If you were looking for further proof that Nigerians are yet to attain the status of citizen, then look no further than the murder of Professor Festus Iyayi on 12 November 2013 by a driver to the convoy-death-and-injury-happy governor of Kogi State, Idris Wada. And now you should ask: Who killed Iyayi? The obvious answer is a yet unnamed driver under the influence of “power-drug,” the narcotic on which Nigeria’s ruling class and those in its circle are permanently stoned. But you would be wrong to hold the driver solely responsible for Iyayi’s murder.
The other culprit is Governor Wada who despite a previous convoy accident that claimed the life of his aide-de-camp had done nothing to prevent another needless death. Also in the dock is the federal government for fomenting the circumstance that put Iyayi and his injured colleagues on the road at the haunted hour of Governor Wada’s lethal convoy. By neglecting its duty to education, by signing one agreement after another with the Academic Staff Union of Universities for the rehabilitation of our dilapidated universities only to back out of its obligations the next day, the federal government created a needless crisis.
But Iyayi was slaughtered on a public highway, so you should also ask: Who owns Nigeria’s roads? The answer by our convoy-loving men and women of power is that they, and not all of us, own the roads. So they recruit and train drivers and policemen to drive us out of THEIR roads with whips and gun-butts. And where we do not get out fast enough, they smash our vehicles with intent to maim or kill so that we may never again dare to use THEIR roads, for they are never to be impeded when hurrying off to one more urgent business of dispossessing us. You may think these to be the grief-soaked words of one mourning the avoidable death of a friend and mentor, a pillar of integrity and courage. But I say “with intent to maim or kill” advisedly, as a person must be deemed to intend the natural consequences of his or her action. The salient fact of the fatal “accident” — that the driver swerved recklessly out of his lane in a bid to overtake all other vehicles and take a position at or near the head of the convoy — fixes him with the presumption of knowledge of probable death or grievous bodily harm resulting from his action.
In 1985 when I entered the University of Benin intending to study law but nursing a burning desire to be a writer, I looked up to Iyayi more as the author of three exemplary novels that told the stories of the poor and powerless in which the depravity of the powerful was in full exhibition than as a teacher of business methods. It wasn’t long before I sought him out, eager to show him some of the half-formed poems I had written; in particular, the one that had just won me a consolation prize in a national anti-apartheid poetry contest and that would bring me to Lagos for the first time. That was when I witnessed the charming humility that endeared him to all, except the sworn enemies of the people. “So you are a poet?” he had said, with a slanted smile. “I’m a novelist. Perhaps you will teach me to understand poetry!” Many years later, as I grappled with a poem for his 60th birthday, the lesson of that first encounter became clear to me: he had sought to put the nervous aspiring writer at ease the better to remove any obstacle to full communion. Iyayi loathed nothing more than the artificial boundaries created by power and privilege.
But the riveting idealism of his social vision, I would learn, was matched by an earthy philosophy. When finally I overcame my doubts and showed him the first decent draft of my poem, he once again put me at ease. I had hesitated out of the fear that its rather pessimistic ending disdained his struggle and sacrifice. As I watched him face with equanimity his dismissal and eviction from the University of Benin, the many subsequent acts of official malice aimed at breaking him, the snail pace of his case of wrongful dismissal all the way to the Supreme Court, then his return to teaching on being vindicated, the respect and admiration spawned in my mind by that first meeting rose to the point where I might get up and leave the room if anyone spoke ill of him.
This was the man murdered by a power-drugged driver on a public highway. We have reached the dangerous point where powerful public officials and their minions believe that the people are their slaves, not citizens with inalienable rights to whom they are accountable. They own Nigeria and we live in it at their pleasure. It is time we reclaimed our roads, symbols of our shared heritage, of our collective existence as a nation. Time to reassert our citizenship rights, starting with the prosecution of the reckless driver. Iyayi’s widowed wife and half-orphaned children must seek, through civil action, punitive and exemplary damages against the Kogi state government. And we must demand an immediate end to official convoys; or, at the very least, their strict subjection to traffic regulations.