Finalists for Hall of Infamy
Between the gunman who opened fire inside a church during early morning mass; the gang that raided a high school hostel, carted away six students and held them in the creeks for weeks until their parents coughed out a ransom payment; the bandits that blocked one of the country’s most vital highways, snatched motorists from their cars and bundled them into the bush until ransom was paid; the herdsmen and the communal warriors that surrounded villages, set them ablaze and killed everyone in sight; and the suicide bomber who walked awkwardly into a gathering of people he did not know and blew them up, who will you cast your vote for to be the Captain in the Nigerian Hall of Infamy?
I was personally touched by the sordid event at Ozubulu because I did my NYSC very close by. Shooting people dead in the vicinity of a church is not totally new in Eastern Nigeria. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were several newspaper reports of men being shot as they arrived for or as they left church after a service. In all the cases the reported motive was a business dispute, and the aggrieved party lay in ambush and settled scores just outside or in some cases just inside the church premises.
Opening fire right inside the church during mass was something else. The only similar episode I can remember took place in Ghana around 1985. As reported at the time by the defunct Africa Now magazine, an off-duty Ghanaian Army officer tried to take his girlfriend out on a Sunday but she insisted on attending the church service first. The officer returned to the church at noon when she said the service will be over, but it was still on. He then walked inside and told the pastor to hurry up and conclude the service. When the pastor refused, he drew a service pistol and shot him, right in front of the congregation.
From accounts provided so far by the police and the governor of Anambra State, the motive of the Ozubulu gunman was a little bit more serious than taking a girlfriend out. It was said to be a dispute between two drug kingpins of Ozubulu origin but based in South Africa, where the trade in hard drugs is more lucrative than it is in Nigeria. Drug barons fight not only because of money, as Nigerians tend to assume, but for many other reasons including turf, market share, suspected betrayal and ego.
Governor Obiano was very angry that the drug barons’ quarrel took place abroad but they came back home to settle scores. Well, it could be because the gunman and his sponsors are much more likely to get away with the heinous crime in Nigeria than in South Africa, whose police force is more sophisticated than ours. To adduce small evidence, we were clueless as to who bombed Abuja’s Eagle Square on October 1, 2010 [with President Jonathan swearing it was not MEND] until South Africa stepped forward and definitively fingered Henry Okah. All Nigerians were shocked that anyone could open fire inside a church during mass, but I doubt if a drug baron or his hit men will bat an eyelid about it.
Before Ozubulu, this country was traumatised when gunmen raided Igbonla Model College in Epe, Lagos; snatched six kids, spirited them away to the Ondo Waterside creeks and extorted ransom from their parents. We all thought, how heartless could men be? But the bandits in Lagos probably thought it was okay because weeks earlier, another gang had seized kids and teachers from a school in Ogun State and hid them until they collected a fat ransom. The fact that those ones were caught not long afterwards when they emerged from the creeks did not deter the Lagos bandits, who probably thought their Ogun counterparts were not smart. That is why it is necessary for Inspector General Ibrahim Idris to prove to both the Ozubulu gunman and the schoolboys’ kidnappers that they reckoned wrongly.
Back in the Abacha era, during one of the debilitating fuel shortages in the country, I was present at a meeting at Arewa House, Kaduna where one elder urged that traditional rulers of all towns and villages on highways should be told to tell their youths to stop cashing in on the situation and extorting travellers through the fuel black markets. The late Malam Liman Ciroma however shot down the idea. He said youths in such towns were always envious of motorists speeding through their towns and no one could persuade them not to cash in on the fuel shortage and get some money while it lasted.
From cashing in on fuel shortages to dupe travellers, it was but one short step to blocking highways and kidnapping motorists for ransom. Unemployed young men that litter the communities along highways must be thinking what wrong they did to Nigeria to be left in penury while wealthy motorists zoom through their towns in posh cars, often knocking down villagers. Highway robbery has been around in Nigeria for decades but technological innovations such as bank computerisation, ATMs, POS and mobile banking have made highway robbery much less lucrative than it was before. Disaffected herdsmen who lost their cattle to rustlers also abound in the highway towns; to boot they have Kalashnikovs which they acquired ostensibly to guard their cattle. Five years ago the South East was a virtual no-go area because kidnap for ransom gangs ruled the urban and rural landscape. Youths along the AbujaKaduna highway soon borrowed a leaf from them.
Just before kidnappers became major contenders in the national Hall of Infamy, herdsmen already sat atop the perch. Agatu in Benue State and Ukpabi Nimbo community in Enugu State solidified herdsmen’s reputation across Nigeria as cold blooded killers. Before Agatu and Ukpabi Nimbo, herdsmen were blamed for deadly attacks on villages in Plateau and Southern Kaduna states. Those attacks often recorded heavy casualties, were quite indiscriminate and they turned tens of thousands of people into refugees. Their motives were however more complicated than those of kidnappers. The attackers saw them as reprisal attacks for rustled cattle or slain relatives. The herdsmen also have totally different rules of engagement from other Nigerian communal warriors: they don’t forgive or forget, they could come back for “revenge” when everyone else had forgotten about the offence and they hold an entire community responsible for a wrong done to them. No wonder they climbed to the top of many people’s hall of infamy. Their methods were however matched recently when Mambilla tribal youths in Taraba State systematically razed Fulani villages on the plateau and killed the inhabitants due to a long running struggle for land ownership. Overnight they qualified as finalists in the race to infamy.
But before all of them there was Boko Haram, probably the most bloodthirsty insurgent group in the world since the Khmer Rouge. These days Boko Haram has been reduced to small scale ambushes and suicide bombings. A young girl, may be donated to the ‘cause’ by her parents as the Army alleged, promised a oneway ticket to heaven by Boko Haram indoctrinators, will be strapped with suicide vests, sneaked near a military checkpoint or a crowded place such as a mosque, walk in and explode. She didn’t know her victims; she did not know what they did; and it is not at all clear if she believed what she was told that the deed would earn her a first class ticket to heaven.
Between the church shooters, the kidnappers of students, the highway kidnappers, the deadly herdsmen that wipe out villages, the Mambilla tribesmen that did the same thing and the Boko Haram suicide bombers, cast your vote for the Captain of the Hall of Infamy.