It is impossible for any modern computer software or calculator to keep track of the dizzying number of Nigerians who die like goats every day. I am not talking about the normal finality of every human life that we capture with the phrase “natural causes”. I am talking about deaths so ridiculous and preventable you gnash your teeth daily, wishing the internet does not exist so that non-Nigerians would have considerably reduced possibilities of knowing how a good number of our compatriots still die in the 21st century. Some of the ways of dying in Nigeria would embarrass the people of Darfur, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. I have argued elsewhere that any Nigerian who ventures daily into e-Nigeria for news is either a necrophiliac or s/he has completely lost the capacity to be shocked by the contemplation of some of the most undignified poses of death that one state allows to happen to its own people.
In Nigerian newspapers, there is no avoiding narratives of needless deaths illustrated by gory and sobering photos that make very loud statements about the worth of human life in that country. Thanks to cell phone cameras, Nigeria’s contribution to pre-medieval ways of dying now exists in video clips that circulate widely online. The latest is a video recording of a “necklacing” in Lagos. The video shows a suspected thief being roasted to death in broad daylight. The badly burnt Nigerian is writhing in the last throes of life. One of the executioners pours more petrol on him even as we hear someone in the audience scream excitedly in Yoruba: “E je ko je rora” (Don’t kill him quickly, let him suffer). I had the misfortune of being sent this barbaric video clip by one of my Canadian colleagues with the predictable email query: “Pius, someone sent me this clip of an execution in Nigeria and I thought you might want to see it. Is this true?” I’ve been dodging him since last week. Whenever I eventually bump into him in the Department, I am just going to have to “bone face” and claim unconvincingly that these things happen everywhere. I foresee myself in one of those encounters where one gets very aggressively defensive about Nigeria in the presence of the outsider, even when you know the bitter truth.
I have tried to keep tab of Nigeria’s tableau of needless deaths since the beginning of this year. From Jos to Bauchi and back to Bauchi; from the Niger Delta to Abuja; from Lagos to Calabar, the task has been daunting. Hundreds died in religious/political riots, an entire football team perished on the criminal contraptions we call roads, armed robbers never missed the normal quota of deaths they contribute to daily statistics in Lagos and other parts of the country, rival football supporters slaughtered twelve Nigerians in Bayelsa, compatriots continued to die by inhaling poisonous fumes from their generators, and the wind of political murders and assassinations continued to blow in Ekiti. Writing this piece, I decided to check Nigeriaworld.com. Perhaps it’s possible to have a single day without news of goat-like deaths? Two headlines came up in quick succession: “Robbers Kill Three, Injure five in Lagos” (Vanguard), “Lagos: Beggar Stabs Beggar to Death over N20 Gift” (Punch). I navigated quickly away from the site.
The least one would expect from one of the most advanced countries in terms of the production of needless and undignifying deaths are advanced and humane structures of disposal that could ensure that fallen compatriots go in dignity. Sadly, it is precisely in this area that Nigeria defies logic. In most parts of the world I’ve been to, dead dogs and cats are guaranteed a much more dignifying passage to the great beyond than some dead Nigerians in terms of the handling and treatment of corpses. Even pet parrots, pythons, and rats die and are disposed of in dignity. I remember visiting a good friend of mine I call Deopka in Washington shortly after the untimely death of his kids’ pet rat. Deopka announced that the children were “mourning”. We all laughed and evoked the fate that would have befallen that rodent in Nigeria had it belonged in the edible family we call okete! Too many dead Nigerians are simply left to rot, especially those faceless compatriots in the lower rungs of society. If you are unlucky to be felled by the “accidental discharge” of a police man, you’ll most likely end up in a mass grave, dumped with those armed robbers they parade routinely before they are quietly shot “while attempting to escape”. Your family will certainly not be notified.
Those looking for rational ways of explaining the failures of the Nigerian state should look into its management of death. It seems to me that we have so far failed to find answers because we look in the direction of life to explain Nigeria. That is the wrong way to go. The things we complain endlessly about – corruption, security, electricity, water, infrastructural collapse, comatose educational and health systems, dysfunctional democracy, etc – all belong in the province of life. Those things are all about the management of life and man’s endless quest to improve the quality of life. For instance, only the living need security, electricity, water, and infrastructure. Why then do we expect things associated with life from a state that cannot even manage death?
In essence, it is only normal for a state that is too incompetent to manage even death to be completely clueless about the management of life. Dora Akunyili is going to spend her time in the Information Ministry rebranding life. She is wasting her time and our money because the state she is serving is not equipped to handle life. She stands a better chance of making some headway if she starts by rebranding death. Let her tell her boss that a state that is able to ensure that her dead do not go like goats would also be able to ensure that her living do not live like goats.