While politicians fiddled
about the third term in Abuja, hundreds of citizens burned in Lagos. No
one knew how many died, their names, their circumstances, or those they
left behind. And no one cared. Since the assassination of Murtala
Muhammed in 1976, Nigerian leaders have asked what their nation could do
for them personally, not what they could do for their nation.
When General Gowon was
overthrown in 1975 he had no house and possessed only £15,000 in a
single account. When Murtala was killed he also had no house and
probably less in monetary terms than Gowon. Their successors specialised
in accumulating wealth, becoming richer every year while their citizens
sunk deeper into poverty. In 20 years China's absolute poor sank from 56
per cent of the population to 12 per cent. In 30 years Nigeria's rose
from 20 per cent to over 70 per cent. Today China is a world power,
Nigeria a basket case.
In no other country in the world, with the possible exception of George
Bush's America, do leaders show more contempt, less compassion, for
their poor citizens. If a man who has stolen billions from the nation
announces a party to celebrate a successful operation on his ingrown
toenail in Europe, every Big Man from the farthest corner of the country
rushes forth like rats from their holes in search of cheese. An
explosion at one of these "society" weddings, naming ceremonies or
funerals would decimate the entire ruling class.
Meanwhile, the poor die or are forgotten. In many poor countries corrupt
leaders are indifferent to the fate of the poor. In Nigeria, leaders
hate their people, as Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld hate African Americans
in New Orleans. While they seek power at all costs, this has been
separated from purpose and no longer serves the people. The billions
earned from petroleum have not been used to build factories, schools,
hospitals, generating plants, refineries, roads, railways, trams, or
water systems but mansions and foreign bank accounts.
In Abuja, there was bargaining about the price of a vote to keep failed
politicians in office while hundreds of citizens were incinerated in
Lagos. There were rumours of US$1 million for a senator's vote while
citizens burned to death trying to make a few naira from a jerry can of
petrol. Callous politicians probably smirked that these "criminals"
deserved what they got for sabotaging oil pipelines. While fraudulently
awarding themselves 90 million naira "rent" money to add to the billions
they had stolen, they had no time to reflect on why citizens would risk
their lives for a few hundred naira.
Poor Nigerians are very aware of the dangers of siphoning fuel from
pipelines yet they continue. They know that thousands have died before
them but persist - to put food on the table or a roof over the heads of
loved ones. They lack the tools and skills necessary to drill holes in
the pipelines: the sabotage is organised by men with tankers and
equipment who fill up then leave hundreds of the little people to
scavenge and die. The danger of petrol is not the liquid itself but the
vapours they cannot see, which require any kind of spark, from a
motorcycle, cigarette, or static electricity.
Police and "intelligence" agencies are supposed to catch the real
saboteurs, the bunkerers who deprive the treasury of billions of dollars
a year. But in Nigeria the police and "security" forces protect those in
power rather than the citizens they are supposed to serve. They rig
elections and spy on political "enemies" rather than protect the nation
and its citizens. The inspector general of police spoke of new patrol
boats which were nowhere to be seen near the scene of the tragedy.
Will there be an independent Commission of Inquiry which will get to the
bottom of how hundreds of citizens were burnt like garbage? These
Nigerian citizens were thrown into mass graves, into trenches dug from
the earth, as Europeans bury animals at the outbreak of epidemics. In
the age of DNA testing no one thought of identifying remains so that
loved ones would could honour their departed. We know not who they were
so we cannot join mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and
daughters in mourning them. To those in power they were of no
consequence and could be disposed of as rubbish.
Many Nigerian politicians, especially those with a military background,
possess modern farms where they raise livestock. They provide nutritious
food, clean water, sanitary housing, the latest medicine and the best
They have an interest in the welfare of their animals because they want
to make profits. If they had the same interest in their citizens Nigeria
would be a far better place and 70 per cent of the population would not
be classified as dirt poor. The world knows this: when they interviewed
me on Al-Jazeera TV, the first question the presenter asked me was, "Did
poverty cause this?"
In a truly democratic society the politician has to take an interest in
the citizen because s/he has the vote. But in a country like Nigeria
where power is captured by uniformed or civilian thugs, the citizen is
surplus to requirement and can burn to death without notice or
The irony is that most Nigerian power holders come from poor backgrounds
like these latest victims of neglect. They know the horror that poverty
breeds for men, women and their loved ones but don't care. They pretend
to be religious but no religion sanctions contempt for the poor, or
preaches love for the obscene wealth the potentates of Abuja worship.
May the souls of these victims rest in perfect peace.