On Wednesday, news broke of the rape and murder of Bakarat Bello, an 18-year-old female, in Ibadan. Days before, it was Uwa Omozuwa, a 22-year-old lady, who was found dead inside a church in Benin City after being sexually assaulted. Earlier, Tina Ezekwe, a young girl of sixteen, was shot and killed by a trigger-happy policeman reportedly trying to extort money from a commercial bus driver in Lagos.
And in faraway United States, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African-American man was waylaid and fatally shot by a white male resident while jogging in a South Georgia neighborhood. Another unarmed black man, 46-year-old George Floyd, died of asphyxia (suffocation) after three Minnesota policemen pinned him to the ground with knees to his neck and back for nearly nine minutes.
The cruel and senseless killings have sparked massive public outrage. Millions are voicing their anger and condemnation via social media using trending hashtags, as thousands defy COVID-19 lockdown restrictions to hold protest marches across major cities in the US and around the world. And why not? As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” notes the renowned civil rights leader. This is why most of us identify with Bakarat, Uwa, Tina, Ahmaud, George, and all other victims of rape and police brutality. They aren’t mere hashtags; they are our daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, relatives, and friends.
By this same interconnectedness, we cannot dissociate from the perpetrators of these dreadful acts. They aren’t aliens or spirits; they are people—our family and friends. And, while we are only directly responsible for our actions, we are indirectly responsible for what we let happen. Either through feeding belief systems that exalt one sex, race, or tribe over another, or failing to speak up against glaring vices because of gender, socio-cultural, religious, or commercial affiliations.
Although few people openly admit it, many psychological studies show that most of us have implicit biases. We favour male over female, white over black, Christian over Muslim, young over old, thin over fat, straight over gay, able over disabled. And, consciously or unconsciously, we project these biases in our interactions and exchanges—in our homes, schools, offices, and places of worship. How often do we find people in positions of influence give opportunities to job seekers and contractors based on kinship rather than merit? Or a Christian Igbo man reject requests for his daughter’s hand in marriage only because the suitor is a Yoruba or Hausa man who is a Muslim, and vice versa?
As the great Nelson Mandela said: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate.” This is also true for gender, I dare add. It is the prevailing culture in which we are immersed that defines our outlook and moulds our behavior. Societal attitudes such as the sexual objectification of women, the trivialization of rape, victim-blaming, and slut-shaming all contribute to perpetuating a culture of rape. Even the seemingly harmless “Boys will always be boys” remark made when men act inappropriately towards women is a tacit endorsement of bad behavior that emboldens people with predatory tendencies.
But as the anti-apartheid revolutionary and philanthropist also noted: “If we can learn to hate, we can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” While the government has a responsibility to protect the rights and dignity of every citizen (and we must continue to hold her to account), we – as individuals – must search ourselves and begin to unlearn the discriminatory and harmful ideals and practices we hitherto embraced. We also have a responsibility to raise our young ones to value and respect others—no matter their sex, religion, or race—as well as to condemn deviant behavior. Except we do these, we are as culpable as the rapist, racists, and murderers among us!