On Bended Knee: Abacha’s Climate of Fear and Today’s Climate of Impunity

by Sheyi Oriade

It seems now, like an eternity, since General Abacha held ruthless sway over Nigeria. During his reign of terror, he had much of the populace on their knees, staring down the barrels of his lethal guns. And as is common with people who spend much of their time on their knees, there isn’t much else for them to do, other than to offer up supplication to the heavens. Such became the posture, practice, and fate of many Nigerians during those dark foreboding days. On their knees they were and were to remain, united in their supplication to the heavens for the displacement of their tyrannical oppressor. And it was only after much wailing and gnashing of the teeth that their supplications were answered; and their fearsome despot dispatched to some black hole in the universe.

We may never know for certain, the precise manner of General Abacha’s assisted relocation to the Milky Way. Whether it was at, and, by the hands of an Indian woman of easy virtue; or the result of an overdose of Viagra, as the Western media would have us believe; or whether he was simply poisoned; or shot in military style; we know not. Doubtless to say, however, that regardless of the exact manner of his exit, numerous Nigerians were much relieved at his departure.

But while much of the nation was busy supplicating the divine for its assistance in General Abacha’s dislodgment from power; it seems that in their desperation they forgot to specify the nature of their preferred (medium to long term) replacement. The prevailing mindset seems to have been, one of, anyone, but Abacha, will do. Now the art of supplication is not always an exact science; and inexact prayers may sometimes lead to interesting results. And it is probably for this reason that supplicants are often warned to be careful about what they pray for; as they might end up receiving answers to their entreaties in ways that they did not expect.

For the numerous Nigerians who endured the nightmare of the Abacha years; it must be difficult for them to comprehend now, how it is, that once again, they are the hostages and victims of another brand of despots. I am not entirely sure, what it is about our national character that lends itself to continual governmental abuse; but for some reason, we seem to have the capacity to endure such nonsense on a frequent basis. What then, are we to make, of the popular adage which goes:

‘Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.’

Bearing this adage in mind, what does it say of us as a people? Does it mean that because of the ease and frequency with which our nation is often fooled, and taken over, and overtaken, by practically the same band of military and political brigands, that we are, therefore, deserving of our plight? It is a difficult conclusion to escape from, given the history of our nation.

If the Abacha regime was renowned for one thing in particular, above all else, I would say, it was the climate of fear that it imposed upon the nation. During those days, it was impossible to predict, which person was going to be shot, and when, where, and by whom, and on whose orders within that insidious regime. Many no longer live to recount their tales of trepidation relating to that period; but others do and recall the horror of those days.

But if the Abacha government was characterised by its ability to generate terror at will; what are we to make of the present political class and its misgovernace of the nation; a class of politicians, many of whom, derive their sole legitimacy from having opposed Abacha’s regime. What sort of atmosphere have they fostered upon the nation? Since their coming to power in 1999; they have, in my view, instituted a climate of impunity and profligacy inimical to the progress of Nigeria.

This climate of impunity and profligacy in our government is underscored by the serious lack of public accountability on the part of our officials of State; a failure which highlights some of the worst excesses in our nation today. These excesses are magnified many times over, by reason of the sheer multiplicity of political office holders across the nation.

Under this climate of impunity and profligacy, an ‘anything goes’ approach has become the order of the day. Those entrusted with sworn constitutional responsibilities to protect the integrity of our political system, are often the ones who flout these same duties. When public funds are not being directly stolen or misappropriated by political office holders, in their frenzied acquisition of private assets; they are being deployed towards meaningless ‘white elephant’ projects. There is now neither a fear, nor a respect, for the law of the land. Often times, the so-called law makers are themselves the law breakers. And who is to police the police in our nation?

Part of the problem, in the main, is due, I think, to the passivity and docility that has afflicted of our people; we now have a legendary threshold for patience and suffering. As I write, I am reminded of a pertinent observation of George Orwell based on his experience as a journalist in the Sudan. During the British occupation of that nation, the British as was their practice enlisted a fair number of indigenes into the ranks of their occupation army. All of these men were provided with uniforms and loaded rifles; which they bore on parade grounds, as they marched in endless and meaningless procession.

As an observer of this process, George Orwell often wondered to himself, how long and when it would be, before the Sudanese came to the realisation that not only did they outnumber their occupiers, they also had more armed weapons than them. There and then, the Sudanese had the ability to turn on their occupiers and send them packing. But they lacked the requisite awareness to do so; and so they remained oppressed.

The same has also become true of Nigeria. One would have thought that after having endured the brutality and oppressive air of Abacha’s climate of fear, that Nigerians would have vowed; never again. But it seems that in spite of our preponderant numbers, we remain bowed on bended knee, suffocating under this climate of impunity and profligacy. As I am not an insurrectionist, I am not minded to advocate for an insurrection of arms. But I do call for peaceful and frequent protest marches to government houses and local government headquarters across the land; in direct protest against the habitual misrule of our land.

It is time for ordinary Nigerians, the perpetual victims of oppressive regimes, to put an end to their supplications and rise from their bended knees; to stand up and remain upright, and take action in pursuit and defence of their cause.

So let the peaceful protests begin across the nation; let our governments begin to realise that we are tired of being stolen from, and that they serve us, and not us them.

And it is with the words of that great musician and revolutionary, Bob Marley, that I end this piece:

(Nigerians) Get up, stand up; stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up! Don’t give up the fight!

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