A Close Brush With Death
By Vivian U. Ogbonna
Monday, November 7, 2016.
No. It wasn’t my own death but it may as well have been because it shook me up badly.
On the 28th of October, 2016, around 3.00 pm, I was in my office on the second floor of an office complex near the Uthako Modern Market in Abuja, Nigeria, when I started to hear shouting. It sounded jubilant – with a rise and fall to it - the sort of noise men make when their favourite football club is winning a match. I was curious but I was busy. Twenty minutes later and the noise hadn’t died down. I got apprehensive and decided to go downstairs and explore.
A mob was in action and I had never seen one before. Made up mostly of traders from the nearby market and other small businesses in the vicinity, they were booing, jeering and pushing a young lady around. Some were beating her and attempting to tear off her clothes. Their grouse? She was wearing a short dress that had the extra audacity of being slit at the sides. They decided to shame her and may have done worse if luck wasn’t on her side.
In front of me, a man paced up and down as he ran a commentary about girls of nowadays. Other people stood in small groups, gesticulating wildly, talking and analysing the situation, but offering no help, in that way that is typical of Nigerian spectators. “It’s good for her. Next time she won’t wear that rubbish again,” someone said. “All these ashawo girls,” another person concluded.
For about three minutes I looked around helplessly, then I saw two policemen standing in front of the Zenith Bank located opposite the market. They were watching the spectacle, unperturbed. I walked over to them and, with my voice lowered, pleaded with them to go after the girl. Without hesitating, as though they were waiting for an order, they went after the mob which had, by then, surged down the road with the hapless girl in their midst. I followed behind the policemen, trying to look un-obtrusive. Somehow, the girl broke free of her captors and ran into Royal Tropicana Hotel, two blocks away. By the time we got there, the security men at the hotel said she was safely inside. I turned back, close to tears.
On my way back, I ran into one of the cleaners at my office complex. She had witnessed everything and this is what she told me: she’d been waiting to make a withdrawal from the ATM machine in front of Zenith Bank when the scantily-dressed lady joined the queue. Apparently offended by her dressing, a man started to abuse her verbally and threatened to beat her up. Other people at the ATM intervened but the noise had already attracted more people. The girl tried to escape to safety but she was out- numbered. As the crowd bore her away, the cleaner ran after the crowd and threw her scarf over the young lady.
Back in my office, I was filled with a mixture of anger, fear and sadness. I couldn’t concentrate any longer. I remembered a video I’d seen on Facebook two days previously. It had caught my attention because some of the men in it were speaking my Owerri dialect. The video showed a woman being paraded by a mob. She was completely naked and there was blood on her face and breasts. She also had a black eye which she kept touching. Somebody was trying to put a tyre over her head but she kept pushing it away. They pushed her down on her back, spread her legs and some of them brought out their phones. I couldn’t watch any longer. I started to imagine, again, how Madam Bridget was stoned to death by a mob of Muslim fanatics in Kano. I remembered the Aluu 4. Even though I’d refused to watch the video of their murder, I had heard that people were watching and recording while it went on.
It’s a shame that cultural and religious sentiments influence people’s understanding and demands for justice. It is also hypocritical that people compartmentalize morality; that traders, who usually sell fake products to customers [among other sharp practices] would bristle with moral indignation at what they consider inappropriate dressing. It is important to note that in markets in most parts of Nigeria, Christians start to pray by 12.00 pm. Muslims are also known to observe prayers several times a day. I hate to think that those supposedly “righteous” traders, who made up the bulk of that mob, would have maimed or killed that young lady, washed the blood off their hands and gone back to their businesses, justified that they’d done the right thing. I have since wondered if their reactions would be the same if a man walks down that same street, dressed in only shorts. I doubt that, except for some sneering and snide remarks, anybody would challenge him.
I hate what many Nigerians have become. Even animals show an abhorrence for certain behaviour towards their own kind.
It is sad that these barbaric incidents recounted here are not isolated cases. It’s a very sad commentary on Nigeria - a reflection of a people’s frustration at the inefficiency and nonchalance of those employed to protect them. Government’s claims at Police reforms have not translated to a Police force that is maximally trained and equipped to protect lives and property, and preserve the rights and dignities of Nigerian citizens. Most of all, they have not translated to a Police force that is well remunerated. Therefore, what Nigerians have to contend with is a corruption-ridden, ill-equipped, grossly underpaid, in-disciplined force, policing an angry, disenchanted people who consider jungle justice swifter and surer than traditional routes.
While it is futile, and even foolhardy, for an un-armed person to attempt to argue with an angry mob, we can decide to, collectively, step up agitation for Police reforms.
#SaveOurLivesA CLOSE BRUSH WITH DEATH
Vivian U. Ogbonna is a critically-acclaimed writer who is also an interior decorator. She lives and works in Lagos and Abuja, Nigeria.