Nigeria: The Wheelchair Revolution

11 November 2019

Alhaji Sir Chief Tesibiayetesi looked pathetic as he was wheeled into the court to answer charges of stealing public funds. Since his alleged crime became public knowledge, he had become a celebrity of sorts. Never in the history of the country had a single individual stolen so much that he was now competing with many countries on the West African sub-region.

The court was full of lawyers, local and international news crews, and members of the public who wanted to physically see what an eminent thief looked like.

A murmur swept through the crowd as he was wheeled in. Some wondered how he suddenly ended up on a wheel chair when he had been all over the place only the other week. Indeed, a video of him trying out his new dance steps at a party in a neighbouring country had been widely shared on social media.

Order was restored as soon as the judge made her grand entrance. Somebody was fiddling with the wires connecting the court clerk's computers and as the lawyers were announcing their presence, there was a spark and a loud bang. Bomb?! Everyone bolted for the door. Even Her Lordship, the judge, disappeared. But the most astounding disappearing act was that of the accused, Tesibiayetesi, who voted with his feet, abandoning his wheelchair.

The court could no longer sit on that day, but by the next adjourned date, Tesibiayetesi was back on the wheelchair, his head tilting sideways as if he would pass out the next minute. It was as if he couldn't appear in court standing on his own feet. You would wonder whose feet he borrowed to dash out of the court the other time when there was a bomb scare.

That mythical scenario has become the regular fare in Nigeria, the same way stealing is rationalised and thieves idolised. The thinking, apparently, is that if you must steal, steal big, then hire a big lawyer and a motley crowd of sympathisers, and come to court carried on a stretcher, in a wheelchair, or aided by crutches.

Thankfully, no one has shown up in a hearse so far, but I won't be surprised if one smart-arse defendant arrives in court as a corpse someday soon.

I was in the barber's shop when the TV beamed Abdulrasheed Maina, ex-Chairman of the Pension Reform Task Team, appearing at the Federal High Court, Abuja, on a wheelchair to answer charges involving billions of Naira. "Voila!" my barber screamed, "This thing has become an epidemic".

When an ambulance is preferred to a jeep, you know somebody is trying to win your sympathy. Without prejudice to those genuine cases of people who are truly incapacitated, the new trend is an abuse of privilege and adds insult to injury.

The long trail is worrying.

In January 2016, the former National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Alhaji Haliru Mohammed appeared before a Federal High Court in Abuja following allegations of his involvement in the $2 billion arms deal.

That same year, Mr. Patrick Akpobolokemi, erstwhile Director-General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), used crutches when he appeared before a Federal High Court to face charges of fraud.

Last year, the former National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Chief Olisa Metuh, who was facing corruption charges arrived for his trial before the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, in a wheelchair and fainted, swooned, convulsed or otherwise became medically unfit to continue with the trial.

In May 2018, Sen. Dino Melaye arrived the court on a stretcher, during his trial before a Chief Magistrate Court in Abuja for attempting to kill himself while in police custody. The melodramatic scene captured the national imagination as the stretcher was an escalation of the previous ploys Nigerians were used to.

About two months ago, Major General Hakeem Otiki, General Officer Commanding 8 Division Nigerian Army, appeared in uniform on a wheelchair during his trial in the General Court Martial (GCM) over charges of stealing between N400million and N600 meant for military operations .

Dave Eggers, author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, wrote the famous lines, "His lies were so exquisite I almost wept"-- as if he was talking about the antics of the many rodents boring holes in our national treasury. Some of the scenes of convenient disability are so well rehearsed they could give Nollywood a run for its money.

And that is what makes truth limp while falsehood sprints, as Jonathan Swift observes: "Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead."

I foresee our politicians further escalating the wheelchair revolution. Now that there is a new award-winning device that will revolutionise locomotion for disabled people, I bet our people will be among the first set of patrons. The device, named Scewo, is a stair-climbing wheelchair designed and created by a group of 10 students in partnership with Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology and University of the Arts.

Imagine how stylish it would look: a big man facing charges of stealing billions of dollars arriving in an ambulance and making his way into the court in a stair-climbing wheelchair surrounded by senior advocates.

Just watch out!

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