A few days ago, a friend rang me at home, his voice
quavering with apprehension. “Okey, what’s happening
in Port Harcourt?” he asked.

He wasn’t asking me for details of the bloody events
in the bustling address that once prided itself as
Nigeria’s garden city. He knew what I knew: that the
once idyllic Port Harcourt was now a scarred place, a
war zone, a city soaked in blood. He knew that the
city was under siege, thousands of citizens displaced.
He was aware that its once quiescent boulevards and
avenues were now ruled by marauding militiamen and by
the fierce soldiers deployed to dislodge them. He knew
that sudden death by bullet was now a generalized
hazard for the city’s trapped, hapless residents.

Anybody who’s followed Nigerian news for the last week
or two would know that the city abbreviated as P.H.
has fallen into grave sin. It has eaten of the fruit
of death, and death stalks its streets. A headline in
one of Nigerian dailies told it all: “4 Task Force
soldiers, 40 others killed in Port Harcourt shoot-out
Thursday.”

It was as if, all of a sudden, Nigeria had got its own
homemade Baghdad. Except that it didn’t happen all of
a sudden, but mutated over a long time.

My friend’s question was not a cry to be filled in on
the gory details. He was merely asking that I help him
make a sense of it. What’s happening in Port Harcourt?

I gave him the best retort I could muster. Port
Harcourt’s violent convulsion, I suggested, was sired
by all the promissory notes the Nigerian state had
failed to redeem. Port Harcourt is a metaphor for a
deeper, more pervasive malaise. Mini-Port Harcourts
are playing themselves out, will play themselves out,
in other Nigerian cities, towns and villages.

With characteristic insouciance, the Nigerian state
has styled the dealers of death in Port Harcourt as
cultists. As terms go, this one is empty, just another
shorthand to achieve obfuscation. A friend who lives
in Port Harcourt, one of those who must brave the hell
of the city’s streets each day, offered a version of
events that’s remarkably different from the officially
sanctioned one. He told me something that many
residents of Port Harcourt—and Rivers State in
general—believe. He reminded me that the men publicly
associated with militancy in the state—men like Asari
Dokubo, Ateke Tom and the recently slain Soboma
George—were first mobilized in 2003 by politicians
desperate to snatch elections. In courting the
militants, the politicians made them grand promises.
They pledged to take care of the boys once political
victory was secured by force of arms.

It is an open secret that the militants then went to
bat for their political sponsors. Coaxed and goaded by
their hirers, the boys hounded their hirers’ political
opponents. They maimed, threatened and killed. They
hijacked ballot boxes and stuffed them for their
paymasters. They put their lives on the line to help
enthrone their recruiters by foul and bloody means.

Yet, once ensconced in the comforts of their swanky
offices, the politicians distanced themselves from the
boys who had fought—literally—and often shed their
blood—again, literally—to secure their unearned
mandates. Giddy with victory, and seduced by the
prospects of keeping the company of contractors and
fellow raiders of the treasury, the politicians sought
to flush away the thugs they’d recruited, armed and
pressed to unholy service.

But the lesson of history is that monsters, once
willed into existence, don’t go away easily. Armed to
the teeth, the largely unemployed, demobilized bunch
began a terrifying war for turf. Then they found
lucrative business in abducting expatriate oil company
workers for ransom. As their business prospered, many
more unemployed but armed young men gravitated into
the abduction industry.

Let’s look at it this way: Human beings must eat. They
must eat, one way or another. Most people, I’m willing
to bet, would work for their food, but if work is not
an option—as it is not for a growing number of
Nigerians—then they will steal, kidnap, 419-nize for
it. In a polity where opportunities for legitimate
livelihood are few and getting fewer, it requires
little clairvoyance to predict a high crime rate.

Nigerians are a betrayed people, a people betrayed by
their so-called leaders. I’d include in the bracket of
the betrayed those young men (and I imagine young
women as well) who’ve made Port Harcourt ungovernable.
The tragedy of Nigeria is to have at the helm of its
affairs men and women who would scarcely be nastier
had they been zealous officials of a suzerain
determined to destroy Nigeria. The examples of
treachery abound everywhere one looks.

The same week Nigerian newspapers were awash with
accounts of the reddening of Port Harcourt, there was
a report in the Tribune to the effect that Patricia
Ette, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, was
rallying fellow members to some splurgy location in
the American State of Maryland to mark her 54th
birthday. If true, this would have been a most
galling, obscene and insensitive time for such a
high-ranking official to frolic. A day after the
report, a member of the house offered a denial and
clarification. The speaker, he assured, was not in the
U.S. to engage in revelry but to keep a date for
medical check-up.

I for one have begun to see this canard of medical
check-up for the insulting arrogation that it is. Some
of the best Nigerian doctors, banished into exile by
former military rulers and politicians, are offering
first-rate medical care in Europe, North America, Asia
and even in some African countries. Not one Nigerian
politician that I’m aware of has come up with a plan
to entice these extraordinary and well-trained
practitioners home. If Madame Speaker Ette has any
legislative vision for providing a semblance of sound
medical care for Nigerians, she must have done an
excellent job of keeping it a secret. But her minders
didn’t see the cruelness of flippantly informing us
that she is in the U.S. for medical check-up.

Etteh is, of course, far from alone. Announcing
foreign junkets on medical grounds has graduated into
one of the latest status symbols among the nation’s
rulers and parvenu. In the heat of the last
presidential campaigns, Umar Yar’Adua was whisked off
to a German hospital for treatment. His handlers later
disclosed that he had gone to have a common cold
attended to. Not to be outdone, Abubakar Atiku
contrived his own medical interlude. Beset by a
twisted ankle, he flew abroad to have it checked out.
In neither case did it occur to both men that it
reflects poorly on the image of the country if its
doctors are deemed incapable of treating colds and
sprained ankles.

Disgraced former governor of Bayelsa, Diepreye
Alamieyeseigha, was recently convicted of stealing
billions of naira from the state coffers. As a
condition for his light sentence, he agreed to forfeit
his illicit hoard. A few days after his release, the
former governor was on the plane to Dubai for medical
treatment. How about the millions of his constituents
whose resources he mindlessly stole? What plan does he
have to send each and every one of them who falls sick
to Dubai to enjoy the same marvels of medical care?
Why should the traitors get away with lavish care and
lead sumptuous lives when those they betray and
disinherit are sunk in despair and mired in
destitution?

A joint task force of soldiers and police officers are
patrolling Port Harcourt, charged with the mandate of
reclaiming a broken, bloodied city. For the sake of
the innocent residents of the city, one hopes the task
force’s mission would be successful. Even so, one
nurses this sneaking suspicion that armed reclamation
is doomed from the outset. There is an analogy between
the task force and American soldiers patrolling
violence-prone Iraqi neighborhoods. Just as so-called
Iraqi insurgents often bring a quality of surprise and
sneakiness to their attacks, the militants of Port
Harcourt have the advantage of preemption. But this is
only one technical matter.

On a broader note, Port Harcourt must be seen as a
symbol of a deeper ailment. For a long time, life in
Nigeria has been brutish, nasty and short—and getting
worse by many indices. Citizens of an oil-producing
nation with a right to expect a measure of social
comfort—good roads, potable water, regular power
supply, medical care and sound education—have been
consigned to a denuded, discounted existence. The
antidote for the rash outbreaks in Port Harcourt and
elsewhere in Nigeria is for the public sphere to be
dramatically energized with policies calculated to
revamp the social environment and make Nigeria a
livable space. If this is not done, the joint task
force will labor in vain.

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