Proverbs are not just the palm oil with which yam is eaten; they are the yam. Where I come from, there are a million proverbs for every experience of life. Some people are contagiously sick but they hate being told so. They suffer self-deception, the refusal to believe what is true about themselves. Eni bá ntan ara è, òun ni òrìsà òkè ntàn. Ó d’ífá fún Arewà tí esè òsì ndùn, tí nwé t’òtún (the one who deceives himself is the one God deceives. It is the case with Arewa who has a sore on her left leg but is applying medicine to the right). I picked that line from my 98-year-old uncle two weeks ago during a discussion. The proverb came back to me as I watched leaders of the north, with profuse thanks, serenade the president in Maiduguri, Borno State last Thursday. He was there to inaugurate state projects, including mega schools, in the middle of an interminable war of guns and rockets.
There was a protest in London a day after by some northern Nigerians resident in the United Kingdom. BBC Hausa streamed the protest live on Facebook. The protesters said they were tired of insecurity in the north and were frustrated by the helplessness of the Nigerian state and its bumbling government. They, therefore, thought help from outside was necessary if our north would stop bleeding. They sounded real; they did it well and some of them even wept. They held placards one of which read: “Silence is Violence.” An average southerner would read poetic justice in that inscription; he would ask when exactly the northern protesters realized that conspiratorial silence in the face of evil is evil?
Bishop Mathew Kukah in his Christmas message also said the north is now firmly in the grip of evil. “In their sleep, on their farmlands, in their markets, or even on the highway, innocent citizens have been mowed down and turned into burnt offerings to gods of evil. Communities have been turned into gulags of misery, death, pain and perfidy. We must move quickly before Arewa descends into Arewanistan,” Kukah said in the message entitled ‘A nation still in search of truth and vindication’.
Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah
But that statement was not Kukah’s first; the London protests were not the first too. Protests and complaints alone cannot redeem the north. Desmond Tutu, the South African iconic archbishop and theologian who died yesterday professed an ecclesiastical philosophy of redemption. It was his point that no case is totally hopeless but, “there comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of water. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.” Why is northern Nigeria forever in the news for things ghastly? And why are the victims there hooked till eternity on sleeping pills? Political and religious bandits and other common criminals raid them daily from farm to home; they groan and moan and blame their stars. They even fight you if you complain on their behalf. I saw it in scathing online reactions to last week’s protests in London. They did it too to Mathew Kukah for asking the president to fight those fighting the north. My people say you wake up the asleep not the pretender. “There is nothing more difficult than waking someone who is only pretending to be asleep.” This quote from Tutu is probably taken from the Yoruba pantheon of the wise where proverbs are drones for peace and for war.
Terrorists kill more Muslims than they kill Christians in the north. Yet, it is Kukah and his people that are doing the talking. We know some sheikhs are more powerful than the president. We are told that even the bandits dare not look them in the eyes. But where are they? They are quiet and silent. They don’t care. Desmond Tutu said again: “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” The London protesters who carried “silence is violence” as their banner of battle had the sheikhs, the Ulama etc in mind. Those who should care have long cast care into the deep seas. Like bangles and Soyinka’s Abiku, they think in vain are the protests from powerless boko (book) people in foreign lands.
Thirty-five days before the transition of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, he reflected on what the north was and what it could turn out to be. “I don’t believe that the north is destined to be educationally and socially backwards. It is their people that make them so…,” Chief Awolowo said in an April 4, 1987 discussion with Professor Moses Makinde of the then University of Ife. He deplored the refusal of the north to embrace education for all and the consequences of what he called the ranka dede mentality of the poor majority in the north. The question has always been whether the north will ever catch up with the south in education. Awo answered that question: “How can you catch up with somebody who is running while you are crawling? See the way people in the old western region are contributing money to build one classroom or the other in the villages…But in the north, people are yet to put a premium on the education of their children. …But I think sooner than later, the leaders of the north will see the repercussion of their selfishness and carelessness in their attitude towards western education. But the time will be too late, and if they don’t regret it or blame themselves for lack of foresight, the northern youth may ask their leaders some questions when they see the rate of development that goes with education in many parts of southern Nigeria. They may then wonder whether it was in their stars or in the selfishness, carelessness and lack of foresight of their past and present leaders…” (see Awo as a Philosopher by Moses Makinde (2002); page 281).
Today’s insecurity in the north is therefore a child of yesterday’s misadventures. Nobody wants to admit that fact. What the Muslim north needs but which it keeps denying is western education for the children of the poor with a reappraisal of values across the region.
Professor Suleiman Elias Bogoro is the Executive Secretary of TETFUND. On October 31, 2020, he delivered a lecture to mark the golden jubilee of the Arewa House, Kaduna. Access to education in northern Nigeria, Bogoro said at that lecture, was a compelling obligation of the northern elite. His lecture contained thought-provoking data. I summarize everything here: At the primary school level, the enrollment rate in the north was between 35 and 47 per cent compared to 75 to 85 per cent in the south. Even among those registered as enrolled, the attendance rate was 53 per cent up north. At the tertiary level, Nigeria’s northwest had the highest number of federal universities. It had 10 while the southwest had seven, southeast five and south south seven. But that is where it ends. The south has a way to escape Nigeria and its suffocating tendencies. Out of 79 private universities in Nigeria in 2020, the south had 63; the south-west alone had 36, almost half of the total. The figures from the north remained very distressing: three private universities in the entire northwest, two in the northeast; north-central had eleven. What does that tell us? The south is not waiting for the crawling north; southern elites are building (private) schools to create access. What are the powerful elites of the north building? Even when access is provided, will the north’s religious zealots allow the northern child to go to school?
Saudi Arabia is Islam’s world capital. But it is not allowing its religion to stand in the way of its peace and development. Two months ago, Saudi Arabia “started moving earth and tunnelling through mountains” to build a futuristic, fully automated linear city covering 26,500 square kilometres. The leadership of Saudi Arabia describes what it is doing there as a “civilisational plan that puts humans first.” Reports say when completed, “the project is expected to generate 380,000 jobs and contribute US $48 billion to the kingdom’s GDP by 2030.” The project will cost a princely sum of $500billion. If decision-makers in Northern Nigeria had that money, they would funnel it into promoting wrong ideology and ideas that would multiply their problems and put all of us in more trouble. My position is being guided here by history. At about the same time Western Nigeria introduced free education and expanded access to learning and knowledge, Northern Nigeria was pouring its resources into Khartoum, Sudan to teach its youths religion and to recruit teachers for the Arabic language without corresponding action on western education. The result is today’s multitude of underdone people without skills and who see western education as sin and who kidnap and kill even their kith and kin.
The real competition of the north, therefore, is in its bedroom. It must cleanse itself of a philosophy of existence that is alien to the religion it professes. While western education is a sin in northern Nigeria, Saudi Arabia is pumping billions of dollars into it for its own good. A report said that in the five years to 2018, the total number of students in higher education in Saudi Arabia grew by 8.3 per cent to 1.62 million. Its Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, in May this year, announced that the country had five universities ranked among the 500 best universities worldwide. He said the kingdom’s objective was “to have three universities ranked among the best 200” while working towards “having one university ranked among the best 10 universities worldwide, which is King Saud University.” He added that “even if it ranked 20 or 30 that would be extremely good.” Saudi Arabia has 60 universities; 70 percent of the varsities are public institutions.
Northern Nigeria cannot be more Muslim than Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states. From Bahrain to Oman to Qatar to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), reports the world get from there daily are edifying to sanity and commonsense. They are building schools, training and raising world-class citizens. Northern protesters at home and in London should, therefore, look beyond Buhari and his government as the problem. Everyone who kowtows to the religious tzars in the north and allows the miseducated to dictate who rules the north and Nigeria is the problem. Wise people in the south saw this a long time ago. They’ve been doing what heart surgeons do, creating bypasses away from Nigeria’s severe blockages. That is the reason the south had 63 out of 79 private universities in 2020. So, it is fruitless for the north to continue throwing power and money into competing with a south that has moved on. For the north to know peace, the gap it needs to close immediately is the one between its privileged elite and the uneducated victims of the unjust system there. What I am saying is that the north’s bleeding will remain endless unless it addresses its fundamental problems of leadership and ethical contradictions. It needs to stop deceiving itself. It should listen more to reasonable voices like Kukah’s and Bogoro’s.
Where stragglers are made leaders, everything goes wrong. Twenty years ago, how much would it have cost the north to educate today’s rampaging terrorists and how much have we spent scrambling to put out their fires in the last 12 years? We still don’t want the truth here. Monies that we should be using to build a tomorrow of values are daily poured into the bottomless pit of northern Nigeria’s self-inflicted insecurity. Now, everybody is scared, tired and hopeless. What is the cost of human life in Nigeria this year and how much will it be worth in 2022? The country is in tears; Nigerians who were sad yesterday are sadder today; the fog is foggier and the road narrower for the down and out. ISWAP rockets may be raining in Borno and bandits slaughtering whole clans in Sokoto, Zamfara, Kaduna and Niger, but politicians are safe in their bunkers in Abuja. They are happy and are wondering why we should not be happy too. They say they are signing budgets and spending billions building this and that and investing heavily in bricks and mortar everywhere – all for us. They are happy but are the people happy? If the people are sadder now than ever, what is the way out?
This year will be over this week. The new year will be brand new in all things good and godly. We will have peace. Amen. Goodness and abundance of grace will be ours in the new year. Amen. In 2022, the present noise of battle will become sweet songs of victory. Amin.
* Dr. Lasisi Olagunju, journalist, writes this piece originally for Tribune