When the Ogun State Police arrested Joe Chinakwe after his neighbour reported him for naming his dog “Alhaji Buhari”, and for walking the same dog in their “Hausa dominated neighbourhood,” they did not try to mask why they took that line of action. According to media reports, they charged him to court because his “provocative” act could cause a breach of peace, and that was because “an average Northerner would feel bad over such a thing.” Underlining their motive is the reality of our socio-political environment. When law enforcement admits to arresting a man to preserve the feelings of his accusers who can launch gratuitous violence, they mean the evil we are dealing with surpasses their level of efficiency.
History has taught us that whenever the “average northerner” says he “feels bad over a thing”, the rest of us are supposed to hurriedly rearrange our manners. We are told to take heed of invisible limits that “infidels” are not permitted to cross. Alarmingly, a number of us have restricted ourselves to this emasculating avoidance of wrath. We have mapped out “no-go areas” of public discussion that we trespass at grievous risks to ourselves. We have seen the repercussions of trespassing these bounds and they are not pleasant. From Gideon Akaluka’s killings to the Reinhard Bonnke crusade violence, the Miss World riots, the Danish cartoons saga, and many other instances of unwarranted violence that have occurred, we have long realised we are dealing with a short-tempered evil spirit who demands a sacrifice of our collective dignity so he can let us live.
The trouble is that this evil spirit of violence who has a chokehold on our society is implacable. He has tasted vats of blood of the innocent and assumed a proprietary right over our lives. Violence in Nigeria happens, not because of intrepid and insensitive people who say things that make others feel bad. Rather, they stem from a cultivated attitude of those who think others’ lives are theirs to take, and they have no regard for any law that attempts to restrain their execution of mindless violence.
Otherwise, what did anyone say or do that warranted the post-election violence of 2011? What did a simple exchange between Mrs. Bridget Agbahime and them result in her death? What of the four killed in Niger State in May? What of the eight burnt to death in Zamfara State just three days ago? Who thinks their victims, people who live in close proximity with them, did not know not to upset them? So why did they still end up dead? Is it not because the state, by never redressing these incidents of violence, has indulged the idea that whoever makes them feel bad deserves what it gets?
Rather than challenge those murderers when they resort to meaningless violence over some offense, Nigerian leaders have blamed the victims instead. When Mrs. Agbahime was killed in Kano, the Presidency issued a press release that suggested people should know better than do things that make these killers feel bad. Over the years, religious and political elite have imbibed the language of justifying violence and it feels very natural when they express certain worrisome ideas. For instance, a man goes to the police station to report a neighbour who supposedly named his dog after his father and certain well-meaning Nigerians say, “At least he tried. You know what would have happened if it had been Kano or Kaduna?” That kind of thinking is dangerous because it suggests that these murderers are ferocious beasts whose raw sensitivity needs to be larded with our self-restraint. Since they cannot be tamed, the rest of us had better put ourselves in a cage so we do not get bitten. Whereas they are savages precisely because Nigeria has failed to tame them.
Whether “Trader Joe” was right (or not) to have named his dog “Alhaji Buhari” is an open argument that would be moderated by cultural and religious sensibilities. What is far more important is for the law enforcement not to react based on fear and curtail another man’s freedom. We cannot claim to live in a free society if the best we do is contain ourselves out of fear of what certain rogue elements can do to us. Freedom is not freedom if its limits are not tested every now and then. It is up to the law to enforce its legitimacy without merely pandering to malevolent threats.
In the account of the incident, those who lodged the claim against “Trader Joe” threatened to kill him if he returned home. Now, if the police arrested the man due to the threat of violence his action could have caused, why then did they overlook the threat of violence to his life? Why is the threat of violence Chinakwe’s traducers could have caused against the entire society considered more egregious than the one they threatened against him as an individual?
If Chinakwe truly named his dog President Muhammudu Buhari as he claimed, and it matters less whether his motive was admiration or disrespect, then arresting him would be setting a bad precedent. There is no one who is, or seeks to be president in the age of social media – where the distance between people’s sometimes unrefined thoughts and their fingers on their mobile devices grows shorter everyday- who will not suffer harassment from the populace. Former Goodluck Jonathan endured so much insult -from ethnic slurs to malicious wishes against himself and his family- such that at some point he labelled himself the most criticised president in Nigerian history. At no point did his rabid followers ask anyone to be arrested because they “felt bad” about the insults to their hero. President Barack Obama and his family suffered some of the most vitriolic insults any American First Family president has ever received but the sky did not collapse on anyone’s head.
The Republican contender for the US presidency, Donald Trump, is not yet president (and he may never be) but he already deals with similar insults hauled at him from various corners of his country. Lately, some artists put up nude statues of him in five busy cities depicting him in the most inelegant manner. People have virulently protested such distressful artistic expressions but that is as far as it goes. In universities this fall, Trump’s nude statue will be a topic of discussions in classroom as people try to give a philosophical slant to the artist who has “disrobed patriarchy”, “undressed male white hegemonic power” and laid bare the libidinal energy that the oppressor has used to keep the rest of the society subjugated.
Do we imagine that these societies attained such level of restraint overnight? No, it is an attitude that is bred into people and sustained with the state’s efficient judicial structures. As a matter of fact, the various social crises erupting in a place like the US should teach us that what is called civilisation is not a destination but a journey. Every country faces the possibility of regression to its Hobbesian state; their citizens just do not let it happen.
Ogun State Police can go ahead and convince themselves they acted in the best interest of the state, that they arrested “Trader Joe” to protect him from the marauders who wanted a taste of his blood, and that he needs to be seen to be punished by his would-be killers. Eventually, they will realise that this evil trait cannot be appeased. When he is thirsty for blood, he simply goes for it because the Nigerian state has let him get away with it too many times. The police should know that the fear of the killers’ petulance is not the beginning of wisdom, it is the very definition of moral cowardice.