By Sam Omatseye
A pond is not a place for glum news. A host to fishes and nourisher of a neighbour of green lands, flowers and trees, it evokes romance. The worshipper sees God and even the atheist exorcises demons. Winds stir the water. Sunsets subdue it with tremors of golden colours, and sunshine with a velvet of hues. It is more a tapestry for the dreamer than observer.
There the flesh is weak, the eyes glaze, the ear succumbs to the harmony of water and birds. There also we now hear of sadness. A retired general falls to civilian bands. A soldier without arms. It is not the sort of news you look for in a pond. But in Nigeria, as the racist philosopher Pliny predicted about Africa, something new always pops out.
The pond, on the outskirts of Jos, was not just a body of water. It is now a water of bodies. Yet no one saw the remains of Idris Alkali in the water. The killers gave a decoy. The car, a corolla, was soaked in the water. The army saw his clothes, but not the man. The criminals committed the crime with despatch but had no rhyme. They left evidence: clothes, car, shoes.
But the other quality of the story is the veneration of the water. Local women became divine activists of the pond. Half-naked and deviant, they protested to the army. They may not be mammy water in the mythical sense. But by virtue of their devotion to the pond, they were mammy water in flesh and blood. Even if death walked into the water, the soldier’s eye and gun should stay off. It was a water too sacred for the temporal truth of investigation. Gods lay in the water. It was poison for human step. They drank the water for sustenance and healing. They kept it like a sacred forest. It overthrows the Christian idea that warns not to touch the unclean thing. In the traditional world, you should not touch the clean thing. The Christian feels superior to things. The traditionalist feels inferior. That inspires the song, Babalawo mowa be be. (Priest I come to beg). To beg to reduce things the subject must not do to live a safe and happy life.
The army defied tradition. Soldiers have always been taught to fear no such thing. The so-called Bini Massacre probably would have been averted if Captain Philips and his men dreaded the dance and visuals of ritual on Benin streets when the white man dared one of Africa’s flourishing empires. Canon fell to cannon. Gods fell to guns. With colonialist rage unhinged, the Oba Ovonramwen was eventually captured. But it was not in Benin alone, but all over West Africa.
In the book: The West African Resistance edited by Michael Crowther, our historians documented this tension between faith and weaponry as state after state collapsed under the firepower of the Europeans. Similar myths engulf the soldiery of late Brigadier Adekunle, aka Black Scorpion, during the civil war. I met him once and asked him if he disappeared as the legends claimed. He laughed it dismissively as efforts by humans to mythicise what they cannot understand. I learned from Alabi Isama’s classic, A Tragedy of Victory, that Adekunle was hardly in the teeth of battle.
Sat Guru Maharaji paid a visit to The Nation a few days ago, and I put this question to him to showcase the fragility of our supernatural claims to superiority over military hardware. Sat Guru, with aplomb temper, said it was because the Africans did not get the right principle. I asked, so all of them missed it? And what was the principle that only he seemed to know? I said he seemed to be answering a question of mysticism with mysticism. But he was not one to faze. He probably thought I was a secularist upstart.
In Jos, the army upended the locals. Video shows how the car was pulled out of the pond. It turned out the army had more work to do. They probed and eventually identified some culprit who confessed the body lay in a shallow grave. The pond is apparently a host to human ferocity. Other deaths have occurred there, evidence other car parts, human parts, clothes, etc. It is pond of mystery.
The intriguing part of the story is the breath-taking professionalism with which the army followed the investigation till they found the remains of their lost colleague. I have yet to excavate from our history any investigation with such painstaking attention to detail and alacrity. It shows we can do it as a people if we want. If the soldiers pay such diligence to the investigation of other crimes in the country, like the butchery in Kaduna and many episodes of the Fulani-locals imbroglio, we should have been a nation of law and decency. Boko haram still skulks and devastates in the North east, if in sporadic barbarism. The so-called herdsmen-farmers clashes have substantially gone under leash, thanks to some of the work the Buhari administration has put in place, especially with the deployment of Russian aircraft, Mi35. But the violence has mutated to highway robbery and a slew of kidnappings.
If what the army did in Alkali’s case is done in the judiciary, in education, in tackling random violence among us, the country would have been happier and healthier.
Alkali was just a retired soldier on his way to Bauchi. But a rash of young men, around expired mines, mounted a barricade. Was he a target or an accidental victim? Some arrests have been made.
This is not a story to slow down. In view of revived violence in parts of Plateau State, a new law is being drafted to try local criminals locally. The idea is to avoid the bureaucracy of Abuja.
This is the second major step of Governor Simon Lalong on security. The first was to install a template for peace that worked for all of three years until rogue elements sullied it with bloodshed. The template is remarkably still working in most of the state, and it should be a work in progress.
The law, as the Governor has indicated, is in the state house of assembly. Speed is of the essence so the criminals can meet the furious majesty of the law. Just like other victims, Gen. Alkali also should get justice even in the silence of the grave.
The pond will now be avenged. It has lost its innocence to sacred savagery. This is different from the Walden Pond that Henry David Thoreau wrote lyrically about over a century ago, a bible of the environmental movement that preceded President Theodore Roosevelt or Rachel Carson’s 20th century masterpiece, Silent Spring.
We want the pond to return as a body of water, pure and peaceful among leafy bowers and throaty birds. It should not be a water of bodies.