By Sunny Awhefeada
Nigeria is a nation awash with metaphors which more often than not are couched in indirectness or something akin to what students of Literature will call euphemism. Never wanting to sound offensive many Nigerians deploy verbal niceties to cushion the effect of events or mitigate harmful consequences. Thus a measure or even a heavy dose of tentativeness usually dominates our submissions. We struggle to sound right or correct all the time so that we will not end up offending people. Those who choose to call a spade a spade risk being labeled “over sabi”. We shy away from saying what should be said and the rot gnawing at the soul of the nation continues unchecked. It is for this reason that everywhere one turns in Nigeria today, one is confronted by the “unknown gunman” who is ready to pull the trigger at the unsuspecting victim. The print, electronic and the new media are populated by gory tales of the havoc wrought by the unknown gunman. The unknown gunman is all around us taking lives as he pleases. Nigeria and Nigerians are at the mercy of the intractable phenomenon. Even the security agents who are trained and paid to protect us are at the mercy of the unknown gunmen. But who is the unknown gunman?
The phenomenon of the unknown gunman predates the present. There was the case of a “mystery gunman” who had a cause. Five years after Nigeria’s independence, the young nation slid into anarchy. The Western Region which became a boiling cauldron was labeled “wild wild west” in consonance with the political conflagration that engulfed the Region. It was in the midst of the hurly-burly that a “mystery gunman” slipped into the studios of the Western Nigerian Broadcasting station. The Region’s Premier, the much vilified Chief S. L. Akintola, was that evening scheduled to make a broadcast on the crisis in the Region. That was not to be. The “mystery gunman” despite the heavy security presence around the radio station, slipped into the studio and held the presenter hostage. Brandishing a gun, the “mystery gunmen” asked the frightened presenter to exchange his tape with the Premier’s. Thus instead of the people of the Western Region and other parts of Nigeria hearing Akintola’s famous poetic voice, it was a baritone voice castigating the Premier and inciting the people against him that rent the airwaves.
The “mystery gunman” did manage to escape, but he was later arrested and put on trial. He got the services of his friend, a brilliant lawyer. Witnesses were called, but they all gave conflicting evidence. The trial judge was put under pressure to convict the “mystery gunman”, but unlike Justice George Sodeinde Sowemimo who sentenced Awolowo in 1963, his hands were not tied so he discharged and acquitted the “mystery gunman”. That “mystery gunmen” was Wole Soyinka, the scourge of bad governments. His friend and brilliant lawyer was Bola Ige. The trial judge was Justice Kayode Eso who was to publish his memoir under the title The Mystery Gunman.
Fast-forward to 1978. Afro-beat maestro, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a cousin of Soyinka, had taken on the military dictators of that era. One day, rough-necked soldiers invaded Fela’s abode. They didn’t only raze the place, but threw his mother Funmilayo Ransom-Kuti down from a storey building. Funmilayo, a nationalist who put a reigning Alake to flight and fought for Nigeria’s independence died from that grave assault. The heat and public outcry which greeted that dastardly act elicited a strange response from the Nigerian Army which said that the act was perpetrated by “unknown soldiers”. Fela went on to wax a satirical track on that incident in which he lampooned not just the “unknown soldiers”, but Olusegun Obasanjo, Shehu Yar’ Adua and T. Y. Danjuma, the triumvirate that was the face of military repression of that era.
Today’s “unknown gunmen” have subverted our peace and turned our days into dreadful nights. There is no state that is spared of the tragic havoc of the unknown gunmen. They are everywhere. The motivation for the rampancy of the unknown gunmen is deep resentment against a system that has failed its citizens. Whether we like to admit it or not, the phenomenon of the unknown gunmen in spite of its high propensity to criminality began as a revolt against the State. Nigeria has become a rogue state begetting Picaros for sons and daughters. Terrorists, secessionists, kidnappers, bandits, armed robbers, militias and even security agents number among the unknown gunmen. An objective analysis of the raison d’ etre for the dastardly acts will again and again point to the failure of governance at all levels. The nation’s social fabric, its economic programmes and political direction all fall short of even the minimum value for national development and cohesion. This has bred poverty, injustice and other vistas of acute deprivation that pushed the citizens in no other sentiment except resentment.
Yet, Providence has always been kind to Nigeria. We came out of a civil war. We survived the chaos that June 12 turned out to be. We survived so many coups and draconian dictatorship. Then we got a second independence in 1999, a moment that was symbolic since it ended a century and ushered in another. The new order didn’t bring a political messiah. The man that was manipulated into the saddle had neither vision nor mission. He lacked the foresight that is associated with only a true statesman. The moment beginning from 1999 was auspicious. But we lost it. Yes, we lost that moment to misrule. We lost it to violence. We lost it to the unknown gunmen.
Nigeria’s most intractable problem for many years was corruption. That seems to be in the past. Insecurity has overtaken corruption and everybody is a victim. No one is spared no matter how rich or powerful. The Nigerian state has for too long unleashed violence on its citizens. The citizens are fighting back in equal measure. Call it criminality if you want. Violence begets violence. Instead of exploring germane strategies of ending the violence, the State is issuing threats it cannot carry out. Twitter has rightly tampered with President Buhari’s account. Whoever crafted that threat message for Buhari must be an unknown gunman in government. This moment calls for dialogue.
It calls for negotiation and understanding. The unknown gunmen should be identified and brought to the roundtable. Their number is increasing and they appear to be gaining grounds. Let us engage in genuine and purposeful dialogue.