At the busy, chaotic and notoriously popular Obalende bus station in Lagos, a drama that played out recently provided an insight into the thinking of ordinary Nigerians about the current imbroglio and the handling of information about the state of President Yar’dua’s health status and continued absence and its implication on their lives and the polity.
Under the long stretch of the Bridge coursing through Obalende and connecting the Third Mainland Bridge, a crowd of people, mostly a motley mix of pedestrians, area boys, commuter, rechard card sellers and hawkers gathered in front of a vendor displaying newspapers and magazines. Since it was the close of business, Obalende was bursting at the seams.
The human traffic increased as more people poured into the newsstand. Monday 11 January 2009 would have passed as another excruciating day in the lives of these Lagosians but when an evening newspaper long renowned for controversy reported what they considered a scary headline about the President’s ill health. All hell was let loose.
Passing through at this time, my attention was immediately drawn to the gathering. My first thought was that somebody was again being lynched for being responsible for a disappeared male organ. A regular occurrence in Lagos, where an offence of pick pocketing can send the culprit to the great beyond and a case of mistaken identity carries deadly consequences. But I was wrong. I pushed my way through the sweaty throng to behold the headline on the front page of PM News. “Yar ‘dua clinically Dead”.
Knowing what “clinically dead” means in medical terms, I moved away disappointed thinking that more serious news had broken and which I had missed had drawn the attention of the people to the newsstand. But the surging crowd thought otherwise as someone retorted loudly “chei, Yar dua don’t die for Saudi clinic” That comment was what the entire crowd needed.
A loud wail went round those gathered as they surged forward to buy copies of the PM news on display. I was shocked that among the people no one knew the meaning of being clinically dead. Now the President has been taken for dead because of a headline that used a medical term while information managers in Abuja continue to make the issue of the President health a mystery.
A man who seemed to be the loudest among the crowd read out the content of the news to no one in particular and when he reached mid way, he stopped speaking at the top of his voice. He yelled ‘’ dis thing wey dey happen Na Obasanjo fault. The man know say Yar’dua go soon die. But he force am for PDP and the country. Now na the result be this”
A young man clutching a brown paper bag joined the crowd who had now stood in small groups discussing the impact of the President “clinical death” as interpreted from the PM News report. The young man bought a copy of the paper, scanned the headline and read for several seconds while listening to the man still cursing former President Obasanjo for Yardua’s gift to Nigeria.
Raising his head up from the paper he offered an unsolicited explanation of the term clinically dead. “Oga, the President is not dead o, he is clinically dead, that is, he cannot talk, nor recognize anybody. He is a living dead” Attention shifted temporarily to him as the gathered crowd tried to come to terms with this new information.
Before the young man offered this new explanation, the man giving the lecture about the President “death” had by then begun to theorize on what will happen next if the power brokers in Abuja refused to let Vice President Goodluck Jonathan take over.
He became furious that a more learned young man has come to question his authority. Hear him “you, what do you know. Small boy like you, cant you read, this paper says the president is dead in a clinic in Saudi and you come here to tell me he is not”
The young man tried to explain but his voice was drowned by the many voices of the people who had begun to argue about what will happen now that the number one citizen is “no more”. I stayed long enough to hear of a terrible uprising from the Delta if the Vice President is not allowed to continue where Yar dua stopped.
I stayed long enough to hear the woman roasting plantain popularly referred to as boli shouting at the top of her voice and cursing people who obstructed the free-flow of customers to her wares. “You people comot for here o. Dont block my market, Wetin concern me if the President don die? Nothing concern me. Wetin the government dey do? No light, no water, no good school, my children don dey for house since I no get money to send them to school. No be government dey feed my family o. Make una allow me sell my market if God no wan punish una. If the government like make dem die. The government don die before.
I moved away while the vendor continued to do brisk business and more people joined the crowd at the scene while they listened to the man lending a voice to his own ignorance. The news of the clinically dead President spread round like a wild fire. Small group of people will gather and discuss the news while holding a copy of the PM News.
Later on while sitting in a public bus. I watched people clutching the copy of the PM News while offering different interpretation to it. But for some people, the rumored death of the President does not mean any thing. The mood in the streets is that of disillusionment. Ordinary Nigerians go about their daily lives without caring what is happening to the government. The answer you get is “wetin concern me with government?
This explains why Abuja can afford to take the people for a ride with the way they have managed the information about the health of the President. The last one month has been particularly depressing. The increasing fuel scarcity, poor electricity supply and deepening poverty have made ordinary Nigerians lose interest in government. Ask a Nigerian what he thinks about the President absence and the best you will get is a blank look.
The docility of Nigerians to the affairs of this country and the President continued absence also explains why information managers in Abuja can continue to spin webs upon webs of lies to cover up what should be in the public domain. Since nobody is going to ask questions.
It was really amazing that the level of literacy in our country could be as low as the mass of people not being able to understand the meaning of a newspaper headline as seen in the drama that played out in Obalende. When the level of literacy is abysmally low as we have in our country and the critical masses of the people do not take interest in who governs and how they are governed, then we will continue to have a government that takes us for a ride.