By Azuka Onwuka
The video of the verbal and physical assault of a police officer by Seun Kuti, Afrobeat musician and son of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, was not just embarrassing but shameful. It captures, in moving pictures, the level of impunity that pervades Nigeria, which has made it almost impossible for the country to progress.
The video, which was shot on the Third Mainland Bridge of Lagos, showed Seun angrily shouting at a policeman, pushing and slapping him. The policeman showed exemplary calmness, refusing to exchange words or attacks with Seun. Seun refused to be restrained by a woman who is probably his wife. As the lady came out of their car to talk to Seun, he aggressively ordered her back to the car. The woman complied promptly, a sign that she knew that there would be repercussions if she disobeyed him.
It is not clear what caused the problem, but from the words coming from Seun, it seemed that the police vehicle had slightly hit his from the rear. When the camera showed them standing between the two cars, there was no sign that Seun’s car was badly impacted.
Imagine if that policeman was hot-tempered, power-drunk or tipsy. Imagine if he pulled out a pistol from under his clothes or from his car and fired at Seun. By now Seun would be dead. The police would have been blamed for another extra-judicial killing. If there was no video recording of the incident, all sympathies would have gone in favour of Seun, while the police would have been blamed for being the aggressors and killers in any conflict with civilians in Nigeria.
However, what Seun did to that policeman was not unusual. The only reason it became an issue at all was because it was caught on camera. Nigeria is an unjust society where the strong brazenly oppress and intimidate the weak. Seun Kuti believes that he is a celebrity, “a big man” in the Nigerian parlance, a Grammy-award nominee and the son of the great Fela. He believes he is untouchable. Whatever he does, there will always be some powerful people who will give instructions that he be allowed to walk free. But once the same Seun – or anybody who thinks like he does – crosses the border of Nigeria into Benin Republic or Cameroon, all that impunity evaporates. The person knows that any breach will be punished appropriately without any interference from any influential person.
The policeman must also have known Seun Kuti. Having understood the Nigerian environment, he knew that any quarrel between him and Seun would not go in his favour. In fact, he may lose his job and get himself into prison for arguing or fighting with “a Nigerian big man.”
However, imagine that the policeman wore an army uniform. Would Seun have slapped him, no matter how wrong the soldier was? Would he have even verbally assaulted the offending soldier? No, he would not. The simple reason is that Nigerian soldiers are notorious for brazenly brutalising anybody – the police included – who has any form of disagreement with them. If Seun would not have dared hit a soldier, why would he think he is justified to hit a policeman?
The reason is the degree of impunity and lawlessness that pervades Nigeria. Nigeria runs on the principle that might is right. What obtains in Nigeria is somewhat related to what obtains in the wild where the principle of survival of the fittest subsists. People step on the rights of those they are stronger than. Power is abused. The law of the land does not apply to all individuals equally.
Right from childhood, every Nigerian gets to see and hear that influence (political, financial, religious, traditional, etc) solves every problem. “Do you know who I am?” is a common expression every Nigerian hears. The implication is that if you don’t soft-pedal on whatever you are doing, the person who asked the question could report you to their powerful cronies or take some extreme actions that will get you sacked, punished, arrested, beaten up, or even killed. This makes even those who are doing their legitimate duty to beat a retreat sometimes.
The recent organ trafficking case of Nigeria’s former deputy senate president, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, in the United Kingdom typifies how a country runs based on clear rules that are not amenable to pleas, emotions or status. That Ekweremadu is a former deputy senate president in Nigeria did not make the UK let him off the hook. The moment he was arrested, he was not even granted bail. While sentencing him and his wife, the judge did not budge on the basis that the condition of their daughter, who is in need of a kidney, may deteriorate. The judge acknowledged that he received letters from Nigerian former president (Chief Olusegun Obasanjo), the Senate President of Nigeria, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice of Nigeria, the Archbishop of Enugu Diocese, etc., who attested to the good character of Ekweremadu and pleaded for clemency on his behalf. But the judge still sent the culprits to jail.
In such countries where the constitution reigns supreme and people respect the rights of others, any person – be it a police officer, soldier, celebrity, politician, or whoever – who assaults another knows that there will be consequences for it. That serves as a deterrent to others.
There have been arguments that Seun could have been provoked or the life of his family threatened, but those excuses are lame. When I was 15 years old, I read a book titled How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, and it had a huge effect on me. I made a decision not to use any strong language against any person or to engage in any altercation or fight with anybody anymore. I was in a male boarding school in Nnewi, Anambra State, Nigeria then, while my family was based in Nnewi too. That decision did not shield me from being provoked, verbally assaulted or even physically assaulted. The insults did not spare my family, my village, my town, my ethnicity, my religion, etc. But that did not make me break that vow.
Initially, it was hard to keep the vow, because it made me look like a sissy in an environment where boys were supposed to be seen as toughies. One positive impact my decision had was that it reduced the chances of me getting into any fight with anybody. When someone insults you but you refuse to retaliate, it deflates the person. Most times, it ensures that the issue does not escalate to a physical assault.
I don’t believe I have any special powers that made me able to achieve that. I don’t believe that there is anything extraordinary about me. Therefore, if I can do it, I don’t see why any sane person should be excused for flying into a fit of rage and physically assaulting another because of a word or action. No matter how provoked Seun Kuti is by a policeman on the streets of New York, London, or Johannesburg, he will not jump out of his car to curse, push and slap the policeman.
The problem is the Nigerian environment where impunity is condoned, celebrated and excused. If Seun Kuti is not fully penalised for this show of shame, it will inspire others to engage in more acts of impunity.
It is good to pray and hope that Nigeria will one day turnaround from regress to progress, but the reality is that if the high level of impunity that has been instilled in the psyche of Nigerians is not systematically uprooted and replaced with respect for the supremacy of the law, Nigeria has no hope of making any meaningful progress, because the systemic corruption, oppression, insecurity and poverty in Nigeria are all products of impunity.