of the Kureng affair in 1997 was a parable of sorts. It revealed a sequence
of police actions, pseudo explanations and downright lies, which needed
an allegory to comprehend. Now, as details of the Marcus O. tragedy emerge,
that allegory has come alive again. It explains why so many people, particularly
black people, simply do not believe police accounts of the case.
On 12 March 1997, Mr Kureng Akuei, a low ranking diplomat (Third Secretary)
in the Sudanese embassy in Vienna, was stopped in the street by a policeman,
somewhere in the 10th district of Vienna. Prompted to do so, the diplomat
dutifully identified himself by producing his diplomatic identity card.
The policeman examined it carefully and made a brief telephone call.
Presently a band of police officers arrived in a patrol car and took Mr
Akuei away. At the police station to which he was taken, the police stripped
Mr Akuei down to his underpants, thoroughly searched the belongings he
was carrying, pushed-and-shoved him around and then severely beat him.
After the assault, the Austrian weekly magazine NEWS wrote: His lower
lip bled. His right shoulder was swollen. The upper button of his coat
But when finally, apparently having had their fill, the police asked Mr
Akuei to put on his clothes again, the diplomat refused politely. He asked
instead to be allowed to contact his embassy. It was probably at this
point, on encountering this little piece of unexpected civil disobedience,
that the police realized for the first time that their quarry, their African
prey, was not nearly as foolish as they had supposed him to be.
Nor, for that matter, was their reckless black-baiting about to be simply
laid to rest. Not only was their party suddenly over but what transpired
thereafter proved to be worse than just cleaning up after a party, even
such a particularly wild one as theirs. In their panic, the police turned
down diplomat's request: contacting his embassy was quite out of the question
they told him.
It would take, in the next moments, another display of mature civility,
a demonstration of singular calmness of mind and firmness of spirit on
the part of the African diplomat, to put that police contingent on unmistakable
notice that, yes, he was dead serious about contacting his embassy there
and then, and was going to do exactly that or walk outside in his state
of undress. In the event Mr Akuei's attempt to step outside of the police
station all but naked didn't quite come to pass.
But his primary objective was achieved, for the police themselves contacted
his embassy through their headquarters. The police were alarmed especially
because they knew their victim's demand was so simple and impeccably legitimate.
They also knew that they were dead wrong, had been dead wrong, all along
and on all counts. When representatives from the Sudanese embassy arrived
at the station they photographed their colleague as they found him, bloodied
and bare, but calm.
In a subsequent statement on the matter, reminiscent of PROFIL magazine's
front cover of 19 August 1996 which displays two head portraits, the one
in profile and the other frontal, of a "wanted" person whose
only distinguishing special feature is "black skin colour",
the Executive Committee of the Sudanese Union in Austria reported that
"the police said that they have instructions to stop and search all
black people. They repeated that statement several times before the audience."
Whether they do have such instructions or only believe they have, has
never been cleared. But here are the roots of that disturbing parable,
that figurative story which apparently guides Austrian policemen, and
appears to give them the moral authority to treat "all" Africans
as they have done Kureng Akuei and Marcus Omofuma. The black in the allegory
is a creature created to dwell in the nethermost of human regions, preordained
never to rise above that position. The police assume the moral authority,
even duty, to ensure that the creature remains in its lowly place forever,
whatever the cost.
If the cost involves law enforcement officials infringing such basic human
rights (the black creature is human in law) as to walk the streets, then
it must be paid. If the cost is sacrifice of the practice of non-violence
against people in their custody, then so be it. Arrest without reason
or charge, dehumanization, violence in custody, anything goes
And now there is death in custody. Marcus O. died in charge of the Austrian
police, en route to Bulgaria. He was smothered. Mere careless (even callous)
handling, or was it something worse? Will we ever know? Can we accept
whatever we are told? After all we know that truth is something the police
are willing to sacrifice, part of the cost they are willing to pay to
maintain their self-given right of superiority over the black creature.
They do not regard it as lying, simply post-crisis management. Thus they
explained that Mr Kureng Akuei was arrested when he refused to cooperate
with the police, after he had parked his car illegally. But somehow the
truth managed to surface. The truth in this case is the Mr Akuei did not
own a car and did not even know how to drive. Did Marcus O., who died
on an aircraft, on the way to Bulgaria in police custody, also "refuse
to cooperate". Did he park his body wrongly? Can we now easily accept
the police version of his death within the dumb walls of an aircraft cabin?
This is why black people in this country have never believed police accounts
of the Marcus tragedy. This is why the defeat in the parliament of a motion
for the Interior Minister to resign is so frightening. This is why the
Interior Minister's excuses for not resigning continue to frighten. This
is why the decision by the police disciplinary committee not to suspend
the three police officers in whose custody Marcus died is so terrifying
and suspicious-suspicious to black people as a deliberate ploy to hand
the Interior Minister an opportunity to redeem himself, if somewhat, by
overruling the committee's improbable decision to "acquit".
The tormentors of Mr Kureng Akuei knew (or were at least fully convinced)
they would always be backed. Those involved in the death of Mr. Marcus
Omofuma appear at least as confident. This is the most terrifying part,
especially given the Bulgarian autopsy's confirmation of death by asphyxiation.
Will an Austrian autopsy determine differently and compound our terror?
Meanwhile, the emerging details of Omofuma's sojourn in Germany-his possession
of two passports and names, his having worked illegally in Halle and possibly
more that will follow-seem to be providing more than a comic relief. If
they prove anything at all it is simply this: how really fortressed the
new Europe has become. Not even the celebrated, sensational, "greatly
successful" drug offensive of all times "in the history of the
Republic" is capable of obscuring the fact of the original matter.
Concerning the drama of Omofuma's death these tantalizing tidbits are
really nothing other than mere footnotes. And the more we labour to make
them the issue the more we reveal the unconscionable extent of our perversion.
1999 Chibo Onyeji
A lot more information and facts are now available since the writing of
the above article in May 1999 (and the failure to place it in the papers
at the time). For example, we now know that "O" stands for Omofuma.
We also now know that an Austrian autopsy determined differently than
the Bulgarian autopsy, which, like a subsequent German autopsy determined
that the cause of Omofuma's death was asphyxiation. By agreeing to have
the three police officers in whose custody Omofuma died prosecuted, even
if almost three years after the fact, the Justice Ministry is in effect
discounting the surrounding sensational events, all of which nearly eclipsed
the significance of Omofuma's death, though, not the fact of it. But the
significance of an event is never less important than the fact of it.
Indeed, 'significance' is often more important which is why it is possible
that some can become larger in death than in life ¾ like Omofuma.
This reality is one of the things the landmark decision of the Justice
Ministry has confirmed.
Whether the police officers are charged with "manslaughter by way
of negligence", or with "abusing a prisoner and causing death
by reckless endangerment", or with "taunting a prisoner",
or with "acting unlawfully", as the papers have variously speculated,
the more important and encouraging fact is the present indication that
the system does, after all, work. On 4 March 2002 we shall know for sure
from the Korneuburg court what precisely the indictment(s) are and then,
in due course, what the verdict is. Whatever the verdict, its significance
(like the significance of the facts marshaled in the above 1999 article)
will surely count more than the mere fact of it. It will be up to the
court of the autonomous and independent judiciary to let itself be guided
by the facts in picking the significance it favours: either the significance
of a 'guilty' verdict or the significance of a 'not guilty' verdict.
Meanwhile, we are like expectant parents: The wife is going to have a
baby whose sex modern science has revealed to them in advance. But they're
still as anxious as ever to know what their baby looks like: her/his face.
They are anxious probably because, in the final analysis, sex or science
is less significant than a human face.
2002 Chibo Onyeji