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Anini, Prince of Thieves By Lasisi Olagunju

Monday, 23 January, 2023

General Ibrahim Babangida’s Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) had just finished its weekly meeting. What ministers do with the present occupant of Aso Rock, Abuja –praise and worship – was the lot of IBB then at the Dodan Barracks, Lagos. Toady appointees in abject servitude fawned over the president; everybody must congratulate the leader on how well he was doing – even while failing. Babangida was used to such menial, exaggerated loyalty; he had been around power since July 1966, and deep in its depths from July 1976. That stuffy afternoon in October 1986, the officials were at their servile best. The Inspector-General of Police, Etim Inyang, made to greet the leader; IBB flashed him his trademark Pepsodent smile, and, almost immediately, he withdrew the beam, then fired at the top cop: “My friend, where is Anini?” The IGP froze. He had no coherent answer to that question which the Commander-in-Chief deliberately asked within the earshot of the press. The following day, Babangida’s flamethrower-question was the lead headline of every newspaper in Nigeria and the dominant theme in public discourse weeks after.

A popular politician announced last week that he would eliminate corruption if elected our president next month. A female friend read him and sat up, unsettled. “How can he say that?” she exclaimed, stressing each of her words with added drama. “And, what is wrong with what he said?” I asked her, and she ignored me, gaping at the words for some seconds; then she blurted out in a latently sardonic tone: “How could he say he would eliminate corruption? That is his name. He will eliminate himself!” I shook my head for this lady – and for myself. She will soon be told that she is envious of this man of means. Or that she is not playing Nigerian ethnic politics by being her brother’s keeper. There is an Ijaw name, Benamaisia; it means brother is never wrong. Why should my thief be executed when their thief is serenaded? Besides, what my friend will soon know is that Nigerians (and their country) have not died of hunger or run out of cash because of people like this man. They cut deep the cake; they eat heavy, their morsel is mouthful but they throw survival rations at the hungry minions. That last part of their eating habit is what rocks them; they should be applauded. Such generous people must not die – they should be promoted, empowered to do more. So, my friend asked again, why did we execute Anini in 1987 if steal-and-share would be a virtue less than forty years after?

The ‘Anini’ in Babangida’s question to his IGP referred to Lawrence Anini, a 26-year-old armed robbery kingpin who had demonstrated enough daredevilry to establish himself very firmly as a viable contestant for power over Bendel, one of the 19 states IBB was ruling over. The Sunday Tribune of October 5, 1986, described Anini as “A Robin Hood in Bendel.” That allusion was an incursion into both contested history and literature. Robin Hood is the “fellow” described as “a king for our wild faction” in William Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona. He is, more importantly, England’s legendary 12th century heroic outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Anini, like Robin Hood, would rob in broad daylight and throw his loot at the suffering poor on the streets of Benin. There was a case reported in the Newswatch magazine of October 27, 1986: “Anini, in early September (1986) seized at gun point a Bendel State government car with a BDSG registration and headed for the Wire Road petrol station. He shot the station manager in the thigh and made away with a large sum of money; the exact amount the attendants said they did not know. Like Robin Hood, Anini threw the money into the air for the passers-by” (see page 20). Through stealing and sharing, a depraved felon became a benefactor to the deprived, and even a folk hero. It didn’t matter that he was murdering the innocent; what mattered was the largesse he was sharing. Anini would kill – and kill more than necessary before ‘vanishing’ into the bowels of the people. They haboured his evil because they thought it paid them. His targets were mainly policemen – and he murdered not a few of them; he maimed as many as he killed. He was so successful in his criminality that he even shot the state Commissioner of Police, Casmir Akagbosu.

I am telling this Anini story because of the malignant ugliness in his reincarnation and how the entire nation has become a victim of his metastatic cancer. Since political campaigns started last year, you have listened to campaigns and their manifestos. What if I tell you that there is nothing in those political statements and promises and the IOUs that was not in the socio-politics of Anini’s crime and criminality?

Anini, also known as The Law, did not just rob and kill and keep quiet to plan the next attack. No. Like today’s politicians, he engaged the public and competed for media space with the state. An American researcher, Otwin Marenin, in his ‘The Anini Saga: Armed robbery and the reproduction of ideology in Nigeria’ (1987: 259-281) holds that Anini “manipulated publicity to keep an image of himself aloft.” Manipulating the media and public opinion is a key ingredient in the sumptuous soup of political survival and triumphs in Nigeria. The people love it. So, you see, Anini did as far back then what our husbands do with us now. They learnt from the king. There were no private television and radio stations at that time. If there were, probably Anini would have demanded to be invited as a regular guest on evening TV talks on politics and on TV morning shows. Or, he would have bought himself broadcast licences from the presidency, would have asked the University of Benin to shift for his radio and TV stations; would have planted them there and proceeded to dominate the airwaves. But there were vibrant newspapers, and newspapers that carried Anini’s stories too negatively received letters from The Law. The Nigerian Tribune of 26 October, 1986 reported a letter dated 14 October, 1986 in which Anini described himself and his gang members as social crusaders committed to eliminating corruption from Nigeria’s national life and redressing man’s inhumanity to man. Before the October letter, he had fired one to the editor of the now defunct Nigerian Observer newspaper dated 11 September, 1986. In that letter, Anini sent the Observer editor on an errand: “Tell our president, we like him but we are not happy here in Bendel. The payment for everything is too much. That is why I now divide any money I get to the people. Ask them.”

If your reason for supporting any of the candidates in next month’s election is that he gave and gives freely from his loot, then, you are of the Order of Anini and his ancestor, Robin Hood, who was so successful as a benevolent thief that books and films came out in his memory. A 1991 American action/adventure film, ‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves‘ is one of them. What does it mean to be prince or king of thieves? Someone of religion said one could be a prince or “king of thieves if one were a king and all of one’s subjects were thieves, or if one were the most skilled of thieves.” Look at the country we have, the leaders and the led; which of the two senses is applicable here? Both? If Anini had escaped the law when he reigned, and had diversified and made it big, and were alive today, the primary school dropout would be so popular as to contest for the governorship of Edo State ten years ago and the presidency of Nigeria this year. He would be 63 years old – still very young by our standards. His past of blood and murder would matter no more. What would count for him would be how much money he had shared and how much more he can still share.

‘Prebend’ is an English word with deep roots in Old French (prebende) and Medieval Latin (prebenda). In both instances, it means “allowance, portion of food and drink supplied.” Authors of The Catholic Encyclopedia entered ‘Prebend’ as the “right of a member of a chapter to his share in the revenues of the cathedral.” But, from the secular to the ecclesiastical, we continue to affect the world with our ways. That word, today, is crowned with a suffix that has assumed for it a new, perverse meaning. Because of us, the English dictionary has ‘prebendalism’ as a political entry – but it is negative. America’s Professor Richard Joseph who ‘invented’ the word in 1996, propounded the “theory of prebendal politics” to describe Nigerians’ cold sense of entitlement to free money from the state and its kleptocratic leadership. Joseph wrote that we regard state offices “as prebends that can be appropriated by officeholders, who use them to generate material benefits for themselves and their constituents and kin groups…” Joseph got us so perfectly. We don’t see anything wrong in working by the altar and stealing from the altar. We elect our kinsmen (or our friends) to steal from us and for us. And, when an Anini steals too little, or is too stingy with what he takes, we sack him and enthrone a more audacious bandit with milk of human kindness. It is done from top to bottom as the sole means of survival. Professor Peter Lewis of Johns Hopkins University, United States, also in 1996, took the Richard Joseph observation further. He wrote “From Prebendalism to Predation: The Political Economy of Decline in Nigeria” to explain how a combination of coercion and material inducement ruled and was ruining the country. The rout appears complete now. From petrol stations to banking halls, undissembled confusion rules, yet we high-five those who inflict the pain as long as they pay for the rape. But this will end one way or another one day – and the denouement may be soon.

Louis XIV, King of France from 1643 to 1715, ruled for historic 72 years, 110 days. Louis used state resources to buy loyalty; he dispensed favours and positions to the nobles who worshipped at his court. Louis XIV’s most popular quote is “L’etat, c’est moi (I am the state).” And, to assert his absolute rule over the country and its people, he told the Parliament in Paris in 1655 that whatever he did was “legal because I wish it.” He was the law. It was as if his reign would never end; but it ended, and he left a badly injured country for his successor to nurse. I am not sure Anini also knew his reign would ever end. He was an unusual felon; he was as elusive as air. His nickname was The Law. He was actually the law. When he was finally captured like a naked snail in December 1986, a jubilant news magazine exclaimed with the headline: “Anini: Face to Face with the Law.” I wish the pesky weevils in our barn enjoy that end too.

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