File photo of Almajirai.
By Dele Sobowale
“In every community, there is a class of people profoundly dangerous to the rest. I don’t mean the criminals. For them we have punitive sanctions. I mean the leaders. Invariably, the most dangerous people seek power.”—Saul Bellow, VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, VBQ, p 124.
Every northern leader alive today – Head of State, Governor, Minister, Commissioner, Sultan, Emir, Religious, Professor, Billionaire etc – looking at the pictures of northerners fleeing to the South, during the COVID-19 lockdown, cannot escape being embarrassed. Here, in broad view of all Nigerians, as well as the entire world, are the poor people openly voting with their feet against their leaders in their desperate flight. Nobody has rigged this “election”. Almajiris, as southerners call all the destitute people in the deep North, have scanned their entire region and have arrived at the same conclusion: “There is no future here.”
The President of Nigeria and all the current northern governors did not create the problems giving rise to these forced internal migrations to places where they are not wanted despite the constitutional guarantee of the right of all Nigerian citizens to reside anywhere they choose within this “geographical expression” called Nigeria. But, it is a fact that only twice in our history since 1914 had the nation experienced such mass-migrations – before and immediately after the Civil War, 1967-70. Never in peace time have we witnessed such a phenomenon. Waves upon waves continue to push forward despite the equally desperate efforts of the southern states to turn them back. They employ every means; travel any road; subject themselves to the inhuman treatment of being carried under defeacating cattle and rotten tomatoes – all in a bid to get away from the North, including the President’s Katsina State, which no longer offers hope for even the most basic means of survival now. Surprisingly, nobody is urging them to stop. The northern elite have now openly abdicated their collective role in providing leadership to the masses. Leadership bankruptcy has never been more publicly advertised by any group in the entire history of the world. To be quite candid, I would be ashamed to be a northern leader now. Unfortunately, all Nigerians will pay dearly for it. Mark my words.
SHORT HISTORY OF DEVELOPMENT
Three major factors, among others, account for the situation in which the North, primarily, and Nigeria, collaterally, find themselves: greed, customs and religion. They have always represented a deadly and explosive combination in any country – sooner or later. None of them is new; and most likely, they will remain after we have undergone our baptism by fire in Nigeria.
“I was aware that many men who have accumulated more millions of money than they can ever use; have shown a rabid hunger for more; and have not scrupled to cheat the ignorant and the helpless of their poor servings in order to appease that appetite.” Mark Twain, 1835-1910
My first trip to the North was in 1974. It was by air to Kano and the two days’ visit was limited to the city. Even then, I saw enough to give me the impression that more horrors were lurking in the background. The next opportunity came approximately a year after in 1975. As the Marketing Manager of a multi-national company selling SIMILAC infant milk powder, I embarked on an extensive northern tour which took me from Kaduna to Jos and the North-East and back through Kano. It was an eye-opener in many respects. Poverty, illiteracy and backwardness were all pervasive and expected. Most shocking was the highly visible inequities – the criminal and conscienceless distribution of income in favour of the tiny minority of elite and against the vast majority of the poor. The boundary of the Benue/Plateau State with Bauchi State, a few kilometres from Jos, marked the beginning of long stretches of several backward communities, some still in the most primitive conditions imaginable.
Once in a long while, along the Bauchi-Gombe-Numan-Jalingo/Yola-Mubi-Maiduguri road, one would come to a community with one splendid modern building completely surrounded by primitive shelters for the rest. Out of curiosity, I would stop the car and ask questions about the owner of the mansion. Invariably, it was a Minister, Governor, General, NNPC or CBN Board member.
Still a new-comer from America, it was inconceivable to me how such an inherently unjust society could have arisen and sustained. There was, however, no doubt in my mind that it could not last for ever. Later, the opportunity to work and live in the North for ten years provided me with the chance to understand the factors which had enabled the leaders of the North-East and North-West, in particular, to create societies totally devoid of what can be regarded as a “Middle Class”. As an economist, I had a laboratory all to myself when travelling through the two most backward zones of Nigeria since that first adventure in 1975.
Collective GREED written in capital letters defined the attitude of the northern elite – more than any other zone. Even in the middle 1970s to early 1980s, when Nigeria was classified as a Middle Income nation, and ranked around 35 in Gross Domestic Product, GDP, only the North-West and North-East had widespread poverty as their common possession. The case of the North-West would appear to be most baffling as five Heads of government — Murtala Mohammed, Shagari, Buhari, Abacha, Yar’Adua and now again Buhari – had led the country since 1960. Yet, the two zones have remained relatively poorer and more backward than the rest. Now, their almajiris are threatening the unity of the nation as nothing since the Civil War had done.
“Religion has kept the poor from murdering the rich.” (Napoleon, 1769-1821). It soon dawned on me that the widespread acceptance of one religion in the North and the deliberate conditioning of the vast majority of its inhabitants, to the inequities visited on them by their traditional, especially religious leaders, had kept the North from exploding for centuries. The almajiri school system, which was offered as an alternative to modern education, served the elite interest by ensuring that their own kids, even if dullards, received the best education possible providing them with competitive advantage for the opportunities which economic growth and development always provided. The Mission Statement of Barewa College, Zaria, the Northern Region’s answer to the secondary schools in the Eastern and Western Regions, made it abundantly clear that it was “established to train the children of the elite”.
“There are only two families in the world; my old grandmother used to say – the Haves and the Have-nots.” Miguel de Cervantes, 1547-1616.
And for decades in the North, there were only two classes of educated northerners – Barewa or non-Barewa old boys.
From Barewa, the boys enter into the most powerful positions in the Federal Civil Service and all walks of life in Nigeria. Even the military, in the early stages of their rule, succumbed. Figures are hard to get, but, I once read that one quarter of the expenditure on education in the region was spent on Barewa alone – in order to make it competitive with southern schools. The consequences for the North of such lopsided allocation of resources to serve the children of the elite had never been examined. Certainly, it meant depriving thousands of poor children education each year in favour of less than 300 educated at Barewa. To assuage the feelings of the under-trodden and make them accept the injustice, religion was widely deployed. God, the wretched of the North were told, had decreed things to be so.
It was a swindle which would have lasted for ever if military intervention, rising population and the democratisation of information through the internet had not occurred. Military intervention was the first game changer. Obasanjo, Buhari, Babangida, Abacha and Abdulsalami were non-Barewa graduates. They enlarged the northern elite group to include other ethnic groups other than Hausa/Fulani overlords. By breaking up the North into 19 states they reduced the influence of the core North; extended education to all classes and left the problem of almajiris to those who had benefited from them in the past. Population was the second intruder in the historical development of the problem. There was no problem when graduates were few and jobs assured for all educated people. They could take care of their illiterate members. Today northern graduates also roam the streets unemployed and the jobless requiring support have multiplied beyond figures imaginable. The elite can no longer cope with the burden which over 100 years of inequities has created.
The internet completed the demolition job on the tranquillity of the North.
Despite the fact that television was introduced into Nigeria by Chief Awolowo’s government in the old Western Region, extremely poor power supply, especially to the rural North, had limited its impact on society. The internet has changed all that. Millions of northern uneducated, unemployed and homeless youths now have access to the world – especially its vices which the privileged enjoy while preaching sterile sermons to the poor. They want their share; and they want them now. Furthermore, they learn everyday, from foreign films, how quickly one can change one’s fortune by acquiring a gun and joining a gang.
“What does corrupting time not diminish? Our parents brought forth feebler heirs, we are further degenerate, and soon, will beget progeny more wicked.” That was the verdict of Horace, 65-8BC, a little over 2000 years ago writing about another country. But, the observations apply with greater force to northern Nigeria. When in 1980 I arrived in Kano to work and spend the rest of my life, three leaders were uppermost in my mind – Ahmadu Bello, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Malam Aminu Kano. I wanted to visit their homes; to see the opulence of their gardens. I was in for a shock. My driver was born in the North and knew the place like the lines on his hand.
Aminu Kano was the first. I thought the driver had missed his way when we reached the place. “This cannot be his house was my exclamation!!” The simplicity of it was breath-taking. But, it was; because just as we were attempting to make a U-turn, the great man escorted a guest out. Still unconvinced, I asked the driver if that is the only house belonging to him. “Yes sir”, was the prompt reply. Deliberately, I scheduled a visit to Sokoto a few weeks after and the surprise was just as great. Finally, I headed for Bauchi in search of Balewa’s house. The story was the same. Selfless service to their people was obvious. The first generation leaders might have erred by emphasising religion and customs instead of modern education for the masses. They were not criminally greedy to the extent their successors have been in perpetuating injustice while sowing the seeds of destruction of Nigeria….
To be continued…..