass graves have become a common feature of our national existence.

Aside kidnapping for ransom that is fast assuming epidemic proportion, what has now heightened the sense of national danger is the ease with which all manner of criminal gangs are springing up with no fear of our uniformed security personnel who have become targets of ambush and summary execution. Yet when those who are paid to protect us are neither safe nor the bodies of their fallen members guaranteed available spaces in the mortuary, then we should know that anarchy beckons.

That point was driven home yesterday in the United Kingdom in a most poignant manner at the annual Police Federation Conference. Although from 2000 to date, only12 policemen have been killed in the line of duty by criminals in the country, Home Secretary, Hon. Theresa May, didn’t mince words that even that number is outrageous and intolerable: “To attack and kill a police officer is to attack the fundamental basis of our society. We ask police officers to keep us safe by confronting and stopping violent criminals for us. We ask you to take the risks so that we don’t have to. And sometimes you are targeted by criminals because of what you represent. That is why I can announce today that, subject to consultation with the Sentencing Council, the government will change the law so that the starting point for anybody who kills a police officer should be a life sentence without parole.”

That statement and the new resolve by the UK authorities to deal ruthlessly with those who kill policemen in their country sum up everything. Unfortunately, neither our government nor the society appreciates the gravity of what the whimsical murder by criminals of several policemen in one fell swoop symbolises for our beleaguered country. What makes the situation even more tragic is that in the growing obsession about who becomes president in 2015, only few people seem to be paying attention to the challenge of the moment. While those perceived to be close to the current president (including public officials) are making threats as to how Nigeria would go up in flames if he is not re-elected in 2015, some Northern elders who should be concerned that Boko Haram insurgents are daily annexing vast territories in their region are also more preoccupied with issuing counter threats. In a nation where nobody accepts responsibility for anything, almost all our politicians and public officials, past and present, are pointing fingers oblivious to the fact that Nigeria did not degenerate to this abysmal level in one day.

Nothing perhaps illustrates our situation today better than the embedded message in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” which is regarded as one of the best work of literature regarding ethics and society. Published in 1974 by Ursula K. Le Guin as a short story in her collection, “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters”, it is about a beautifully constructed utopian society called Omelas where the prosperity of the people came at the expense of one deprived child locked up for life in a dingy cellar. At the coming of age, every citizen of Omelas is confronted with the condition of the child and no matter how well the matter was explained to them, “these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations...Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendour of their lives....”

While the citizens of Omelas were quite aware of the child’s deplorable condition, they did nothing apparently because their happiness was dependent on his deprivation. But some people, after visiting the child to discover the hard truth about their world, took the easy way out by simply leaving the city of Omelas for good. One major theme in this story which is very popular in leadership courses is morality and how different people within a given society react to situations around them. Using Omelas as a metaphor for our country today, we can examine the different aspects of our society and the rot within.

Of course we can easily argue that in Nigeria, as in Omelas, it is not everyone who agrees with the culture of indiscipline and perversion of values. Yet we can also argue that the wanton killings going on and the subversion of the rule of law that pervade the landscape exist because only few are prepared to stand up for what is right. Many of those who feel indignation are not prepared to make the requisite intervention, either as a result of their desire to preserve their personal interests or because they do not want to make any sacrifices. So we are left with two sets of people: those who are ‘walking away from Omelas’ and those staying back to enjoy their ill-gotten pleasure.

The moral is simple: whether we want to admit it or not, the nation is being orphaned and the people are dying because many who profit from the current chaos in the private and public sectors do not look at the nation in patriotic light. It is all about securing or protecting private advantage. Yet many seem to forget that where life is cheap there is no cover for anyone, whether in or out of government. It should indeed be clear to the discerning that in the Nigeria of today, no one should assume the sanctity and impregnability of private sanctuaries. That is why I believe that at the fullness of time, the failure of those who can do something about the growing mayhem in the land may ultimately well be their undoing.

A Woman of Courage

At a time like this, it is comforting to know that we have in our country genuine patriots who are prepared to make (and have been making) the needed sacrifices and would never vote with their feet no matter the circumstances. One of such persons is Dr. (Mrs) Joe Okei-Odumakin who was on March 8 this year honoured as one of the 2013 International Women of Courage by the United States Government. Even though somewhat belated, I believe I should add my voice to those who have already congratulated this simple but rather extraordinary woman.

I have known Mrs Odumakin for almost three decades, since her undergraduate days at the University of Ilorin when she would come to our house to see my guardian who happens to be a friend of her father. By the early nineties when she became a full-fledged member of the Campaign for Democracy (CD), she was already an established “trouble maker” in Kwara State. I had also by then become a reporter so whenever I came to Ilorin we used to interact on socio-political issues and I could not but admire her courage, tenacity of purpose and the genuineness of her passion to effect change in the society even at the risk of her life.

The recent recognition she got from the United States was therefore very well deserved. I will not be surprised one bit if Mrs Odumakin one day wins the Nobel Peace Prize. She is without any doubt a selfless fighter for the rights of others and a worthy role model in our country. Congratulations my sister.

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