In April of 1856, a Xhosa prophet, Nongquawuse, announced that the spirit of her ancestors have spoken to her and asked that every Xhosa person should kill their cattle, and destroy their crops, the source of their wealth. In return for this sacrifice, the spirit of the ancestors would destroy the British settlers in South Africa by February 18, 1857.
The precise date and Nongquawuse’s antecedents and reputation must have convinced the people. What followed was a frenzied cattle-killing spree by the Xhosa nation in which between 300, 000 and 400, 000 cattle heads were killed. A few people were skeptical and refused to sacrifice their cattle.
Months dragged and the appointed day arrived. The British settlers went about their business as usual. No red sun, as the prophet had promised, rose, and nothing pushed anyone to destruction.
Infuriated, the Xhosa people turned on themselves. Those who did not kill their cattle were blamed for the failure of the prophecy. The chiefs consulted the prophet one more time and she, with confidence, assured them that in another eight days, a red sun would rise and the British would be destroyed, only if all the Xhosas killed their cattle and burnt their crops.
Another cattle-killing splurge took place. Eight days came and passed. And the British were still threading the land.
In the end, the Xhosa all turned on the prophet. To save her life from her angry kinsmen, she was put in the protective custody of a British officer.
However, after all that killing and crop burning, there was nothing for the Xhosa to eat. A famine followed and within a short period, the population of the area dropped from 105, 000 to 27, 000.
No one knows exactly how many Nigerians have been killed by Boko Haram, bandits, herdsmen, gunmen or other criminals in the last five years. No one knows if some prophet asked for a killing spree of Nigerians but the rate at which massacres have been occurring in the country, is cause for concern. As is the nonchalance of the leadership after such killings and the placidity of their “condemnation” when grudgingly issued.
The recent massacre by Boko Haram of some 78 farmers in Zabarmari is one of many such shocking killings. The government’s handling of the aftermath has been nothing short of a phenomenal disaster.
First, hours of silence, as if not talking about it, would make the fact that it happened to go away. When the reaction came from the presidency, it was in three, emotionless tweets by presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, who would later go on to damage himself and the government he serves further when he blamed the victims for not having clearance to go to the farm.
When the military decided to acknowledge the massacre, it focused more energy on countering the unverified claim by UN Humanitarian Coordinator, Edward Kallon, than on hunting down the audacious murderers.
Days after the massacre, the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, took to his verified Facebook account to announce that insurgency may last another 20 years. He said nothing by way of condolence for the victims. He mentioned nothing of the killing and offered no resignation. He instead called for “collective action and responsibility.”
Yet, the farmers who were killed suffered that fate because they cooperated with the military. They spotted terrorists in an area where they shouldn’t be and reported this to the authorities. They even apprehended one and handed him over to Buratai’s men. When they warned of the prospect of Boko Haram reprisal, they were ignored by soldiers.
This is not the first massacre of civilians under this administration, which came to power with garlanded promises of ending insecurity. Twenty-two farmers were killed in two separate attacks in Borno last month. The Sultan of Sokoto last week reported the killings of dozens by bandits in a Sokoto village. Hundreds of villages in the northwest have been sacked by bandits.
And yet each time, Nigerians, numbed by the killings have witnessed no reprieve, no comfort from the authorities and now, not even the pretence of vengeful wrath on the murderers.
In other climes, by now there would have been resignations and sacks. Heads would have rolled, not in the Boko Haram fashion, of course. If it were Japan, someone probably would have committed hara-kiri over this.
In April 2014, after a ferry sinking that claimed 300 South Korean lives and criticisms of the government’s response to the disaster, the country’s prime minister, Chung Hong-won, tendered his resignation.
In truth, Nigeria has handled this latest massacre as badly as it has handled all the previous ones and as shabbily as it has handled the security situation in the country, and as disastrously as the country has been handled overall. After five years of sequential catastrophes, it can be said that this government has failed in containing this insurgency and that it is clear the strategy it has deployed, if there is one, has outlived its usefulness.
Yet, those hoping for a Buhari’s resignation, or even the service chiefs sacking is operating in an alternate reality where leadership cares about public opinion.
Six years ago, there was a thing called the Jonathan Pose, which trended when the then-president visited scenes of tragedies in the country and posed with a face scrunched in bafflement, hand on chin, always one finger sticking out. Then, at least, clueless or incompetent as he was said to be, that man showed his face.
Now, we are confronted with massacres and the president hides behind inane, ineffective press statements. No taking responsibility, as Buratai suggests, no definitive action to address that situation or forestall reoccurrence.
In the instances where Nigerians have begged the president for a speech, it wasn’t because they particularly loved the look of his face—he is no longer the dashing young man he was in the early 1980s—it is because they expected definitive pronouncements that would give directions, assuage their grief and anger and show leadership from the front. On the few instances the president grudgingly addressed the nation in recorded “live” broadcasts, it has been more vapid and without conviction. Those speeches have neither reassured nor solved the problem. And expecting anything different would be hoping against hope.
But in saner climes, leaders, in moments of great national crisis show their faces and lead from the front. Nigeria has been having a constipated half a decade of great national crisis. The leadership has shown neither hand nor face.
It is hard to imagine a moment when Nigeria has been so disconnected from its leadership as it is today. Five years ago, we thought it couldn’t get worse. Never have Nigerians been left so exposed to the wolves of banditry and terror as they have been today. It would seem the country is drifting in shit creek with no paddle. That is no different from having a misguided prophet calling for a sacrifice that the country cannot afford to make.