By Francis, IKHIANOSIME
“For, although a country may stand still, history never stands still. Thus, if we do not soon begin to move forward again, we will inevitably be left behind. And I know that Americans today are tired of standing still – and that we do not intend to be left behind. But effort and courage are not enough without purpose and direction” – Senator John F. Kennedy
When I recall the time-honoured words above of Senator John F. Kennedy who later became the 35th president of America, I remember my country. The memories of these words have been recently provoked by the action of Rochas Okorocha. Governor Okorocha has been on the limelight for different reasons. A number of the times are for the wrong reasons. The ostentatious chief executive of Imos state known for a sartorial stole around his neck like a Catholic clergyman is not new to baffling Nigerians. Regardless of his contributions to his state, he is perhaps known for controversial achievements and memories.
In 2012, Governor Okorocha declared a two-week Christmas holiday that received midst reaction and as if to test on our collective amnesia or to scuff a healing wound, in 2016, he went a week better by declaring a three-week public holiday for a state that is in dire need of daily productivity to offset her different debts and pockets of arrears to workers. In 2015, Okorocha erected a Christmas tree in Owerri which gulped a whooping sum of Six hundred million (N600M), at a time when the State owed a backlog of salaries. The former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representative, Emeka Ihedioha captured this insensitivity thus: “It is ridiculous and indeed smacks of insensitivity for this government to spend over N600M on Christmas decorations when families can no longer afford their meals and basic needs as a result of non-payment of salaries, pensions and other entitlements,” On September 19, 2017, the Governor received 27 cakes from women of the 27 local Government of Imo on the occasion of his 55th birthday. Recently, the self-immuned- to-criticism governor unveiled a statue of the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma worth 520 million naira in the face of the hard-biting residue of the slow-winding recession in Nigeria. As if to say that was not enough, he was also vested with the title of Ochiagha di oha mma of Igbo Land (the people’s warlord), adorned with the Imo merit award, the highest honour of the state and a street was named after him. This far from being a celebration of world leader was more of the unveiling of a plaque of insensitivity.
Without any prejudice to the intention and relationship the Governor of Imo State has with the South African President, the unveiling of the statue of the president of South Africa touch on wrong nerves more than it does provoke adulation. It has sparked off so much controversy because Jacob Zuma is a leader of political polemics. Like his host, he has suffered so many troubled waters which has left him marred and morally miry. In 2006, he wrangled through a rape scandal having being accused of raping a much younger HIV-positive woman. He similarly has sparked of criticism for his polygamous lifestyle, having currently four wives. He survived impeachment proceedings in 2016 having been accused of corruption scandal related to his rural homestead in Nkandala. In South African, the name Zuma has become synonymous with “Guptagate”, when he came under fire “over alleged influence-peddling involving the Gupta business family, which reportedly secured government tenders and even influencing appointments”. The Zuma epiphany in the face of all these was a show of insensitivity to the Nigerian psyche. In the face of these and the superfluous honours vested on the President of South Africa, I am beginning to think that Jacob Zuma must have done so much in fighting for the Imo people to be vested with the honor of the People’s warlord. Wait a minute! Was it not Zuma’s presidency that Nigeria witnessed the resurgence of xenophobia, where Nigerians and even Imolites were attacked and some killed recently? Or was he particularly fighting for the Imo people during that Xenophobic attack to be christened, “warlord”? Was the honour a personal honour or a reflection of the collective feelings of the people of Imo? The event has made us cast a fresh gaze on the import of Nigerian honours: from honourary doctorates, social honours, and even some chieftaincy titles. Are social honours still honourable? Is Imo State so much in economic affluence to spray such sum on a figure that is controversial at home and abroad? It suffices for leaders to understand the dynamics of social sensitivity.
The figure of Jacob Zuma has been unveiled and now stands still in Owerri, but history never stands still. History goes through a gestation. Once its time of maturation comes, it comes out full blown with all its consequences. While statues are meant to evoke great memories and serve as historical mementoes for a people, like the Statue of liberty in the United States of America which is symbol of America’s independence; David’s statue in Italy which represents the Biblical hero David; Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; the statue of President Zuma would have made more meaning to the people of Imo and to Nigerian, if his figure would evoke more pleasant memories.
It suffices to mention that artistic symbols like statues are not mere effigies. They speak more words than imagined. Unless we are sensitive to the words they speak, we are in for its consequences. The latest conflict about race in America began with a mass shooting, a flag and some statues. In Charlottesville some protesters moved earlier in August to pull down the confederate symbol particularly the statue of Confederate General Robert Lee and it was resisted. This fury was sparked because confederacy is perceived to be synonymous with white supremacy. In 2015, Dylann Roof; a self-acclaimed white supremacist went to a predominantly black Church in South Carolina and killed nine people in a sporadic shooting and afterwards flaunted the supremacist flag in some photographs. This exasperated the fury of some blacks as it revoked the imagery of slavery and white domination. It is believed that confederacy fought to maintain slavery and white supremacy in the United States. The question has suddenly poked up, whether it was okay to honour those who have incensed this racial tension, especially the statues of confederates. Even though the American government and people have a different explanation for having the confederate flags and statues across America, those statues have long spoken of racism and it was either greeted with insensitivity or silence. Beyond the erection of a statue for Zuma are the words and voice it echoes at the moment. Insensitivity has its boomerang. For a nation convalescing from xenophobic attacks and recouping from the mildew of recession, the unveiling of the Statue of a figure whose history and person has no overflowing positive influence on the people would be the unveiling of insensitivity. There are more impacting African figures to erect or even political icons or natives of Imo who have impacted on their common history to be unveiled. Perhaps, the statue of Jacob Zuma in Imo would go down in history as one of the infamous statues in Nigeria. Maybe elsewhere, it may be of better relevance but not in Imo. This act is only festering the culture of insensitivity; a wrong culture to cultivate.
Francis IKHIANOSIME is a Catholic Priest and teaches philosophy at the Seminary of All Saints, Ekpoma.