“They treat us like animals”

In the mid-1990s, there was an article in the Atlantic Monthly titled “The Coming Anarchy,” that posited that in some parts of the world – the author’s prime example was West Africa – the world would soon seen societies that are barely governable. The exact details of the argument escape me at the moment but the title makes the point pretty clear.

Now I find myself in West Africa and have been thinking about anarchy a lot lately. Owerri seems like a nice place but to listen to its inhabitants tells a different story. They are always on edge that something will happen – a kidnapping, a protest march that gets out of control, a random murder. To an extent, these are fears that people all over the world live with. But they seem much more close at hand here, to judge by how people speak of them. No one has much confidence in the police. Who would? Their main job seems to be to set up road blocks around town to extract bribes from passing drivers. One priest told me that the government treats the people “like animals,” while the politicians enrich themselves from the state.

Because of the government does not justify their confidence, people work towards making themselves independent of the state. In the bishop’s compound, he has planted lots of fruit trees and put in a quite-impressive fish pond, the results of which we enjoy at his table. Power generation is so sporadic in Nigeria that almost everyone who can owns a generator. The bishop’s compound has a very nice one, along with plenty of tanks to store water. The bishop says he wants to teach his churches and his people to be “self sufficient” and independent of the government. I’ve been wondering if self sufficiency is a Gospel value.

The bishop and all his priests have been keeping me on a tight leash. I don’t go anywhere without at least one priest in a cassock. Today, I wandered off – within the cathedral compound of a neighbouring diocese – and it was like the Queen of England had gone missing, such were the alarms I set off. I appreciate their concern and respect their control of me but I find it chafing a bit that I can’t aimlessly wander through town and soak things in as I have in other countries.

The contrast here with a place like Uganda or Ethiopia is striking to me. In both those places, I felt quite safe, even when I was by myself. That, I suppose, is the virtue of traveling in an authoritarian state. The government has enough control to impose security – by their definition – and tourists like me can benefit from it. Here, no one seems to have that kind of control.

What makes all this so frustrating is the contrast between Nigerians and their government. The latter is corrupt, weak, and incompetent. The former, however, are educated, creative, and incredibly hard-working. Observers always talks about Nigeria’s wasted potential. I see it in these talented people who live in fear rather than plan for a hopeful future.

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