Monday, 4 June 2012

Government should not wait for a plane crash to be responsive. Reuben Abati 2005.


The Millionaire gods Of Lisa
President Jonathan Should take the advice of his spokesperson. Reuben Abati

Monday, November 14, 2005 - By Reuben Abati
   

For the avoidance of doubt, Lisa is the village in Ogun State where an ill-fated Bellview aircraft crashed on October 22, resulting in the death of all the 117 persons on board. This tragic incident affected the entire country, as it brought out the humanity within us, but one aspect of it that deserves further exploration is the reaction of the people of Lisa to the tragedy and their circumstances since the accident occurred. I had pointed out on an earlier occasion that the accident gave the people of this hitherto unknown community an opportunity to bring their plight to the attention of government and to proclaim their seeming neglect over the years by the authorities. Before the accident the people of Lisa were untouched by the processes of social advancement in the shape of access to modern facilities and a good quality of life.

It took a plane crash in their backyard for government to start constructing a road through their community. Electricity is also being provided; and the village has been linked to the telecom network. The point about the neglect of rural Nigeria where incidentally, the majority of Nigerians live is apposite and cannot be overstated. But what should now be considered is the humanity of the people and the leaders of Lisa village. What is being reproduced in that village is a typical Nigerian story, a strong indication of how poverty has robbed the people of basic human values, driven them to desperation, cynicism and cruelty. One sad fact of our lives is that the average Nigerian is forever looking for profit, always looking for an opportunity to cheat the system. When he is in that mood, he suspends his own humanity or beliefs; he is motivated by a burning desire for momentary gain. He comes across as an unreasonable person; something in him or her suddenly changes, he is transported to a temple of human desire where all that matters is greed.

It is true that this descent to the animal level is a given illustration of the duality of the human nature, and the complexity of man. But here in Nigeria, especially in the context of the recent event, it says something far more fundamental about the fault lines in our land in relation to the human index. The lesson is that we still have to do a lot about values in our society, about the moral question and the building of a sense of citizenship and community. In making these declarations, I am reminded of the interesting example of the Pastor of a church who had gone to his daughter's school to ask that the teachers should help to make sure that the daughter passed her school cert exams. The pastor sounded as if he would not mind if this would require helping the poor girl to cheat in the exams. When the pastor was reminded that the school was a Christian School and would not encourage such practice, the man of God flared up: "Please keep Christianity out of this. We are talking about my daughter here, please!". The thoroughly scandalised listeners had to remind the church Pastor that he, a man of God should not talk like that. When Nigerians want anything at all, they place values in a state of suspended animation.

And so as persons trooped to Lisa village, weeping, helpless and worried, the people of that community saw in other people's grief, their own opportunity to make profit. Cab drivers and motorcyclists plying the route increased their fares. Young men in the village and the neighbourhood became pick-pockets. They moved near the mourners and removed their cell phones and wallets. They besieged the crash site and began to remove whatever valuables survived that dramatic destruction of lives and property. If they saw a severed hand lying on the ground and it happened to still have a wrist-watch on it, they picked up the hand and removed the wrist-watch. If they saw a cell phone or SIM card that had been thrown out of the plane as it nose-dived into mother-earth, they took that too and thanked their stars. The Ogun state Commissioner of Police AIG Tunji Alapinni has confirmed that the villagers swooped on the site of the crash and made great fortunes looting and grabbing before the rest of the country got to know the location of the missing aircraft. Some families who lost their dear ones in that incident have said that they are convinced that the people of Lisa removed human corpses from the scene of the crash. Their fear is that those mangled bodies may have been sold to ritualists. Sadly, we live in a country where people trade in virtually anything including human body parts.

But perhaps the more shocking development was the declaration by the village head of Lisa, Chief Sadiku Odugbemi, that his community will need a sum of N2 million to appease the gods to prevent the outbreak of an epidemic in the village, and to exorcise the ghosts of the victims of the crash who are reportedly disturbing the villagers. There have been reports of strange noises at night. Chief Odugbemi's request for N2 million attracted great attention. He has since issued a statement denying that he ever made such a request. But the Baale is lying. He made the case for a N2 million ritual grant at a press conference.

He also granted an interview to the Sunday Champion (October 30, p. 20) in which he was quoted as having said inter alia that: ", the government should provide a big cow and some reasonable amount of money for us in order to appease the gods of the land so that calamities and untimely deaths will not occur in the vicinity again. You see, this is very crucial, because we cannot run away from our tradition, the gods should be appeased because they are angry. The enormous corpses buried in our village can cause epidemics if we failed to appease the gods. Do you know how much the government is spending to appease Osun goddess every year? Here in the village we need to appease the gods of Oro and the big masquerade to protect the village from imminent epidemic". In these words, the village head had exposed the widespread nature of ignorance and superstition in our land. What is the connection between gods and the threat of an epidemic?

The village head was not asking for government assistance to provide necessary medical care for his people nor was he concerned about the protection of the environment, rather he was asking for N2 million to buy cows for the money-guzzling gods of his ancestors. He made this request out of the unmistaken conviction that Nigerian leaders also worship and support traditional gods, and that the state is too actively involved in religion. The issue however is not about Chief Odugbemi's faith, but his opportunism. He wanted to make millionaires out of the gods of his people! But the truth is that those gods if at all they exist, do not eat beef, nor do they spend money: the real gods of Lisa are the Baale and his cohorts who are seeing an opportunity for quick business in other people's misfortune. The cow that he requested for would end up in the pots of his wives and the wives of other chiefs. The Baale in council would share the two million naira with some amount of money going into the pockets of virtually very important chief including the abore and the apena!

It is important that the authorities refused to succumb to Chief Odugbemi's blackmail. Rather than give him the N2 million that he asked for, the man was arrested by the police and interrogated. Seven elders of Lisa, accused of having looted the property of the victims, were also arrested and detained. A Non-Governmental Organisation, Feed Nigeria Initiative (FENI) has condemned this response as an abuse of human rights. I don't think so. Nothing gives the village head and people of Lisa and the neighbouring villages the right or the powers to behave so badly. If it can be established that they looted the belongings of the victims or that they stole handsets and robbed the mourners, then the police should do its job and whoever is found guilty should be treated according to the relevant laws. The excuse that the people are poor and therefore desperate cannot be a sufficient excuse for any wrong-doing.

It is interesting that following government's reaction, the leaders of Lisa have had to modify their position. They have denied ever asking for two million. They still want to organise a feast for their gods but the money will no longer come from government. Every adult in the village has been asked to contribute a sum of N1, 000 each. This is fine, let the people who will share the cow pay for it. The people are also denying that they ever looted at the site of the crash, more than two weeks after the event, they are now showing concern about the tragedy. It is either the village head has actually been called to order or he has been given some money and advised to speak differently in public.

Without any doubt, the people of Lisa have been greatly affected by the crash that occurred in their village. It has changed their lives, possibly forever. They deserve sympathy and support. In particular, the issues that they have raised about the neglect of their community by successive governments should be addressed. They want potable water in their community, a good road, access to quality health care especially in the face of danger. Many of them saw Nigerian leaders for the first time in their lives. One of them was so excited seeing President Obasanjo in flesh and blood, he had to report his excitement to a newspaper reporter. Bellview Airline has dug boreholes for the people; the government is constructing a road through the village; there is a lot more that can be done. Beyond this episodic focus on Lisa village, the challenge that has been thrown up by the people of Lisa is the need for government to be brought closer to the people at all levels. In the eyes of a growing number of Nigerians, government is an abstraction which holds no meaning for the people.

The people of Lisa also need to be counselled. They had asked government to sponsor the feast that they are planning for their gods because they are aware that every year government spends money on Muslim and Christian pilgrimages to Mecca and Israel. Government constructs churches and mosques, and patronises herbalists and futurologists. Governors grant interviews and boast about the ritualists that assist them to hold on to power. And yet the Nigerian Constitution says the state shall have no religion. Because Nigerian leaders have politicised religion in the country, they are asked to worship all kinds of gods. Certainly, the people of Lisa must have heard about the gods and priests of Okija and how they have enjoyed government patronage and protection. They too want their own gods to get a share of "the national cake".

What they may not know is that the millionaire gods of Lisa are not the ones to be appeased. The real gods that should be appeased are the policy makers in the aviation sector and the field operators who have refused to do what is right; the gods that caused the crash at Lisa village can be found at the airport; they are in the air traffic control tower, in the offices around the place, all those men and women in uniform who play ludo with other lives. These are the gods to be appeased. And doing so would not require any N2 million; cows won't be needed as well. What is required is a "broom" in the hands of President Obasanjo and the courage to sweep all saboteurs out of the aviation industry. This is why there must be a thorough investigation of the Lisa plane crash.