By BEN LAWRENCE
Two infants, about four years old, came to our table at a wedding in a seedy part of Ogun State that sprawls into Lagos State. We admired their good-naturedness and in appreciation I dipped my hand in the pocket to give them money for sweets. But that was not their mission to our table. They came for something else more precious. They asked if I had finished with what I was served which I had not touched. I told them to take my plate away, same with that of my friend, a medical doctor, to eat. Strategically placed somewhere was a woman who took what we offered them and emptied them separately into some containers. Another friend drew my attention to it, so I called the boys and asked them who the woman was. ”My mama,” one of them said. A teenage boy sold some plastic bags nearby which some other women bought. We saw them emptying most of the leftover foods at the party into different bags, depending on what type of meals was served.
I had experienced this also in Benin at a funeral and a friend said it had become common all over Nigeria because people were suffering. He said that was how most of the jobless and impoverished now eke their daily bread and that of their children and wards.
The sudden proliferation of these human scavengers results from the distortion of the economy and whoever believes this to be normal is living on borrowed times. This distortion has created a yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots. And these scavengers are drawn from the fairly educated and a considerable portion of former lower middle class made idle by the system the rulers persist to perpetuate. There are two evil effects of the behaviour of the boys.
The first is that they are being made dishonest by subtly being taught to beg to exist at such tender ages, which could make them to be callous as they grow to adulthood.
The second is that they are made to use all sorts of guile to justify the survival of the fittest. Is this how to build a patriotic country?
During the last independence celebration, a television interviewer on vox populi asked some young people if they would die for Nigeria. One of them shocked the interviewer with a question: “Will Nigeria die for me?” The journalist was confused. The young man continued: “I am a level 400 student. Nigeria has not made any impact on me. I have not enjoyed anything, no light, no water, no scholarship or anything.”
That was someone of an impressionable age commenting on his country without any feeling whatsoever of belonging. A friend last week remarked that every Nigerian household is a local government of its own because it provides electricity, water and other necessities for itself.
And these are the people you except to cooperate with the neglected Nigeria Police Force, with officers who until Parry Osayande took over the chairmanship of their commission, were mainly bodyguards of one big man or the other. See how they kill civilians while guarding big men. Any good observer can easily see pockets of resistance growing everywhere in Nigeria. The last local government elections in Lagos, for example, should be an eye-opener to the leading party that all is not well. Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola should realise that his state is not perfect because all the local government authorities have been gargantuan failures in attending to their charges: drains are not cleared, the roads are not maintained, nor has the trash been disposed of. No government should expect any loyalty from a neglected citizenry.
It is not yet time for the grandiose dream of a Lekki New Town when other parts of greater Lagos and the state generally are decrepit and swarming in dirt. Agbado Road, Iju-Ishaga, has not been maintained for the past 13 years, since Brigadier Buba Marwa left Lagos. Oguntade Street project, whose construction began six years ago, has been abandoned. There are many cases of this type all over the state. Fashola, of course, has shown enough stomach for change. But the truth must be told, what I attempt to show here is the disconnect between the rulers and the people.
Mrs. Farida Waziri recently revealed that those who are supposed to govern Nigeria have used our petrodollars to build mansions in South Africa, Britain, France, Dubai and other parts of the world in the midst of the squalor that envelopes the people.
At home, the owners of the wealth are swimming in filth. Those in authority despise them and dare them to complain. Compare the situation, for example, with Britain where as from 28 days of pregnancy the state takes over the welfare of its citizen. Before Thatcher the ‘Milk Snatcher’, the unborn child and mother were given milk and eggs.
After birth, the care continued almost throughout life. Tell me why a Briton won’t be patriotic? “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” the Romans stood for, meaning literally “It is sweet and befitting to die for one’s country.” The Romans protected their country and their country protected them; it caused many of its conquered people to acquire its citizenship. Thirty years ago, many Nigerians would volunteer to die for their country. It is no longer the case.
It is in this mess the police are expected to perform the magic. The problem with the police is not lack of equipment as such but a defective Nigerian system.
There have always been many forward-looking police officers. In 1978 Osayande, then deputy commissioner, drew my attention to the recruitment qualifications in the force. It was Standard Six for recruits and West African School Certificate for cadets sub-inspectors. Then children at 11 were leaving primary school, the equivalent of Standard Six; 16 years old were leaving secondary school. The enlistment age qualification for a policeman is at least 19. There are no police boys and girls. Internally, reasoning officers like Osayande then were pressing for a review of these conditions to reflect the dynamics of the times.
But the system was deaf and dumb until Ibrahim Coomassie as inspector-general won the battle for this review, raising enlistment qualification to National Certificate of Education or its equivalent. Casmir Akagbosun, Osayande and I met sometime to discuss crime. Akagbosun, a former assistant inspector general of police, now a lawyer, made a valid point. He said: “You cannot crack down on crime in the face of massive unemployment.” All Benin boys of my generation were taught to be reflective and that was what Akagbosun, about four years younger that I did in his analysis. Albert Ikenwa, another Benin boy and former assistant inspector general, also spoke out forcefully on this subject when he was being pulled out of the force 14 years ago. Those who have ears must put on their thinking caps.
The police have proved that they could change, judging from their roles in the last general election. The commission designed such measures that cut the police off any participation in election malpractices. In Bayelsa, for example, those who left their zones to attempt to rig for hire were arrested. The commission designed tags state by state for its officers and introduced such measures that kept them within areas of their schedules.
Those who illegally went moonlighting were easily arrested. The press ought to have highlighted these positive changes in the police political modus operandi. At least since the re-run elections in Ekiti in 2010, no aggrieved politician has pointed a finger at any policeman as being an accomplice to rigging as we saw in 2003 and 2007.