Are we glorifying gangsterism?

MEND members on Lokoja-Abuja road. Photo by Momoh Obansa

It can only happen in Nigeria. Two armed gangs, both outlawed, converge on two strategic locations, spewing threats against public peace. Police men look on helplessly, pleading with the men to sheath their swords, in manner of speaking, and go back home. The gangs insist on playing out their game to the end, on their own terms, insisting that it is their birthright to do what they must do. As of your laws, stuff them in your mouth and flush them down your dirty gullet.

This happens in Nigeria all the time. Because we have become used to gangsterism in every shade, we scarcely notice that some people are breaking the law with impunity.

It happened last Thursday. Two militias, as if by common acclamation, came out en masse in order to “protest” what they regarded as an abuse of their right. The first gang consisted of “former” Niger Delta militants, operating under disparate organisations jointly known as MEND. About 1,600 of them travelled upcountry in long buses and cars and were only accosted by the police at a bridge in Kogi state. The cops prevented them from reaching their destination – the nation’s capital. One of the militants’ leaders, one “General Ramseh,” had the patience to tell reporters and the police that his group was going to Abuja to ask the President why he failed to fulfill his promise to the men who agreed to stop destroying oil installations. The promise is a mouth-watering rehabilitation package for the militants who agreed to lay down their arms, come out of the creeks and receive training for a better civil life. The amnesty programme, as the package is best known, is floundering – judging from the General’s complaints – and the ‘boys’ are no longer being cared for. “While we have embraced the amnesty programme, but the federal government is frustrating it by refusing to pay us, and we don’t want to go back to the creeks or pick up arms any longer,” Ramsey told Blueprint in a story published on Friday.

Many newspapers reported about how these supposedly former fighters blocked the Lokoja-Abuja road for hours, causing a disturbing traffic gridlock, for which commuters suffered. The policemen who stopped the gang from reaching Abuja were apparently courageous, or lucky, as to be able to turn the tide of the hitherto dreaded militants back to whence they came. Not until the men of MEND, who seem to have been quietened down since Dr Jonathan assumed power, grabbed the headlines the following day. Their message has nonetheless sunk in: give the big boys more cash or else.

The second gang hit town in Lagos. Fighters of the Odu’a Peoples Congress (OPC), not less notorious or dreaded, held a big demonstration in the city. Their grouse, however, was not money – yet. Their leader, Dr Frederick Fasheun, explained that they were out to denounce the activities of the ‘north’s own’ militia, the Boko Haram. Fasheun said his gang was ready to defend the south against infiltration by the Maiduguri-based Islamic sect. The OPC’s threat was obviously a reaction to reports that BH may try to visit a devastating blow on a metropolis down south. As in the case on the Lokoja bridge, the police could only look on as the mainly Yoruba militia performed its show. No one was arrested.

In a normal country, the activities of these militias would be resisted, especially since they are not recognised by any section of the constitution. They are armed groups which the laws of the land have banned. They are becoming more dangerous by flying the ethnic and regional cards. Across time, they have been transformed by their leaders and supporters into cultural units of the communities in which they originated. A report in the Sunday Tribune yesterday even lamented that the OPC are not enjoying enough financial and moral support from the Yoruba elite. This claim, though disputable, clearly illustrates our dilemma as a nation that wishes to solve the intractable problems sectionalism (ethnic, religious and regional) has thrust on us. We are glorifying the actions of people that should otherwise be arrested and put behind bars. The Sunday Tribune report aptly summarised the problem this way: “When gun-totting youths besiege the streets in broad daylight, the action should rather be seen as a social problem that requires urgent attention. The daring display of gangsterism on the streets of Lokoja and Lagos is not merely a matter of security helplessness but a resultant effect of socio-economic problem in the country.”

These sectional gangs are indeed growing not only due to the economic problem, but also greatly due to the collapse of morality. Here is a nation where injustice and immorality fester, its leaders refusing to do much to ameliorate the difficult living conditions while illegally helping themselves to the commonweal and refusing to punish proven criminals. The youth should be helped out of militancy, of course, but that task ought to begin with the leaders. You cannot pretend to have the moral right to remove a speck from my eye while I know that there is a big log in yours.


Published in my column in BLUEPRINT today.

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