Penultimate week, the people of the southeast Nigeria watched with bewilderment as armored tanks were conveyed into their zone under the banner of Operation Python Dance II (Egwu Eke). While watching the video on the internet, I was struck by a curiosity many of you might have shared: just where exactly did the name – Egwu Eke – come from?
Looking at the python to provide the answer is no easy task, for the creature has somewhat contradictory meanings to the Igbos. Depending on the size and species, some see it as a friendly, harmless creature, some see it as death, while some see it even as a delicacy. The chameleonic presentation of the python has made the army operation somewhat a mystery, but not anymore if only we look deeper.
Let me tell you something about the python from a personal experience. I have known the python for decades and have seen it dance a peculiar dance. And it dances with one and it leads to the death of one of them engaged in a mortal combat. It is therefore a macabre dance, a dance, which shows a grim and ghastly atmosphere. The python macabre dance emphasizes the details and symbols of death that is particularly gruesome in nature. Death is therefore inevitable in python’s dance; it is essentially a combat that none of its victims lives to tell the story and the resultant death is long and painful. Igbo people call dance of death ‘upelekete’. So is the python dance. This military campaign should have been aptly code-named, ‘ Operation Upelekete’.
I know the python because I am from Idemili in Anambra State, where python is treated as a little god. Our people believe the Idemili deity appears as a python and for this reason, Idemili people revere the python and will do everything humanly possible to avoid killing it let alone use it for meat. Advent of Christianity has not been able to change this spiritual meaning the python has among our people.
In the yore, if the python mistakenly got killed in Idemili, it was buried with some ceremonies and rituals. Up till today, older Idemili people would use the leaves to cover the python accidentally killed on the motorways, a reverence reserved only for humans.
As a child, I recall pythons eating my mother’s chicken a number of times and eggs as well. I recall mother going to the penn to investigate when our chicken crackled in the dead of the night. If it was a snake, death awaited it because mother would go with a club or short, heavy stick and would instantly kill the snake. Do not ask me what we did with such snakes, especially cobras, mambas or vipers that mother killed in like manner a number of times. My memory has failed me.
If it were a python, it received such a gentle treatment. Mother would look for a long stick and lift it away and it would not struggle. It would only coil round the stick as it was being lifted out of our compound and to be dumped in a nearly bush. Mother would throw the stick away as well, saying the snake would return if she didn’t. But surprisingly most of them returned and lifting away repeated as often times.
Growing up, I saw the python come into our house, as they did to other houses. They crawled around majestically, certain that no harm would come to them in Idemili at least. For I hear they are a delicacy in some parts of Igbo land, where, I learnt, they could run as fast as cobras to avoid being part of somebody’s dinner. Of truth, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.
Like Eke Idemili, many python species are popular to keep as pets due to their ease of care, docile temperament, and vibrant colors, with some rare mutations. Nonetheless, even though it is not venomous and fangless, python is from the snake family. It survives as a reptile, doing what other reptiles do. They are carnivores. Python strangles its prey and swallows it whole. It is therefore from the same family of boa constrictor and anaconda, but has species that are much smaller like Eke Idemili.
A full grown python you find in my place cannot swallow even a big grown chicken, may be a metre long at most. Its igbo name is ‘eke’. But there is a member of the python family called reticulatus, which is among the longest snake species and extant reptiles in the world. It is also found in Idemili thick forests nestling around rivers, and called Eke Ogba in Igbo language too.
If you look at anaconda, boa constrictor and python, they look alike and difference is just in size – they are variants of the same species. They strangle and swallow their prey, the size of the prey depends on the size of the species. What this means is that even Eke Idemili could strangle a child but its size will not permit. It is therefore a friend to Idemili people by design of its nature and who knows what may be going on in its little head while around our people.
All pythons therefore are harmful and deadly. So if Operation Python Dance is a friendly exercise, why chose such stealthy creature that is a master of ambush, as its symbol and code name? And it didn’t stop there; the military added its dance on purpose, knowing the python dance is a macabre dance, a dance of death.
Compared to the US military, ours is simply callous. Unlike the Nigeria military, US military operations have been nicknamed with an eye toward shaping domestic and international perceptions about the activities they describe. Operation Just Cause is only the most obvious example of this phenomenon. From names that stress an operation’s humanitarian focus, like Operation Provide Comfort in Turkey, to ones that stress an operation’s restoration of democratic authority, like Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti, it is evident that the US military recognizes the power of names in waging a public relations campaign, and the significance of winning that campaign to the overall effort.
The perception of a military operation can be as important to success as the execution of that operation. Professor Ray Eldon Hiebert, in a piece titled, “Public Relations as a Weapon of Modern War,” elaborates on this view: “The effective use of words and media today . . . is just as important as the effective use of bullets and bombs. In the end, it is no longer enough just to be strong. Now it is necessary to communicate”. Can the Nigeria military understand this? They can win the battle and loose the people but do they care?
To win a war today government and its military not only have to win on the battlefield, they must also win the minds of its public. After causing avoidable deaths, can the way and manner the Nigeria military is going about their campaign in the southeast be said to show any humanitarian concern?
Beyond a doubt, the Operation Python Dance II was conceived as a combat and its target is pro-Biafra agitators, who have been branded terrorists to justify such deadly operation and scores died even when the operation was yet to officially take off. Only God knows what would have happened if Biafra agitators had shown armed resistance.
Killer Fulani Herdsmen are not terrorists; Niger Delta Avengers are not terrorists; Arewa Youths threatening to visit Armageddon on Igbos in the North are not terrorists…but IPOB members are terrorists for daring to confront Nigeria tanks with broken bottles. They should be treated like terrorists, which mean summary executions without any form of trial! That is simply the motive of the python dancers.
With the meaning decoded, southeast people need to launch Operation Snail Dance. For snail also dances round and through every torn by subtlety and gentility. This is the only way the zone will survive this blitz onslaught.
In all this, one thing is also certain: force cannot muffle Biafra agitation. Only equity and justice will take the wind off its sail. Yes, only a genuinely restructured Nigeria will douse the flaring fire of agitations in the southeast and around the country.
Law Mefor is a Forensic and Social Psychologists and Journalist; email:firstname.lastname@example.org; tel.: +234-803-787-2893