My title is a play on the title of a play: Les mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tirésias), a 1903 play by French surrealist writer, Guillaume Apollinaire. Students of French literature will recall that Apollinaire coined the term ‘surrealism’ in his powerful preface to this play. The storyline is simple. Thérèse, a thoroughly submissive wife, gets tired of her subaltern condition. Her destiny is reversed when her breasts become disposable balloons and fly away. The now boobless Thérèse is transformed into a male character, Tirésias, who ties up her erstwhile husband, dresses him up as a woman, and sets out to conquer the world – the world of men! The story of Tirésias teaches patriarchy a few useful lessons it cannot afford to ignore. There is the powerful symbolism of breasts as a gender marker and as a sign of constructed inferiority. Take the breasts away in a priapic maneuver and all ‘dangling modifiers’ within sight are in danger! Watch those breasts! Keep them glued where they belong, lest the balls of history are taken out of your courts – and your bodies! That is the injunction every son of patriarchy hears in the story of Tirésias, generation after generation.
That is what President Umaru Yar’Adua and his handlers seem to hear every day, hence the extraordinary lengths they have gone to ensure that all breasts in Nigeria remain where they belong. Nowhere is this underground gender intifada taking place than in the theatre of Nigeria’s only functioning industry: corruption. One fundamental mistake watchers of Nigeria make is to conceptualize corruption as a socio-political and economic malaise, paying little attention to its ontological dimensions as a narrative and a field of power. As a narrative, corruption in Nigeria has historically self-fashioned as male, always taking on discursive accretions associated with maleness. Over the years, this narrative has constructed exclusively male metonyms of corruption: governors and ministers of the Second Republic, the entire military establishment during the locust years of military despotism, governors and ministers of the Third Republic. Whenever corruption wears a human face, it always prefers the metonym of the male face: Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha, and Olusegun Obasanjo are excellent examples. As a field of power, corruption in Nigeria behaves like a territory, a male state with full territorial integrity. Admission into this constructed boys’ club depends on the scale of one’s appetite, an incurable penchant for impunity, and the degree of one’s creative prowess in the art of theft. It is a dangerous theatre of territorial and competing egos.
This is the boat that some Nigerian women began to rock gradually and insidiously under former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Sensing opportunity in President Yar’Adua’s somnambulistic predisposition, they upped the ante and launched a full-scale invasion of the deadly male territory of corruption. First it was Iyabo Obasanjo, the former President’s daughter, who seemed determined to overthrow the troika of Babangida, Abacha, and her own father by becoming the contemporary face of corruption in Nigeria. There was Patricia Etteh, the former Speaker of the Federal House of Representatives, who took corruption to new heights, even by Nigerian standards. Not to be outdone, Adenike Grange, an internationally acclaimed Professor of Pediatrics and former Minister of Health joined the corruption gravy train. Then came hurricane Onyiuke-Okereke!!
This was the worst nightmare for Yar’Adua and the boys. Suddenly, breasts seemed to appear from every direction, invading their territory. The boys were determined not to have the Tirésias scenario. They would teach Nigerian women a lesson. Nigeria, after all, is not the romantic site of some French writer’s imagination. In the men’s estimation, the women, it seemed, had forgotten that a child may equal an elder in the collection of new and trendy clothes, the elder’s bigger mountain of used clothes and rags will always be a pointer to experience and an indication of who started the journey first. What to do? What to do about these breasts flying off women’s chests and invading the field of corruption? Bingo! President Yar’Adua had an epiphany: the rule of law!
Before the women reared their heads – or their breasts in this instance – into a territory Nigerian men have imagined and narrativized as male for decades, the rule of law, especially that part of it known as anti-corruption crusade, was enjoying a deserved vacation from the hot-headedness of the Nuhu Ribadu years. President Yar’Adua’s stolen mandate was bankrolled by some of the most gifted thieves in Nigeria’s history. All former governors like the President, these men are some of the most important members of the corruption country club. Once in a while, President Yar’Adua’s rule of law would return from vacation, haul one of the President’s men before a judge, and then work to undermine all charges against the man. President Yar’Adua’s rule of law would guarantee swift and sumptuous bail conditions for the accused. While the accused is awaiting trial, he strolls in and out of Aso Rock for breakfast meetings with the president. He could disappear a planeload of stolen cash if it tickles his imagination. Sometimes the thief travels in the President’s entourage to Western destinations. Another may organize a talk-of-the-town birthday party in South Africa. Whatever projects the thief dreams up while awaiting trial, President Yar’Adua’s rule of law is always there to offer full and unalloyed support. If the thieves have money laundering indictments in Britain and the United States, as is always the case, President Yar’Adua’s rule of law becomes very patriotic, putting every imaginable obstruction on the path of British and American justice. Nigerian VIP thieves are not going to be tried by foreign laws even when they break the law in foreign lands. Not on President Yar’Adua’s watch. His Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Michael Aondoakaa, became a stenographer, writing frenzied letters of exculpation for the President’s friends indicted in Euro-America.
Then the women got ideas about Tirésias and President Yar’Adua’s rule of law became gendered and double-faced. The slow and supportive side of the rule of law remained the exclusive property of the boys’ club while a much swifter and deadlier version was created for female upstarts and pretenders to the male territory of corruption. No breasts would be allowed to fly off rebellious chests in Yar’Adua’s Nigeria. Professor Adenike Grange was the first to taste the swiftness of President Yar’Adua’s rule of law towards female offenders. While the rule of law stonewalled and sleepwalked with respect to the corruption cases against James Ibori, Lucky Igbinedion, and Orji Uzor Kalu, Professor Grange was hauled to Aso Rock for a patriarchal dress down before being swiftly hauled to court, within days of the discovery of her alleged crime. President Yar’Adua’s rule of law also has other ways of dispensing differential, gendered justice. Corrupt women, when not swiftly hounded or jailed, are quietly consigned to oblivion while the men are allowed to “forgive” Nigeria and “bounce back”. In the case of corrupt PDP governors booted out by electoral tribunals, President Yar’Adua routinely joins them on the campaign trail to spearhead their reselection efforts. Thus, Iyabo Obasanjo and Patricia Etteh have found out the hard way that they are different from corrupt men like Liyel Imoke and Olusegun Agagu.
And now Onyiuke Okereke! This woman has chosen a bad time to catch the Tirésias bug. If you are a woman in Nigeria, it is an extremely bad idea to be on the wrong side of the law when men have settled on a woman as the chief enforcer of their law. Far too many Nigerian men are socialized into the myth of women being their own worst enemies, the most effective neutralizers/antagonizers of other women. This perception may have no basis in reality, it may have no empirical foundation but it works, unfortunately, in the manner of neoconservative myths and political strategies in the United States. President Yar’Adua has settled on a woman, Farida Waziri, to take care of the Tirésias problems of his boys. Onyiuke Okereke has now crossed the path of Waziri, a woman anxious to be an expression of the will and desire of the men who put her in a position of power! Waziri’s EFCC has now begun to snarl in Onyiuke’s direction. I am anxiously awaiting the conclusion to this Nigerian adaptation of Apollinaire’s play!