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Mahdi Shehu’s quest for sympathy

In the video, he’s flat on his back, wearing neck and back braces, his crutches beside him in the courtroom as he yells, “They are…

In the video, he’s flat on his back, wearing neck and back braces, his crutches beside him in the courtroom as he yells, “They are using the court to send me to prison without trial.” Mahdi Shehu, who in the same video protests that he’s not a “commercial whistleblower” and that the state government is plotting to “assassinate” him, was in the court over multi-billion naira corruption allegation against Kastina state Governor, Aminu Bello Masari, Secretary to the State Government, Mustapha Inuwa, and other state officials and contractors. Since petitioning the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, there’s been a seeming conspiracy to prove that he’s a small fry in the state’s power structure. For those who’ve been paying attention to the case, his physical transformation is frightening to behold.

The 62-year-old whistleblower was arrested By the IGP Monitoring Unit operatives for “acting in concert and with intent to defame, insult, cause enmity, hatred, ill will, and damage to the reputation and integrity of governor of Katsina state and his executive cabinet (sic)”, among other charges, when he wrote EFCC last year and alleged that between June 2015 and April 29, 2020, the state government tampered with N52 billion for dubious and personal purposes from the state’s security account.

Mr. Shehu spent 11 days in police custody until he was released to a court hearing last December. The court ruled that the detention was unlawful, and awarded him N5 billion as damages against the Nigeria Police Police and the Inspector-General of Police. The compensation that came, sadly, was another arrest on February 16, with his abductors failing to heed the judgement of the Federal High Court presided over by Justice Taiwo O. Taiwo, ordering the IGP, Mohammed Adamu, and the FCT Police Commissioner to release him.

The solidarity with Mr. Shehu had been a quiet outrage and strangely so. Only a small legion of social media users, especially on Twitter, has been waging a consistent campaign to draw attention to his misery. His disintegration in police custody was both mental and physical, or so it seems. The detainee was probably aware of this and that must’ve inspired him to learn from the tricks of Nigerian politicians on trial. That video of Mr. Shehu in the languished state, protesting his oppression, instantly came under scrutiny and questioning from various quarters, including residents of Katsina. At first, I defended his honour and opposed his critics, but I too began to accommodate scepticism when I saw another video of him in a state that casts doubts on the image of that braces-wearing victim who relied on crutches to walk.

The video formatted my perception of the man. It in, he’s seen being guided to what appeared like his detention room, and propped up by a man holding his crutches as he limps. As soon as he settled down in the room, he began to get out of character, aware that he was out of the optical range of his sceptics and critics. In a shocking twist, he adjusted to his normal form, discarded his crutches and prepared to lead a congregational prayer in the room. I watched him bow and prostrate effortlessly as is the Muslim rite. The man who appeared to us with crutches and braces, signalling that he had lost the ability to use his bones and spinal cord, manifested as a politician. It was embarrassing footage.

But the bigger picture isn’t that we were ticked into imagining a health crisis that never happened, it was the fact that such theatrics is necessary to attract justice in the court. The politicians, who invented and fine-tuned this tactic over the years, seems to only deploy it when their guilt stares them in the face. It’s an over-used script, and that a self-styled corruption fighter borrows a leaf from this book of deceit, isn’t only devastating but legitimizes more critical scrutiny of Mr. Shehu’s revelation.

But we don’t know exactly why Mahdi Shehu adopted this tactic to seek public sympathy and tempt benign sentence, even though two explanations are plausible: One, having been granted bail twice and refused by the police, it’s likely that he faked this deteriorated or exaggerated health state to draw attention and sympathy to his seemingly overlooked witch-hunt. The second explanation is one I fear: the possibility that his revelation of Governor Masari’s corruption, or his activism itself, is built on falsehood and half-truths. Whatever the case, Mr. Shehu’s transition from a fire-spitting whistleblower to this man who seems to be conning his way to justice, is a symptom of a lethal disease.

Another tragedy of this embarrassing episode is, even with this video that unmasks Mr. Shehu, and seems to prove his critics right, he’s still likely to retain certain integrity and emerge as the hero of this story. The Police, which is notorious for disobeying court rulings to please their political paymasters, will always remain the villains of any conflict with citizens drawing attention to the government.

What we must do, even with the comedy of Mr. Shehu, which seems to play down the gravity of his allegation against Kastina state government and their supposed kickback-giving accomplices, is resisting any temptation to lose focus. Although he fuels the theatrics, either because he needs sympathy or he’s realised that his claim isn’t accurate as reported, Nigerians must look beyond him and establish the fact of the missing billions.

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