“They have to kill each other at regular intervals. It’s like the menstrual cycle: a lot of blood flows, then everything returns to normal.”
About 5 years ago, a book was sent to me for review. It was a novel called A Sunday at the pool in Kigali and its author was a French man named Gil Courtemanche. The quote at the top of this page is taken from page 195 of that book and it is a quote attributed to a white character in the book who was referring to the constant skirmishes between the Hutus and Tutsis, an internecine battle that would reach its apogee in 1994 when the Hutu interahamwes launched what they called the final solution under the code name “corvee collective” in which they planned to exterminate all Tutsi cockroaches.
In the past week, after the recent orgy of bloodletting in Plateau state, my thoughts have continuously returned to that book, to the love story of Valcourt and Gentille set against the backdrop of blood and gore.
The Rwandan genocide has been compared to the holocaust and the term often used is the “barbarian holocaust.” And the book, which although premised largely on true historical facts is marketed as a novel, bears witness to barbarism. While in Germany, Jews were hounded for being Jews: by their name, their looks and their dressing, in Rwanda, the distinctions were not so clear; Hutus who looked like Tutsis were killed even by family members.
In my review, I wrote that the book, A Sunday at the pool in Kigali, “bears witness to hideous evil, unspeakable terror and unnameable horror. It is a story that disgusts and repels even as it compels you to turn the pages against your will and better judgment. As you turn the pages the book reads you as you read it because the pages of this book are like mirrors reflecting the hideous visages of our dark selves.”
The stories and images that have emerged from the sleepy villages of Shen, Ratsat, Zot and Dogon Na Hauwa where evil, in the guise of Fulani herdsmen descended upon them last week, bring to mind the stories from the Rwandan genocide.
Yesterday, I received in my mail box, a set of pictures ostensibly sent out by the Anglican Dioceses of Jos. The pictures in that file are heartrendingly barbaric. They bear witness to a lack of humanity; a montage of grotesque and twisted depravity. They are pictures that are difficult to look at, pictures of defenceless women and children hacked down with machetes. Those are pictures that seem to have been taken from a scene of Lord of the Flies but with depraved adults and not children, as characters.
There are disembowelled women, children with limbs chopped off, some with their skulls split open by blows. Looking at those pictures you can hear the strangled cries of the hapless and helpless.
In contemplating the pictures, a few questions kept insisting on answers. The first was: where were the men? Did they turn tail and run, leaving their wives and children to be sacrificed to a modern day Moloch? Or did those who compiled the pictures exclude men for maximum shock value?
But the most urgent question, the one that would not let go is this: what kind of men, sorry, animals would kill women and children in that fashion? What ancient grudge or recent injury could turn men into such ferocious and blood thirsty beasts?
To gain perspective, I will return again to a quote from Gil Courtemanche book where he writes that “We can all turn into killers, Valcourt had often maintained, even the most generous of us. All it takes is a certain circumstance, something that clicks, a failing, a patient conditioning, rage, and disappointment. The prehistoric predator and the primitive warrior are still alive beneath the successive varnishings that civilization has applied to mankind.”
In this instance, in the killings in Jos, many have noted that the spark that lit up the keg of gun powder was religion, but that would be too simplistic a reason. True, the killings were reprisal attacks for the January incident in which Muslims were killed and dumped into wells but the cyclical orgy of violence in Plateua state, this barbaric menstrual cycle of killings with lots of blood flowing has gone beyond religion. It is more about politics, about how to restore, what many see, as a disequilibrium in the balance of power, one that began to drift inexorably towards the precipice since the Joshua Dariye regime.
I lived in Jos for 5 years during which I obtained my first degree and nurtured my literary career. It was the city in which I came of age as a young man, where I first fell in love, met and made so many of my lifelong friends. Jos was the city to which I returned, continuously, for the first 4 years of my working life, to spend my vacations. It is a city that holds, for me, very fond and now painful memories.
Jos was a peaceful, almost somnolent town that was easy to navigate. All you needed to find your bearing was to get to the mammoth Terminus Market built by the Solomon Lar administration. A true cosmopolitan city, I never could tell who was Christian or Muslim and back then in the early to mid-nineties, skirmishes, which never went beyond bleeding noses and broken heads were usually among the smaller ethnic groups like the Beroms and their neighbours. There were no noticeable religious fault lines.
All that has changed. And It all began to slide from the late 90s with the return of democracy and politicking. I recall now how my new bride and I would have died if we hadn’t changed our minds about spending our holiday in Jos. There was a riot and killings the weekend we were due to arrive and the hotel where we had planned to stay was torched. The date was Friday September 7, 2001, the day Jos witnessed its first religious ‘war’.
But living far away in Lagos, I did not really get a sense of the damage that had been done to my beloved Jos until I visited in 2003 or so. I remember flying in on the same flight as the comedian Julius Agwu who gave me two tickets to a show he was headlining on the bill of the Society for Family Health.
I had planned to attend with the writer Helon Habila, who was still living in Jos then and who was my classmate at the English Department of the University of Jos. We had gone for drinks at a popular watering hole we frequented at West of Mines and I remember now that we had barely taken a sip from our drinks when the alarm was raised about a riot that was spreading. Helon and I abandoned our drinks and the pepper soup we had ordered and fled home. The time was not yet 7pm and we ended up not going for the show.
Sitting in the darkness behind shuttered windows and doors we recalled how we would walk the length of Bauchi road on cold evenings, looking for girls and free beer, intermingling with both Hausa Fulanis and native Christian indigenes. In those days, the University of Jos was a real melting pot with most students coming from Lagos and then the neighbouring states of Bauchi and Kaduna as well as Benue state. I never heard anyone speak about religion as an issue. The quarrels were always about the minorities trying to stake tenuous claims.
After that near miss at West of Mines, I returned to Jos just one more time and by then the madness had claimed Terminus Market in an arson attack which left the market a smouldering wreck and turned its usually clean and well kept precincts into an eyesore. Jos, fondly referred to as Jesus Our Saviour, had lost its innocence.
Today, the killings are now common place and both Christians and Muslims have become complicit but to limit this to religion would be to miss the point because there are larger issues involved. There are influential people, men with power and means, who believe that their power is dependent upon ensuring that the religious fault lines grow wider.
This has become clearly evident from the latest attack and the confessions from some of those arrested. But the most sobering fact is the seeming complicity of the security agencies. Governor Jang has pointedly accused the military of not responding to his alert based on security reports.
This madness has gone on long enough and now is the time for decisive action. The Federal Government must take action on the Ajibola report while the police must act on the confessions obtained and bring the sponsors, planners and masterminds to justice. This horror, this barbarism must never be allowed to happen again.
The body count in Plateau state must stop.
***First published in 2010. republished to commemorate the September 7, 2001 killings in Jos.