First performed in 1935, ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ is a play by the 20th century British playwright and social critic, T. S. Eliot which tells the story of the assassination in 1170 AD of Archbishop Thomas Beckett by loyalists of the then British monarch, Henry II. In writing the drama, Eliot was said to have drawn heavily from the account of Edward Grim, a clerk who witnessed the tragic event in Canterbury Cathedral and recorded it for posterity. Although the play dwells largely on a confrontation between the Church and State, with Archbishop Beckett willing to pay the supreme sacrifice, it also contains some embedded lessons which speak to contemporary times in Nigeria.
First, let me commiserate with the families that are now grieving as a result of the killings during an early morning mass at St Phillips Catholic Church, Ozubululast Sunday. My thoughts and prayers are with them as I pray God to grant recovery to those that are still in the hospital. While I hope the security agencies will get to the root of the matter and bring all the culprits (including those outside the shores of the country) to book, the greater work will be how to heal and reconcile the people of Ozubulu community after what has just happened.
If, as Governor WillieObiano said in his broadcast to the people of Anambra State on Monday, what happened was a “dangerous GANG WAR that has spilled over to Anambra State from another African country” then the authorities must be alert to the possibilities of reprisal attacks. That is also a challenge for the political and traditional authorities inAnambra State so the community does notcontinue to witness a spiral of violence and needless blood-letting. Even at that, theOzubulutragedy should not be treated as an isolated incident for it is in many respects a reflection of the state of our nation. Last Saturday, some suspected Badoo cult members, disguised as worshippers,reportedly smashed the head of a woman right inside a Cherubim and Seraphim Church in Igbo Agbowa, Ibeshe in Ikorodu area of Lagos after a prayer night vigil.
However, it must be stated quickly that the star actor in the Ozubulu tragedy, an alleged South Africa-based drug baron who has reportedly built schools, churches and constructed roads evidently from proceeds of crime, is an antithesis of the martyred Canterbury Archbishopin Eliot’s play. In a nation where both justice and affordable healthcare have been priced beyond the reach of the poor, as Dr ChidiOdinkalu hinted in his Twitter post on Monday, the only place many Nigerians now find succour is in the House of God. That some criminally-minded persons would now turn such a place to their battleground demonstrates just how low we have sunk as a nation. Given the way he dealt with the ‘Four Tempters’, the archbishop in T.S. Eliot’s play also teaches that there are certain compromises that are just unacceptable in God’s sanctuary.
The lessonhere is that religious leaders should not only stand against the excesses of the state, they must also act as moral compass for the society such that people of questionable characters do not use places of worship to launder ill-gotten wealth. But that is not where I am going today.What particularly worriesis the denial that has become part of our ideology as a society. When the news first broke, it was difficult for some people to accept that the killer was from their community, especially given the location of the crime: a church. But it shouldn’t have been too difficult to accept given the growing nature of organized crime in many of our cities–the sort of things you watch on CNN and imagine can never happen in our country.
The late ChikeAkabogu, one of the most gifted writers of his generation, once wrote about how Nigerians like to delude themselves that they are different; that bad things that occur elsewhere have no place in our country. Borrowing from Akabogu’s thesis, I once argued on this page that the philosophy of ‘it can never happen here’ is actually responsible for our state of unpreparedness for any eventuality. Yet for us to develop, we must accept that anything can happen here, from criminality and violence tocalamities like earthquake, Tsunami etc. as forces of nature rage everywhere in the world.
As pessimistic as it may sound, that is the way most serious countries now think by building negative scenarios and working to ensure they do not happen; while also planning towards mitigating such occurrences in the event that they do. But by living in denial of anything and everything, we prevent ourselves from learning useful lessons. That is why we were surprised that we now have suicide bombers in our midst. Because we never came to terms with the fact that if it could happen elsewhere, it can also happen in our country. And now we have a situation in which Nigerian drug barons who ply their trade outside our shores are bringing their fights home with the security agencies, as usual, left stranded.
Almost two years ago, I started working on a book, following my 2015 Platform Nigeria lecture, “If We Stay Here We Die” where I borrowed from the experience of my younger brother who wasted several years in “slavery” across several countries in the attempt to seek ‘greener pastures’ outside Nigeria. Tentatively titled “From Frying Pan to Fire: How Nigerian young men and women ruin their lives trying to cross to Europe”, I am hoping to complete the work by the first quarter of next year. One of the things I have discovered, in the course of interrogating the complex immigration problem, is that some Nigerians have not only morphed into the Mafia in Italy, they also have their own deadly “Families” with tentacles back home. Since my focus has been on Europe, South Africa did not even cross my mind until the Ozubulu tragedy and now I am hearing a lot of stories from that end.
What the foregoing says is that the security challenge we are dealing with in our country today requires much more than drafting in troops. To contain the activities of criminal cartels, especially those that specialise in drugs, human trafficking, kidnappings, prostitution, insurgency etc., you need close-to-the-ground intelligence gathering and partnerships at all levels. Meanwhile, the weakening of state capacities, due largely to corruption and ineptitude amid declining resources, has facilitated the emergence of these dangerous forms of crime with tremendous challenges to the rule of law.
Unfortunately, as things stand, the police that should ordinarily deal with this challenge lack the capacity, manpower and material resources to handle these new dimensions to organized crime that we now witness almost on a daily basis across the country. That then explains why foot soldiers of drug warlords who reside outside our shores would carry their battle to a place of worship in their own community with innocent citizens becoming cannon fodders for their madness.
In ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, there is something in the character of the assassinated archbishop of Canterbury that may be useful, especially in times like this.In Eliot’s play, Beckett encountered four tempters and he acquitted himself most admirably. The first came with the suggestion for the Archbishop to gratify the flesh in the form of “singing at nightfall” and enjoying “wit, wine, and wisdom.” Giving in to the pleasures of life, it was argued, would prevent the archbishop from coming into conflict with the king. He turned down the idea.
The second tempter came with the lure of political power and the words were as flowery as those used in Nigeria by our self-deceiving politicians: “Disarm the ruffian, strengthen the laws…Rule for the good of the better cause…” Having resolved that he had spiritual authority which was all he needed as a man of God, the archbishop would not “descend to desire a punier power.” The third tempter offered a “fight for liberty” to end the “tyrannous jurisdiction” of the king over the bishops and barons. In rejecting this, the archbishop said that “No one shall say that I betrayed the king.” The fourth tempter encouraged Beckett to pursue martyrdom so as to attain sainthood. Even when he accepted the fate that eventually befell him with equanimity, the archbishopnonetheless would not succumb to doing “the right deed for the wrong reason.”
The difficult choices that the man of God in ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ had to make were quite enlightened and well thought out. In contrast, the sociology of crime in our country is rooted in several dimensions: ugly business practices ranging from gun running, armed robbery and kidnapping on an industrial scale.For the drug barons among them, the ability to fight dirty wars knows no distance or boundaries hence Ozubulu is well within their range even from as far off as Johannesburg.
The security requirement for containing the ability of these dangerous individuals to re-enact Ozubulu in other theatres across the country is therefore a cross-border challenge. The authorities mustbegin to gather intelligence on some of these criminally-minded Nigerianswho reside in South Africa, Italy and other such destinations. Our religious leaders should also begin to exercise caution on those who think they can buy salvation with ill-gotten wealth.
In the end, what we are dealing with is a pan Nigerian problem and the viral elevation of cash to the status of king of all things such that every aspect of our national life has become transactional: religion, business, politics, sex, friendship etc. While the desperation for social recognition by these barely literate characters often takes the form of ostentatious displays of expensive vehicles, bogus mansions as well as donations of schools, churches, town halls etc. even the competition for meaningless chieftaincy titles can get bloody as rival factions plot violence and murder, including in the most sacred of places, just to gain the upper hand. That, in a nutshell, explains the Ozubulu tragedy.