Monday, 12 December 2011

Reflections on an Outward Journey (1): Security

As we near the end of this year's edition, I consider it necessary to articulate our experiences and the fallout of those experiences in an introspective manner, using the phases/themes that were glaringly relevant. No doubts, a long, arduous and exhilarating journey deserves just that.

Many Have Gone - Forest/Jos Road, Plateau State, Nigeria (Emeka Okereke)

You know and I know that donkeys are stupid enough to face an oncoming car. They damn the consequences, or maybe in a donkey’s head there are no consequences, no possibility of danger.

The donkeys were right in the middle of the road, in the middle of the night, as our van steadied towards Addis Ababa. The driver screeched on several occasions; we panicked more than once, but even with the lightlessness of the bus I could see that the driver was without fear. Avoiding donkeys was a simple matter.

This was not the case when there was news of peasant thieves. The driver panicked. Despite the chilling cold, which had hit us when we reached Gondar, the driver, his assistant, and the soldiers whose help our driver had requested, alighted from the bus and began taking away the stones that were lined across the road. The stones had been placed, supposedly, by the peasant thieves.

We would never come face to face with the thieves; and what if they did not exist? This question is rarely asked. It was the same in Lokoja, at the first leg of our journey, when our bus driver received news of an armed robbery operation ahead. Alongside other passengers, some of whom would not continue their journey that night, we waited until we received confirmatory news that the armed robbery operation was over.

The untamed donkey is not at the mercy of a newscaster.

Yes, there are rumours that turn out to be true. But there are rumours that never turn out true, rumours that are not true. There are even warnings that are given based on past occurrences, based on the fear that what happened in the past might reoccur. The instant challenge when you receive a warning is to understand that an event is not bound to occur, that the future is not the past or the present. The future is yet to happen.

So it was with us. We received warnings.

The roads we were to take, especially between Nigeria and Sudan, was, so to speak, a conflict-laden route. Of course, conflict is defined by the media – the combined effect of bombings, politics and the media has contributed to the popularity of Boko Haram (a fundamental Islamic group, who antagonize western education, and western influence).

There were those who sent us clippings, links, reports of the non-safety of our route. They did this, perhaps, for good reasons. Who could blame them? Maiduguri is the home of Boko Haram, and Darfur has been the stain of Africa’s conscience since the beginning of this decade. All of these assertions have been repeated so often their veracity has become banal. To doubt those banal assertions might be unsafe, and to undoubt them might be equally unsafe. Then, how safe is safety?

What about the option of seeking security personnel? In Nigeria where security is an illusion, and where ‘the blood of Jesus’ is invoked in times of insecurity, how secure is an option of security agents? Moreover, we mused that if we came upon danger, our innocence and political neutrality will be questioned, given the apparent untrustworthiness of the Nigerian Police.

I remember this question, asked severally at the first meetings of the team, “What are we doing about security?”

I wonder why our political neutrality would have been questioned if we travelled across Nigeria with mobile policemen. If the police were impassioned safeguards of lives and property, and detectors of crime, as the Police Act defines, no doubt would be elicited as to their reasons for being with us. But we considered the possibility that our choice of travelling with policemen could have meant we had ulterior plans and hidden motives. Is this not why there is a shared distrust for Nigerian political leaders? They spend too much on security, leaving us to wonder why they are hiding behind tinted car windows, and in a convoy of armed personnel. To think that we might have been compared to insecure politicians is a thing of disgust, enough reason not to consider having a policeman.

Let’s imagine that we happened upon a roadblock stationed by Boko Haram operatives. First, let’s imagine that there was no Policeman with us, we were alone, with our cameras, laptops, baggage. If the Boko Haram operatives decide to question us, we could tell them, “we are Nigerian photographers on a road trip from Nigeria to Ethiopia.” I cannot tell if they would consider our response a testimonial to Western education, or an indication of our apolitical stance. It has been hard to decipher any logic in the activities of Boko Haram.

Let’s further imagine that a plain-cloth detective was with us when we were stopped by the Boko Haram operatives. The detective would undoubtedly be with a gun, maybe a pistol, maybe an AK-47, as is common with Nigerian policemen. I cannot imagine clearly what the detective could do – clearly he (if we are with a man), would be outnumbered by the Boko Haram operatives, so shooting at them would be foolery. Consider, also, that the detective could be asked to identify himself, as everyone else in the bus would have done. I imagine, clearly this time, that he would say, out of fear or devilish courage, “I am a policeman.”

You are free to imagine if we would be shot, lynched, or told to drive on.

Truth is, every speculation we have made has been exactly what it is: a speculation. When we opted to change our bus in Jos, after our driver from Abuja (a man whose snuffbox was more handy than his car keys) showed signs of uncertainty, we speculated on the dangers of travelling with a bus that was donated by the Borno state Governor. The lettering on the bus was big and bold. We balanced reports that attacks were usually made on buses that made any form of political statement against our confidence in the driver’s knowledge of the road.

Logic disappears in the face of speculation. There was no graspable means of knowing what option would guarantee safety. Every time we were faced with making a decision that could either endanger us or ensure safeness, there was no rule of thumb to ascertain that our eventual decision was best, or better than its alternative.

Which is why I think safety is an imagined word.

Which is why I agree with Ray-Daniels in his considerations; “it is riskier not to take a risk.” I repeat, safety is an imagined word. And I doubt if our world would become any safer than it is, or safer than it is not. I do not consider that the efforts of goodwilling individuals to make the world safe, to take away the danger of terrorists, rapists, and all those human-faced impediments on a peaceful world is a hopeless sham. But I equally consider that there would always be reasons to doubt the safeness of humankind. If there are no wars, there would be terrorism, and if every form of physical danger is taken away, the internal conflicts would take more vicious forms. It is, in Arudhati Roy’s words, an algebra of infinite justice. Our world is subjected to an endless quest for safeness. And just like America, we would always look behind our back, expecting that someone, whether aggrieved or not, is targeting us for doom.  

I will speak, then, of a different form of safety, as is relevant to our case – the form of safety applicable to artistic interventors and exceptionists. In a previous post, I made the point that those who seek exceptions would be safe, words which are doubtlessly suited to our reality. Safety, in this regard, is daring the unknown. There is the fear of the unknown, a condition Desmond Tutu prayed we are delivered from in his book, An African Prayer Book. The fear of the unknown is a leech; it sucks the tangibility of the known, presenting the unknown as a worthy alternative.

If we were fools, we would have believed in the tangibility of the unknown. You ask me, “what if you were attacked by Boko Haram?” Then, we would have been attacked! We are not attacked until we are attacked – a simple and obvious fact. You will sound more reasonable if you asked us to take precautions, which we did, and not when you ask us not to venture at all.

I deem this a requirement for every artist – the compulsion of creativity must overshadow the uncertainty of danger. We have been faced with such uncertain dangers: if or if not we would be allowed to cross a border; if or if not we would sleep in a brothel; if or if not we can find an internet hotspot. And of course, there is the uncertainty of whether we would live through the night while we journey in the dark.

To trust in the possibility of safeness is the key. To neglect the hypothetical realities of danger, to be consumed by the prospects of creative perseverance, is to travel in the manner we have travelled.

The dangers we were exposed to could either be accidental or manipulated. If the former, the dangers would be those caused by a car crashing into ours, a little girl crossing the road while our bus advanced with overwhelming speed, or a herd of cows crossing the road in the dark while we approached. Our driver’s ingenuity would become pertinent. But if the latter, where we are exposed to dangers caused by the operation and activities of deviants, our hope would rest on a combination of heaven’s grace, earthly skills of negotiation, and our ability to convince antagonists of our innocence. This, again, is witness to my stance – safety is an imagined word; safety will always be without guarantee.

If after writing this, we are killed or we die while journeying back, it will not be a case of fighting safety by staying aloof, by not trying. It will instead be the case that we have envisioned a borderless Africa, and that we have backed up our irrefutable claim by traversing our continent in a difficult manner. Left to mourn us would be those who warned us, those who might say I-told-you-so, and hopefully those who would understand that, as Coldplay sang, “the hardest part is letting go, not taking part.”

And just like an untamed donkey, we will not stop moving, we will take part in building a trans-African artistic highway. And we will not be at the mercy of a newscaster.

- Emmanuel Iduma