Elnathan John: Our merciful Nigerian father

It is five in the morning, and dawn has found you still staring into the void in this gaudy villa built to separate you from the populace, to protect you from coups, and most importantly to protect you from the news. You are a simple man and do not care much for these luxuries. You hardly even like embroidery on your caftans.

But this time the news has crossed the many aides and associates paid to shield you from information, and to your horror, you read that the world is watching what is happening on the streets of Nigeria. Protests against police brutality. Protests that refuse to end. You know you will soon receive a call from the Americans to find out what is going on, and what you are doing about it. You do not like that they always want to do something about everything. Your style is different. Sometimes it is better to sit, watch, and do nothing. Nature has a way of restoring the balance of things.

You know because you are president again, after you tried unsuccessfully, three times. Three times after your friends, also dictators, said you were too much of a dictator and kicked you out of power in 1984. These days, your aides have to bring you a chair when you perform the fajr prayers alongside a few trusted men in the villa. Like them, you place your hands over your chest, you focus on the ground, say the words of prayer, silently. Unlike them you cannot bow or kneel or prostrate. Unlike them you cannot fold your body to make sure your forehead, nose, palms of both hands, knees, and both toes are touching the ground. That is why you need to sit to pray. And because Allah is merciful, He allows for this, for people as incapacitated as you are.

Unlike Allah, humans are not merciful. They want you to bow. To kneel. To prostrate. They want you to bow to pressure to scrap this unit of the Nigerian Police – this Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which they call SARS – which people say have been murdering innocent young people. They say people disappear, young men with dreadlocked hair, with

tattoos, or even just carrying a laptop in a backpack. But you know Nigerians and how they exaggerate. You cannot be sure it is anything more than the overzealousness of a few bad eggs.


You cannot verify the authenticity of all the stories of brutality, of extortion, of extrajudicial killing, of rapes, of kidnaps, of enforced disappearances. But that is not even the point. The point is, if God allows you to sit instead of kneeling, to sit instead of prostrating, why do mortals want to bend you to their will?

The Inspector General of Police had announced the scrapping of SARS and its replacement with a Special Weapons and Tactics Unit. Still they protest. Why do they not trust you? And why aren’t they working? Or out farming? You remember raising a ruckus after the Commonwealth Business Forum in London, when you called them lazy people who want to “sit and do nothing, and get housing, healthcare, education free”. Look at them now.

You sit still as you receive your cocktail of pills alongside a light breakfast, which is all you can manage these days. People need to be patient. Like you were patient when they refused to allow you to become president in 2003, 2007 and 2011.

As you wait for the universe to restore the balance of things you admire the inventiveness of your supporters. Even when you were a military dictator (oh how you miss those days) it would not have occurred to you to hire thugs in Lagos and Abuja to attack and destroy the property of peaceful protesters. Or to block the payments being made to a bank account set up to support the protests. Especially in Lagos, you admire how efficiently thugs were moved using vehicles belonging to the government, to the protest venues, wielding sticks, knives and machetes.

Even though you do not always agree with Lagos, you marvel at how inventive they are. Do they realise that after all the mayhem you can send in the army to shut it all down and declare curfews? Is that what they want? What is it they want exactly?

You have asked who the leader of the protest is. Your aides have trawled the streets, online chatrooms, Facebook and Twitter. Nothing. The initial attempts to get a few known faces to sabotage the protests did not work. You are shocked that even the men who normally do not like the feminists are donating to the Feminist Coalition and supporting the many women on the frontlines.

But you believe in the power of silence. And of sitting still. Your friends, employees and allies may be deploying physical and verbal violence against protesters, but you will sit still. You will wait. The UEFA Champions League resumes on October 20. Chelsea, Barcelona and

Manchester United all have games that day – it should give you some respite.

You will wait for other government officials to try what they can. For the police to try water canons, bullets, brutality and arrests. For some of your supporters to try threatening the women in the Feminist Coalition. You will wait as people loyal to you try to infiltrate the groups organizing the protests and try to disrupt it from within. For cheaply acquired thugs to scare protesters away. And after all is said and done, like the father you are, you will step in, mercifully, your arms outstretched, and promise to deal decisively with all those who have broken the law.

When you do, you hope your impatient people – and especially the sanctions-wielding Americans who don’t know how to sit still – can see how merciful you are.

Elnathan John is a Nigerian novelist, satirist and lawyer. He is the author of Born on a Tuesday and Be(com)ing Nigerian

This article appeared on The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

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Elnathan John
Elnathan John is a lawyer, novelist and satirist. His short stories have been shortlisted twice for the Caine Prize for African Writing, in 2013 and 2015. His novel, Born on a Tuesday won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature. It has been translated into German and French and won the 2019 Le Prix Littéraire Les Afriques . His most recent book — a satire collection Be(com)ing Nigerian, A Guide was published by Cassava Republic Press in 2019. On Ajayi Crowther Street, his graphic novel, will be published in November 2019. Elnathan lives in Berlin and is a 2019 recipient of the Berlin Senate grant for non-German literature.

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