Saturday, April 13, 2013

Our Empathy Deficit

A curious thing happened last month. Terrorists blew up a bus in a Kano motor park killing and injuring scores of passengers and bystanders. Since the park was in Sabon Gari, the victims were thought to be Igbos and thus victims of Boko Haram’s plan to rid the north of Igbos and southerners. Wole Soyinka and J.P. Clark even suggested that Chinua Achebe’s death might have been hastened by the slaying of “his people.” Some polemicists declared the attack to be part of a pattern of anti-Igbo violence in the North. Debate along these lines ensued in the senate with media reports of frightened northerners fleeing the east fearing Igbo reprisals. Then the Kano State Government released the names of some victims of the bombings, a number of whom were apparently northerners. An awkward silence followed to enable us to reflect on the farcical level of discourse in the media and in the legislature.

Some people attacked the Kano Government for releasing the names and contradicting the preferred narrative of Igbo victimhood. That a number of northerners died in the bombing seemed to have rendered it a non-event. Disappointed Lagos newspapers could no longer publish sensational headlines about Igbos being slaughtered in the North. Their profit projections would have to be scaled down, at least until a more handsome number of southerners or Igbos in the North are slain. Overwrought “activists” could no longer belch out threats of reprisals and market themselves as “Igbo leaders.”

There was yet more buffoonery and opportunism on parade. Abia State Governor Theodore Orji who in 2011 fired non-indigenes (including Igbos) from the state’s employment called on Igbos in the North to return “home” since they were not safe. As though Abia, the hotbed of commercialized kidnapping where Orji moved from advocating capital punishment for the kidnappers to placating them with an amnesty offer is necessarily any safer for Igbos. It is unlikely that a politician that has been so brazenly prejudiced against “non-indigenes” could possibly protect the “returnees.”

The corpses were still smouldering from the bombing when some opposition politicians claimed that it had been carried out by the ruling party without bothering with the inconvenience of providing a scintilla of evidence. Some of them even used the opportunity to call on the federal government to issue an amnesty to the terrorists. To think that these hacks who would make political capital out of this tragedy, who could scarcely be troubled to issue condemnations of the act or condolences to the grieving, are now advertizing themselves as alternatives to the incumbent government. And this is leaving aside the fact that Boko Haram’s insurgency emerged from states mainly controlled since 1999 by opposition parties.   

 Whatever else the terrorists are doing, it goes beyond attacking specific ethnic groups. They are striking at physical and psychological fault lines with the clear intent of expanding their murderous campaign into an all out sectarian war. But in Nigeria today, outside of churches and mosques, it is really impossible to target crowded public spaces such as markets and motor parks with total assurance that the casualties will belong to one ethnic or faith community. In Kano, is it really possible to report a terror attack in public in such exclusivist terms? And even if this were the case, should it matter? Should the victims of terrorist attacks disclose their states of origin and their religions before we grieve their deaths? Does it matter whether the victim is named Abubakar or Nnamdi, Ejiro or Tersoo? Is it not tragedy enough that lives can be so cavalierly cut short? Can we not mourn the brazen assault on our collective humanity, close ranks in solidarity as human beings and call evil by its proper name?

The great moral demand of our time is reverence for life. It means that when a bus is blown up, the ethnic origins and faiths of the victims should matter less than the fact that this is a demonic violation of our humanity. This specie of violence is what medieval jurists called hostis generis humani – “an enemy of humanity.” We should be affronted by these murders whether the casualties are Muslims or Christians, atheists or agnostics, Igbo or Kanuri. This is the ultimate barometer of our humanity. For in the final analysis, only God can verify the authenticity of our declared religious convictions; whether one is truly Muslim or Christian or neither. The only thing that we can be certain of is that we are truly human.

The only measures that can protect us all from the predations of reprobate elites and terrorists are those that are humanist and universal. In other words, there is no way of protecting only Igbos or only Fulanis. We share the same geography and eco-system; the same perils and opportunities and indeed the same future. Only the umbrella of a state that protects all can protect each. This is why attempts to sectionalize what is a human tragedy and claim a monopoly of suffering are daft. We are all victims and casualties of this omnivorous plague of violence.

To the extent to which we persist in entertaining sectarian narrow-mindedness and comfortable bigotries, we will remain vulnerable to terrorism and all the plagues of our society that are not restricted in their reach by our faith or ethnicity. The October 2010 Eagle Square bombing which was carried out by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta killed a diverse range of Nigerians – Muslims, Christians, Southerners, Northerners, Civilians, and security agents. Terrorist attacks follow this pattern because the perpetrators seek to maximize casualties and thereby sow fear – the dread of mass deaths in sudden acts of random violence – into the public mind. They usually cannot afford to be too specific or risk sacrificing spectacular casualty figures. This normalization of mass murder is a threat to all.

When politicians and religious leaders claim that only their people are being killed by Boko Haram to the exclusion of other victims, they are guilty of moral myopia. What they should be doing is casting the terrorists as enemies of the human race, killers of Nigerians of every creed and clan. They should be promoting empathy and solidarity, not monopolizing grief and using it as a moral bludgeon to inflict feelings of faux guilt on fellow sufferers. But hamstrung by a lack of empathy and moral imagination, too many religious leaders and politicians have resorted to rabble-rousing that only inflames sectarian passions and offers neither moral clarity nor healing.

What motivates a self-proclaimed Jihadist to kill Christians or a self-proclaimed Christian militant to kill Muslims is not primarily hatred for Christians or Muslims although these are factors. It is fundamentally misanthropy – the hatred of humanity – that is at work. The difficulty is not in killing a Muslim or a Christian but in taking a human life at all. Once that threshold is crossed, all else is fair game. The hand that can slay the stranger can, and will likely also eventually, slay kindred. Annihilating infidels is only preparation for exterminating apostates. It does not take long before those who have been raised to kill unbelievers begin to hunt believers who, in their view, do not believe accurately enough.  

This explains why violent crime flourishes after the cessation of hostilities in conflict-prone locales. Those who have tasted blood as ethnic combatants will likely do so again as gangsters and brigands. Violence is addictive and the god-like power of ending a life on a whim proves irresistible. This is why youths used as political thugs by politicians eventually turn to terrorism, banditry and murder for hire. It was veterans of the Aguleri-Umuleri communal wars of the 1990s that almost sacked Onitsha and Aba in an orgy of banditry in the early 2000s. It is a generation raised in an environment that turned a blind eye to the wanton slaughter of religious minorities as infidels and the destruction of their churches and homes in chronic bouts of religious rioting in the 1980s and 1990s that has produced the anarchist terrorist group that now slays Muslims and Christians alike. Violence tends to reproduce itself and it is this culture of misanthropic violence, no matter the cultural garments that it wears, that we must repudiate. 

What we should fear even more than the psychotic malice of terrorists is the loss of empathy that desensitizes us to tragedies as long as they are happening to other people that are not kin or fellow believers. It is empathy that enables us to keenly identify with the sufferings of others. The Bantu concept of Ubuntu which tells us that we are human through other human beings speaks to the notion of empathy and collective humanity. It tells us that we do not truly exist independent of others and that what ails one will shortly ail all. When we cease to feel the afflictions of our fellow beings, it is a sign that that we are losing our humanity; and that our society is becoming a jungle.  In such conditions, no one, regardless of ethnicity or religion is truly safe. 

(All Images sourced online) 


  1. Wow. How do we get more people to read this?

  2. Thanks, Naomi. We are spreading the word as widely as we can. Thanks for sharing!