Author: Saratu Abiola

Monday, bloody Monday in Nigeria

Yesterday morning, my colleague got into his car to begin the hour-long commute from Nyanya to our office in downtown Abuja. Ten minutes into the drive out of his estate, he heard a loud explosion about 150 metres from where he was. At the sound of the explosion, he and other drivers slammed their brakes and almost veered off the road. His ears were ringing. The loud boom echoed in his head like a bell. Soon, the screams started. Then, people were running, scattering really, the usual purposefulness of ordinary Nigerians trying to make a living suddenly unrecognisable. The earth beneath him seemed to be shaking, and his entire body was shaking in tandem. The screaming mass of people had now blocked the road. From where he was, he could not yet see blood or destruction or destroyed buses or the crater that marked the spot where the bomb had hit. He clambered out of his car, then did what everyone else was doing: he ran towards the bus park ahead. He joined the early morning commuters as witnesses. He joined them in their despair.

“You know how busy Nyanya is in the mornings, especially Monday,” John told us when he finally made it to work an hour and a half later. It was 9.30am. “Can you imagine all those people, all of them trying to enter buses? There must have been like 200 or even 300 people there trying to make their way to their various places of work. There was so much blood. There was so much death. It was like a bad dream. I had to take pictures because even I didn’t believe my own eyes.”

He showed us his pictures, and it was just like he had said. So much blood. So much death. Like a bad dream.

Burnt and damaged vehicles are seen at the scene of the bomb blast explosion at Nyanya on April 14. (Pic: Reuters)
Burnt and damaged vehicles are seen at the scene of the bomb blast explosion at Nyanya on April 14. (Pic: Reuters)

The reaction to the Nyanya bomb blast has been more visceral due to its proximity to the capital city; not because this is the first time that we have had terrible attacks on ordinary citizens on such a scale. During the country’s centenary celebrations in February, 43 children were killed in a school in Yobe. Twenty young girls were kidnapped in Borno State during this month. On Sunday, the day before the Nyanya bus park disaster, 68 people were killed in two villages just outside of Maiduguri. Before this attack, Boko Haram hadn’t attacked Abuja in two years. From reading the testimonies of survivors on the Testimonial Archive Project, it is obvious that the people most impacted by the violence are just ordinary Nigerians whose only sin was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The woman who lost her house to an aerial bombardment and the man who lost his two brothers the day they went to register for a session of school are just as human as those who died in Nyanya. But what happened yesterday hit closer to home than these previous incidences. Our colleagues almost lost their lives. Our drivers were calling in late. This particular attack left us with calls to make to our staff and our friends, families and  loved ones.

Bystanders react as victims arrive at the Asokoro General Hospital in Abuja. (Pic: Reuters)
Bystanders react as victims arrive at the Asokoro General Hospital in Abuja. (Pic: Reuters)

The official death toll from the bomb blast is 71, although a lot of journalist friends who went to Nyanya told me that at least 200 people have lost their lives. This discrepancy hints at the difficulty the media has faced in reporting the violence that has seized the country over the past few years. Unfortunately, the media’s difficulty in reporting, together with the fact that the attacks have been concentrated in the more remote states in the Muslim-predominant north, has added to the ethno-religious taint of the violence. Victims become “Muslims” and “Christians”, not “Nigerians”. Human beings are rendered as numbers. Politicians have used the deaths as cudgels with which to score points, and not one of us has stopped them. It has been easy to say that “those people” have just been “killing themselves”. This resignation and willful distance we have put between ourselves and the killings has allowed President Goodluck Jonathan his lukewarm response to the violence with only the most muted protests.

But perhaps the reason our response is so muted is because we know not to expect answers. We do not know any more about Boko Haram’s funders and supporters now than we did last year or the year before. Those of us who believed that Boko Haram are after Christians are not so sure anymore. A few hours after the bomb blasts, Jonathan issued a statement at the site of the bomb blasts, condoling with the victims. One could not help but notice that beleaguered Interior Minister Abba Moro, who just a month before had presided over a mass recruitment exercise that was so badly managed it caused stampedes in several locations, was there with him along with the Senate president, David Mark. Several hours later, Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) issued a statement through its press secretary, blaming the opposition, All Progressives Congress (APC),  for the bomb blasts. That the country’s leaders choose politics over somber, urgent leadership is the strongest indication we have that the answers we seek will not come from these people. And as the 2015 elections loom, what answers we need to make sense of the senseless killings will be even fewer and farther between.

The sun shone outside my office window, but the mood never did lift. Throughout the day, family and friends from Lagos and elsewhere called to see if we were alright. We followed the news for information on casualties and deaths, where to donate blood, what little we could do to help. I left the office at 5pm and said goodbye to our office driver, another colleague who lives near Nyanya.

“Are you going home?” I asked him. He laughed.

“My sister, what choice do I have? Whatever it is, we have nowhere else to go. They know where we are and we don’t have any choice. If they come, they will meet us here.”

Saratu Abiola is a writer and blogger based in Abuja. Connect with her on Twitter or on her blog.

In appreciation of Fela Kuti

One day in February 1977, the military government had had enough of Fela Kuti and ordered that soldiers raid his self-declared independent ‘nation’, the Kalakuta Republic. They burned down the houses of the commune. They beat up the activist and musician severely and raped many women, including his wives. They threw Fela’s mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, an activist and political figure who fought for women’s rights and democracy, through a window. She died months later as a result of her injuries. Fela, carried along by a wave of loss and sadness, later decided to lead a group of his followers to the residence of the head of state at Dodan Barracks with the coffin of his dead mother. His message to the Nigerian government of the day was clear: take what you have made of my home, my country, and give us back what is ours.

Felabration, the annual two-day festival celebrating the now-late Fela Kuti, was held in Lagos this week at a time when Nigeria is in the most peculiar of situations. The country is in bad shape, to be sure, but its ruins are not the same in every home. Some of us have not had our entire worlds yanked from beneath our feet. Some among us have children who do not know a time when our walls saw a coat of paint. Others merely see the worst of pervasive lack on the streets while riding in air-conditioned cars. Our Africa is indeed rising, but with a tide that has lifted some boats and sunk many others. That so many of us are buoyed while most are sinking can distort our urgency, but it is at this time that Nigerians must find the eyes to see the bleeding body that has been dropped at our front door.

With a wildly popular Broadway musical and a movie currently being made of his life, Fela Kuti’s image and music have seen quite the resurgence in the past decade, but I do not think enough has been said about what he tells us about restoring Nigeria. He was defiantly, stubbornly, wholly himself. All parts of himself – Yoruba, Nigerian, African, black, man – coexisted in way that it simply does not for so many of us here, our language heavily-accented by the Western world that influences us. And it’s not like Fela Kuti did not have his musical influences from beyond Nigeria, like Ornette Coleman and Sun-Ra. It’s not like he was not part British himself, with a mother who was by no means conventional.

Fela Kuti. (Pic: AFP)
Fela Kuti. (Pic: AFP)

In an era where so much of our literature is besotted with culturally uncomfortable people like me whose indigenous language is clunky as metal on our tongues, Nigeria’s ever-expanding gap between the rich and poor means that, even if you did speak your language, you still may not be able to easily relate to the majority of the people around you. These are the lines that are drawn that undergird the politics of our time.

This assuredness in his identity freed Fela in a way that mine does not for me, ridding him of any longing to effect change in a nation while casting himself aside in technocratic detachment, striving to be immune to its politics. If you’re sure of who you are, sure of the strength of your core beliefs and values, then you need not fear what your environment may do to you. Best of all, you would not fear being political, and Fela was unabashedly political. He started a political party, Movement of the People. His Kalakuta Republic was an unabashedly political statement. Remarkably, through his music he was able to convey everything from observations on Cold War geopolitics and Nigeria’s military dictatorship (listen to Beasts of No Nation and Unknown Soldierto heartbreaking storytelling (Coffin for Head of State) and reflective observations on urban life (Monday Morning in Lagos is one of my favourites).

We live in a more global world than Fela did, and I pride myself on not being bound by my Nigerianness. You’d understand, then, my hesitance at the idea that Nigeria is worth dying for. I am an educated self-sufficient young Nigerian who, by accident of family, class and network, can afford a life that a lot of people would be fortunate to have. I’m not filthy rich, mind: the cost of phone calls and internet connectivity still make me cringe; I do not own a generator set so I’m on my own when there are outages; I do not own a car so the cost of transportation in Lagos is a major reason why I hardly ever visit my hometown and adds to the cost of my grocery list every week here in Abuja. Still, I survive – even flourish – in a way a lot of fellow Nigerians do not. I get angry, but I also get tired of being angry. I simply cannot summon the reserve from which to draw on to continue to lash out over and over again.

I often envision Fela in awe, fighting back tears as he led a procession to Dodan Barracks with a coffin containing his dead mother, his steps heavy as he approached the front gate. He must have known that he would end up in prison for a long time at best or be killed at worse, and I do not know where his strength, his faith, his rage, his patriotism came from. I do know that we have to find it and give back this mangled body of a nation for what is truly ours. Just as with Fela, the worst that could happen is that our efforts fail.

Saratu Abiola is a writer and blogger based in Abuja. Connect with her on Twitter or on her blog.