Last Wednesday, some 70 Nigerians – or more – were hauled to Onitsha, Anambra State, in four commuter buses, escorted by patrol vans filled with armed mobile policemen. They were dumped off like some heaps of garbage, just after the bridge, in the wee hours of the morning. According to eye witness reports, after dumping their human cargo, the buses and the police patrol vans that accompanied them, made a U-turn and headed across the bridge from where they had come.
When the utterly distressed and dishevelled people were interviewed, they revealed that they had been bundled and ‘deported’ from Lagos State, after months of illegal detention and starvation. As the day broke and found the disoriented ‘deportees’ at their new, strange milieu, many of them were behaving like deranged people.
Eye witnesses, among the early risers and other Onitsha residents, who saw and interacted with the confused band, spoke of a group of pitiable and starving lot that were still too incoherent to state their mission. In fact, if other people, including some night watchmen, drivers and security operatives, had not said they had seen the vehicles, discharging their human cargo at some minutes after 3am, it would have been hard to believe the sorry story of the ‘deportees’. But there they were, starving, thirsting and confused. The first responsibility of the hospitable Good Samaritans, who were confronted with the inhuman condition of those Nigerians, was to attend to their distress from hunger and thirst, the act that enabled the people to garner the energy and state of mind to tell their gory stories.
The first thing that was noticed, especially by security agents, some government officials and the Red Cross that responded to their plight, was that the environment was strange to most of them. When they were interviewed, it was found out from the dialect of those of them that spoke the Igbo language that most of them were not of Anambra State origin. In fact, they were said to be from all the other states in the South-east, as well as from the South-south. In fact, there was one Sunday Irabor, who claimed Edo as his state of origin.
The Red Cross boss in the South-east, Dr. Peter Katchy, while denouncing what he saw as an unmitigated inhumanity, was the first to officially reveal that the deportees were not all from Anambra State and wondered why fellow Nigerians would be treated with such indignity in Nigeria. It was the Red Cross that reportedly camped them at the Zik’s Avenue Primary School, Fegge, Onitsha, before transferring them to the Onitsha General Hospital last Friday.
Interviews with welfare workers and journalists revealed that among the ‘deportees’ were petty traders and barrow pushers, who were plying their trades in Lagos to eke out a living. Messrs Osondu Mbuto and Osondu Agwu said they hailed from Ebonyi State and that they were arrested since December 18, last year, on their way to their petty trading business. Their only crime was that they were ordinary Nigerians. Osondu Agwu alleged that he was accosted by some uniformed agents of Lagos State Government on his way to his wheel barrow kiosk, forced into their vehicle and taken to their Ikorodu illegal detention centre where he and the others had been held until last Tuesday when the ill-fated journey to Onitsha began.
As soon as the news of that incident broke, I got in touch with the Government House at Awka and the sad event was confirmed and I was informed that the largely embarrassed state government was ensuring the welfare of the citizens while working with the security agencies in the state to get full reports of the sad incident before knowing what next to do. The Secretary to the State Government, as I learnt, was liaising with all the relevant agencies of the different levels of government to ascertain the details and the full ramifications of what had happened.
As the flurry of activities are taking place to rehabilitate and see to the welfare of the unfortunate Nigerians, the Lagos State Government has been busy, denying that nothing of the sort ever happened. While denying the involvement of Lagos State in the incident, the prevaricating Commissioner of Information, Lateef Ibirogba, nevertheless noted that “but we have been emphasising that people must live within the law”. What law those people broke he was unable to say, neither could he explain how grabbing fellow Nigerians, detaining them and dumping them at unfamiliar dumping sites, without trial, could be explained, even if the people were criminals. Neither did he explain how and when, the Niger Bridgehead at Onitsha or elsewhere in Anambra State had become a new punitive labour camp where, like the Nazis, Lagos State dumps the ‘scum of the state’.
The situation must have provided a delicate situation to the government and people of Anambra State – and indeed to the entire South-east – who are always very conscious of how they manage the relationships with other Nigerians. Due to the fact that people from those areas reside and do their business in great numbers in all parts of the country, they have often become ready victims to most acts of misgovernance, of misplaced rage and sectarian misdemeanour. They have become the largest victims of the murderous campaigns of the Boko Haram hoodlums and have had their homes and businesses demolished and destroyed almost at every drop of the hat. They have become the national punching bags and scapegoats.
Therefore, because more of their people live outside than within their ‘home’, they are almost always condemned to bending backwards to please their ‘hosts’, in a country whose Constitution and laws guarantee free and unfettered rein and access to them. However, as the constant provocation by the Lagos State Government, especially under its present Fashola administration has proven, that guarantee does not always exist for them. Because the memory of most Nigerians is usually short, not many would recall that the dumping, last week, of human cargo at Onitsha by the agents of Lagos State Government was not the first of such provocation. In September last year, Lagos had ferried and dumped a larger contingent of South Easterners at Onitsha. At that time, the ‘deportees’ had reportedly come in nine buses.
On September 17 of last year, Governor Peter Obi, had, via a nationwide broadcast, alerted the world of the inexplicable presence of some unknown persons in Onitsha, Anambra State. The strangers were said to have been brought in nine buses and dropped at a location at Onitsha under very irresponsible circumstances, from Lagos. As is happening now, the governor had resorted to the use of scarce state resources to take care and manage the situation following from what he had described as “the illegal relocation of some unidentified persons” to the state. Then, like now, what seems to be foremost in the minds of people is how to manage the anger and rage of the South Easterners who have continued to feel a very deep hurt over the way they are being treated at Lagos, of all the places, which they had helped to build up with their sweat and resources. The regular agony to which they are subjected at the different markets does not help matters and is seen as a part of this continuum of this wicked and unwarranted marginalization.
It is obviously not hard for such feelings to spark off reprisals of rage both in the South East and even in Lagos itself, where there is a feeling of a rising crescendo of injustices and high-handedness being routinely meted out to traders at the markets where the South Easterners dominate. The growing impression now is that Governor Fashola sees Nidgbo as irritants and does not care a hoot about their individual and collective feelings. Such a feeling is capable of building up like a latent volcano and bursting into a ferocious explosion that would splash hot lava all across our fragile social fault-lines. Already, there have been rumours all over Anambra State last week that there were plans by the state government to expel non Igbo traders from the different markets in the state as a reprisal. Some versions of the unfounded rumour also suggested that it was the plot of South-eastern governors all across the land.
The rumour must have been strong enough for Governor Obi to travel to Onitsha late in the week to dispel it. He asked all non-indigenes to discountenance the rumours that they would be evicted from the markets, as therewas no iota of truth in them, urging all and sundry to feel at home in the state as usual, go about their normal and legitimate businesses without let or hindrance, but to perform their civic responsibilities. Fortunately, most of those indigenes were convinced, considering the level of acceptance and accommodation, which they had enjoyed all over Igboland. In fact, the leader of the Muslim community in Onitsha, Alhaji Iliyasu Ashu, was to confirm that Governor Obi had been carrying everybody along, irrespective of tribe and religion.
While my emphasis seems to be on the ‘deportations’ that have taken place in the East, on the account of the fact that it is the incidents that I am conversant with, there have been reports that Lagos State had, last year, equally ‘deported’ and dumped other Nigerians at other parts of the country, including Oyo State. The behaviour of the governor of Lagos State, who is a senior advocate of Nigeria and who should understand the illegality and non-constitutionality of such heinous trampling on the human dignity of fellow Nigerians as well as robbing them of their constitutionally guaranteed rights, is befuddling.
Yet, this is a state that is showing itself off as the model of a state that is run by a ‘progressive’ party, indulging in acts that would make the most classical fascist states to cringe in horror. In the views of Governor Fashola and his government, the constitution, which guarantees every Nigerian the freedom to reside at any location of their choice, is not worth more than the paper on which it is written.
Apart from its capacity to give rise to unwanted and non-palatable repercussions if Fashola and his brigands are not deterred and stopped, such actions are capable of giving very deep dents on what is left of the image of his party, ACN, as well as the proposed APC of which the ACN is the senior partner. One does not need to be a keen political analyst to understand that it would be a mission impossible for the so-called progressive party to enjoy further inroads into the South-east, following this very deep disrespect for a people, whose relatives could be gathered and dumped like dry leaves just because they are considered as dirt in ACN’s Lagos.
I can already imagine the fate of that party and its candidates in the forthcoming October local council as well as the November 16 gubernatorial elections in Anambra State. It would be only a magician that would be able to campaign comfortably and safely, henceforth, under the banner of ACN or APC in the South-east. Trust politicians, Fashola has handed them a very fertile harvest on a platter of gold.
As the sombre faces and angry voices become the commonest features of the polity across the Niger now, there are those who are trying to justify the Fashola humiliation by citing the fact that Governor Theodore Orji of Abia State had also ignited nationwide outrage when he sacked all non-Abia indigenes on the employ of the state government, arguing that if Governor Orji could do that to his kinsfolk, why should anyone expect a ‘foreign’ governor to treat them – the foot-mats of the nation – any better. While the act of TA Orji remains permanently condemnable and lacks neither rhyme nor reason, the fact remains that laying someone off his job might rob him of his means of livelihood but it does not injure his or her human dignity or self-worth as much as forcibly uprooting and deporting him in his or her own country does.
Again, those mostly affected by the Orji’s sack were spouses of people, who reside in Abia State. While the sack translated into huge and unjustified deprivations, one can rationalise that the laid-off workers were, at least, left to reside there and search for alternatives. If one were to be permitted to say this, all should know about a local proverb, which says that the bite by a brother never gets to the bones. The act of the Lagos State Government is a bite to the marrow of an average Igbo person, who feels that the Fashola government or any other for that matter, should have no reason to victimise any Nigerian on account of his or her origin.
It is further a great show of insensitivity on the part of Lagos State leaders to indulge in acts of commission and omission that could suggest to the ex-Biafrans and their descendants to start casting nostalgic and wistful looks back to 1966 when they had made a dash to save their lives as they saw that they were no longer wanted in a country they had given their all.
Governor Fashola and his party should not go down in history as those who catalysed the process that would threaten the fragile joints of Nigeria’s statehood. There is nothing special about Lagos that should make it a city of billionaires and no longer that of all Nigerians, rich and poor. He, too, was not born a governor.
An apology to all Nigerians would not be doing too much.GE