Barrack Boy

The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality. – Dante Alighieri, Inferno

 All thinking Nigerians should watch Channels Television’s video clip of the dilapidation and national embarrassment euphemistically called Ikeja Police Academy or Ikeja Police College. It bears repeating: These images of Nigerian police “trainees” in quarters unfit for hogs should break each of our hearts. What you have seen of the Police College is just the tip of the iceberg of the life that I survived in Nigeria as a “barrack boy” and as a ward of various public institutions.  If you don’t believe me, here is a video clip that documents the horrid state of public education in Anambra State. Anambra state is Nigeria, what you will watch is what obtains pretty much anywhere in Nigeria where the dispossessed cannot buy their way out of hell with stolen dollars. Forget the decrepit infrastructure and listen to the bald-faced bullshit of the “commissioner for education,” the “governor,” etc. They stand before decayed buildings, remnants of what was gifted us by the colonialists and the first military governments and they shamelessly reel off insincere words like “collaboration,” “empowerment,” etc. Meanwhile, not one of their kids attends these pigsties and hovels. Chew on this: When you calculate the cost per policeman, the cost per pupil in those public schools, I can bet you that the figures are competitive with the same figures in the West, the only difference being that much of the funds are looted in Nigeria.

The state of Ikeja Police Academy is the state of most police barracks in the urban areas of Nigeria. I should know. My dad is an alumnus of Ikeja Police Academy (1955). He also attended a number of training programs there over the course of his long career as a policeman. I am what Nigerians call a “barrack boy.” I grew up in the barracks, born in what was then known as Ikeja General Hospital. My parents took me home to Ikeja Police Barracks and then Falomo Police Barracks.  Our Yoruba neighbors nicknamed me “Babatunde” in the barracks because I was born three weeks after the death of my paternal grandfather. When I was not in Boarding school, I lived in various police barracks all my life. I remember Moor plantation Ibadan; we used to get a supply of fresh milk delivered to our home daily. We were at Eileyele Barracks in Ibadan, where my father was part of the first set of the elite “Kill and Go” Mobile Police Force (Mopol 4).

Around 1966, we moved to Sapele Road Benin City, where my father helped to start the Mobile Police unit (Mopol 5). My childhood memories are of a blur of barracks  all over the then Western Region – Lagos, Ibadan, Moor Plantation, Benin City, Igarra, Sabongida Ora, Agenebode, etc, etc. My dad is a real Nigerian hero if there ever was one. He never tires of telling me that when the Queen of England visited Nigeria in the late 50’s, he was one of 100 hand-selected “handsome” police officers that performed parades for her wherever she went. He claims that the Queen stopped by him at one of the parades and asked a question about his uniform but by protocol his commanding officer had to respond to the question. My dad was always a fantastic but unreliable historian.

Some are of the opinion that police officers and their families should also bear responsibility for the squalid mess that we see in the barracks.  Well, in the cities, the living quarters in the barracks we lived in were cramped and squalid. It is a structural problem, they were not meant for our way of life.  The extended family was an integral part of our existence and if you lived in the cities as we did, there was a constant flow of relatives from the village wanting to try their luck in the cities; get an education, get a job, start a business, or in a few cases, hit my dad up for money. I do not remember any time that someone took a paint brush to the walls of any barracks that we lived in. I do not remember any maintenance. Not that there was much to maintain. There were walls and space, nothing else.

In the police barracks of my childhood, “rank and file” policemen lived in two rooms per family, a room and a parlor. There was typically a shared latrine and bathing quarters. They were filthy because they were not enough for the hordes of people cramped into the rooms. I hated taking baths and I doubly hated using the latrines. In Benin City, the latrine was a hole that led to a bucket. Each night, night soil removers or agbepo (as they were called) would come and take away the buckets and replace them with fresh buckets. Filthy work. For some strange reason these men were ill-tempered and if they caught you doing your business when they were visiting, you were in big trouble. Some kids would fool around with them, put “kaun” or potash in the buckets and watch the feces foam and pour all over them. Sometimes the agbepo would chase the kids to their homes and pour buckets of excrement on their parents’ doorsteps. As a “barrack boy” nothing shocks me. If you’ve never used a barracks “latrine”, never been chased down the street by an agbepo, you are lucky. Life was fun in the barracks.

I have said the living quarters were cramped. They were. I remember rats, lots of them – in the kitchen, in the rooms, everywhere. I remember them, because my father, a trained killer and warrior, was deathly afraid of them. We derived pleasure from watching him jump on our “center table” and giggle nervously as the rats taunted him.  At any time, “t”, there were always at least a dozen people in our “room and parlor.” The kids would sleep in mats on the floor and we would pee over each other. One cousin was particularly bad; he would pee on our mat each night. Many rituals were performed to exorcise his peeing demons.  One, I remember: He was required to pee on a burning log each night before bedtime. The babalawo said at night each time he needed to relieve himself, he would have a burning sensation and he would wake up and go outside to pee. Yes, at night, we simply went outside to the yard to relieve ourselves. The sensation did not burn him enough, he kept peeing on us. There are many things I witnessed as a child that I should not talk about. My aunt ate shit right before my eyes because her toddler daughter who lived with us had eaten shit and it was taboo. To save the child, she had to eat the shit also. In the barracks. Yes. Savagery.

In the barracks, my job was to sweep the verandah and yard with a long broom made of twigs. I hated the job. I would hold the broom and stare at tomorrow. Literally. My mother would yell at me and say if I stared long enough I would see the spirit world.  At the Mobile Police barracks in Benin City, there were “house inspections.” The police officer in charge of the barracks would conduct an “inspection” of the living quarters. That meant we had to clean our quarters, make the beds, take our baths and look wholesome behind our dad as he stood ramrod straight while the “inspections” went on. It was usually invasive and in some instances humiliating. If the inspector found filth, he would berate your dad who would in turn berate your mom who would in turn berate all the kids.

The Mobile Police Barracks in Sapele Road is no longer in use. My point is that the design and implementation of these quarters are colonial. Built in the fifties, these are colonial structures that have not been improved upon since Independence.  The colonial masters did not imagine that they would be permanent structures lasting well into the 21st century. You should see the “kitchen” my mother slaved in day in and day out. We used firewood. It is a wonder she did not die of smoke inhalation. My mother is a saint. It bears repeating: Life in the barracks of the cities was dysfunctional and sometimes terrifying for women and children. Marital and child abuse of the physical and emotional sort was common. Alcohol abuse was prevalent and women and children bore the brunt of these men’s rage. By the way, I know of a few families that were polygamous in the two-room quarters of the police barracks.

The police barracks in the rural areas were way better than those in the cities. There was more space. And they seemed to have been better built for our way of life. Things were more hygienic. To be fair, by the time my dad was making the rounds in the rural areas, (Sabongida Ora, Igarra, Agenebode) he was now an officer, qualified for more spacious quarters, away from the more spartan “rank and file” barracks. Still, water was hard to come by. We fought over water in Sabongida Ora. As kids we would traipse a couple of miles down the hill to the streams under the hills of Igarra to get buckets of water. We would be woken up at the crack of dawn by our dad and we would go to get the water from the streams under the hills of Igarra. We all developed bilharziasis as a result, a disease that I remembered because each time I peed I would pee blood.

These barracks are an embarrassment. There is no reason today for them to be in existence. I would demolish all of them, adjust police salaries to allow for accommodation expenses and require them to show up for work when they should. By the way, life in the barracks wasn’t all bad. There was music. We danced hell away. I learned a lot and inherited a joy for the arts in the beautiful men and women that endured the hell I have described. In their songs, I met Rex Lawson, Celestine Ukwu Ebenezer Obey, Sunny Adey, and Victor Uwaifo’s spirits. I met lovely men like Corporal Ohanugo who went to Biafra and never returned to us.

Today, Nigerian policemen and women are reviled and ridiculed as the face of official corruption. It is more complicated than that. My dad was one of the first set of Mobile Police,an elite force of men trained to die for Nigeria. Today, in the winter of his life, Nigeria will not pay him his pension. The mobile police force that my father was part of was designed as a rapid deployment force. They were kept in barracks because they were often needed for emergencies. Whenever there was a riot, like the Tiv riots, or the uprisings in Western Nigeria, or when they had to protect “liberated areas” during the civil war, the police bugler would blow the horn for an “emergency” and the men would be assembled within hours, racing in long convoys to the scene. My dad was missing from home a lot. In Asaba, his team was ambushed by Biafran forces and they got the beating of their lives. My father’s bones still hurt to this day. As a little boy, I always worried that he would not come back alive. Many mornings, I would wake up to see he had disappeared in the night. Many mornings, he would be there at home, stern warrior, Okonkwo, fussing about why I did not go to school. I took to sleeping, clutching his singlet. His smell, embedded in the singlet, was comforting. He always came back. Some of my friends were not that lucky, their dads did not come back.

Every living Police Inspector General since Independence should be hauled before the EFCC and asked to explain the decay at the Police College Ikeja. But then, the truth is that since inception, resources belonging to the Nigeria Police Force have been allocated and systematically looted – by policemen and women of all ranks, from the lowliest recruit to the Inspector General of Police. As a child of the police barracks, I can say I do not know of any living police officer that is not corrupt. They could not afford to be honest. Even as children, we knew the policemen and women who had plum assignments. If you went to “road-block” your family would feast. The officer in charge of assignments expected his kickback and so the kickbacks went up the chain of command. Many police officers built mansions and sent their kids to good schools abroad with the loot. There is a half-joke about this police sergeant in charge of road blocks who was in the habit of keeping the loot all to himself. His superiors, angry at his greed promoted him to a desk job so he would have to rely on his monthly salary. Corruption is a perverse form of revenue allocation.  We have been looting from each other since the white man taught us how to be civil servants. Go and read Chinua Achebe’s No longer at Ease. Na today?

One last word. I was a student at the University of Benin in the 70’s and witnessed and enjoyed the good life as an undergraduate: heavily subsidized meals and beverages, staff to clean our rooms, dress our beds, iron our clothes, going to classes in air-conditioned buses, etc. I also witnessed the deterioration and decay as the administration battled to manage a burgeoning student enrollment that they were clearly unprepared for. The university administration did not plan for the phenomenal demand for tertiary education. The university that I entered in 1976 was a shadow of its self in 1979. Within three years I saw how a campus could decay from lack of maintenance. Today, largely thanks to looting and incompetence, just like the Nigerian Police Force, it is laughable to compare even the best of Nigeria’s public tertiary institutions with the worst in the West. We deceive ourselves if we think all is well with our country, Nigeria. And yes, I have no solution to this mess. I have come to believe that we are undergoing Darwinism, the survival of the fittest. The rich are eating the poor. God help you in Nigeria if you are not rich. I should have a tee-shirt: I SURVIVED NIGERIA.

Will Twitter kill off African literature?

For you. Thank you.

Reading Chibundu Onuzo’s The Spider King’s Daughter is a sedate but thrilling experience. The senses travel everywhere with this gentle storyteller as she quietly but accurately records the history of contemporary Nigerian dysfunction. At some point, you realize you have been tricked, this is a love story. Romance! This is not your traditional genre of romance literature, where you are told from the first sentence of the book: This is going to be about heart-break and you will love it. Onuzo’s lovely book straddles the no-man’s land between chicklit and serious literature. No, The Spider King’s Daughter is not “serious literature”, as self-appointed purists of African literature would say in the unctuous and supercilious manner that only they can conjure up. This is a compliment to Onuzo. For the weary reader, “serious literature” as it is applied to African writing is fast becoming a pejorative for reams of shameless self-absorption drowned in overwrought, insincere, and yes, awful prose. This reader is not impressed.

This is not a review of The Spider King’s Daughter but you should read the book if you are like me and you are getting downright frustrated with pretend-novels that are actually personal opinions about certain social conditions that are hoisted on orthodox structures of fiction. Sometimes a reader wants to have fun. That is why I enjoy reading Pius Adesanmi. A fine thinker and supremely self-assured, Adesanmi does not contrive pretend-novels to deceive the reader into listening to his personal opinions about how Africa should be run (he has plenty of those). He writes, you read – and you applaud. Adesanmi makes the compelling case that you do not have to write a novel to be called an African writer. Just write and we will read. And call you a writer.

The most popular African books that are being read voraciously today are Twitter and Facebook. A vast vibrant readership of African youths, perhaps equivalent to the population of a good size African country is on social media, transfixed by the drama, heartbreak, poetry, prose that is Twitter and Facebook. They read the equivalent of whole chapters of a book daily. Where many thinkers despair about what they see as addiction, others see an opportunity and are re-engineering their writing to fit the new dispensation that is our digital world.

It is more challenging today to be a writer because it is a bit harder now to get a reader away from a salacious blog on a smartphone to go read a good book about endless suffering in Africa. E-readers are making it easier for the distracted reader to step away from a tweet-fight and read something edifying and deep and thought-provoking – as long as the overwhelmed reader does not happen into yet another twitter thread that is edifying and deep and thought-provoking. It is not the smartphone that is killing the traditional African story. Readers, weary of sores and wars seek balance, not necessarily in the story-telling, but in the offerings.

Of course art imitates life. I suspect that most writers are genetically wired to be cynical, to look at the world from a deficit perspective. Black Africa amplifies that trait in the writer. It is easy to be downcast about our circumstances and future and I have nothing but admiration for the African writer for shining a much needed light on our open sores. Much of the progress African countries have made in governance and civil rights are due to the advocacy of the African writer. Indeed, unlike Western writers, the African writer has felt this burden to be the conscience of the community, speaking out, many times at great risk, against crushing injustices.

Many moons ago, I set off a furor when I went on a rant lambasting the short-list of the Caine Prize for celebrating poverty-porn as literature. A few thinkers mistook my concerns as implying that I was seeking only “happy stories,” whatever that means. Nothing could be further from the truth. It bears repeating: The reader fed on a steady diet of misery seeks relief. I have nothing against sad stories; it would be dishonest and silly for us to write only stories that diminish the depth and implications of the condition that Black Africa finds herself. My point has always been that this is not the sum of our experience. These stories with their narrowness of range, do not completely define us. These stories are not us. Because they are not complete.

The other day, my teenage daughter spied The Spider King’s Daughter under my arm and she asked me what I thought of the book. I sang the book’s praises and asked her if she would like me to get her a copy. Her eyes hesitated, as she was fishing for words to say, “hell no!” sweetly. Then I remembered. I once made her read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. She liked the book, but she was traumatized by the death of Ikemefuna. She wrote a short anguished essay about it. Then later, she read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. She liked the book but she was traumatized by the emotional and physical abuse in its pages and she wrote a short anguished essay about it. My daughter has always been sensitive; I am sure it was not the books’ fault.

From my perspective, it is not enough to sneer at the poor reading habits of consumers glued to their smartphones, reading only what they desire. Writers must meet consumers where they are and use structural methods to return voracious readers like my war-weary daughter to the reading fold. The world might see another War and Peace someday, but I can assure the writer, we will not read it. For good or for bad, the world has moved on from that era of literature. The good news is that a generation of entrepreneurial African writers is rising from the ashes of orthodoxy and engaging readers in the digital world – with lovely works, dripping with sexy prose-poetry.  They are liberating themselves from the tyranny of mediocre publishing houses and taking matters into their own hands. And they are making progress. Is social media killing off African literature? I don’t think so. We are witnessing a rebirth. It is all good. And yes, my daughter will read The Spider King’s Daughter. And she will enjoy it.