I received an autographed copy of Musa Idris Okpanachi’s latest poetry collection Music of the Dead, not too long ago. Okpanachi, a university scholar at the Federal University, Dutse, Jigawa State, is an award-winning Nigerian poet who has authored two other collections: The Eaters of the Living (2007) and From the Margins of Paradise (2012). Music of the Dead does not make for an easy read, mainly because it leaves you shaken and low, reminding you that your beloved nation has not fared any better since the civilian administration came into effect on May 29, 1999. While reading it, I couldn’t shake off its plethora of funereal images. It is, indeed, an ominous poetry collection.
It is disheartening – and ironic – that more Nigerians have possibly been killed (due to state apathy and irresolution) in the last 17 years of civilian administration than in the almost 30 years of military tyranny. How democratic, even transformational, has the return to civilian rule been in Nigeria? The actions of the political class have so far been anything but democratic; if anything, their actions have only and effectively enriched them beyond measure. Conditions such as power abuse, decadence, brutality, and bloodletting seem to have assumed a greater dimension in the democratic rule than they did in the military period. State power is deployed not in service and betterment of the people, and the purported dividends of democracy, a phrase popularized by the Obasanjo government from 1999 to 2007, seem to have assumed something of a sham to the people, although for the politicians a continuous boon.
Midway into Music of the Dead, I found that the poet alluded to the country as a “land of cemetery”, a “democracy of coffins”, a place where it is “so easy to die” for the “the earth [here] teems with muzzles and blood”. He spoke of the “common news”, which referenced the regularity of death in the country. In many of the poems, it is common to find people dying or at the point of death. Death is the common news. I had read in the dailies a few weeks ago that nearly 200 women and children had died in the internally displaced people (IDP) camps in Borno State this year, and about 1,233 graves had been dug near the Bama camp last year. I recently read that over 2,300 children, under the age of five, die daily in Nigeria from malnutrition and other childhood killer diseases. Sometime in April 2016, a newspaper had reported that Niger State had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country, with no fewer than 19,000 children, below five years old, dying of malaria annually.
The dominant motif in Okpanachi’s poetry is blood – followed by corpses and graves. The instant I finished reading the Music of the Dead I felt utterly grieved and was reminded of a profile on Nigeria published on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s website. Wikipedia, I think, has a list of massacres that have occurred in Nigeria. To truly appreciate Okpanachi’s use of funereal imagery in his poetry, one may be tempted to glance back at the timeline of crises that have decimated the nation since the exit of military rule.
In the first term of President Olusegun Obasanjo, hundreds of deaths were recorded in clashes between Christians and Muslims due to the adoption of Sharia law in 2000. In 2001, the Nigerian army was sent to quell the tribal war in Zaki Biam, a community in Benue State, but this led to the killing of over 100 unarmed civilians. In 2002 alone, more than 200 people were killed in ethnic conflicts between the Hausa and Yoruba in Lagos and in the riots that followed the Miss World beauty pageant in Kaduna. In the second term of Obasanjo, in 2003, about 100 people were killed in inter-communal violence in Warri, a town in Delta State. In 2004, more than 200 people were killed in Yelwa-Shendam area of Plateau State, and in Kano resulting from ethno-religious clash. That same year gang fights in Port Harcourt caused about 20 deaths. In 2006, religious attacks in the north and reprisals in the south led to the killing of more than 100 people.
Between 2009 and 2010, hundreds of people were killed in northeastern Nigeria when state security forces attacked the stronghold of Boko Haram, and in Jos, Plateau State when Muslim and Christian zealots clashed. In 2010 precisely, at least 400 people were killed in clashes between Muslims and Christians and from bomb attacks in Jos and the resultant reprisal attacks. In 2011, a suicide bomb attack on the UN headquarters in Abuja left 23 people dead, while about 63 lives were lost in bomb and gun attacks in Damaturu, Yobe state. Also, in 2011, nearly 70 people were killed in the wake of heavy fighting between security forces and Boko Haram terrorists in same Yobe and Borno state. In 2011, the Christmas Day bomb attacks claimed the lives of about 40 people. In 2012, more than 100 people were killed in Kano, following the threat of Boko Haram to annihilate Christians if they chose to remain in the north. In that same year, at least 20 people were killed in attacks by suspected Islamist militants in Yobe and Borno States during the Christmas/New Year period.
In 2013, 22 pupils at a boarding school in Yobe state were massacred by Boko Haram. In that same year, the terrorist group murdered more than 150 people in roadside attacks in the northeast. In 2014 and early 2015, hundreds of people in Baga, Bornu and other parts of the northeast were killed following a series of attacks by Boko Haram. In 2015, hundreds of Shia Muslims (or Shiite) were killed in Zaria, Kaduna State in a clash between the group and the Nigerian army (as of this moment the commission of inquiry, set up by the Kaduna State government, has indicted top army officers for the massacred of at least 347 members of the Shi’a Muslim group in Zaria). In 2016, two female suicide bombers killed at least 20 worshippers in a mosque in Maiduguri, Borno State.
Between August 2015 and May 2016, more than 50 persons have been reportedly killed by soldiers in various Biafra protests in Aba, Asaba, Nkpor, and Onitsha. Moreover, newspaper reports estimated that the Fulani herdsmen have killed over 700 Nigerians between June 2015 and April 2016. Some 300 people were killed in both Agatu in Benue State and Nimbo in Enugu State. In the first week of June 2016, a female trader, allegedly accused for blasphemy, was mobbed to death in a market in Kano. A few weeks before, a youth was reported to have been killed in Niger State for same “offense”. By the way, all these figures are not inclusive of the number of soldiers killed in the fight against terrorist insurgency in Nigeria since military operations began in 2009.
As I placed Okpanachi’s haunting poetry collection Music of the Dead on the bookshelf, I wondered: When will democracy bring about the relief long desired by the majority of Nigerians? But more importantly, why are we losing more lives to a democratic government?