I was commissioned to write this a few years ago for the Central European House of Photography in Bratislava (and thank you to all the photo...
Wednesday, 1 February 2012
The previous post on Narrators Photo led me to Pop Africana which led to Nigerian Nostalgia, a Facebook group dedicated to Nigerian Nostalgia. I'm currently enjoying Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Nigerian Nostalgia adds a visual edge to it, a kind of detached illustration of a particular way of life, a story board to Adichie's organic picturisations. Her characters resonate with me and remind of the time when I lived in a shared house with a Nigerian guy who simply loved telling me that if I was living in his country then I would be doing the washing up, the cleaning and every other household chore which I could care to imagine - and I never doubted him for one second. And when he wasn't telling me that, he was reluctantly middle-manning sugar deals for his relatives in Lagos, something he hated doing but couldn't avoid for family reasons.
Much of Narrators Photo is dedicated to old celebrities, domestic products and group photos. It's a fascinating mix of what makes up our memories, a Nigerian equivalent of people of a certain age reminiscing about Angel's Delight, Z-Cars, Ford Anglias and the three day week.
However, the pictures that jumped out at me were these of public executions, in the top case the death by firing squad of the Oyenusi Gang.
This was an event witnessed by Ken Udoibok, one that he regards as an affront to human dignity. He writes:
I was 13 years old on a Saturday morning in 1973. While my parents were at work, I sneaked away from my home in Lagos, Nigeria. I was going to the beach. Not for fun or frolicking in the sun, but for a far more serious reason: I was going to witness an execution.
The sun beat down furiously that morning, but by 1 that afternoon, a dark cloud had formed over the beach. A large crowd stood by somberly as two army trucks and a black van drove onto the beach. I squeezed my way through the crowd to catch a glimpse of the infamous man being transported in the black van. Oyenusi, a notorious armed robber, had robbed banks and businesses in Nigeria for many years.
Three soldiers walked up to the black van and stood at attention. One of them yelled a command. Suddenly, the door of the vehicle was flung open. Slowly, Oyenusi appeared, his hands tied behind his back. He wore a dark long-sleeved shirt, dark loafers and wrinkled trousers. He was sweating profusely, his glance furtive as if he expected to see someone. He continued to scan the crowd as the soldiers tied him to a stick.
"Who's he looking for?" one of the spectators whispered to a friend.
Seven soldiers formed a line facing Oyenusi. An officer yelled a command and, in unison, the soldiers took aim at Oyenusi.
Oyenusi shuddered as the bullets riddled his body. Moments later, his lifeless body slumped over the rope that held him to the stick.
The events were shown on TV - one comment on Facebook says, "These executions were shown on NBC back then. Some of the criminals would shout out ( only saw their mouth action). Probably, shouting obscenes of abuse at the executors. Some refused the religious priest blessing, some looked dead terrified before shots were fired. The camera would pan on everyone of them. Then there is a command, the rambles of shot fired and to slumped bodies tied to the stake infront of the drums. It was a family viewing show. Everyone gathered around to watch the telly while there were also live viewing. Some of these accused were defiant vocally until you see them slump."
It all seems so dreadful and exotic and distant but then I wondered at what the British equivalent of this kind of nostalgia is; what shared bloody memories do we have of the last 50 years, and the memories came thick and fast.
Back to Kenneth Odoibok, who also witnessed a family member being executed ( and who wrote this at a when Timothy McVeigh was about to be executed).
If those who support public executions were to experience the horror of actually witnessing an execution, they would forever question the rationale of state-sponsored killings. Next, there will be live television broadcasts of executions. Too extreme, you think? The trend has already started with the decision to broadcast McVeigh's execution by closed circuit. It is a mistake. So long as governments by example show disregard for life by executing criminals, private individuals will display similar disregard for life. In the end, there will be more killings and the value of all of our lives will be diminished.