#YNaijaEssays: Grief and tragedy are a constant in Nigeria, but how does it change us as people?

The past week was both unpleasant and horribly depressing for Nigerians. On Saturday the 23rd of May, 86 indigenes of Barkin Ladi Local Government Area according to police reports – a figure disputed by Plateau Governor, Simon Lalong, community leaders and the Christian Association of Nigeria, who put the death toll at over 200 – were massacred by suspected cattle herders on their way back from a burial ceremony of a loved one, sparking widespread outrage and plunging the nation into mourning. As if that was not enough, on Sunday afternoon D’banj, one of Nigeria’s popular musicians, notified the public about the death of his year old son, Daniel Oyebanjo III, who according to reports drowned in the family’s indoor pool. Things kicked up a notch with the Thursday evening petrol tanker explosion on Otedola Bridge, Berger, Lagos. Only 9 bodies were recovered from the fire, the rest charred to powder. An eyewitness described the fire that engulfed 54 cars as being in an incinerator. He could hear the screams of human beings, some of whom were children being ferried home by a school bus, trapped in their vehicles as the fire consumed them. Rescue was out of the question as everyone else was running for their lives, away from the inferno. The 28th of June was Lagos’ Black Thursday.

On Friday evening as well, on the very same road, another accident occurred; this time, caused by the irresponsibility of a commercial bus driver. Two lives were reportedly lost in that accident. Back in the North, a kerosene tanker had a head-on collision with a trailer on the Suleja-Minna road and burst into flames. Spokesperson for the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), Mr. Bisi Kazeem has assured Nigerians that no life was lost, although 5 persons sustained injuries.

Nigerians are no strangers to death. Actually, last week’s unprecedented deaths are merely a microcosm of the continuous gallery of avoidable death we have endured under the Buhari administration.

When Goodluck Jonathan was at the helm, Boko Haram ran the country ragged. They were clearly determined to set up a shadow government and for the most part succeeded. They bombed the UN Building in Abuja, kidnapped 276 Chibok girls (among others), set up their command post in Sambisa Forest, reduced Maiduguri, Borno to a shell of itself and brought other parts of the North East under their reign of terror. Blood flowed in Nigeria daily and Jonathan was too weak and clueless to do anything about it. When Buhari took office, Boko Haram continued to plague the country, kidnapping an additional 110 girls from the town of Dapchi in Yobe state (104 of which were afterwards returned), and using their captors as human bombs. In fact, the United Nation reports that in 2017 alone, 881 children were either killed or maimed by Boko Haram.

Sometime in 2017, President Buhari was able to broker a deal with Boko Haram that saw 86 of the kidnapped Chibok girls exchanged with Boko Haram prisoners as well as some money changing hands. 112 still remain in captivity till date, although Ahmad Salkida, a journalist who reports on Boko Haram has revealed that only 15 girls are still alive. The army also made incursions into Sambisa forest, reclaiming that territory. For a couple of months, Nigeria has had some reprieve from Boko Haram activities, thanks in part to the daring of the Nigerian army and private militias that have sprung up to protect the people of Borno. According to news reports, Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader is ill. Nigerians wait in hopes that this bit of news is true. 

In addition to Boko Haram, Nigerians have had to contend with another evil group – herdsmen militia. Armed herdsmen who tear through peoples’ farms like it is their legal property and cut down human beings like animals in a slaughterhouse. From Zamfara through Taraba, Benue to Ekiti, Ebonyi to Enugu, they left a trail of menace and violence but Saturday’s massacre in Plateau was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Nigerians had had enough.

Psychologists say there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But on Sunday, Nigerians leapt right past the first stage and onto anger because they were tired of bottling it up. Tired of hearing news reports about bloodbaths every other day. Tired of sorry excuses and empty statements that do not culminate into action. Tired of a President who refuses to do anything to bring the deadly herdsmen to heel. Tired of the ridiculous blame game. After the Plateau massacre, the President’s media team led by Femi Adesina began a preposterous match with the PDP, drawing up a kill list to show which civilian administration lost more lives. What a show of shame. Meanwhile, President Buhari took a trip to Jos, 50 kilometres north of Birkin Ladi where the actual massacre took place, gave them an hour of his time and said nothing helpful.

“I contested for this position (presidency) four times before I got it, so I cannot complain of the challenges we are facing. Nobody can say that we haven’t done well in terms of security, we have done our best, but the way this situation is now, we can only pray,” the president said. Then went ahead to drop the buck on Governors.

“Leaders at all levels must have control over their people in their respective constituencies.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Global Terrorism Index ranks the herdsmen as the 4th most deadly terrorists in the world, Nigeria doesn’t recognise this group as terrorists. President Buhari did not visit Benue until 10 weeks after the New Year massacre, preferring instead to attend the wedding ceremony of the children of former governor Abiola Ajimobi and Governor Umar Ganduje. He instructed the Inspector General of Police, Idris to relocate to Benue and remain there until the crisis is solved, Idris fled after 3 days to Nassarawa and then to Abuja. Buhari revealed during his trip to Benue that he wasn’t aware that his IGP had disobeyed his orders, however, there has been no attempts to reprimand the erring public official since then.

Nigerians are grieving and their anger is palpable particularly because the events happening now were the same things Buhari as a presidential candidate railed about when Jonathan was Commander-in-Chief. Now as President, those problems remain and so is the recycled rhetoric.

It’s hard to tell which stage of grief either D’Banj or Nigerians were feeling when the news of his son’s death broke. Waxing eloquent as judge and jury, Nigerians began to berate him for inadvertently letting this happen. Just a couple of weeks before, the musician had taken a picture in what was clearly an indoor pool that didn’t seem to have a door blocking off that area from others, raising eyebrows and drawing criticism from social media commentators. Many were quick to bring this up when reports surfaced of his son dying in a drowning accident, even though there was no way to how the child had actually drowned. 

The death of a child is a traumatic event and the first course of action many took was to assign blame without sensitivity, on the mum and the dad. It was the perfect I told you so moment and they lampooned D’banj without mercy. It’s possible the outrage stems from D’Banj’s celebrity status. Celebrities may have fans but that doesn’t stop these fans or frenemies from taking cheap shots at them on the few occasion when tragedy seems to bring them down to everyone else’s level.

On the other hand, Nigerians are not socialized to understand and respect boundaries. By nature and culture, we’re busybodies, who enjoy wading into conversations (and parties) we were not invited to, who have no qualms saying stuff like “you never born” or “ah ah, you added weight o” to complete strangers. D’Banj has not been seen on social media since, so we do not know if he will grieve publicly or privately, from early indications, though, D‘banj is holding this one close to the chest. The unfortunate incident has raised pertinent questions such as “Who do we blame, or are we even allowed blame? Was there any negligence or do we overestimate just how much control we are able to exert over an infant’s life?”

On the other side of the Atlantic, US rapper  XXXTentacion, born Jahseh Onfroy died on the 18th of June in a robbery incident. Although an abusive and violent individual during his lifetime, in death XXXTentacion’s fans gave him a pass as they thronged out to mourn their idol, choosing instead to pour out their anger on his ex-girlfriend, the victim of the rapper’s violence.

One of the worst parts of life – something every human being has to go through – is losing someone dear to us, or someone we have even the slightest attachment to. Sometimes, we understand that it has to happen, some other times, it comes as a shock. Whichever way, it is always devastating.

The Sosoliso Airline Flight 1145 was a scheduled passenger flight between Abuja to Port-Harcourt. At 2:08 pm local time, December 10, 2005, the flight crash-landed at Port-Harcourt International Airport. The plane slammed into the ground and burst into flames. Out of the 110 passengers on board, only seven survivors were recovered. Five died and only two survived the hospital time.

An investigation by the Nigerian Meteorological Agency showed that there was a change in the wind speed and direction as the aircraft approached the airport. In other words, visibility was blurred at some point. Both black boxes retrieved from the aircraft had been damaged, so there was no concrete information beyond the one from the Agency to explain how exactly the plane crashed.

The passengers on the flight were mostly teenagers – 50 students of Loyola Jesuit College, Abuja.

However, even if adverse weather conditions at that time is to be used to explain the cause of the crash, we must also remember that the crew, according to an investigation by the Accident Investigation Bureau, decided to proceed with approaching the runway without being cleared to land by airport control, a decision that made the airline culpable for the tragic accident and the avoidable loss of life.

The airline was established in 1994 and started operations in July 2000. But after years of extensions and delays, the Nigerian government was forced to set a deadline of April 30, 2007, for all airlines operating in the country to restructure for better services and safety or be grounded and seven airlines, including Sosoliso failed to meet the deadline.

Nigeria had lost too many to inadequate health care, poor road network, poor education system and the air transport system added to the list.

Some political or should we say social commentators traced the air disasters of that period to the ‘leftovers’ of Military curses. Needless to say that President Olusegun Obasanjo, being a part of the Military invasion that invariably crippled Nigeria’s transportation system, carried on the curse to democratic Nigeria and so airlines like Sosoliso could continue to operate without due process. The Bellview disaster had happened and so the country had reason(s) to reevaluate – immediately – its aviation sector and avoid another of such devastating event but as our leaders since 1960 would normally act, nothing was done. In actual fact, Nigeria did not have to experience another mental trauma of losing young vibrant Nigerians who had an unarguable bright future.

The way grief affects us depends on a lot of things, including what kind of loss we have suffered, our privileges, beliefs, religion or mental health. Anxiety starts the process, helplessness follows suit, anger comes in (especially in such instances of the Sosoliso crash), and sadness comes later.

The nation mourned for quite a while and the fear of airlines, operating in Nigeria, crept into every Nigerian home. Yet, just as we have in other social arrangements, ‘privileged’ Nigerians began to reassess the apparent danger of flying with an airline within or outside Nigeria and they eventually used the ‘advantages’ of flying to overshadow its disadvantages.

In this light, policies were rolled out to ensure airlines comply with safety and security measures but they have not been stringent enough to ensure compliance, neither has the aviation sector being fully restructured to ensure cows and goats do not share the runways with planes. After all, the ones supposedly ‘spreading the money’ had spoken, either covertly or openly.

Indeed, every human being’s brain understands the passing of life to death; however, as said earlier, we process the information differently. Some see fault on either side, some see ‘just accidents’, unfortunately in Nigeria, we also see ‘que sera sera’. This leads us to Stella Obasanjo.

Stella died on October 23, 2005, in Spain, one month to her 60th birthday after undergoing surgery. The Senior Special Assistant on Media Matters, Mrs Oluremi Oyo broke the news at a press conference saying the First Lady died of complications arising from cosmetic surgery to reduce fat from her body.

Anyway, Nigerians were in shock at the news. And just like how Nigerians reacted to the Sosoliso crash, different reactions, rumours were spread. The general assumption was that she was pressurised into assuming that her body shape was not worthy of a First Lady.

Also, as usual, her death sparked conversations. From debates about body-shaming to celestial inclinations and so on in like manner. The death of a First Lady was an avenue to critically examine how Nigerians react to grief and how long they could actually stay in that atmosphere so something concrete could be done to avoid a repetition.

Stella became popular not only due to her role as First Lady but also for being a political activist, supporting such causes as gender equality, youth inclusion and the rehabilitation of a war-torn country and so, her death came as a shock but it didn’t last too long – just like we shove off tragedies in our country. Besides, the most widely spread ‘gossip’ was that she attempted to change her body structure and so deserved her death.

It is a known fact that grief and mourning are universal and are experienced by people from all walks of life, across many cultures but the answer to the question of how we process death and grief also rests largely on the legacies and impact of certain individuals during their stay around loved ones and even countrymen.

While some deaths may heave a ‘sigh of relief’ to others, as it elicits an almost unanimous feeling of euphoria and joy, for some others, the death and legacy of certain persons inspires one to become a lever for people to pursue worthy causes which the deceased stood for or set up processes to support causes they would have aligned with. A good case study to buttress the former, is the death of General Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s former Head of State (1993 -1998) who died on June 8, 1998, at the Presidential Villa, Abuja under mysterious circumstances.

Abacha, reputed to have led one of the most brutal and autocratic regimes in Nigeria, was accused of serial human rights abuses, including a massive crackdown on the media, pro-democracy campaigns and civil rights groups especially after the hanging of Ogoni activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 others (Ogoni 9). He was ranked by Transparency International as the 4th most corrupt leader in recent global history, and he is credited to have reportedly stolen a total of £5 billion from the country’s coffers, alongside members of his family.

Top on the list of high profiled state-sponsored killings under the Abacha regime were those of Kudirat Abiola, wife of MKO Abiola, who was a hard critic of the administration, killed in Lagos on June 4, 1996, and Chief Alfred Rewane who stood up for journalists through the National Democratic Coalition. Amidst the programmes carried out by the Abacha’s regime, his major legacies revolved around corruption, press repression and judicial killings.

In contrast, in the 1990s, Ken Saro-Wiwa, an environmental and human rights defender toured the world drawing attention to the plight of his people, the abuse of their rights and the pollution of their lands by the multinationals in concert with the government.

Saro-Wiwa and his group, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), went on to take up a peaceful fight against Abacha’s regime and the multinationals which led Shell to leave Ogoniland in 1993, “a triumph that turned Ken Saro-Wiwa and his acolytes into a real menace for General Sani Abacha’s military dictatorship.”

In the year that followed, Abacha had the rights defender alongside eight members of MOSOP arrested over a trumped-up charge of incitement to murder of four Ogoni tribal leaders, and they were hanged on November 10, 1995, an execution that brought numerous implications for the country as the Commonwealth suspended Nigeria in response to the execution while it threatened Nigeria’s military Government with expulsion unless democracy is restored.

And so, when the news of his demise came to the public glare, wild jubilation erupted in the streets of major Nigerian cities and it was reported that parties and public drinking were experienced in many parts of Southern Nigeria, as his death literally signified to many, the end to a siege of the nation’s freedom by a maximum ruler, even though some people still remain who are able to humanise him and keep his memories alive.

On the contrary, the demise of a person in the stature of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the late activist and 8 others who were executed by the Abacha regime in Nigeria for fighting for the rights of the Ogoni, speaks much of a death that galvanised a section of the country to stand up for what they felt they deserved (although violently in many cases) as years after his judicial murder, people in the region are still not benefiting from oil revenues despite being the goose that lays the golden egg.

Saro-Wiwa, a human rights defender and his group, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), in the 1990s had argued that oil production had devastated the region’s environment while bringing no benefit to its 500,000 people.

He travelled around the world, using his pen and voice to draw attention to Shell’s complicity with the government to pollute the lands of his people, violate human rights and cause untold hardship to Ogoni residents.

He then went on to take up the peaceful fight against Shell and the military regime of Nigeria leading Shell to abandon Ogoniland in 1993, a triumph that turned Ken Saro-Wiwa and his acolytes into a real menace for General Sani Abacha’s military dictatorship.

Abacha consequently in 1994, had the writer arrested alongside eight members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP): Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine for incitement to murder of four Ogoni tribal leaders, and they (Saro-Wiwa and the 8) were hanged on November 10, 1995, leading him to become a symbol for environmental protection and the human rights.

An execution which the then British Prime Minister, Sir John Major dubbed “judicial murders” and the Commonwealth suspended Nigeria today in response to the execution of nine human rights campaigners and threatened Nigeria’s military Government with expulsion unless democracy is restored.

Summarily, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death can be traced to be the foundation for intense activism in the Niger-delta region as it is today, especially since the same problems he fought against, are still present.

It is safe to say that his martyrdom galvanised the Niger Delta to abandon peaceful protest in lieu of militant protest, his death and legacy becoming intertwined with the national struggle for emancipation.

The deaths of Saro-Wiwa and Abacha occurred before the turn of the millennium and the advent of social media. Their deaths elicited varying reactions from people. For instance, those with a personal relationship with Abacha found it difficult to understand the jubilation on the streets, as he was to them a husband, father and friend. In Saro-Wiwa’s case, the Niger Delta people and Nigerians, in general, were angered that a freedom fighter was killed because he dared to challenge the government for unjust policies.

These deaths would have generated different reactions this day. Why so? Because this is the information age and news spread at the speed of light due to social media. Before traditional and recognised media houses report stories, the information has already been distributed on social media by people privy to it. With this way of information dissemination, people are wont to process and respond to bad news differently. In a world, where wars, famine, terrorism, etc, are the likes, people are constantly viewing and consuming information.

When a celebrity or a popular figure dies – no matter the cause of death – the news reaches the social media space almost immediately and people are wont to jump on the bandwagon of sending condolences and acting all lovey-dovey, in a manner that depicts they knew the deceased personally. Aside posts from random individuals, fellow celebrities and popular figures send out messages on their platforms showing their grief. But this online posts may be half-truths as some of them may just be doing it for the show and to avoid being called out by fans who usually expect them to have something to say, regardless of the circumstance.

People now actively engage online by expressing their grief, whether they are directly affected or not. In situations where one is not directly affected, there’s a high possibility and tendency to demonstrate a lack of empathy for the persons directly affected by the death of the person in question. People go to the length of digging up past misdeeds of the deceased and splatter it all over social media just to prove a point that the deceased should not be mourned, but should rather be vilified – even in death. And forces us to ask the question, “Is social media and technology stripping us of empathy?”

Celebrities make most of their income nowadays from their social media presence. This presence comes with sponsorship deals with brands and the likes. With this sponsorship deals comes responsibility. And some of these celebrities are sometimes caught in the mix of grieving for someone or something or maintaining their source of livelihood. This is because some of the brands may have issues with them speaking up against some ills in the lands, thereby putting them at a crossroad.

But how do we now grieve publicly? This becomes extremely difficult and hard to achieve when we can virtually see the images, pictures and videos of the deceased from accounts they created during their stay on earth.

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