As I sat listening to the homily being delivered by Rev. Fr. Tony Obieke, a young Nigerian catholic Priest at the Holy Cross Catholic Church, Austin, Texas, where I am safely (and I use the word advisedly) enjoying my Christmas vacation, my thoughts roamed cautiously to Lagos and indeed Nigeria. While Fr. Tony was preaching on the material and spiritual preparations for Christmas, I was wondering the kind of preparations Nigerians back home were making for Christmas. And one question kept bothering me: would it be a white (not snowy, but safe and happy) or black (bleak and violent) Christmas in Nigeria?
I must admit that I nearly lost concentration during the Mass as my mind kept going back home. It was with this state of psychological disturbance that I received the news of the kidnap of the mother of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, 82-year old Prof. Kanene Okonjo. And just before I recovered from the shock (yes, such things still shock me!), I received news of an attack on a police station, a bank and some telecommunications facilities in Yobe by men believed to be terrorists. Then, I asked myself whether this is how Nigerians will celebrate Christmas this year?
Last year, it was a tale of horrors with an outbreak of armed robberies and terror attacks, including the Madallah bomb blast. Let's not forget Occupy Nigeria, which then rounded off what can be described as annus horribilis for want of a better description.
Now, were there some lessons learnt from last year to obviate these catastrophic events this time around? Apparently none! See, the Mother of the Coordinating Minister of the Economy and Minister of Finance was easily snatched from her home in Ogwashi-Uku last weekend. And as usual, the authorities (Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan to be specific) because she's a high-profile victim, promised to rescue her within 24 hours. I heard the Inspector General of Police had threatened to fire the Delta State Commissioner of Police, the Area Commander and co, if the old woman was not rescued within 24 hours. Even the Minister herself boasted that her family would not speak to anybody (read kidnapper) because they have confidence in the ability of the police to rescue their mom. Why not, if not! In any event, the kidnap industry is booming in Nigeria especially in the South-Eastern parts. An organization recently released some humbling statistics suggesting that the industry yields an eye-watering N750m monthly to the operators! God damn it! Why would our unemployed youths bother about writing stupid applications and even stupider aptitude tests with so much cash rolling in Monaco-style (tax-free)?
Before kidnapping became a flourishing pastime in the South-East, people of that extraction used to troop home at the least "provocation" - Christmas, Easter, New Yam Festival, August Meeting, Traditional Wedding, you name it. All that is petering away, except for the big-hearted. Everywhere you turn in that part of our failing country, there are armed mobile policemen, some looking more like thugs in mufti and slippers yet bearing costly AK-47s.
The more successful big boys would sneak in without as much as hinting their parents lest they are innocently betrayed to the prowling kidnappers. It's so bad a first time visitor would think there is a war going on, what with so many "useless" roadblocks by the JTFs complete with sandbags.
On armed robberies, I think the ordinary Nigerian has given up and now lives in fear but with hope in divine intervention. This is because the thieves seem to have out-gunned and out-witted the Police, who appear justifiably overwhelmed. Take the case of a recent midnight robbery in Lekki (a gated high-brow area of Lagos), where residents were said to have been shocked at how robbers (with Rambo-like precision) destroyed the APC which the Police brought along in response to their distress call. How hopeless can it get? Across the land, all we hear are tales of how robbers over-ran a police station or successfully broke into a bank's vault with heavy civilian casualties. And this Yuletide, bank robberies and car-snatching have increased geometrically so much so that even the Police preach caution and prudence at this time to the hapless public. Again, with the swelling army of unemployed youths all over the country, there seems to be no letting with these scary tales of violent robberies. Pray, could the FG assist the Police with more funding since the other security agencies seem to be "doing just fine".
Terrorism might be a new phenomenon in Nigeria but in just over three years over 3000 Nigerians have been killed, slightly less than the number of people killed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during their face-off with the British government (I thank Femi Fani-Kayode for this statistic.). Last year, as I stated elsewhere, like the previous one, the terror group, Boko Haram, cast a dark pall on the Christmas celebrations with devastating bomb attacks on Churches. Now, the news of the very audacious attack on the church in Command Staff College, Jaji, Kaduna, seems to have taken the cake in confirming how literally unstoppable these fellows are. The Jaji blast, more or less, serves as a warning signal of what might happen this Christmas.
Added to these security issues are the deteriorating condition of electricity supply, which was touted most recently as one of the major accomplishments of the current Federal Government. Predictably, as the levels of the Kainji Dam and other Rivers receded, electricity supply across the country seem to decline, in direct proportion, thereby shaming those who were counting their chickens before the eggs hatched. Now, with the weather generally emitting heat and humidity after the scary nationwide floods, Nigerians are bracing up for a very hot and angry Christmas. So, enter the generators.
If you haven't seen the fuel queues in Lagos of late, you haven't seen nothing yet! Regardless of what the delectable Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Deziani Allison-Madueke, says is the reason for the shortage and attendant queues, it seems to have become a trend, as we move laboriously towards Christmas. So, there won't be enough fuel to power the cars much less to power the generators. Hence, heat, anger, tension. May be, we will see another Occupy Nigeria, especially with the rumours of an impending hike in the price of petroleum products in the New Year, as is now traditional. Conspiracy theorists claim the spasmodic fuel shortages are a prelude to a most definitive hike of the price of petroleum products to the originally intended prices-now that Labour leaders have either been reached or cowed.
So, what's going to happen? Do we all pack our bags and run away as I have done (as one of my very cynical friends back home said to me yesterday)? How much awareness has the moribund or ineffective National Orientation Agency (NOA) created about the high risks associated with these times in Nigeria? How much more equipment and training have we given to the security agencies to counter the challenges of armed robberies, kidnapping and terrorism? What protective measure have we taken in our churches, especially in the Northern parts this Christmas? Seriously, what has government done with the mind-blowing budget it proposed for security in the 2012 budget? Can someone up there who knows something give us an update on the steps so far taken and assure Nigerians of their safety this Christmas? I don't mean the meaningless rhetoric, which ensues from government people whenever the harm has been done.
For those who would be brave enough to travel during the period, it's all gloomy with the promises of fixing the roads gearing up to be empty ones. I traveled on at least four major inter-state roads before I went on vacation (Lagos-Ibadan, Enugu-Port Harcourt, Calabar-Uyo and Onitsha-Enugu) and they were basically mere apologies. I hear of plans to perform some miracles on some of these roads by the Federal Government. Well, it will be a miracle if those roads are fixed or made usable ahead of the Christmas. This really puts a huge question mark on some of the promises made by the current administration during the presidential campaign. Looks like they were issued just to hoodwink the masses for vote and that's it.
Whatever be the case, it is not totally a bad idea to be alive at this time of the year, with all the hassles we have been through. So, there may still be cause to celebrate, in any event. So, Nigerians, we can still go on and have a very merry Christmas, but we must be eternally vigilant and prudent to avoid unpleasant incidents. Don't embark on unnecessary trips. Don't stay out late. Be security-conscious. Drive carefully, if you must travel. To avoid fire incidents, let's avoid storing petroleum products, if we can. Report suspicious people or movements to law enforcement agents. Be more prayerful, because it seems Nigerians have been left to their own devices by those they chose (?) to preside over their affairs.
Merry Christmas, compatriots!
• Oparah sent this piece from Austin, Texas.