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The Nigeria of our daydream
By Simon Kolawole
Around 9am on Friday, April 20, 2018, I grabbed my phone to check my messages. My wife and I had taken an early morning walk and I had been separated from my phone for over an hour. It was inevitable that there would be many missed calls and messages patiently waiting for my attention. The first message I saw was from Imam Imam, spokesman of Governor Aminu Waziri Tambuwal of Sokoto state and my former colleague at THISDAY. It came in at 8:23am. He wrote: “Oga good morning. Are you available for a chat? Or are you busy?” Although I always prefer WhatsApp chats and SMS to phone calls so that I can multi-task, I chose to call him immediately. It was always fun talking with him.
“Alhaji Imam Dalhatu Imam! So good the Imam named him twice!” I hailed him in my usual salutation.
He laughed, trying to cage a cough.
“Oga, this title is too long for me o,” he said and laughed again. On other occasions, he would joke that when he was born, there were no more names to give to children so they decided to be repeating names, hence “Imam Imam”.
As we spoke, he sniffed in a tone that made me suspect he had a cold. It was a minor thing and he would be fine, he promised me. We spoke for a long time as he poured out his heart to me on his political future. He had earlier told me he wanted to contest for the house of representatives from his Bali Gassol constituency, Taraba state. He often sought my counsel on key career decisions. On this occasion he said he wanted to keep me up to date on his ambition. In confidence, he told me of the developments that meant he would no longer contest “based on principles”. I told him: “Imam, I respect you even more for this decision. It shows you are not desperate, you are not an opportunist and you are loyal.”
Our discussion shifted to Sokoto, his base, and I teased him about his multiple identities. He was born in Tivland – Gboko, Benue state, to be specific – in July 1977 to Fulani parents from Taraba state, and now he was a political appointee in Sokoto state. I asked after his mum who still lives in Gboko, and he told me that for the first time, the old woman was thinking of relocating because of the tension between Fulani herdsmen and farmers in the state. She was afraid of being caught in the crossfire, he said.
I began to lament. “Can you imagine that your mum has lived in a place peacefully for over 40 years but it doesn’t feel like home anymore?” I said, using the opportunity to once again pitch my petty theory about the impediments to the “peace and unity” of Nigeria which I perennially attribute to the poor political management of Nigeria’s diversity. The key to Nigeria’s political stability, I usually propose, is deft management. I often say “diversity is no cancer, balkanisation is no magic cure”. Even if we break up Nigeria today, there will always be cause for conflict in the new entities. Without competent and patriotic leadership, balkanised entities will also be conflict-prone.
Imam told me something that, somewhat, strengthened my theory: he said he was having problems in Sokoto state because some people saw him as a “foreigner” from Taraba appointed by Tambuwal when there were many “indigenes” who could have done the job. The governor was stubbornly standing by him, he said, despite all the intrigues. I quickly capitalised on that to preach my “gospel” again.
“You see what we have always been discussing over the years? You are Fulani. You are Muslim. You are serving in Sokoto where almost everybody around you is Muslim and Fulani. Yet you are seen as a foreigner. That is exactly the point I have been making about those seeking to balkanise Nigeria. They tend to think that the moment we are fractured along ethnic and religious lines, our problems will be solved and we will live together happily ever after. It doesn’t work that way. There will always be something to fight over, even if we are from the same village and speak the same dialect and go to the same church or mosque,” I sermonised. I was preaching to the choir, by the way.
The Nigeria of our daydream, the Nigeria of our fantasy, is a country that once we break into two entities – “Muslim north” and “Christian south”, as the popular fallacy goes – there would automatically be unity, peace and progress. Or if we break into three. Or six. Or 250. We often fantasise about an El Dorado where water would suddenly start flowing, all the lights would be shining 24/7, all the hospitals would have doctors and drugs, all the schools would have teachers, all the roads would be tarred, the lazy youth will disappear and poverty would be rooted out. Just break Nigeria into pieces and we would become Japan and Germany rolled into one! Magic!
I often contend that at best, the chances of success for a balkanised Nigeria would be 50:50. I am not saying Nigeria should not break up if the people so choose, but I insist that nobody can say for sure what we are going to benefit from that. It may turn out to be a success story – or an absolute disaster. Experience across Africa, though, does not paint a glorious picture. Our Southern Sudanese neighbours cannot claim they are better off today than they were before breaking away from Sudan. Yet they fought for independence for decades. Eritrea left Ethiopia after decades of friction, but its own internal conflicts are yet to be resolved as militant groups continue to campaign for more balkanisation.
The most embarrassing example has to be Somalia – a country where they share the same language, the same religion and even the same looks. The country could not break up on the basis of religious and ethnic differences, so they dissolved into clans and have known nothing but conflict for over two decades. Imagine a Republic of Ekiti breaking into Ado-Ekiti, Iyin-Ekiti, Ode-Ekiti, Oye-Ekiti and so on – and still not knowing peace. There is even an argument out there that for a multi-ethnic country to develop, there must be a dominant ethnic group taking charge of the levers of power. Again, the experience of dozens of African countries does not support this position.
There are ironies to deal with. Rwanda, so bitterly divided between the Hutu and the Tutsi, so much so millions of people were killed in the genocide of 1994, is one of the few African countries making real progress. Check their development journey – every single index puts Nigeria to shame. A multi-ethnic country is making tremendous progress on the things that matter to the person on the streets – healthcare, water, sanitation, infrastructure, gender rights and education – in spite of their glaring ethnic differences. They are not into “true federalism” or “resource control”. All they boast of is good leadership. Leadership. Leadership. Leadership.
Imam Imam always supported my research work on Nigeria’s ethnic and religious challenges. When the Berom and Fulani were at each other’s throat in Jos north, I asked him to help me gather some information. I said even though the conflict was framed as Muslims vs Christians (the Fulani are Muslims and the Berom are Christians), I would like to know if there were Berom Muslims and on whose side they were. I was working with the hypothesis that in northern Nigeria, under normal circumstances, religion is the primary form of identity; ethnicity and hometowns are secondary. That is, you are first a Muslim or Christian before anything else.
Imam promised to help with the Berom case. Luckily, he went for hajj in 2010 or 2011 during which he met some Berom Muslims. He helped me to interview them. His finding was not far from my hypothesis – those he interviewed aligned with the Fulani in the conflict. My next question then was: if you break up Nigeria, where would Berom Muslims be? Republic of Northern Nigeria or Republic of Middle Belt? Anyhow it ends up, there would still be Muslims and Christians in both republics. In the end, there would still be ethnic and religious differences to be managed in any new country you create out of Nigeria. There is no neat way of balkanising Nigeria. You can never create a “pure” country.
As Imam Imam and I ended our conversation, he promised to share his Sokoto experience with me to enrich my research work on Nigeria. The following day, he was taken to the hospital as the cold did not subside. It turned out he had viral pneumonia which had similar symptoms with common flu: cough, fever and chills. Exactly a week after our conversation, he passed away. What a loss. I am thoroughly devastated. Imam was a huge asset to me, both as a friend and a professional colleague. From the day our paths crossed at THISDAY, we started relating like blood brothers. He was appointed group politics editor in 2010 while I was editor of the newspaper.
I loved his work ethic. Imam made my job easy – he could squeeze out news from the tightest of sources. He was full of humour and humility. Above all, he was the kind of Nigerian I love to associate with – someone who would not allow religious and ethnic sentiments to damage his brain. I have encountered so many jaundiced Nigerians in my life, those who think and breathe ethnic and religious sentiments every minute of the day. Imam was different. He was a free spirit. Many people told me about his generosity and kindness. As devastating as the news of his death is to me, my mourning is tempered by the realisation that he only went ahead of us. Someday, it will be our turn. Sure.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
There are times I pity the president and his spokesmen. Under President Goodluck Jonathan when Boko Haram was bombing and killing with glee, it was obligatory for him to say something after each incident. It was a familiar line – the act “is callous”, the security agencies “will not relent” and all that. It was almost a template. President Muhammadu Buhari has entered into the blind alley himself. If Boko Haram is not murdering people in the north-east, gunmen are killing villagers or bishops in Benue state and bandits are massacring people in Kaduna and Zamfara. The president must say something even when it does not make sense anymore. Awkward.
THE PROXY WAR
On paper, it is Governor Yahaya Bello vs Senator Dino Melaye. In real life, it is President Muhammadu Buhari vs Senator Bukola Saraki. It is 2019. So far, I would say Bello is having the upper hand, although the recall move appears to have failed. Melaye has bitten more than he can chew and this is ironic because his hit song, “Ajekun Iya”, literally means if you enter into the ring with a clearly stronger opponent, you will suffer severe knock-out and humiliation. Nigeria will always defeat you. The police have proved once again that even if they cannot arrest the gunmen in Benue and Zamfara, they have enough resources to play politics. Games.
Chimamanda Adichie’s slating of Hillary Clinton for describing herself as “wife” in her Twitter bio is, in my opinion, in bad taste. To start with, Twitter bio is not only about listing your achievements – it is also to describe yourself. Mine starts with “writer” – which is not an achievement. I doubt if Ms Adichie can lecture Mrs Clinton on feminism – she twice vied to be US president, for crying out loud! Feminism is about choice, so a feminist scheming to impose her choice on other women is self-contradiction. Clinton appreciates and celebrates family values and relationships. I oppose all overt and covert attempts to bully women into jettisoning family values under the guise of feminism. Extremism.
Did you see the viral video of a young runner in a relay race? The little boy, who was apparently the anchor, turned the world upside down when he received the baton: he, innocently, started running in the opposite direction with every energy and determination he could muster. A man was seen desperately running after him to stop the reversal of fortune, but the boy would not budge. I cannot but laugh each time I watch it. But does that not remind us of the leadership crisis Nigeria has been facing since Independence? Anytime we seem to be making some progress, some people will just come and collect the baton and start running backwards at full speed! Vicious.
Simon Kolawole is the founder and CEO of TheCable.ng. He tweets @simonkolawole