When I was doing my doctoral studies at the University of British Columbia, I had an Iranian friend, a wealthy business man cum man of culture in town. Hassan and I had met casually at a book store in Vancouver. He had taken an interest in the title I was buying, a volume of poetry by the great 13th century Persian poet, Rumi. His initial interest in me was partly stereotypical, even a tad racist, I must admit. It wasn't everyday he encountered somebody looking like me holding a copy of Rumi's poetry. That indicated a level of culture he was not accustomed to attributing to my ilk – it was written all over his face.
Anyway sha, we became very good friends. Our being men of culture cemented our friendship. We encroached on each other's cultural fiefs. Hassan was too cosmopolitan to allow his faith to stand in the way of the love affair between his taste buds and vintage French wine. French wine almost always leads to a corresponding interest in French cheese, haute cuisine, and literature. That's all my territory. My own Catholicism didn't stand in the way of my love for shisha and the literatures of the Arab world. That's Hassan's territory. A Saturday evening at Hassan's translated to Iranian cuisine, reading and discussing French poetry or Arab writers while smoking shisha on his Persian rugs and cushions. Bottles of French wine never survived to tell the story of those encounters. Hassan also played the oud! The melodious tunes oozing from his oud were always the icing on the cake during our soirées.
Soon, Hassan began to invite me to visit Iran with his family. They went home every summer and he couldn't understand why I would not want to complement my interest in the literatures and cultures of the Arab world with a visit to that part of the world. I kept hedging and dodging. He even offered to pay my flight ticket in the summer of 1999. Nothing doing. I kept giving him body language that I didn't want to go to Tehran. Mo f'oju so, mo f'enu so, mo tun fi gbogbo ara so! Hassan didn't relent and kept renewing his invitation until I graduated and moved to Pennsylvania.
You may wonder at this point why I didn't just kuku say no. That is where the koko of the matter lies. That, precisely, is the problem. To give Hassan a flat out no was to create a situation that called for further explanations. I would have had to give him a reason for declining his invitation. That would have meant plunging myself into a situation that is the albatross of every Nigerian: those moments of self-reflexivity when you realize that your life is worth absolutely nothing to the Nigerian state. Those are moments of intense itiju and embarrassment that a Nigerian isn't wont to admit to outsiders.
How was I to admit to Hassan that I would have jumped at his offer if only I was carrying the passport of a responsible state at the time? To carry the passport of the Nigerian state is to be intensely aware of the non-value of your life and citizenship to that state in moments of distress. I couldn't tell Hassan that if an international incident occurred in Tehran and something untoward happened to me and I made a distress call to the Nigerian embassy, I would be lucky if Abuja didn't charge me with abuse of telephone and wasting the Federal Government's time.
In my professional calling as a peripatetic student of culture, the choice of research trips is always determined by my painful awareness of the needless limitations of my Nigerian passport. When your name is Folorunsho, you do not tempt fate by attempting to climb a palm tree with a reed of banana leaves… You want to make sure that you travel to delicate locations carrying the passport of a state that's got your back. Career world hot spots like Tehran are out.
The pirates operating off the coast of Somalia obviously do not share my sombre assessment of the Nigerian state. They have more faith in Abuja than me. International piracy of the sort that involves kidnapping the entire crew of a ship is, at a certain philosophical level, a demonstration of faith in value: the value of the incarcerated lives to political entities known as states. Beyond the criminality of the act, to kidnap an American, a Canadian, a Briton, a Ghanaian, or a South African is to set considerable store by the value that such states ascribe to the life of a citizen. The pirate is, ironically, providing the definition of responsible states: those with apparatuses of state designed for trigger-ready activation in order to humanize the citizen.
Wait for this: to kidnap a Somalian, a Palestinian or the citizen of any officially-acknowledged moribund state or non-state is also a demonstration of faith in the value of those lives to the international system. The pirate is saying that there are international organizations and agencies in the Mercy Industrial Complex – NGOs, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Médecins sans frontières – ready to claim and value those stateless lives, making considerable noise in the attempt to get the international community to act and negotiate. This is where the pain of double jeopardy cuts deepest for the Nigerian citizen. In situations of international distress, the Nigerian state does not value your life but the international system will not claim you because you are not considered stateless. Double wahala for deadi bodi…
This complex nexus of faith and value is, perhaps, what inspired a band of foolish Somalian pirates to kidnap the entire crew of a Nigerian tugboat on August 4, 2008. The boat was returning to Nigeria from Singapore. I will spare you the details of the story. Suffice it to say that after holding the Nigerians hostage for a total of 302 days, the Somalian pirates finally grew brains and realized how foolish it was for them to kidnap Nigerians! Because the Somalians broke the number one rule of international hostage taking – i.e. the life of your hostage must mean something to a particular state – they earned themselves the dubious distinction of creating the longest hijacking episode off the coast of Somalia.
Unlike me, the Somalian pirates had dared to believe that anybody in the rulership of Nigeria is even remotely interested in the lives of Nigerians. They can be forgiven for they were not used to governments not fretting over the lives of their citizens in jeopardy. They paid heavily for their error of judgment. Their Nigerian captives became an economic burden on them for they must be fed. After 302 days the Somalians had had enough. It became a situation of abeg make una jus carry unasef comot for here.
For those ten months, it was aloota continua in Abuja as nobody in the rulership was prepared to lose any precious sleep over some Nigerian lives in jeopardy in the coast of Somalia. The only consolation for me whenever I think of that episode is that Nigerian boats and their crew are now free to tread places that portend peril for citizens of responsible states in the coast of Somalia. We can go and come as we want. The Somalians have learnt their lessons: touch not the Nigerian in the business of international geopolitical kidnapping. You see, every dark cloud…
The recent events in Chile have, again, brought the question of the worth and value of the Nigerian citizen to the Nigerian state to the front burner. There has been a lot of gnashing of teeth in the Nigerian online community. For good reason. To seat down in front of your TV screen and watch two states, Chile and Bolivia, define what it means to value the life of the citizen is a sobering process for the Nigerian. Bolivia made one's anguish worse: President Evo Morales travelled to keep vigil at the mines because of just one of his compatriots who was trapped deep down in the bowels of the earth with thirty-two Chileans.
The Nigerians who were watching the events unfold on TV, chatting endlessly about it, remembering their own country, and shuddering bitterly at the thought of what would have happened were the trapped miners Nigerians, were not alone. In their guest chalets all over Abuja, while getting their beering right and plotting to undermine the bad ideas that Attahiru Jega is beginning to nurse about organizing free, fair, and credible elections in 2011, our friends in the political rulership were also probably watching the events unfold in Chile. As it always happens, they will subsequently go to extraordinary lengths to learn absolutely nothing from the episode.
We must, however, not make the mistake of believing that the rulers of Nigeria are impervious to the ethos of faith, value, and the worth of the citizen. The only snag is how they determine the lives that are worth protecting. I am a member of the Nigerian Village Square editorial board that is currently interviewing our presidential candidates for the forthcoming election. Last week, we had Nuhu Ribadu on the NVS HotSeat. I was shocked when he revealed that the Nigerian state currently deploys about 50,000 crack police men on guard duty. That is 50,000 of the best equipped membership of our tattered and demoralized police force deployed to blare sirens illegally, koboko ordinary Nigerians out of the way of those yeye convoys, and secure the lives and obscene mansions of the criminals in our rulership.
That is Nigeria's equivalent of Chile. That is how that state demonstrates which and whose lives she values. For as these 50,000 police men are extracted from the common good and deployed on guard duty for the criminals in our political elite, we lose the precious lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Nigerians to religious violence, political assassinations, armed robbery, and kidnapping. A lip service statement only comes from Aso Rock if the body count is sufficiently heavy to attract international attention.
Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country. Thus goes the mantra of President Kennedy. It is infuriating to hear Nigeria's unworthy political rulers regurgitate and turn that call to patriotic duty into a meaningless platitude. For there is a rider that I must add to Kennedy's statement for the benefit of the rulers of Nigeria: every responsible state in the modern world recognizes the fact that only the living can ask what to do for their country. The Boma brothers and the Apo Six cannot ask what they can do for Nigeria. That is why the ability and willingness to protect and secure life of the citizen is the first condition of responsible statehood. That is why the entire American state can be grounded for a single citizen in distress abroad. That is what Chile was all about. And Bolivia too. Tomorrow, President Evo Morales can tell that single Bolivian miner: ask not what Bolivia can do for you but what you can do for Bolivia. Let President Goodluck Jonathan tell me the same thing. He will hear one or two things from me.
Truth is truth because truth mobilizes. That is Gayatri Spivak, one of those super famous but incomprehensible theoretical jargonophiliacs that I must read and pretend to understand because I teach literary theory in North America, writing in her book, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Truth mobilizes. The Star-Spangled Banner is truth because it mobilizes the American. It mobilizes the American because whenever it hangs from a pole and dances in the wind, it is spreading the message of the sanctity of the life of the American regular Joe.
Truth mobilizes. The Star - Spangled Banner mobilizes. That is the truth that mobilized, Sally Field, acting the part of Betty Mahmoody in Brian Gilbert's powerful 1991 movie, Not Without my Daughter. On sighting an American flag fluttering in the wind in Turkey after her escape from Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran in the momentous last scene of that movie, she cuddles her daughter and exclaims: "we are home baby". The real Betty Mahmoody would later declare in an interview: "That American flag was a point of safety for me. When I saw the American flag and touched it, I then felt safe." Does the Green-White-Green mobilize? Can the Green-White-Green mobilize? Is the Green-White-Green truth? Is it true? We will answer these questions only when we win the struggle to sit down and renegotiate our way out of the untruths that currently bind us together.