The economy of loss

By Abdul Mahmud

Reading Homer’s epic poem, ‘The Iliad’, in my Advanced Level class many years ago, I was confronted with the human condition. The evil that men do, evil that withers good and destroys humanity, so easily recognizable in the Homeric poem, gave me a deeper understanding of the human condition.

Sure, Homer’s epic poem made meaning to me and left me with two lasting impressions – first, that war isn’t pretty; and second, that the march of warriors isn’t a catwalk – as it also made me to question war, feel the grief of those whose loved ones have either disappeared or died in wars, while using my mind’s eye to recreate the setting of human misery.

Still, I was young and found it hard to fathom why men had to go to war over a woman. Looking back now and making a deeper sense of the setting I recreated then – the butchery men perpetuate, while eager to become heroes who are “held in a single honour”, as Achilles regrettably described it in the epic poem, amid evil mania – I am confronted by the mental picture of the visible and invisible hand of war and the economy which allows only a purchase on loss. In this economy we ask, same way as Priam, in the moment of soliloquy, asked after Achilles took away the body of his son, Hector, “why me?”

There is no light in this economy of loss, no glamorization of what is gained, no heroic acclaim to prowess, only blackness resulting from loss and shared grief. When Priam begged Achilles for his son’s body to be returned to him for burial, and Achilles wept for his friend, Patroclus, who was killed by Hector, the commonality of loss was thus established, even by the introduction to ‘The Iliad’: “the experience of grief is common to all humans, even those who kill each other in war”. Nothing can be truer.

Beyond the purchase on grief, the economy of loss has a way of producing beginning, ending and diminishing hope. A happy beginning somehow shrinks into a sad ending. There are a few examples. A father departs from home and bids farewell to his loved ones, only to go missing halfway between departure and arrival. A citizen is plucked from his home, never to be seen, or heard from, as is the case of Dadiyata, who has been missing for over one hundred days now. Then, the story of the missing persons of the north east – young men who have simply disappeared into the blackhole of insurgency. The case of a region dealing with an ending that is truly not an ending. Grief, sadness, and diminishing hope is what ties the families of the disappeared – presumed dead where there is no proof of life – into an economy whose only register is loss.

Last week, the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, presented its investigative report on ‘Justice for Missing Persons in the North East’. The public presentation gave civil society activists and families of missing persons the opportunity to centre the phenomenon of missing persons that has gone unaddressed by officialdom for a long time. If anything made the presentation a sobering and humbling experience, it was the stoicism displayed by women whose husbands, brothers, sons and uncles disappeared into thin air.

Here were women, who, having lost their homes and livelihoods, found courage to tell their heartbreaking stories, dry-eyed. There were the occasional cries, though. Looking at the women, while torn by grief, I couldn’t but imagine all they had gone through and are still going though; the psychological trauma that the disappearances of loved ones inflict on them, the open sores of pain, and thoughts of not knowing whether their loved ones are alive or dead. For these brave women, life becomes either about keeping vigil for those who have disappeared or looking for the signs of life in missing lives. Everyday is about keeping hope alive and not burying it.



    A member of Jire Dole with photograph of her detained husband

    Clearly, these women are in a spot of bother. Their conditions ought not to be further ruined by limbo – not knowing whether to mourn their missing loved ones or hope that one day soon they will walk to their warm embraces. So, they keep asking questions. There can be no stoic acceptance of the inevitable while their questions remain unanswered. The state has refused to provide answers to their questions: where are the missing persons of the north east? Are they alive or dead? Mum is the word.

    But, they have remained undeterred, pushing their heads against the stonewall of silence and running their kites of courage in the tumults of the wind. They have publicly named one Colonel Cyril Ofurumazi, an officer of the Nigeria Army, they allege is responsible for the disappearances. The International Centre for Investigative Reporting echoes the claim in its Report: “Yellow’s alleged crimes were raised in some of the interviews, with some of the women accusing him of arbitrarily arresting their children and spouses, many of whom are yet to be released. Some could not tell the whereabouts of their spouses yet – whether alive or dead”. According to the ICIR, “these young men were executed by Colonel Ofurumazi, aka Yellow, and his boys”.

    Col. Cyril Ofurumazi

    Mum is the word. Unsurprisingly, the state has lived true to its DNA. Perhaps, it will respond, when it is done with measuring the SI Units of its lies. The silence is worrying, so is the number of missing persons in the northeast, which the Red Cross puts at 22,000. The number interrogates the integrity of the military operations in that corner of our country. Accounting for the missing is not rocket science. When a state shirks responsibilities imposed by international law, impunity flourishes – the type that allows rogue officers to traipse around, camouflaged. The state isn’t interested in bringing the complicit military brass to book. Perhaps, this is so, because it considers the “economy” as a “production space” of loss for the poor, who carry the urns of grief, without comfort.

    However, there is a deeper problem here. The state is refusing to face up to the problem of male deficit in Borno state, for instance. Not until peace returns we won’t know the devastating effect of the insurgency on the post-war economy. Nobody is looking at the ratio of men to women, as it dangerously slides – with young men disappearing without a trace and cemeteries hearsing the future daily. In another theatre, this week, five prisoners were electrocuted in Ikoyi Prison – fresh registers on the economy of loss.

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