Living through crazy times

Scale of Justice

Reading a bit of Nigerian history recently, something struck me – much of what the country has lived through in the recent past looks a lot worse in retrospect. That is, even though one might have thought they were really bad at the time, they were worse in reality.

Consider a few examples. Remember the Bakassi Boys? When the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) investigated and published a report in 2001, the Bakassi Boys were estimated to have executed 3,000 people over an 18-month period in Anambra state. A German professor who used to lecture at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, Johannes Harnischfeger, witnessed some of these executions and interviewed some of the ‘spectators’ as to whether they felt any disgust or disapproval at the executions. He never found anyone. Some journalists even awarded Anambra state the most crime-free state in 2001 on account of the Bakassi Boys’ efforts.

How about the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian state in 1995? Look at it this way – from the day he was sentenced to death by the kangaroo tribunal, to the sentence being approved by the Provisional Ruling Council, and then to his execution, it was a span of just 10 days. How about the fact that the official exchange rate remained at N22 to $1 throughout the five years Abacha was in office even though oil prices were as low as $12 per barrel and as high as $20 per barrel in that same period?

Here’s another random thing – I recently asked people on Twitter if they watched the video of Prince Yormie Johnson’s men torturing and mutilating Samuel Doe in 1990. Back then the video was openly sold in traffic and in shops like any other home video. Of course, a number of people on Twitter said they had watched it and that it had even been shown to some children in schools. I was certainly very young when I watched it.

To a great degree, most of these random events (with the exception of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution) felt normal at the time they were happening. And even when people felt like something wasn’t quite right, they were either too afraid to say it or just went along with everyone else. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that one is able to look back and appreciate the depth of the ridiculousness. And of course, there is nothing anybody can do about changing the past. And so the nation trudges on, piling crazy upon crazy and then everyone looking incredulous when presented with the evidence.

A good test is thus to constantly ask ourselves – how will this thing look in 20 years time when we are looking back at it? In 2035, when we look back at the Nigerian Army executing more than 300 Shiite Muslims in Zaria and then detaining their leader for more than two years (and counting), how will it look? How about the fact that the Nigerian Customs has been killing people in the name of stopping rice smuggling? Or that the Central Bank no longer publishes its accounts so no one really knows what is going on there? None of these things is going to look good in the cold light of history.

If the past now looks crazier than it was when it happened, and the same is happening today, then the future is not looking too good. But I sympathise. One of the hardest things to do for a Nigerian is to detach themselves from the moment and have a broader view of what is going on in the country and its implications, not just for today, but for tomorrow as well. How can one do this when Nigeria’s politics is breathlessly entertaining and the country assaults its citizens daily with one absurdity or the other? It is nearly impossible.

But history remains a harsh and unsympathetic judge. We will not be able to say in the future that the circumstances did not allow us to respond to events in the way that we could have. We will still be judged very harshly anyway just in the same way we currently judge past generations and leaders who went along with the crazy while it happened or even went out of their way to justify and normalise it.

The solution is to fight crazy with crazy. It is an act of craziness to go against conventional wisdom or to insist that what appears normal is in fact crazy. It is a very crazy thing to do to hold on to principles when everyone else views it as a low value commodity. In the same way that history is a harsh judge, it can also be incredibly generous. Keep that in mind when you weigh events going on in Nigeria and plan your response to them.

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