I’m deeply troubled by what appears to me to be Nigeria’s growing industry of making and exhibiting corpses. The Nigerian state—represented by its police and military—continues to refine its capacity for the production of corpses. It’s as if, by the day, the state’s expertise in killing its subjects becomes more manifest. And after the gruesome act, the state now routinely justifies itself by claiming that its victims, essentially, asked for it.
Not to be outdone, a mini-industry of corpse-exhibitors has emerged among Nigerians. The Internet is an arena in which people of all demographics travel. There are the children in that online space. Yet, it’s become rather common—indeed commonplace—to click on a website or twitter update and find splashed for your viewing horror the different images of mutilated, bloodied humanity.
It’s not only the state that’s become adept at this macabre game of producing corpses and industrial-scale carnage. On the low end of this production chain are groups like armed robbers and all kinds of freelance criminals. But there are also, on the high end, AK-47 wielding herdsmen and members of the sectarian terror group known as Boko Haram.
The killing state is not a new phenomenon in the world. I’m writing these words in South Africa, a country whose morbid and blood-drenched history—evoked by the word apartheid—is rather well known. Traveling here over the past one week, I have seen clear and present signs of South Africa’s woundedness and trauma. I live in the US, a country that’s been a killing field numerous times in its difficult history.
Nigeria, which is the focus of my concern today, has had its defining bloody moment—the Biafran War. The war was an argument over the usefulness of maintaining Nigeria in its then extant shape. I was a child during that war, indeed a child of it. My consciousness of the sheer banality of evil—to invoke Hannah Arendt—was shaped by what my childhood eyes witnessed in the prelude to that war, its moment of execution, and its aftermath. In sum, Nigerians expended two million lives to uphold the integrity of boundaries drawn entirely by British fiat.
That scale of horror to uphold an inessential idea was inexcusable. But what is more tragic, for me, is the Nigerian state’s abject failure to learn the right lessons from that colossal sacrifice. I’ve written elsewhere that the ghost of Biafra menaces Nigeria. The struggle of the Ogoni people for political autonomy and economic control of the oil housed in their ecologically devastated homeland was Biafra redux. Dictator Sani Abacha lent the coercive arsenal of the Nigerian state to multinational oil-producing corporations to squelch the Ogoni struggle, and to reassert the exploitation of the Ogoni.
That particular display of might spawned an equally violent, more determined response in the emergence of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). MEND’s strategic attacks on oil infrastructure in the oil-rich Niger Delta threatened to cripple Nigeria’s capacity for oil production. That threat brought the Nigerian state to a rare gesture of humility. It struck a deal with the militants, handing them a few goodies and amnesty in exchange for the return of an atmosphere that enabled crude oil exploitation to continue.
During Olusegun Obasanjo’s presidency, the Nigerian state launched murderous attacks on the people of Odi in Bayelsa State and Zaki Biam in Benue State. The two attacks, in which many children perished and the towns were left charred, were the trademark of a state that had refused to imbibe the lessons of Biafra. In July 2009, Nigerian soldiers arrested Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, and handed him over to the police. If the case had a case against him, it should have put him on trial. Instead, in a bizarre move that underscored its deep-rooted criminality, the state murdered Yusuf, no doubt believing its summary act would expunge Boko Haram. Today, Nigeria continues to pay the price for that craven choice.
Under the watch of President Muhammadu Buhari the Nigerian state has continued its reflexive reliance on the use of force on agitators of all kinds. In mid-December of 2014, the Nigerian military killed scores of Shia Muslims in Zaria, Kaduna State. In the face of national and international outrage, the military asserted that it responded to provocation, claiming that the Shias were out to assassinate the army chief, General Tukur Buratai.
The military has used that refrain of acting in self-defense to justify last week’s killing of pro-Biafra agitators in Anambra State. There’s some argument over the number of casualties in that attack, but that’s beside the point. I am disturbed that the military now routinely goes on killing sprees in the alleged name of self-defense.
As I argued recently, it is shortsighted of the Nigerian state to imagine that the spate of agitations for separation or justice can—and should—be settled by recourse to military power. It is the state and its operators, military and civilian alike, who produced the conditions that have birthed secessionist rhetoric and demands for autonomy. It is foolish of the state to imagine that it can cow people into silence and submission simply by turning agitators into corpses.
The state’s production of corpses actually strengthens the resolve of those who contend against Nigeria and what it stands for. It sustains the argument that the state has no commitment to the defense of the aspirations of its presumed citizens, only to their dehumanization. The killings offer ammunition to curators who parlay gory images of corpses and maimed humanity into a narrative that indicts the state.
President Buhari’s challenge is to start living up to the precept in his inaugural speech. He should speak and act like the president of all Nigerians, not in the hectoring tone of a conqueror willing to crush dissenters into line. I hope he realizes, before Nigeria is consumed by fire stoked by state violence, that there are severe limits to the deployment of force in the formation of a national community. He ought to recognize that there are solid reasons why many Nigerians are disaffected with the idea of Nigeria. Even when one disagrees with agitators for separatism, one is nevertheless aware that the agitations are not merely evidence of mischief or irrationality. Certainly the state exposes its own contradictions, and helps make the case for those who seek its dissolution, if its answer is always or frequently some visceral, gratuitous and excessive violence. In the end, graveyards and corpses do not a nation make. That’s why Mr. Buhari ought to order the military and other instruments of state power to be extremely cautious in their response to expressions of civic disaffection, including unarmed agitators for secession.
I am deeply troubled that some people are quick to display the images of bloodied bodies. Perhaps the goal is to trigger moral outrage. But the unintended consequence is the debasement and cheapening of human life. The Nigerian state must retreat from the business of transforming ostensible citizens into corpses; and those who question the state ought to check their habit of exhibiting gory images, as if without them we would not be convinced of the state’s impulse for violence.
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