Termites are suing for libel – By Mahmud Jega

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  • Photo: Mahmud Jega*

As a trained Zoologist, former ground-level lecturer in Biological Sciences and a one-time ASUU member who has long since forgotten how to go on strike, I cannot stand idly by and watch human beings malign, ridicule, besmirch and smear the names of other animal species. Rising to the defence of animal species is my equivalent of constituency project. I am not discouraged by the fact that there is no vote for it in the padded Federal, state, local government or even NGO budgets.

Only last week, some people tried to drag the name of termites into the mud by alleging that they ate N17billion worth of project vouchers. Managing Director of Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund [NSTIF] told a Senate Public Accounts Committee public hearing that termites ate the vouchers inside a container. Auditor General of the Federation’s 2018 audit report had said the Fund could not provide documents to support the payment of these sums to some companies and individuals. Since the committee is unlikely to summon termites to defend themselves, I must take up the case on their behalf.

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It was not the first time in Nigeria that officials tried to shift the blame for missing monies to animals, capitalizing on the biological fact that their language and that of human investigators are not mutually intelligible. Two years ago, in June 2019, a finance officer at the Kano Zoological Garden tried to besmirch the name of gorillas by alleging that a gorilla ate N6.8m in gate takings from the Sallah period. He said, most implausibly, that the gorilla sneaked into their office, carted away the money and swallowed it.

Before public uproar forced them to retract, Kano State Police Command initially lent credence to the story by stating they would arrest the gorilla. A year earlier, in February 2018, when JAMB Makurdi office staffer Mrs. Philomena Chishe could not account for N36m of the board’s money, she alleged that a snake swallowed it. She brought the name of snakes into ridicule and odium and lowered their esteem in the eyes of the public.

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Whatever happened to the old human tradition of respecting one’s elders? Here we are, trying to drag into the mud the reputations of animal species much older than ourselves in evolutionary time. Gorillas first evolved on this Earth 55 million years ago. That was a full 48 million years before the first ape-like creatures walking on two legs, which later became humans, appeared in Africa and later spread to other parts of the world. A human child today is taught to respect someone a few years older than himself or herself. How about respecting an ape 50 million years older than your great grandfather?

Termites on their part evolved 120 million years ago. The NSITF officer, who is less than 60 years old, has the temerity to point accusing fingers at such an elder. Snakes that Mrs. Chishe tried to malign have been on this Earth for 130 million years. In all that time they never swallowed anyone’s money, until JAMB left a sack of it lying around?

Just like Nigeria is divided into regions, geopolitical zones, states, emirates and local governments, the Animal Kingdom is divided into phyla, classes, orders and families. Having earlier rushed to the defence of snakes and gorillas when they were first accused, if I do not now rush to the defence of termites, some animals belonging to other orders would accuse me of not reflecting the federal character of the Animal Kingdom in my defence against libel and defamation. Just like Nigeria’s main fault line is North versus South, Animal Kingdom’s main fault line is Vertebrates versus Invertebrates. Termites will say I defended snakes and gorillas because they are my fellow Vertebrates. They may even call it a Vertebrate/Vertebrate ticket.

Simply because animals do not make their speech comprehensible to the human ear is not a reason for humans to make unfounded allegations against them and assassinate their character. It is not their fault that the human ear cannot decipher the language of other animals. We hear birds singing, cocks crowing, dogs barking, frogs croaking, cats mewing and sheep bleating, but we do not know what they are saying to one another.

Human beings have, since the time of the Swedish taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus, sat down and arbitrarily assigned binomial scientific names to nearly nine million animal species. They arrogantly assigned to their own species the name Homo sapiens. This means “wise man,” allegedly because humans have the highest overall intelligence among all animals and have been able to cruelly subjugate them. Otherwise, what is wise about human beings? In the last two hundred years alone, we drove many animal species to extinction, in total disregard of the fact that it took hundreds of millions of years for these species to evolve and that all our fate is linked together. Without them, we will not be here.

Which “wise man,” when we humans invented, built, assembled and deployed thermonuclear weapons and regularly threaten to use them? Which other animal species ever sat down and invented weapons designed for mass murder? My former lecturer said apart from humans, the only other animal that kills for reasons other than food and defence is the weasel. A weasel that was experimentally placed in a cage with numerous rats killed everything that moved, just for the heck of it.

At the height of the Cold War in the late 1980s when the nuclear powers’ arsenals were at their peak, scientists calculated that in an all-out war between the super powers, millions of people will die from explosions. Millions more will die from fire and radiation. Hundreds of millions of injured ones will also die from lack of medical help because any doctor that survives nuclear war will be out of his senses. Next, dust and smoke from explosions will envelop the world in darkness for six months, leading to the death of all green plants, so there is no food. Besides, all sources of water will be radioactively contaminated. Yet you call yourself wise man!

NSTIF officials that claim that termites ate their vouchers. You know that your vouchers were made of paper, paper is made from wood, wood is the food of termites, and you left sacks of them lying in the open for years, just to create an alibi. Who told NSTIF that termites can digest wood? Wood contains cellulose, one of the most difficult products to digest in an animal stomach. In an old Advanced Physiology textbook I read many years ago, there was a section called “Special digestive challenges.” Cellulose was listed alongside bone, hair, hooves, horns and claws among the most difficult things for an animal stomach to digest. Digesting it requires the enzyme cellulase, which is very rare. Even termites do not have cellulase. Clever brats that they are however, they cultivate in their guts protozoans that possess the enzyme. When a termite eats wood, the protozoans will digest it, feed on some and leave the rest for the termite.

The Kano Zoo officials who accused a gorilla of swallowing gate takings, are they crazy? What is a gorilla’s own with money? Have you ever seen a gorilla with a cheque book, or standing before an ATM machine with a debit card? Of all animals, is it the gorilla that we should libel, defame and besmirch? Gorilla is a great ape, our second cousin in evolutionary time. The only animals that are biologically closer to us than gorillas are chimpanzees, our first cousins in the Animal Kingdom. There are solid scientific reasons for this classification. An ape’s brain is quite large; they live in complex social groups; they have a language of their own and they even use tools, a rarity in the Animal Kingdom. A gorilla therefore knows what to eat and what not to eat. Even if it tears apart a wad of naira notes out of sheer mischief, a gorilla is smart enough to determine that a naira note is not food and will not eat it.

Remember, Kano State Police Command’s spokesman even said the police would not hesitate to arrest a gorilla or any other animal linked to the missing money. Arrest a gorilla? Which policeman in Nigeria can handcuff it? Many years ago at the same Kano Zoo, people were fond of giving banana to the gorilla through its cage wires. The zoo’s management pasted a notice and warned people to desist, because a gorilla is seven times stronger than an adult human and if by chance it grabs a man’s hand, it could easily yank it off.

Anyway, as part of my constituency project, I have engaged a firm of lawyers to file a suit at the Federal High Court, seeking an ex-parte interlocutory order of perpetual injunction to restrain NSITF, Chairman and members of Senate Public Accounts Committee and their agents, servants or privies from publishing, broadcasting, texting, emailing, tweeting, pinging or otherwise circulating this allegation that termites ate payment vouchers worth N17 billion.

VIEW FROM THE GALLERY in This Day and 21st Century Chronicle. Monday, August 22, 2022.

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