Once Upon a Garri Thief


Mudiaga Ofuoku

Dear President Buhari, You may recall I promised to write to you again if the necessity arose. In the last fourteen months since my first letter to you, numerous such opportunities did indeed present themselves to be seized upon for another letter, but I never got around to doing one. And not without a reason.

I chose instead to devote the bulk of my time to the US presidential election, believing as I’m sure you equally do, that the outcome, especially if the Americans acted unwisely, could eventually have economic and political consequences for many countries around the world, Nigeria included. Sadly enough, the worst of our fears came to pass. The American people rejected reason and light and instead opted for snake oil peddled by a demagogue. The outside world gasped in stunned disbelief. Millions inside the country dissolved in tears. For me personally, the outcome only reinforced for the nth time the rude awakening about the decision-making behavior of the American electorate which first came to my notice more than a decade ago as I was settling in. Those of us who come from the so-called “Third World nations” must stop deluding ourselves by giving too much credit to the American electorate: it is, alas, far from the sophisticated electorate we all think it is. If not scandalously worse, it can be just as naïve as the electorates in the fledgling democracies who their leaders and their ethically bankrupt mainstream liberal media take so much delight in disparaging.

All that said, Mr. President, I’m glad to return home from Afghanistan.

Now a recent tragic event in our beloved country has provided both the impulse and the fierce urgency for what may well be my last letter to you. I’d first like to fill you in on the background, but for the purposes of this earnest endeavor, let’s please call it, as titled above, “Once upon a Garri Thief”.

About two weeks ago, a young Nigerian citizen whose real age remains a subject of controversy was lynched on the street of Lagos by a brainless mob in a fashion reminiscent of such barbarism as once existed in medieval Rome. Initially some said the victim was only 7 years old, then after a reported police inquiry, the age of the young fellow was given as 27. Authorities in Lagos now seem to conclude the fellow was deceptively boyish in appearance because of a somewhat retarded growth. Well, because the victim’s age is indeterminate, let’s just call him a little man, a term that is socioeconomically descriptive of millions and millions of his fellow citizens who, battered by unremitting years of economic deprivations, have since resigned themselves to lives of quiet desperation.

Those who did this to the poor fellow had him hemmed in an expired motor tyre, doused him in petrol and fed a fire flame to him. Joined by other spectators, his murderers stood and watched as he roasted to death.

A video footage of the revolting scene posted on Facebook soon went viral, drawing all manner of revulsion from around the world. A lot of folks could not wrap their heads around why a human being, no matter his offence, should be treated with such cruelty by his fellow citizens in this day and age. And to think that the veniality of his “crime” did not even rise to the level of the punishment! Now I have been told Facebook has since killed the video. But the still photographs of the scene continue to exist elsewhere on the web. I could not bring myself to watch even thirty full seconds of the clip while it still circulated. Each time I tried, I recoiled in horror. Once, I slapped the wall of my home in rage, close to tears. That surely was a fellow human being, somebody’s son, was he not?

So, what did our little man do to meet his tragic end? Mr. President, the allegation against him was that he stole a bag of garri. The murderers who promptly constituted themselves into his accusers, witnesses and judges, never bothered to pause for a moment to reflect on what might have led the poor fellow irresistibly down the road to ruin. The little one had to have been starving that bad; he probably hadn’t had anything to eat all day, maybe nothing of substance all week. He probably decided he had to do it and face the consequences. He understood the perilous nature of what he was about to do, but he didn’t reckon that, if caught, the outcome for him would be infinitely worse than he ever deserved to get. It’s quite probable he had thought the worst sanction against him would be some form of severe beating or being paraded through his neighborhood shamefacedly. He probably thought his captors would be reasonable enough to conclude that the ravaging hunger in the land could have driven anyone to do what he had done and, for that reason alone, show some measure of leniency in relation to his offence. Human beings could sometimes be naïve in their moments of weakness, and to that list we might very well add our poor little garri “thief”. He didn’t understand his countrymen anymore.

He knew nothing of the current state of mind of his fellow citizens. And he paid with his dear life.
As for his killers, they, too, couldn’t pause to think because the same conditions that had driven the victim inexorably down the alley of death, had also stripped them of their reason, turning them into beasts who, like the real ones in the jungle, rely on feral instincts for survival. So, divested of their moral decency, and shorn of all humanity and the compassion that usually come with it, his accusers, in a revolting show of wanton animalism, wasted our little man. Their inability to think like rational human beings also robbed them of the opportunity to remember that a stolen bag of garri was nothing compared to the millions of dollars stolen daily from the public coffers by those who represent them in government, and for which the pen robbers are never punished. Each time I think of that and then reflect back on this young man’s offence and the medieval barbarity with which he was dispatched by his killers, it makes me really, really mad.

At a certain level, his murderers are to be pitied, but such a pity does not absolve them of guilt for their horrendous act, nor exculpate them from punishment for same. No one is recommending they be torn limb from limb, but your government should find his murderers and punish them severely. And as for the spectators, the blight of history will also stain their consciences for their failure to stop so heinous a crime against a poor citizen who now turns out to have been more sinned against than he had been deemed by his accusers to have sinned at all. After all, Emperor Nero was evil enough to persecute Christians and dispatch them with all manner of shocking cruelty. But the multitudes that also thronged the arena of those revolting scenes and cheered them on deliriously were just as bestial and therefore guilty before the bar of history.

Mr. President, you might be wondering, What in the whole world have I got to do with all that? A lot, sir, a whole lot, I have to inform you.

First, as I said above, we ask your government to look for those murderers and bring them to justice.

Secondly, you need to spearhead a legislation to end the tradition of mob “justice”, “jungle justice”, “the necklace treatment”, or whatever euphemism the malevolent act of lynching is known by in Nigeria. No matter the gravity of the offence, such acts of barbarism need to end. And this also applies to the religiously-inspired beheadings common in the northern part of the country.

Third and most important, it is important for you to know that you are one of those responsible for the conditions that drove our poor little man to his sad end. Sure, you inherited a bad economy from your predecessor who presided over wholesale plunder of our resources; and sure, all the social infrastructures had almost completely gone to rack and ruin when you came in. But the deterioration of life and all the conditions that support it have since acquired a terrifying momentum of their own under your government. Nigerians have never had it this bad. The country is mired in recession, and with no possibility of an oil rebound soon, only God knows how long the people are going to remain smothered under the excruciatingly harsh economic consequences your policies have unleashed on them.

Your vision of what constitutes leadership is so thin and narrow it boggles the mind. You think it’s mainly about selectively catching those who have stolen public funds and putting them away in detention indefinitely. Every other thing gets unattended to. You think it’s about doubling down on ethnic politics, one of the very causes of our problems today as a nation and a cardinal wrong I warned you against in my first letter. You believe it’s also about personally leading a somewhat austere religious and public life. You are also somehow of the opinion that circling the globe and meeting with world leaders instead of spending a good deal more time at home doing a honest day’s job for your pay is great leadership.

Simply defined, great leadership is all about policies dictated by compassion and understanding and justice and fairness. It is about policies and actions that result in the greatest happiness of the greatest number of citizens. All of those things, Mr. President, Nigerians had in mind when, for the first time in all of Africa, they sacked an incumbent president for his bumbling ineptitude and hired you to replace him. They had just one word for it: change. Ironically, the same Nigerians who wanted change now think that word is odious because of the kind of leadership you have come to represent.

I may have once said elsewhere (definitely not in the first letter) that I didn’t give a hang about the ethnic background of those you surrounded yourself with? Well, Mr. President, I meant that only in terms of your security, not in connection with policy formulation and implementation. It’s now abundantly clear that things are the way they currently are because that small coterie of loyalists you have surrounded yourself with, and who shield you from all reading matter, are the ones running the affairs of government while you remain in your hermetically sealed bubble.

May the peace and love of the Almighty Allah be upon madam, the First Lady, for speaking up recently about this. I know you didn’t like it, but I would like you to understand that she did because she loves her country as much as she loves you. Above all, she wants you to succeed where others had failed. That wish to succeed also remains at the core of whatever it is I say to you. The problems plaguing Nigeria are extra-tough, although not insurmountable. They need a man of strong political will and quite a lot of physical energy. The former I know you have in great supply, but the latter I’m not too sure of. For I see the strains and exhaustion of politics on you already. You don’t have that much time left. But I also believe a reversal of course and putting in place the right personnel to assist you can make a huge difference in the remainder of your first term.

But unlike the First Lady who rightly bemoaned your detachment and indicated she might not support your re-election if things continue the way they are going, I’m emphatically of the opinion that you should finish your first term and head back home to Daura to a retired and contemplative life as a statesman. The thought of a second term should not even arise in your mind or anyone’s mind in the first place. Enfeebled by what appears to be a slowing health, gradually deserted by physical strength born of the corrosive effects of chronological age, you already appear ill-suited for another four years that could, quite apart from accelerating your condition, also doom our beloved country to complete ruin and from which no redemption may ever be achieved. Life is too short for just one chess game, and Nigerians have but one lifetime.
Mr. President, as I go, I would like you to always remember the story of that young fellow in Lagos. In particular, let his soul not be denied the justice it yearns to God for. In general, let his sad story be for you and the entire nation a vivid metaphor for how truly bad things have become for the common man in Nigeria.

May the peace and blessings of the most Merciful Allah be upon you.

Ofuoku, who runs a blog at mudiagaofuoku.com, is based in Florida, USA. He can be followed on Facebook and on twitter @MudiagaO. He can also be reached at mdofuoku@hotmail.com.