In a decent society, and I would not tire of saying it, we are not a decent society, the Comptroller would be cashiered on account of his sheer lack of professionalism in his appearance and self-presentation before that hearing. And he has a Ph. D., according to the records! So inured are we to the culture of abjection that we are now absolutely petrified of applying rules and letting the chips fall where they may.
I would like to start this piece by thanking the owners of Channels Television for making their broadcasts available by live streaming on the web. In case you don’t hear it often enough, your station represents an indispensable entry point to Nigeria and its affairs for many of us its citizens in exile.
But, as the saying goes, this is one of those situations where one must really be careful what one wishes for. We have enough of the unwanted, hard-to-watch news about Nigeria that come with news, good and bad, and other events that are standard fare in the world of information and entertainment. Such was my feeling on Saturday, April 30, this year, watching Channels Television’s News at 10 p.m.
If you follow Nigerian affairs, you know that on April 22, this year, a female member of the House of Representatives, Onyemaechi Mrakpor, was allegedly slapped by a member of the security detail in a convoy in which the Director General of the Nigerian Prisons Service was travelling. And this, because, according to her “slapper”, she was not smart enough to know what a convoy was and how to behave—get the hell out of the way, of course!—in such a situation. Ignoramus that she was, she overtook the motorcade of Dr. Peter Ezenwa Ekpendu, the prisons service boss. What is more, the alleged incident took place nowhere else than on the very grounds of the National Assembly.
Given how fast news travel these days that slap was definitely heard around the world. If you don’t believe me, here is the BBC’s report based on Nigerian papers. Their correspondent also spoke with the victim on an edition of “Focus on Africa” that same week.
As is usual with the illiterates who run our affairs, for whom noise is always preferable to reflection and to be seen to be “acting” always trumps rule-following, the slap became the object of a hearing by the House. To be sure, a hearing is in order. After all, if the incident was true, it was not merely an affront to the honourable member who was slapped, it was just as bad an affront to the institution—the house of the people—of parliament in a representative democracy.
It was the sad spectacle of the hearing that prompted my reaction in this piece. There they were, the dramatis personae of our collective drama of shame: the representatives who formed the committee and their chair; the victim herself, and most important of all, our real rulers, who created the mess that we are still labouring to clean up, seventeen years and counting, who are supposed to have faded into their professional roles, rarely, if ever, to be seen dominating our public life, totally subject and subordinate to our elected officials; I am speaking, of course, of the men and women in uniform, in the present case, the prisons service. More about this later.
Now to the show of shame watched around the world. First, the hearings took on the character of “two-fighting”. First, the representative was subjected to the humiliation of having to, as it were, state what happened. Then, the men in uniform got up and collectively took the oath to tell the truth, I might add, as they see it. A national assembly official looking ridiculous in the ubiquitous vest that is now the preferred wear of all officials across the country—a version of the addiction to uniforms now ravaging the land—identified by Channels Television as Sergeant-at-Arms said he did not see the officer hit the representative: according to this fellow, “the office merely touched her face and her glasses fell off”. The alleged slapper took the stand and did his best to fudge the issue and deny, deny, deny. Then came the Ọ̀gá Pátápátá, the Controller General of Prisons, himself and what he said was to the following effect: It is unfortunate that an incident happened. You all [representatives, that is] have been good to me and the service. We all know that these boys can sometimes get “overzealous” [his word]. Then he turned to the victim who, at this point, appeared to be sobbing, to forgive the infraction and its perpetrator.
That appearance is shame personified. In a decent society, and I would not tire of saying it, we are not a decent society, the Comptroller would be cashiered on account of his sheer lack of professionalism in his appearance and self-presentation before that hearing. And he has a Ph. D., according to the records! So inured are we to the culture of abjection that we are now absolutely petrified of applying rules and letting the chips fall where they may.
Obviously, Dr. Ekpendu did not seem to know that it was the responsibility of his service to investigate the actions of one of his officers accused of committing an illegal act while on duty and decide what to do in accordance with the rules regarding the performance of his officers while on duty and even while not. Rather than discharge his duties, he resorted to begging!
The members of the House of Representatives fared no better. As a Yorùbà proverb puts it: Irú ìró n’ìborùn, irú u baba ni tọmọ [The sash is one piece with the wrapper; the offspring is a chip off the father’s block]. The rush to useless committee hearings to adjudicate matters that are best left to the civil service and its rules and regulations speaks either to an assembly that does not really know its place or has an overabundance of time on its hands. I doubt that the latter is the case given the extremely bad shape the country seems to be in at the present time. So we are left with the sinking feeling that our national assembly is made up of functionaries whose knowledge of their function leaves much to be desired.
Ordinarily, the facts of the case do not seem to warrant any basic intervention by the House of Representatives. What happened was a simple case of assault and\or battery, on the face of it. The arm of the state that should pick up the investigation once the lady representative claimed that she was assaulted is the police. Only they should determine whether or not there was a prima facie case to warrant arresting and charging the prison official accused of slapping the lady and ensure that he faces the music. The victim, too, could sue him in tort for causing her injury, physical and\or emotional. The Nigerian Prisons Service, seized of concern for its image and the fact that the officer involved committed the alleged act while on duty, would be within its rights to investigate the officer’s conduct and if it found that it compromised the integrity of the establishment or was in breach of laid down rules for the behaviour of its officers, would discipline him according to its regulations.
Finally, the House can conduct its own investigation geared not, repeat not, towards adjudicating a case of assault that is possibly felonious, but to see whether something about the organisation of its premises might need to be changed to prevent future occurrences—for instance, what is a convoy doing on its premises? Why is a civil servant—the controller is one such, the last time I checked—travelling in a convoy at all?
By way of conclusion, I would like to share what happened in 2009 in another country when a similar incident took place involving its men and women in uniform and an ordinary citizen, not even a parliamentarian or other notable. It was in Kingston, Jamaica, at the home of one of the country’s reggae superstars, Luciano. A joint police\military team was there to arrest a wanted murder suspect who they believed was hiding there. It was on live TV. At some point a gentleman—it turned out he was mentally ill—started hollering at a policewoman and would not cease even when he was admonished to stop by other officers on the scene. Then, suddenly, one of the officers, an army Sergeant, had had enough and proceeded to slap fellow. I remember saying to myself on my couch, “no, you don’t do that!”
The following day, it was discussed in parliament. But there was no rush to hearing. Rather, the army conducted its own investigation and before that week had elapsed the sergeant had been cashiered. In case our big men and women in the national assembly need any reminders, Jamaica has a parliamentary system, our judicial systems are similar, founded on the same juridical principles, and it is a country of African-descended peoples, for the most part. I have no doubt that many of our functionaries are regular visitors to that country. It is why I ask whether when we travel, the only things we have eyes for are freezers, flat screen televisions and designer suits.
As another Yorùbá proverb puts it: when there are lice left to pick on our clothes, we cannot be rid of blood underneath our fingernails. I ask: when are we going to retire permanently uniforms from our public life. I treat this issue in a future feature piece. But we cannot end our drama of shame till we rid our public lives of the scourge of men and women in uniform.
Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò teaches in the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.