Last week, numerous friends, acquaintances, even strangers bombarded me with a video that showed a mob somewhere in Lagos making a bonfire of a seven-year-old boy. The boy’s reported crime: stealing food.
Last Saturday, a newspaper reporter approached me in Abeokuta, capital of Ogun State, where I was attending a literary festival. She asked whether I had seen the video, and what I thought. I told her I hadn’t watched it. There would be no point, I said, save to take perverse pleasure in horror. I had neither patience nor the stomach for such gratuitous violence.
At any rate, I told the reporter, gory details of what happened to the kid had saturated the air. I had had enough blow-by-blow accounts via phone conversations with friends and social media posts. No, I didn’t have to settle down to watch the video to become aware of the terrible, terrifying criminality of it all.
What did I think of the particular act itself? There was no other word for it; it was evil. It was one more proof of how lost, how arch, how brutal and brutish, how bereft of a humane centre the Nigerian collectivity has become. I made clear to the reporter that certain crimes had been committed, and not one by the doomed kid. He, the kid, was a victim, in the deepest sense of the word.
If the child had truly filched some gari, it was no evidence he had committed a crime. Such an act of petty theft was an indictment of our larger society, one that would leave a child so hungry, so desperate that he must take extraordinary steps merely to eat a meal. Come on, so it’s a capital offense in Nigeria to steal food? And a crime deserving of a death sentence, swiftly, instantly, gruesomely executed?
Yes, the mob that bloodied the kid, pummeled him to within an inch of his life before setting him on fire had a right to be furious but their anger was misdirected. Their indignation should have had a different target.
Let’s be clear: there was a crime, but it did not lie in what the kid did. The crime was avoidable hunger, not a kid’s desperate move to find food. There were criminals on and off the scene where the kid was mauled and burned, but the victim was not one of them. The criminals included those who set upon the poor child with homicidal rage. They included any adult who watched the cold-blooded proceeding but failed to protest, refrained from raising a voice on behalf of reason and humanity and compassion. The criminals included the shameful lot who, instead of protecting an innocent child, chose to use their phones to gawk at horror unfolding.
There were other criminals, not on the scene but whose impact was no less powerfully present at that reprehensible barbecuing of a sapling kid. The criminals included politicians, past and present, whose deranged, mindless theft of public funds has sapped Nigeria of hope. The real criminals included the police who find time to hound commuters for bribes, but were missing in action as a a child was lynched.
Nearly 60 years after Independence, Nigeria remains a ghastly joke of what a country should be. The chief, if not sole, object of most of our elected men and women is to chase after the last kobo in the treasury, to buy up the expensive exotica made in societies that take creativity and enterprise far more seriously.
All these decades later, our presidents and governors and local government chairpersons haven’t figured out the most basic matters of development. Every lazy governor still trumpets the construction of roads as the centrepiece of their achievements. I remember when the drive from Lagos to Abeokuta was less than an hour. Last week, my trip to Abeokuta took three and a half hours. Travelling back to Lagos on Sunday, the car I was travelling in was involved in a five-car accident. All on account of a pothole that forced one driver to slam on his brakes, precipitating a series of fender hits.
Why are there churches and mosques everywhere you look in Nigeria, and yet our society appears to tend towards greater coarseness? Were there no Christians and Muslims and adherents of other faiths at hand the day a faceless mob destroyed a nameless child? Why does it feel as if we have become less humane, more bound to violence?
And talking about violence, what explains the paradox that, in one breath, some Nigerians would wax eloquent defending the right of some overpaid public official to embezzle public funds and, in the other, they would excuse the summary execution of a child who, driven to desperation by hungry, reaches out to steal a banana or to pick somebody’s pocket for change?
And none of this bizarre disposition is new. Nigerians have long quoted the Bible or some other sacred text to justify their docile response to mindless acts of political theft. They’d tell you that all power comes from God, that God had a purpose for choosing some clearly twisted person for political office. They would say that to go against the person chosen by God to rule would be a case of extreme impiety.
In the eyes of many Nigerians, God is really always on the side of the big people, including big thieves. Embezzle hundreds of millions of naira — even billions — and some Nigerians would say God has blessed you. But dare to be a pickpocket or some other kind of petty thief and you would know instant perdition.
I’m willing to bet that had a local government chairman, who went in wretched but once in office became a millionaire overnight, passed by as the mob lynched a child, the murderers would have paused to hail the “Baba.”
Yet, we must ask: Would Nigerian politicians steal a kobo of public funds if they knew that the people they have dispossessed would come after them with murderous wrath? Would there be much petty theft in Nigeria if the few greedy public officials did not funnel the commonwealth into their private bank accounts?
I told the reporter who interviewed me in Abeokuta that, in killing a child for stealing gari, the mob committed an unwitting act of self-hate and self-immolation. Those who hurled stones at the child as he groaned and howled for mercy were, whether they knew it or not, hurling the stones at themselves. They showed distaste for their own kind. And worse, they were giving permission to those who mess up their lives, the public officials whose greed most created a situation where a child of seven must steal to eat, to continue their predation.
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