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The torturable class


In one of my favorite novels by British novelist, Graham Greene, called, “Our Man in Havana,” a Cuban policeman, Captain Segura, explains to the British spy Mr. Wormold on who gets to be tortured in his country’s class system.

“The poor in my own country, in any Latin American country. The poor of Central Europe and the Orient. Of course, in your welfare states you have no poor, so you are untorturable. In Cuba the police can deal as harshly as they like with émigrés from Latin America and the Baltic States, but not with visitors from your country or Scandinavia. It is an instinctive matter on both sides. Catholics are more torturable than Protestants, just as they are more criminal.”

I thought of this quote during this year’s International Day of the Girl which comes, as it always does, on October 11. This year, UNICEF teamed up with American online publication The Daily Beast to post a special feature on girls who have had to raise children born of sexual violence from forced marriages with Boko Haram insurgents, in the northeastern part of the country. When many girls manage to flee the insurgents, they often face stigmatization in their communities and have had to live in camps with these children, where they remain vulnerable to violence and abuse.


This story follows a 27 September report released by Amnesty international detailing the abuse and exploitation that women and girls, like the ones in the story, experienced at the hands of Cameroonian soldiers, from early 2015. However, a most damning detail worth noting from that report is that, the Nigerian army worked with the Cameroonian army to forcefully deport these Nigerian-displaced persons, from Cameroonian camps.

It is true that there have been improvements in security in the country’s northeast and that the government has done some work to improve the humanitarian situation. It is also true that the trauma of having fled horrific violence from one’s home could make one reluctant to return, and that recent reports of Boko Haram killings and kidnapping, lends to the narrative, that the armed group is far from defeated. Indeed, a study released on October 11 by the Norwegian Refugee Council has 86% of the displaced people surveyed saying they are afraid to return to their homes. The need to support a preferred government’s narrative of returning normalcy to the embattled northeast, with hitherto displaced Nigerians now returning to their hometowns, cannot be more important than keeping ordinary Nigerians out of harm’s way.


While it is clear that the Cameroonian government is deporting Nigerian refugees en masse and often refuses them political asylum, the Nigerian government has a responsibility to its citizens to protect them. People not wanting to return to a volatile situation is entirely understandable. However, our government knows that in interacting with torturable people, there can be no debating, no discussion, no incentivizing. Their reasons for doing things cannot possibly be based on any kind of logic because they are inherently unreasonable. This is not, after all, much of a departure from the logic that tells us that the vision of Lagos as a second Dubai is enough reason to forcefully evict poor Lagosians from their homes, or that the need to affirm the non-negotiability of Nigeria’s unity is enough reason to Nigerian army’s violence in the southeast. Violence in response to people from a torturable class is a feature, not a bug.

The most-scary thing about how we have come to define who belongs to the torturable class and who does not, shows how ephemeral wealth in Nigeria can be. Most Nigerians are a missed paycheque from dire straits. The wealthy among us know this too well; after all, that is why so many amass of wealth for its own sake — rather than doing what so many of their wealthy counterparts in other parts of the world do, like invest in the arts or set up foundations that fund causes – because even with all the money they have, they are just as stuck in survival mode as the rest of the country. They know their place at the top of the food chain is not assured and do not believe that they will fare well if the market was truly competitive, so they use what money they have to buy favourable political outcomes. This happens in even more development democracies, but the difference is that there is no political counterweight to this strength here. There are less grades of torturable and non-torturable.

The differences between the most non-torturable and the most torturable are, therefore, far starker.There is no class more torturable than those who have lost their homes and are at the mercy of the state. In order to adequately address the challenges, we face, Nigeria’s government will have to do something that we know is against its nature: to protect those it is used to harming. You can be the country that deals with challenges facing its most vulnerable, or you can be the country that aids and abets their abuse and exploitation. You cannot be both.

In this article:
Saratu Abiola
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