“Groups are more Immoral than Individuals”—- Reinhold Niebuhr

It is twilight. At the horizon the silver and grey stripes of cloud sandwich the languidly sinking red sun. The hawks are hurrying back to the surrounding hills, teased on their way by the ubiquitous hungry crows. A hunter is returning from the burning smoke-covered bushes and palm trees, his two dogs galloping ahead of him.

Up from the University’s southern gate and ramshackle parlours, I drive the creaky old Honda Pilot over heaps of garbage, empty plastic containers and the myriad drained sachets that spilt on to the road from their overfilled dumpsites. The tenanted and unfinished bungalows populated by various food vendors and shaded from the sun by fruit and palm trees were all pulverised in red from the dusty road. Groups of youths and many middle-aged men, some with their bibles on the way to attend the evening fellowship, stood in clusters by the road-side or sat on time-worn benches by the small retail stores, illuminated by kerosene lamp or rechargeables, engaged in games of draught, as they discussed the latest news over the burning down of the Mosque at the Odenigbo barracks section of Nsukka town.

From both sides of the road, people hurried home. In front of the Pilot, they merged with the creeping darkness into a pantomime wading out from the Nsukka market. Among the still distinct figures coming towards the car was Rabiu, with his remarkable owlish eyes, contracting small lips, with two central upper teeth that resembled the beak of a pigeon. From his mobile shed inside the market, with his brothers, where they sold watches, belts, wallets, and sun-shades, they have trekked with other petti-traders to the University road which led to their tenanted quarters.

Noting his large frozen eyes, I quickly double-pumped the brake of the old pilot. It was difficult to see through its poor and dimmed lights. The creaky noise from the wheels became more audible as I slowly stirred it to the right side of the road to a safe spot after it had rocked over the rib-like undulations on the ground from many rainy seasons. I turned the primer and silenced the grumbling engine.

Rabiu walked to the car. He leaned on the Pilot with his head through its left window, but for a moment remained taciturn like a man wrestling against himself. Could he trust me with the present looming danger that compelled him to change his clothes from the normal garment he wore in the morning into a second-hand shirt and trouser as dictated by his present fear? And his five adolescent brothers —- his so-called apprentices who slept with him in their common rented room – what would be their fate?

“Can we stay with you sir for just this night?” he managed to say. Rabiu had long known the difficulties in being a stranger in his own country. He is cognizant of the concealed animosity that his neighbours and fellow petty-traders harbored in their hearts; whom he has become the scapegoat of all their woes and who were waiting for any dark moment in history to take his life, in a war for all against all: Bellum omnium contra omnes. An alarm has finally arrived to trigger the clustered groups, wanderers and draught players to gather and set him together with his brothers ablaze for a religion and a God they have had no education to choose, but were born like most Nigerian youths to grow up and live with by accident of geography and history.

I had mistakenly thought the question put to me by Rabiu had an easy answer. I have lived in the premises of the University of Nigeria for three decades and reside presently in a bungalow of three rooms and a parlour with my family of five children and wife. Rabiu and his brothers could easily occupy the parlour and corridor for the night. But that was not the answer. While Rabiu disappeared into a dark alley and returned with his five brothers, I tried starting the old Pilot which because of its weak battery took some time to mesh and shove into first gear as I held the brake. When his five brothers had boarded the back seats and Rabiu in front with me, I gradually released the brake as it creaked along University road. At the gate into the University, the security agents watched with indifference as I drove past their post. Only the regular creaky noise from the wheels of the old car could be heard as we drove down the road to my residence by St. Peter’s Catholic Church.

Darkness had crept into all corners of the University with no electric lights in sight. Most of the electric generators had also become silent with the advancement of the night. Rabiu followed me into the parlour. Malam Yahuza was followed by Abubakar, Muhammadu, Salisu and Yusuf. They sat on the chairs and floor and busied themselves with their cell phones to contact their relatives. They had not eaten for the day and a quick meal of yam and stew with eggs was welcomed by all. Fear and silence punctuated their phone conversation with relatives followed by moments of collective exchange of ideas that ended in decisions. “There is just one problem”, another question was coming from Rabiu as everybody listened. “Can you take us to Obollo-Afor junction in the morning? From there we can board the trucks to the North and find our way”, Rabiu said. The Obollo-Afor junction was the main express highway linking the North to the Eastern territories and was less than twenty kilometers from the University of Nigeria Nsukka main campus. Dawn would soon be approaching and with so much uncertainty, they stretched out on the corridor by the entrance to the house and floor of the parlour in search of sleep, the counterfeit of death that will not come.

At last, came the marching mob of crusaders. They trekked from the heart of the town with rage, singing, chanting and babbling in tongues as none but themselves could understand the terrifying sounds from their flaming lips. In total darkness, under what appeared as starless heaven, this mob crept on foot, bicycles, motorcycles, tri-cycles, upper-class jeeps, and assorted cars and grew in number as they crawled through the campus. They crawled to a pause by the house as the fire-spitting priest who led them reached his climax. I remained to squat by the sash and windowpane in the bedroom unable to identify the moving figures as their rage gradually faded down St. Peter’s road into oblivion. Meanwhile, my august guests sat up on the floor whispering to each other, overwhelmed by the terror and almost lifeless. It was an angry mob. With calm restored, Rabiu lay back like a log on the floor by the door, his heavy head supported by his palms, his eyes fixed to the roof of the house. We held our breath as the grotesque voice escorted by the mob receded.

Reinhold Niebuhr had once said about humanity that groups are more immoral than individuals. My first encounter with the mob was during the Nigerian Civil War in my maternal village of Osah where my mother had moved the family after losing her first son from an air-raid in Umuahia town. Her brothers had falsely accused her of harboring a transmitter for directing enemy planes and Nigerian soldiers, and in the night raised a mob who took us to be butchered in the market square. We would be dead if a platoon of the Biafran Army had not intervened to educate them over their ignorance of transmitters. I have also witnessed a mob quickly form in the Nsukka market to attack a lady for wearing trousers. I have seen a mob at night beat to death a hungry man for picking a suya to eat.

Upon the sound of the first cockerel, from the surrounding villages of the University, Rabiu and his brothers had unlocked the door to the cool air of dawn. I provided them with bowls of water which they requested and withdrew over the silence which underscored their meditation.

I asked my wife to dress in her cultural attire with a colorful scarf and accompany me in the front seat of the Honda Pilot, as Rabiu and his five brothers sat in the back seats. There were two check-points on the road to Obollo-Afor manned by native vigilantes with pump-action, double-barrelled guns.

These two checkpoints with armed men had not been there in the past and must have been newly installed. We only slowed down at both points, displaying friendly gesticulations, but did not stop.

The town of Obollo-Afor was calm, with the harmattan fog and dew, as empty trailers and a few, filled with cows and rams by both sides of the express highway. There were also luxurious buses and smaller cars parked by the express road. We dropped Rabiu and his brothers near a petrol filling station by the roadside that was known to them, and offered them some money which they may need but were not ready to request.

Turning the creaky old Pilot around from North to East required great care in entering the opposite lane on the busy road. With my wife as a company, there was an exhilarating feeling of relief and discovery. We watched the large orange sunrise from the thin grey clouds of the East and drove slowly to avoid the numerous potholes, as the creaky noise increasingly rocked the back wheels of the Pilot. We watched hawks fly out from the direction of the surrounding hills as they flew towards the morning sun. A call came through my cell phone. It was Rabiu and his brothers expressing both relief and surprising gratitude, happy that they have at least boarded a truck to the North, where they will be welcomed by their loved ones, and sleep their worries away.

Onwubiko, PhD is Professor and Head, Department of Biochemistry
University of Nigeria, Nsukka.