Living and dying young in Buhari’s Nigeria
That is what General Buhari’s Nigeria has become:
a country without a past, bereft of a future and unable to describe its present.
“If your country is torn apart by war; if the economy is in crisis and if health-care is non-existent, you are likely to be miserable.” Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, p. 34 (2016)
The end of the year is usually rich with delightful expectations for children and young people across the world. It offers a break from school to look forward to and lots of gifts received and exchanged. It is not for nothing that it is also called a “season of goodwill”. For Nigeria’s young people in the age of Muhammadu Buhari, however, it is anything but.
Mind you, this was the generation that, deliberately deprived of a sense of historical record and reckoning based on it, powered Buhari to an improbable political resurrection in 2015. Six years later, they are paying with their blood and lots of it. It doesn’t bear recounting but maybe it does.
Earlier this month, around 6 December, in Sabon-Birnin Local Government Area of Sokoto State in north-west Nigeria, terrorist bandits intercepted passengers travelling to Kaduna and massacred scores, including four children of Hajiya Shafa’atu, a 30-year-old widow. Also massacred were the young nephew and niece of Hajiya Shafa’atu, as well as a 10-month old. After shooting most of them, the terrorists set the bodies ablaze and, according to Hajiya Shafa’atu, sat back to watch the victims “burn to ashes while the attackers observed delightedly.”
The Sabon–Birnin massacre, occurred the day after Maj-Gen Buhari, Nigeria’s president returned from a four-day junket to the Dubai Expo at the head of the delegation that incredulously included 25% of his cabinet. The president offered no comfort to the victims nor did he much acknowledge their death or the fact that the perpetrators chose to procure the massacre through methods redolent of the earliest species of homo Erectus.
Barely 24 hours after the Sabin-Birnin massacre, at the opposite end of the country in Lagos, nearly 20 students of the Ojodu Grammar School were incinerated in a fire triggered when a truck that should not have been on the road at that hour lost its brakes. The state government promptly shut down the school, guaranteeing that the young lives lost will not be the only casualties from this avoidable tragedy.
If there was an effort by the Lagos State government to show some empathy in the killing of the Ojodu Grammar School students, the same could not be said of the official response to the gruesome killing at the end of last month of Sylvester Oromoni Jr, the 12-year old student of Dowen College, who suffered what ultimately proved to be fatal brutality in the hands of school bullies.
When the news of the killing broke at the beginning of December, the Management of Dowen College, with a brutality that was only matched by the perpetrators of the killing itself, chose to indulge in what can only be described as the height of “murder-splaining”, to justify how a child consigned to their care as a border ended up dead with broken bones and heinous internal injuries. For them, those were merely soccer injuries. They had apparently not read any memorandum about pastoral care nor the accompanying memorandum on empathy. The day after, Lagos State Government decided to save the school from further embarrassment: they ordered Dowen College shuttered.
The best efforts of the Lagos State Government did not force the Management of Dowen College to drink the empathy serum. On 9 December, they decided to continue digging even when in they were stuck in a deep hole, insisting that Sylvester Oromoni Jr., “only” sustained a broken leg from the soccer pitch.
In this matter, the Dowen College Management acted as if to say that they would not take lectures in empathy or propriety from the Lagos State Government, which orchestrated one of the more ham-handed cover-ups of mass murder of young people in Nigeria’s recent history in its handling of what has become known as the Lekki Massacre and its aftermath.
On October 20, 2020, armed soldiers invited, it turns out, by the Lagos State Government, discharged live bullets into young people protesting against police brutality in the #EndSARS uprising, killing and injuring many. In the aftermath of the protest, the Lagos State Government constituted a judicial commission of inquiry chaired by a retired judge of the High Court of Lagos State, Doris Okuwobi. When it submitted its report on November 15, 2021, more than one year after the massacre, the inquiry found that the soldiers had killed at least 11, injured 24, assaulted at least another 15. In addition, they reported that at least 96 dead bodies had been picked up around the state in connection with the #EndSARS protests.
The Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, who received the report, promptly constituted a four-person White Paper Committee, chaired by his Attorney-General, Moyosore Onigbanjo, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). He gave them two weeks to report back. Two days later, the government’s counsel in the inquiry, Abiodun Owonikoko, another SAN, took to the television studios to do a dirty on the Commission of Inquiry, accusing some of the members of collecting bribes from victims and others of being unqualified. This was an infamous outburst even in a country of extraordinary outbursts.
Mr Owonikoko did not at any time during the inquiry object to the qualifications of any of its members nor did he accuse any of them of acts of impropriety. If he knew of these before the report was issued and sat on them, then that was irresponsible. If he learnt of them only after the report was issued, the place to have taken it to was his client, not the television studios. Either way, he was unprofessional and that is putting it mildly.
But more was to follow: on November 30, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, issued the White Paper for the most part rejecting the report and its substantive recommendations. In a White Paper from a parallel universe, the government dismissed the findings of the Doris Okuwobi Judicial Commission of Inquiry on the Lekki Massacre as based on “assumptions and speculations” and claimed there were no fatalities from the shootings by the soldiers.
This was bizarre, to say the least. One year earlier, on 21 October 2020, Governor Sanwo-Olu had ordered flags in the state to be flown at half-mast for three days in honour of the casualties of the Lekki Massacre.
To top it off, the Governor chose to gas-light some of the more prominent members of the #EndSARS movement in the state by inviting them to an Orwellian #WalkForPeace to be led by him at an undetermined date. The idea ran into strong headwinds prompting the governor to announce last week that he would shelve the idea, a decision he blamed conveniently on the global psychosis over the Omicron Variant of COVID-19.
The moral of this story is not a philosophical point but a practical one: a country in which young people cannot expect to grow up nor to live cannot offer its mature generations rest or respite in their old age.
That is what General Buhari’s Nigeria has become: a country without a past, bereft of a future and unable to describe its present. How the country got here must be a story for another day but Yuval Harari offers a diagnosis that is difficult to overlook.
Chidi Odinkalu is a lawyer and teacher and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.