By Reuben Abati
The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog – George Graham Vest (1870)
Joe Fortemose Chinakwe, the man who named his dog after President Muhammadu Buhari is right now probably regretting his decision to honour his dog with the name of a man he considers his hero. He has been accused of trying to incite hate and breach the public peace. He has been arrested and re-arrested by the police and taken to a magistrate court, which promptly remanded him in prison until he is able to meet the conditions of his bail. He has spent days in prison custody unable to raise the N50,000 that he has been asked to pay. His family members have only so far managed to raise N20,000. Even if he succeeds in putting that sum together, his life is still in danger because aggrieved persons in his neighbourhood, including a man who says he was trying to ridicule his father, have threatened to kill him, if he shows up. The police are not investigating this threat, but they seem so excited about dealing with the poor trader called Joe, for having the effrontery to name his dog, Buhari.
To protect himself, Joseph has allegedly put the dog to sleep, or thrown it away or whatever, in the hope that once the evidence is destroyed there will be no case against him. It is all so pitiable. Public opinion appears to be divided as to the nature and seriousness of Joseph Chinakwe’s alleged felony, with some people arguing that it is definitely an act of provocation and incitement for him to label his dog, Buhari so boldly and to parade the same dog in a neighbourhood where there are many residents of Northern extraction, whose feelings may be injured or who may perceive that he is trying to make a political statement.
Those who want him punished have therefore dismissed Chinakwe’s protestation that he is an admirer of the President, or that he means well. His defenders insist that he is entitled to free speech and there is nowhere in the statutes where a man can be punished on the basis of the perception that some people’s feelings may be injured, and hence, be prompted to commit murder. The law is not structured that way.
We are dealing, therefore with ethnic hate at the lunatic fringe. Nigerians have become so suspicious of one another, and inter-ethnic relationship is so poisonous that even the littlest innocent gesture could result in mayhem. This is why many have been killed for allegedly committing blasphemy or for insulting the religious sensibilities of some people. Remember the woman who was killed by her students for allegedly desecrating the Quoran. Remember Gideon Akaluka. Remember the woman who was recently beheaded in Abuja for daring to preach the Christian gospel. We are also dealing with disregard for human freedom, and Nigeria’s slip into a tragic season of intolerance. Why shouldn’t Chinakwe call his dog whatever name catches his fancy? Well, maybe he should have chosen an Igbo name? But if we want national unity, why shouldn’t he take a name he admires from another part of the country?
Ali Baba, the ace comedian, like many others, has come out strongly in defence of Chinakwe saying he actually has a dog in his house named OBJ, and that is quite direct because only one man bears that sobriquet in this country, and neither OBJ nor his kinsmen have asked Atuyota to leave Yorubaland. One of the most famous pictures online is that of a goat named Goodluck Jonathan, with the name written on both flanks of it. President Jonathan’s wife was also once (July 2013) referred to as “shepopotamus” by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, and before our very eyes, President Olusegun Obasanjo, donated, to a conservation sanctuary, a chimpanzee, which he named Patience to make a point obviously.
The parody at the time was unmistakable. We all drew humour from all of that. What we seem to be dealing with right now, however, is the absurd deification of a name on ethnic and partisan grounds. It is curious that the Nigeria Police is devoting to the trial of Chinakwe, a feverish amount of energy that we have not witnessed with regard to more statutorily relevant offences. This hullaballoo over the giving of a dog a name that has led to its hanging and the likely punishment of its owner is one distraction too many. We are above all else, dealing with a storm in a tea cup, occasioned by a culture shock, and our underdeveloped understanding of the relationship between man and animals.
Chinakwe says he chose the name Buhari out of admiration. And he may well be right, and he would have been right, and there would have been no problem if he was living in Europe or North America. But he lives in a country where animals have no rights and no recognition other than as victims of human predators, and a dog in our culture is to be treated as an instrument or as meat for the soup pot. Elsewhere, a dog has earned its reputation in mythology and actuality, as a man’s best friend. The root of this is that a dog is considered the most beloved, the most loyal and the most dependable of all animals. People use dogs to guard their homes, to keep away intruders, even to play with children and as companions in the home. There are many stories and legends about the loyalty of dogs. Hawkeye is the name of a famous dog who lay next to the casket of its owner who died in active service as a US Navy SEAL.
There is a film, “Hachi, a dog’s tale,” starring Richard Gere, about Hachiko, a dog who greeted his owner at the train station everyday and after the owner died, the dog went to the same station for nine years. Recently, I posted on instagram, the picture of a dog in Santa Catarina, Brazil, Negao the dog, whose owner died eight months earlier and the dog remained outside the hospital awaiting his owner’s return. In the United States, a police dog has been given a State burial, draped with national colours in appreciation of its loyal and meritorious service to the nation. Many centuries ago, Homer wrote in Odyssey, about a loyal dog, Argos who waited for Odysseus until he returned.
The established normal is that a dog can be trusted more than a human being. And this is why in other parts of the world, when people name their dogs after celebrities, they are actually paying compliments and showing respect. World figures like Elvis Presley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Louis Vuitton, Mandela, Clinton, J. F. Kennedy and others have had their names given to either cats or dogs, and it is no big deal. Admirers transpose their feelings from man to animal. Joseph Chinakwe may actually be saying that President Buhari is a loyal, trustworthy, supportive, dependable and companionable Guardian of the Nigerian estate. It would have been a different thing perhaps if he had given that name to a tortoise, a rat, cat, a fox, or a chimpanzee. But in a country where every animal is considered a prey or a lower, spiteful creature, using the metaphor of a dog could be risky as the Chinakwe case has shown. In Nigeria, we treat animals badly, and we don’t consider anyone a friend, man or animal. We are vengeful, mean and suspicious. We are so scared we are even afraid of domestic and domesticated animals.
In other societies, animals are treated with greater respect and in the United States for example, the life of a dog is far superior to that of a human being in Nigeria. I have written about this twice: In “A Dog’s Life” (1996), I reflected on the life of a dog owned by Stanley Meisler (God bless his soul) and his wife, Elizabeth Fox, my hosts during my journalism programme at the University of Maryland, College Park, United States (1996-97). I was shocked that the dog had a room of its own, a proper room, not a kernel, and whenever that dog fell ill, we took him to a dog hospital and Stanley bought drugs. I saw that dog living the life of a king, better catered for than many Africans.
I wrote another piece titled “A Hotel for Dogs” (July 23, 2006) about a five-star hotel in Bethesda, Washington, which attends to dogs as customers, and where dogs enjoy a life of luxury. Established in 2003, by PetSmart Inc., by 2006, there were 32 hotels of its type in the United States and the then spokesman of the group, Bruce Richardson, had boasted that by 2010, the plan was to have 240 such hotels across the United States. We are talking luxury, 23 USD per night, 33USD for a dog suite, as at that time, all pre-tax, plus provisions for pooch ice cream. In general, Americans spend about $40 billion dollars a year on household pets. I guess that is more than Nigeria’s annual budget even by today’s relative standards.
And so, what are we talking about? An American dog is a big man in Nigeria by all standards. But because we eat dogs and treat all animals badly in this country, in fact we have no regard for human beings (consider the hundreds that get killed, raped, kidnapped daily and nobody cares), we are bound to be incensed that anyone would name a dog after a deified political figure. Joe Chinakwe’s sins should be forgiven, albeit there is no morality in law, but the Nigerian judiciary should not expose itself to further ridicule by lending the weight of the law to such partisan trash that makes no sense. There are far more important issues requiring serious attention in this country today.
But in case nobody understands that, and Mr Chinakwe and his counsel find themselves in a tight corner, they should put out a disclaimer and say their dog, living or dead, is filing for a change of name. That is perfectly within their rights to do. And should they find themselves in any other difficult situation, they have my full permission to rename the dog, Reuben Abati. But should you, dear reader consider this a bad name you wish to hang, you also have my full support, partnership and friendship to offer your own name.
If that will put an end to this circus over the name of a dog, and set Joseph Chinakwe free, and also remind us that we are in a democracy, please, help and so be it. By the way, I hear Chinakwe and his sympathisers finally managed, after a fund-raising appeal, to raise a sum of N90,000 to perfect his bail bond and that he is now out of detention. Would somebody in a responsible position just put an end to this joke and let us focus on serious issues?