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The Message from Akwa Ibom

06 Jun 2013

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The Verdict By Olusegun Adeniyi. Email: olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com


About eight years ago, a maternal uncle of mine died and, not long after the burial ceremony, his widow, a civil servant, returned home from work one day to meet her late husband’s younger sibling, himself married and living in the same town. Initially she didn’t think much of the unexpected visit until bedtime when the man moved into the bedroom and called the woman inside. Shedding his clothes, he explained his mission: he had come to “take over” all bedroom affairs from where his late brother left. I want to spare readers the unpleasant drama that followed but that incident opened my eyes to some of the indignities widows are still subjected to in our country. While the practices may differ from culture to culture, the fact remains that in many of our societies, widows are still considered no more than mere chattel that could be appropriated by families of their deceased husbands.

That explains why I cannot but commend the members of the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly for the recent passage of a bill which prohibits certain unwholesome practices against widows in the state. It is a bold move aimed at restoring the dignity of women in Akwa Ibom State. But, in a way, it also resonates with what has been happening in the state under the current democratic dispensation beginning from 1999. With the money from Derivation, there has been a gradual but noticeable restoration of the dignity of the people of Akwa Ibom such that the phenomenon of an “Eteh” houseboy is gradually going into extinction.

It is within that context that I view the recent law to deal with inheritance/property rights for widows in the state. For us to understand the significance of what the lawmakers did, one needs to read what the law bans--the practices to which widows in the state have been subjected from ages. For instance, by the provision of the law, it is now a criminal offence in Akwa Ibom state for a widow to be forced to take any form of oath; compelled to cut the hair on her head or in her private part while she can no longer also be forced to cry loudly or be compelled to sit next to the remains of her husband and forced to drink water which has been used to wash the deceased’s body.

By provisions of the law also, it is an offence for a widow to be stripped naked or made to bathe in public; jeered or pushed around if she fails to cry loud enough or forced to sit on the floor or a mat to mourn her husband. A widow can also not be made to dress in filthy clothes or rags as a sign of mourning; prevented from having a bath; forced to cook with or eat from unwashed or broken pots or bowls; forced to observe a period of supervised mourning; prevented from cleaning her surrounding during the period; forced to sleep in the grave yard; forced to marry or co-habit with a relative of the deceased or spouse, or subjected to any kind of confinement or ordeal.

Some people may marvel at these obnoxious practices, but except we want to deceive ourselves, this is not an issue restricted to Akwa Ibom. It just happened that some critical stakeholders in the state have decided not to continue to live in denial. However, while this does not excuse occasional lapses in judgement like their governor recklessly doling out public funds, including for some party fat cats to “go and eat Mr Biggs”; it has to be agreed that this new law protecting the rights of widows is indeed a positive development from the Akwa Ibom state government.

Incidentally, I had only been to the state thrice, each lasting no more than a few hours. The first time was in 2008 when I escorted my late boss, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua on a visit, the second in 2010 to attend the burial of the father of Mr. Edo Ukpong while the third time was early this year as guest speaker at a retreat organised by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) national leadership for their publicity secretaries and organizing secretaries in all the 36 states. Shortly before that session, PDP National Publicity Secretary, Chief Olisa Metuh led us on a visit to Governor Godswill Akpabio. While I was impressed by the well-paved roads as we drove through the state capital to the government house, I soon encountered a rather entertaining governor who took delight in regaling us with his “uncommon transformation” tales.

All said, Akwa Ibom is definitely a state that fascinates me and it is one I intend to explore one day. But whenever I finally do visit and can spend some days, I will not only look at what the governor has done, I will also try to match his much-trumpeted “uncommon transformation” against the enormous resources that have been available to him in the last six years; because unto whom much is given much is naturally expected. Notwithstanding, for me, the story of Akwa Ibom is not in the mythical Eldorado that Akpabio has created by his own account but rather by the way he has been able to project and market the state such that today, many people actually visit Uyo which indeed boasts of a serene environment. Now, people from Akwa Ibom, including those who have issues with Akpabio’s style of government, easily identify with their state.

That sense of pride in Akwa Ibom of today is what makes the state, in general, and the passing of the law against the ill-treatment of widows, a worthy example of what the dividends of democracy really are: the advancement of the human spirit and the emotional nourishment such engenders. It is therefore in that context that one should view the legislation cited as “A Law to Prohibit certain Obnoxious Traditional Widowhood Practices and Rites and for Other Matters Connected thereto”. It is commendable to the extent that it sends a signal that there is indeed a new Akwa Ibom in which certain backward tendencies will not fit in and have to be discarded. It would help though if the widows had some education and enough resources to have a measure of independence, make a decent living, and, thus be in a position to assert their rights. Because, the truth of the matter is that these barbaric practices are to a large extent carried out, where there is ignorance and poverty. Sadly, in this country, women make up the majority of that demographic.

Are We Making Progress?

The tragedy is not so much that our politicians rely on base sentiments to get to power but that it was not always like this. In the First and Second republics, for instance, public office seekers were assessed and supported more by what they could offer and the ideas they espoused than which religion they practiced or where they hailed from. Just how low we have sunk today was made evident in an advertorial placed in a national newspaper on Monday by former Naval Chief, Vice Admiral Akin Aduwo. In his open letter to the Second Republic Vice President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, to bury the hatchet over his defeat at the last Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential primaries, Aduwo had reminded Nigerians of what obtained during the Second Republic when Alhaji Shehu Shagari of the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN) was president.

He wrote: “President Shehu Shagari of the NPN, a Northern Muslim Leader, with you (Ekwueme) an Eastern Christian leader as his number 2 Executive, had set an amazing example of great nationalist statesmanship in the appointment of service Chiefs in April 1980 as follows: Chief of Defence Staff: Lt. General Alani Akinrinade, a Christian from the then UPN ruled Oyo State; Chief of Army Staff: Lt. General G.S. Jallo, a Christian from the then GNPP ruled Gongola State; Chief of Naval Staff: Vice Admiral Akin Aduwo, a Christian from the then UPN ruled Ondo State; Chief of Air Staff: AVM Abdul Bello, a Christian from the then GNPP ruled Gongola State and Inspector-General of the Police: Chief Sunday Adewusi, a Christian from the then UPN ruled Oyo State.

All those senior officers were Christians and none came from President Shagari’s NPN controlled state, and three out of the five of us are of Yoruba origin!”
When one remembers that all these happened not long ago against what goes on today, one should really be worried about the direction Nigeria is now headed. In terms of strategic appointments, primordial sentiments that do not in any way contribute to development of our country now determine who gets what. The sickening aspect is that it is not only at the federal level that the Second Republic differed from what obtains today. Just check what is happening in the states where the level of indiscipline is such that deputy governors openly confront their bosses as it happened in Abia and Cross River States because it is ‘the turn’ of their ethnic groups.

As young as I was, I remember the debates between the ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), both on issues and personalities. And those were days of interesting myths. There were stories of Mallam Aminu Kano directing his supporters to fast on a particular day and almost everyone in the city of Kano, including stewards of some top NPN men, had to obey the commandment of the ‘Talakawa’ man to the consternation of their bosses. And in Lagos and surrounding states, we all “saw” Chief Obafemi Awolowo on the moon! I also remember my mother once telling me that whenever Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe died, his head would be severed and flown abroad because white men had already purchased his special brain. Today, the only myths we hear about the current politicians is either the number of times British and American immigration officials had seized billions of dollars from them or the prison term they had served in some foreign jail in the past…

Readers will be forgiven for thinking I wrote the foregoing piece yesterday. That is, however, a measure of how much little has changed in our politics in the last 14 years of the current dispensation as I excerpted it from a column I wrote on the eve of the 2003 general elections. Titled, “Where Did We Get It Wrong?” and published on March 6, 2003, it was a lamentation about how much retrogression our politics had suffered within the first four years of the Fourth Republic. Now two years from what would be the fifth general elections, the rhetoric has not changed as our political office holders and those seeking to displace them at all levels are not selling ideas or programmes. All they are doing is to attack/abuse their opponents while selling their ethnic/sectional affiliations and, also in a subtle manner, the religions they profess. But all these will get us nowhere. It is therefore in our collective interest as a nation that we change the paradigm of our politics.

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