(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 5 July, 2021)
It was in Hubert Ogunde’s ‘Jayesinmi’ that we last saw witches transforming into cats – black cat, red cat. I never knew witchery and witchcraft have found their way into the curricula of our security academies until the recent Igboho night experience. Media reports said Sunday Igboho had cats as pets and those were victims of the deep state’s bullet treatment he got last Thursday. As men and women bled, cats and kittens fell too. We read that operatives were there, they missed their prey but saw and killed a big cat and arrested the small ones. “They took away the cats as if the man turned to a cat,” a report quoted an eyewitness. One of the agents reportedly believed their elusive prize was hiding behind the skins of the feline. So our 21st century security people could really hold it that man can turn animal in moments of danger?
The report said it was a Yoruba officer who pointed out the cats as objects of interest. Not surprised. Animals inhabit a special place in the Yoruba man’s spirituality. They have for them meaningful names complete with panegyrics. Listen to elders and appraise their pets’ praise-names, their oriki. There are pets with bitter kola eyeballs (olojuorogbo); there are those with cheeks of kolanut (ele’eke obi). There are animals who ‘tiro’ their eyelashes; there are the mysterious ones with tribal marks. Still, there are powerful, special ones who collect dowry without offering a daughter’s hand in marriage. Like the names, reasons why people keep pets vary and are very many too, some peculiar.
The Broadcasting Corporation of Oyọ State (BCOS) used to have a television drama series with the title ‘Bàtà Wàhálà’ (Shoes of Trouble). It is the story of a polygamous house of commotion where every member keeps a pet as a weapon of domestic war. Adesola Olateju’s 2005 ‘The Yoruba Animal Metaphors’ reminds us of that family: “One of them names her dog ‘lilo ni ó lo’ (go-she-must), another one names her cat ‘Ewà ńbi won ninú’ (beauty- nauseates-them) and another names her goat ‘Jé nri ‘lé gbé’ (leave-me-and let-me remain), while the eldest wife names her dog ‘Sùúrù lérè’ (patience is rewarding). Their husband also has a goat he names ‘Méé l’Olorun-wi’ (God-approves-of marrying-many-wives).” -p.317. We read that Sunday Igboho kept his own cats as security against rodents troubling his household. In other words, the carnivores were in the house to teach rats lessons in the language they understood. The whole setup sounds like a metaphoric warning to destructive intruders to keep off. Unfortunately, reporters who covered the midnight press conference of the SSS did not ask questions on the cats: Were they truly arrested? If they were, where are they and what are their offence(s)? What are their colours so that we ask what spirits live in them?
If I ever meet Igboho one-on-one, I will ask him what names he gave his cats – and his favourite colours. Maybe that will tell us a little about him and the unknown part of his ways.
The Irish warn us to “beware of people who dislike cats” – like the 14th century Europe which killed thousands of cats (plus sometimes their owners) because of the Black Death pandemic which killed a third of its population. But it turned out that they killed the wrong foe. “Such a shame they didn’t realize the cats could kill the rats carrying the plague,” said Icy Sedgwick in her ‘Cats in Folklore.’ My own people love cats; that is why they look at their present helpless condition and say pithily that “when the cat is out, the house becomes that of the mouse.”
It is significant that the cat imagery came out of the smokes of the Igboho night escape. Cats have the enviable reputation of escaping precarious situations unscathed. They shame death; they routinely cheat death. They are experts at hard landing. They never land on their backs no matter the height of their fall. An expert said cats are also built to “flatten their bodies and squeeze through impossibly tight spaces.” Does that tell you something about the man from Igboho and how he escaped the security surprise? American journalist and writer, John Grogan said “cats will outsmart dogs every time.”
Beyond the cats, we should not be tired of asking questions and demanding answers. Why is it difficult for the Nigerian state to sit back and ask itself the reason people like Igboho have crowds and street support? Why was there no Igboho throughout the day before yesterday when Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a Fulani from Buhari’s Katsina state, was president of Nigeria? Are Igboho’s Yoruba agitation activities that bad to justify the very wicked treatment he and his cats and his household got from the state last Thursday? Or is he just being taught a lesson for being too stubborn and foolhardy? Was it plain luck or potent amulets that saved him? He is the only one with the right answer to the last question. But, observe cats when they come face to face with threats; they respond in three ways: they either fight or freeze or flee. They came for Igboho, he escaped – and people died. His enemies taunt him and call him Arikuyeri (he who sees death and dodges). But Igbo people say only a tree sees the enemy coming to cut it down and waits. Chinua Achebe says it is praiseworthy to be brave and fearless. He notes, however, that sometimes, it is better to be a coward. Achebe adds most profoundly that “we often stand in the compound of a coward to point at the ruins where a brave man used to live.” But my people also say that he who fears death will never sit on his father’s throne. So? A perfect case of courage dilemma.
The same way this government mismanaged our diversity, it has mismanaged the agitation for a more equitable Nigeria. Many calm people who were not with Igboho now sympathize with him – and the government should be worried. Making an Igboho out of everybody is what the state has done. Everyone, outside those who benefit from the dysfunctional present, has sat up. People are now more aware that they live in a very wicked Nigeria where region and religion determine what is right and what is wrong. They see that what the state is doing to the southern strongmen who are taking it on is to melt their steel. And positions are getting hardened. My people counsel that if this fire is stubborn, feed water to it. And what happens when even water proves heady? You take it to the home of drought. Everyone is now meeting fire with water; water with drought. We saw this exactly in the ignored warnings and the eunuch show-of-force that birthed Saturday’s Yoruba Nation rally in Lagos. The more the threat, the stronger the resolve to challenge it.
Words are potent determiners of peace and war. They can draw kola nuts from the pocket of the pleased; they can also provoke bullets from the barrel of the insulted. You heard Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State last week when he said bandits or Boko Haram terrorists could not be given same treatment as Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB)? It was his response to critics’ challenge that the APC Federal Government should not be pampering northern terrorists while pummeling southern agitators.
In an interview with BBC Pidgin, El-Rufai said those demanding swift attacks on bandits as has been done to Kanu and his IPOB were wrong. He spoke as if northern bandits and terrorists are ghosts without tractable tracts. El-Rufai said: “No! No! No! No! People are comparing apples to oranges. Nnamdi Kanu is the leader of IPOB, a proscribed organisation. He is identifiable, in constant communication and everyone knows where he is. Let’s take Boko Haram for instance. Shekau was in hiding and for the past 10 years and the military had been waging a war to get him. It is not like Shekau was in Saudi Arabia, sitting in one place, tweeting about the break-up of Nigeria or asking Boko Haram to go and kill Helen and Nasir el-Rufai. Nnamdi Kanu is in one place while Shekau is waging guerrilla warfare. The insurgency is still going on and the Federal Government is not giving up. Regarding bandits, they are not centralised under one leadership. Who is the head of the bandits? Who is the equivalent of Nnamdi Kanu with banditry? Bandits are just collections of independent criminals. It is a business for them. It is not a case of Nigeria must break up. I want to challenge anyone to tell me the central leader of bandits in the same position as Kanu.” Now, how more insensitive can people be and how many more Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Igboho has this arrogance of sectional power created?
But really, how did we get here? Democracy kills; there is poison in its medicine. When it dawns on you that democracy kills, you become confused, you ask if really there is anything called salvation in governance, and if salvation exists, where lies it? Once upon a time, Fire said he wanted his father’s throne. The people had mercy on him. He got the stool but used it to raze down the town. He was sacked. Then Sun came out, weeping and begging and saying that it was his turn to claim his father’s crown. The people queued behind him and he got it. And with that crown, he is destroying everything, everybody, everywhere, the people and their future.
I hope this government – the president, his cabal, everybody – know that the usually ‘well-behaved’ south west has spinned out of control. The Abuja people think they are too far away to suffer the vibrations of the threats in town. They may be right. The walls around them are too impregnable for the rabble to breach. But we, people of my class, are the low-hanging fruits. Notwithstanding our own existential struggles as victims of an unfair system, we are the endangered sub-set of the elite band. A poor journalist where I work had a personal experience during the EndSARS crisis. He drove his rickety car into protesters who thoroughly harassed him for wearing “a well-ironed shirt.” He managed to get out of the net, came to the office scared and shaken. That is why we are, and we must, and will continue shouting and demanding that all wrongs be righted now before it is too late – if it is not too late already.
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