By Lasisi Olagunju
(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 22 November, 2021)
There was a time in this country when one single person was acting prime minister, acting minister of finance and substantive minister of defence. How would a man perform the functions of those offices simultaneously without having an accident? It happened that during that interesting period, the question of purchasing a new office for the ministry of defence came up. The three-in-one minister rose to the occasion and he did it ‘perfectly.’ How he did it is recorded in his biography in these brazen words: “He negotiated and purchased the property. He then wrote this in the file: ‘As minister of Defence, I have bought the new office; as Minister of Finance, I have approved it; and as Prime Minister, I have no objection.'” Nobody reversed the impunity, it stayed forever because Nigeria has a belly big enough to store faeces. That minister was from the north. He was the same person who, shortly after independence, lowered the entry requirements into the army from four O’Level credits to four passes. He also raised the maximum age of entry from 22 to 25 “just to make it possible for areas where schooling started late to make it.” That was the bare-footed way independent Nigeria started its long journey into the desert. The result is the troubled nation of bandits we have in our hands today.
How many diseases can a person suffer from at the same time? Before now, leaders of northern Nigeria must have been asking that question inside their Arewa House in low tones. But now, it appears they are speaking out. The EndSARS generation has a slang for that; they call it s’oro s’oke. Grand old Sakara musician, Yusuf Olatunji, once sang for the sick who tuck away their herpetic whitlow in purdahs of silence: “Tell what ails you so we know what medicine to apply to it.” Olatunji sang that line over 50 years ago and it rings true today and forever.
Professor Attahiru Jega, immediate past chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, lamented last week that every bad thing, conceivable and inconceivable, is in northern Nigeria. “Whether it is poverty, unemployment, insecurity, infant mortality, out-of-school children, poor girl-child education, or even early marriage challenges…everything you can think of, the terrible statistics always comes from the northern part of this country,” Jega said. He spoke last Monday at the Maitama Sule Leadership Lecture Series organised by the Coalition of Northern Nigeria (CNG) in Katsina State to celebrate the memories of the north’s heroes past. Jega blamed poor, selfish, visionless leadership for “the terrible statistics.” The solution, he said, was in the north producing leaders without those bad adjectives. But can’t we see that the ugly, poisonous fruits on our trees are products of choices made yesterday? Disruptive, bar-lowering policies in leadership training and selection have the potential to destroy life chances. Like the skewed load of the knock-kneed, because the base is crooked, the top cannot be fine.
Jega did not growl, snarl and moan as a lone wolf. He was also part of a team of concerned, sad northern leaders who met in Abuja in August this year and formed what they called “Abuja Roundtable.” Their aim, they said, was to find a way of solving the problems of the north. Alhaji Bashir Tofa who addressed journalists after the meeting, said the north’s challenges “are many and they cut across the region. These have manifested in the collapse of institutions and services, widespread poverty and inequality, mutual suspicion, endemic insecurity, disunity, despair, and a dearth of hope across the region.” He conceded that “every community has challenges. But to overcome challenges, there is a need to admit their existence.” Although we’ve not seen any action from these leaders since then, it is good news that, for once, the north is not too proud to admit that it suffers multi-morbidity. That disposition makes searching for, and finding cures possible. But the north did not just go bad suddenly. My people say if a head will go bad, it begins with pains in the neck.
Power in Nigeria is a game of predatory gangs and gangsters; northern Nigeria is their headquarters. That is what Jega meant by the region being a victim of selfish, visionless leadership. It cannot get better until there is a shift in orientation and values and in leadership recruitment methods. Unfortunately, the south appears to have also caught the flu. The leadership sees government as family business in which the poor have neither shares nor benefits. For the north, the genie of insecurity is out, it cannot be put back in the bottle by the immorality of captured power. We have seen that you could have the president and everything it means and still be powerless. The north may have all the service chiefs as they do now till eternity; it will not translate to security for the region. How much of control has the ‘powerful’ northern establishment over the bandits who now command that vast region, imposing and collecting taxes, snatching daughters from parents; summarily deposing and installing village heads?
Ancient Greece had a god or godddess for everything. Nemesis (meaning ‘dispenser of dues’) was their “goddess of indignation against, and retribution for evil deeds and undeserved good fortune.” Nemesis was also “a personification of the resentment aroused in men by those who committed crimes with apparent impunity, or who had inordinate good fortune.” The north has not done well for Nigeria. It is an extremist power and privilege grabber, a glutton. Among the Yoruba, gluttons are derisively called Jeunkooku (eat and die – or eat to death). Someone said gluttony will eventually eat the glutton. Is that what is happening to northern Nigeria, a region assailed everywhere by its own abandoned children? It should not be difficult to know that holding power for power’s sake has consequences. Nigeria became an independent country 61 years ago. The north has been in absolute control for 43 out of those 61 years; yet that region is today poorer and more vulnerable than other parts. Is that not enough reason for the wise to change the direction of their thoughts and work for what will make them truly healthy? No. That counsel can’t be for northern Nigeria. It is scheming right now to sit tight in power beyond 2023. Of what use is power that is comprehensively incompetent in helping the powerful to stay afloat?
In the first twelve days of this month, the United States-based Council for Foreign Relations documented nineteen incidents of deadly violence in Nigeria. Fifteen out of the 19 incidents happened in the north. Before you snap and say it is a lie, let me quickly say the northern incidents are here, well recorded: “November 6: Bandits killed two abducted Baptist worshipers in Chikun, Kaduna. November 8: Nigerian troops repelled an Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) attack in Kaga, Borno; November 8: Bandits abducted twenty in Zaria, Kaduna. November 8: Herdsmen killed eight in Zangon Kataf, Kaduna. November 8: Bandits killed seven police officers in Gusau, Zamfara. November 8: Gunmen killed a retired Air Force chief and his grandson in a suspected targeted killing in Igabi, Kaduna. November 9: Gunmen killed thirteen in Batsari, Katsina. November 9: Nigerian troops killed four Boko Haram militants in Mafa, Borno. November 10: Bandits kidnapped five in Sabon Birni, Sokoto. November 10: Seven bandits and eight civilians were killed during a clash in Karim-Lamido, Taraba. November 10: Gunmen killed one and kidnapped two at a university in Chanchaga, Niger State. November 10: Bandits killed nine in Anka, Zamfara. November 10: Nigerian troops killed four Boko Haram militants in Gwoza, Borno. November 12: Airstrikes killed ‘scores’ (estimated at forty) of ISWA militants in Marte, Borno.” You do not have to imagine how many more have died or been wounded or abducted since November 12. Today is November 22, read the news; the harvest of tragic occurrences rains daily in the north; the river appears very sadly perennial.
Jega spoke about “bad statistics”. He was right. Long-tamed illnesses are on horseback in northern Nigeria, playing polo. Take the limb-eating viral disease called polio. The world thought it had conquered polio when Africa was declared polio-free on August 25, 2020. But it resurfaced in northern Nigeria almost exactly a year later (August 15, 2021), and that happened in Adamawa. The figure of cases has been increasing with regularity since then. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has an interesting data on this on its website. It says that in four days last week, between November 14 and 17, 2021, “six cases of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) were reported; three in Bauchi and one each in Gombe, Katsina and Yobe.” It adds that “there are 280 cases reported in 2021” whereas “there were (only) eight cases reported in 2020.” Apart from the six cases that were seen last week, the Initiative says additional 26 positive environmental samples of the same virus type were reported same period: seven in Borno, six each in Gombe and Kano, three in Katsina, one in Taraba and two in Yobe. How many southern states are on that list?
Still on the north and its ailments. There is another medical condition called Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF). When global health authorities submit that Nigeria has the highest prevalence of VVF in the world, they are talking about northern Nigeria. Statistics say there are “between 400,000 and 800,000 women living with the problem in Nigeria and about 20,000 new cases occurring annually with 90 percent of the cases going untreated.” If you do not know what VVF means, think of a woman continually urinating on herself. That is it, and it is not her fault; coital injuries from full-grown men sleeping with minors is a major culprit here. Yet, marrying off underage girls still happens in northern Nigeria. It is elite sport and street joy in that place where ugliness is beauty. They enjoy it. They say it is their tradition and you wonder if the north does not have a long way to go. Roundtables in Abuja, public lectures in Katsina and symposia in Kaduna won’t singularly bail out the afflicted. The sick must change his lifestyle if they will live. If, for instance, the north is tired of VVF, it should enact laws criminalizing marriage to underage girls. Can Jega and the Abuja Roundtable people pursue this as proof of change?
Some northern dudes will be angry that an outsider like me is hanging the north’s dirty G-strings publicly to dry. They should forgive me and others who don’t know how to mind their business. The thing is, we are all involved as victims of a country being sickened and destroyed by the blights of the north. It is not that the south does not have its own very bad problems too. In fact, the bed of irresponsible leadership which the north started sleeping on 50 years ago is what the back of the south rests on today. Millions of southern youths are stranded and abandoned to their fate while the region’s Neros fiddle away. Terrible but ‘lucrative’ crimes (such as Yahoo Yahoo) have become street vocations while parents either look away or act as enablers, forming unions of mothers of felons. But there are still some safety valves in place to ensure that the dam does not collapse as has happened to the north. That is the difference.
‘The die is cast’ is an expression from a desperate river-bank incident in 49 AD. Roman General, Julius Caesar clearly saw an inscription at the riverfront: “Beyond this river, no flags, weapons or soldiers shall pass,” yet, he told his 50,000 soldiers that “the die is cast”, and with them, crossed the Rubicon river because his life depended on it. For flustered leaders of northern Nigeria, the die should be cast too. Before now, the north had no problem attacking anyone who spoke about its very many problems, about its contagious diseases and its I-don’t-care attitude to moral health issues. It appears now that the time of pretentious healthiness is over. The leaders are meeting; they are talking, they are even raising the alarm. Let us pray they know what doctor to hire and what medicine to apply. Let us hope also that it is not too late already.