Opinion: The sanctity of human life

by Segun Adeniyi

My late mother went into labour 13 times, all but one with safe delivery; and that is the subject of a long story she never ceased to tell because seven of those children died, more appropriately were killed, at infancy. In the village, while we were growing up, you don’t die, you have to be killed by somebody. And that somebody is a witch, the ubiquitous “Iya osoronga, apa ni ma wagun, olokiki oru”. Please don’t ask me what that means because I really don’t know; except that it’s a sort of homage to a fearsome terror of the night who would kill anybody without batting an eyelid.

In the village, the fear of the witch is the beginning of wisdom yet for some inexplicable reasons, it was always the woman everyone dreaded that I gravitated towards; and the one from whom nobody was allowed to take anything with whom I enjoyed sharing meals. I just liked to dare. This predilection towards “danger” was a constant cause of exasperation for my mother. It was also the reason for some serious beating, but when seeing that nothing happened to me on account of my association with these “witches”, she let me be.

Now, nobody should get me wrong. I am not saying there are no diabolical powers or that there are no witches and wizards, there are. But most of the village tales surrounding someone flying in the night, force-feeding a neighbour’s child in a dream, sucking the blood of a rival, turning a relation’s ward to a failure etc are mere imaginations. Yet many people have been dispatched to the great beyond on account of such “crimes” for which there were no evidence beyond the unreliable deposition of some persons. It was common in those days to hear that one woman (almost always a woman) was “confessing” to some atrocities she had committed and once done, justice was always swift and without mercy: death sentence that would be carried out rather brutally by a mob.

Just as one was beginning to think such things belong to the past, two weeks ago in Ekiti State, a 70-year-old woman, Mrs. Rebecca Adewumi, was tortured to death by some youths over alleged witchcraft. All because a young lady claimed to have seen her (Mrs Adewumi) in a dream as a witch who was tormenting her son! In the moving account rendered by Mrs Grace Smith, a Lagos-based first daughter of the deceased, the late Mrs Adewumi was invited to the palace of the Olomuo of Omuo Ekiti, Oba Noah Omonigbehin, sometime in May this year based on an allegation that she used witchcraft power to harm her step-son, by name Ola.

Now, let’s take the story from Mrs Smith: “On getting to Olomuo’s palace, the family was asked to come the following day at 6a.m. and on that day, the palace was full to the brim. My mother was then asked to undress to the pants, after which a series of questions were asked. She was then given a concoction (Obo leaf) said to make witches confess and die. My dear mother was told that she would die within seven days if she was involved in Ola’s matter.

“Nine days passed and nothing happened and I left for my base in Lagos. Three weeks after, on June 26, some youths in the town went to our house and brought out my mother and forced her to drink a poisonous item. They then took her outside into the rain where she was beaten and subjected to serious torture. When she was almost dying they took her back into her room and laid her on the bed. She died on June 30.”

That such a primitive act could occur in a state like Ekiti is confounding for three reasons. One, by virtue of education, it has one of the most enlightened people in the country. Two, the state governor, Dr. Kayode Fayemi and his wife, Bisi, have spent the better part of their professional life fighting the cause of the weak in the society. And three, just last November, Governor Fayemi indeed signed into law the gender-based Violence Prohibition bill which makes such act a criminal offence in Ekiti State.

Lamenting the unfortunate incidence, Ekiti State Commissioner for Women Affairs, Social Development and Gender Empowerment, Mrs. Fola Richie-Adewusi, described the fate that befell Mrs Adewumi as barbaric and criminal. “It is clear that the perpetrators of this dastardly act committed a crime and should be made to face the full wrath of the law. This act is condemnable and we hope the law enforcement agents will live up to their responsibility and bring all the perpetrators to book”, she said.

While the proactive stance of Ekiti State government is commendable, I don’t think we can really isolate this unfortunate tragedy from the state of our nation today because it speaks to so many things about what we are, or at least have become: We are a nation where there is no longer any sanctity for human life and we see this in several ways. The first is that our concept of justice is warped because once you are accused of a crime, you are already deemed guilty in which case you have to prove your innocence. What I have noticed over the years is that most Nigerians have no temperament for justice based on the rule of law; they would rather seek vengeance even to the extent that is not commensurate with the alleged infraction.

Yet such recourse to jungle justice and glorification of supernatural things like witches and wizards (rather than observable cause and effect) are symptomatic of a primitive society that is still far from development. Stories abound of people being beaten to death for alleged offences that were based on rumours and superstitions. In some bizarre instances, minors as young as five years had been burnt to death even with the consent of their parents and guardians for unproved allegations of being possessed by some kind of evil spirit. Sometime last year, there was the pathetic case of an 11-year-old-boy shown on a private television station in Lagos as the boy was set ablaze by an irate mob for allegedly attempting to kidnap a child. Instructively, the boy was vehemently protesting his innocence as he was being hit with dangerous objects even as his accusers dragged him along concrete road before eventually setting him ablaze. Some other people have been lynched by mobs for allegedly causing the disappearance of people’s “private organs” or in one particular case in Ogun state, for allegedly turning six school children into tubers of yam! In all these cases, like the experience of Mrs Adewumi, it is always the accusers’ word against the accused.

Yet what flows from the foregoing is the value we place on human lives: That is what accounts for extra judicial killings which have now become a fad. That also speaks to the violence that has become a common staple in the Northern part of the country. Former Governor of Kaduna State, Senator Ahmed Makarfi, once told me a story that vividly illustrates this madness. In the course of one of the religious riots in Kaduna in the early part of last decade, both the Muslim and Christian youths had barricaded certain areas where they targeted “enemies”. How do they identify their victims? They would set “examination” for passers-by. In the Muslim area, you are told to recite Surat Al-Fatihah and if you miss your line, then you are as good as dead. On a particular day, a Muslim strayed into the Christian killing territory and with daggers drawn ready to strike, the young man was asked by his captors: “Complete this sentence, ‘in the name of the father, the son and…”

Staring death in the face, the hapless young man responded: “…and the mother”. That hilarious ignorance, according to Makarfi, saved the man his life because even in that bloody environment, there was still room to laugh but others were not so lucky. Yet we must ask how life became so cheap in our country that even the freedom to profess a faith has become a source of death and danger. But as we see in the case of Mrs Adewumi, who was taken to the palace, mobs don’t usually act without some form of authority. Behind all the sectarian violence that we see all over the country, there are some leaders who give tacit support and until our security agencies are able to identify and deal with those entrepreneurs of violence, our society will neither be free nor safe.

The totality of it all, though, is that what we have now is a reign of impunity with  people doing whatever they like because they know, or at least believe, that there would be no consequences. And that is why the life of Mrs Adewumi could be taken in a rather cynical manner. But this culture of impunity is all pervasive. It is why some merchants of death would choose a solemn occasion like the mass burial of people they had earlier murdered in cold blood to further unleash bloodshed. In another context, it also explains why some fat cats in the private sector (and their collaborators in government) would sit down to share among themselves hundreds of billions of Naira of public money in the name of fuel subsidy payments. Yet no society can advance where the rule of whims, rather than the law, holds supreme as is the case today in Nigeria.

I enjoin Governor Fayemi to ensure that the people who killed Mrs Adewumi are apprehended and made to face the law. Only that would appease the spirit of the dead while at the same time serving as deterrent to those who might want to resort to such atrocious acts in future.

To Falana, Okadigbo, Ewuga

Better late than never is a saying that aptly applies to Mr Femi Falana, one of the 25 eminent legal practitioners who last week earned the Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) honour. Falana, without any doubt, is long overdue for this award but as the Yoruba would say,“ape ko to jeun, koni je ibaje”. The same goes for Mrs Margery Chuba-Okadigbo, sworn in last week as the authentic Senator representing Anambra North and my big brother, Solomon Ewuga, now a Senator representing Nasarawa North. My congratulations to Mr Falana and the truly distinguished Senators.

This piece was originally published in Thisday.


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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