19 August 2019
When Ike Ekweremadu, the senator for Enugu West and former deputy senate president, accepted the invite to attend the annual “New Yam” festival of the Igbo community in Germany, held on Saturday at Nuremberg, he must have thought it was going to be a routine “meet the plebs” tour that is typical of the Nigerian elite, where they get off their high horses and allow a bunch of sycophants perform a bout of arse-licking.
What happened next could turn out to be a game-changer in putting the fear of the people at the heart of Nigerian politics. Members of the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) reportedly pelted the senator with eggs, dragged him from the venue, roughed him up a bit, and he was lucky to be bundled into a waiting car that sped off.
Watching the images that went viral over social media, reminded me strangely of when Denmark beat Nigeria 4-1 at the World Cup in 1998. George Kay, a DJ at London’s Choice FM, said then that he always thought “Nigeria had a good beating coming its way”. Nigerian politicians have been literally and figuratively getting away with murder since civilian rule returned in 1999. They use armed thugs to rig elections, which allow them to gain power and access to obscene wealth – in the case of senators $2m a year in a country where over 70% are below the poverty line.
Then they flaunt their wealth in the faces of their disenfranchised people with mansions in Nigeria and all over the world. Ekweremadu is no exception to this, going from a lawyer struggling to make ends meet in 1999 to stupendous wealth from first becoming chief of staff to the Enugu State governor and then a senator from 2003.
Very few Nigerians can confront these politicians to try to make them more accountable. They move around the country surrounded by dozens of security officials armed to the teeth. The few Nigerians that demonstrate against misrule are usually subjected to a heavy-handed response from the police and the army. John Barnhill said: “When the people fear a government, they’re a tyranny. When a government fears the people, there is liberty.”
The incident in Nuremberg represents the first few baby steps in getting those in power in Nigeria to fear the people. For too long, a culture of impunity has driven the brazen lootocracy that passes for governance in Nigeria. When politicians start recognising that there are consequences for their shameless acts against the interests of their people, the chances of modifying their behaviour increase.
Many have tried to play the ethnic card in condemning the discomfort dished out to the Ekweremadu. He is Igbo and the IPOB separatists are Igbo and some claim there should be some mythical form of “unity” among Igbos. This claim is very hollow. Ekweremadu never united with ordinary Igbos as he became very wealthy from what should be public service. In fact, the poverty of many Igbos is directly related to the thieving of many Igbo politicians like Ekweremadu. There can be no unity of purpose between a thief and the homeowner.
One may disagree with IPOB’s objectives – secession of southeast Nigeria from the rest of the country. But making life difficult for looters of public funds, that have made life a nightmare for most Nigerians, and preventing them from swanning around in Europe, flaunting their ill-gotten wealth, is a worthy cause.
Those who argue against the sort of mob action visited on Ekweremadu fail to recognise the context that gives rise to such action. Nelson Mandela said during his trial in April 1964 why the African National Congress chose the path of armed struggle: “… a government which uses force to maintain its rule teaches the oppressed to use force to oppose it. I came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic to continue preaching peace and non-violence. This conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle. I can only say that I felt morally obliged to do what I did.”
I think every Nigerian outside the venal elite has a “moral obligation” to make life hell for the people in power that have made life hell for Nigerians. There are extremely limited ways Nigerians can remove those politicians from power, with fraudulent elections as the norm. Other forms of peaceful protest are also being violently repressed. As John F Kennedy said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
There is a sense of inevitability about what happened to Ekweremadu. Many Nigerians have tended to be docile about taking direct action against their tormentors and have accepted the sad state of affairs as the natural order of things. This act by IPOB is likely to shake things up a bit and likely to prompt more similar acts.
Those saying Ekweremadu was not the worst of a terrible bunch of politicians, are missing the point. It is not about harassing the biggest thief in the land. It is about sending a message to thieves that there would be consequences for their actions. It was poetically appropriate that the message was sent via eggs chucked in Ekweremadu’s direction. As Malcolm X infamously said: “Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they always made me glad.”