(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 10 April, 2023)
My mystery Hausa friend has been busy with me lately. He has been firing a series of probing (invasive) messages. Sometimes, he asks questions; other times, he comes plain and provocative. On March 28, my friend told me “Igbos and Yorubas have been Nigeria’s problem since colonial times. They are still the problem. They heat up the polity unnecessarily. Easing them out is the solution.” I knew he was fishing for my ‘trouble’ or for clues to something for whatever purpose, and so, I had no response for him. But he came back: “Yoruba-Igbo (wahala) didn’t start today. You guys have ruined our country. Easing you out is the only and final solution.”
I gave him a one-word response: “Good.” We drew the curtain.
On Sunday, April 2, my friend was back. “I told you the other day that Igbos and Yorubas should exit this country. They can form a country together.” Again, I had no response. Then he called. I laughed; he laughed and repeated the statement. I told my friend to tell the Northern Elders Forum and the Arewa Consultative Forum, and, maybe, the Emirs to put that thought down in a joint proposal for national endorsement. It may really be the solution we’ve been searching for. He laughed. I didn’t laugh.
Then I asked him: This your suggestion of the Yoruba leaving your country for you, I hope you remember that the towns of Offa, Ajase Ipo and others in that axis up to Okunland in Kogi State are Yoruba too? My friend said no. Those ones are in the north: “We won’t lose an inch of our territory,” he vowed. It was my turn to laugh at the wrongness of his position and the impracticability of his proposal. Whose territory are we talking about here? Some people are given something to chew, they say no, they won’t accept it because it is just bare bone; you ask them to throw it away, they say no, they won’t throw it away because it has some meat.
But are Yoruba and Igbo really (not) the problem? If your eyes are too young to see the past, the present is within the seeable range. Those two do not know what they want from Nigeria. It did not start today. The Yoruba in particular deserve pity now more than ever. The real North is united; the Igbo are united; the Yoruba are forever walnut children of discord and disputation. Each of the contending tendencies in Yoruba land think they are wise and the others mere monkeys. Yet, what they all fight over are no more than Nigeria’s rotten bananas thrown at them by demons of the forest. There are elements in Yoruba land who insist that not singing their song should be fatal to intra-group peace and amity. And they act and say it. Late American lawyer and jurist, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, comes in here with a timeless counsel: “You can disagree without being disagreeable.” The unity of others is rooted in this wisdom but the maximalists in Yoruba land think their position should be the position. It can’t work that way. That exactly is what Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Asiwaju of Yorubaland, meant when he said on March 9, 1968 that: “Total absence of dissent and contention is possible only in a community of angels or imbeciles. The Yoruba are neither.” That statement was a core paragraph in Awo’s message to the then military governor of Western State, Brigadier Robert Adeyinka Adebayo, when he turned 40. Awo told Adebayo that as governor, the birthday boy had “laboured hard and conscientiously as no one did to recreate harmony and solidarity among the Yoruba people.” (See Nigerian Tribune, March 10, 1968). Looking back now, can we still sing that the labour of our heroes past shall not be in vain? It appears that the gourd is broken. Even the privileged elders among the Yoruba of today, what do you see (and say) of them? Their masquerader tears his own mask. They refuse to remember that it is taboo for the old to do orò like bickering toddlers (wón nse orò bí èwe). You look at their ways and remember Charles Dicken’s novel, ‘Oliver Twist’, and the character named Mr Bumble. Today’s elders of fortune remind you of the bumbledom of that character, one of the three privileged persons who are outraged that the hungry, poor little Oliver Twist wants “some more” food.
The current Igbo-versus-Yoruba war will produce no winner between them. Everyone, except the constant northern star, is the loser. Yoruba partisans and the Igbo fight without tact; they forget that in all naked knife brawls, “the loser dies on the scene; the winner dies in the ambulance.” They pretend not to know that there is a common foe which has the key to the southern brain and turns it effectively in an open-and-close manner. That has happened repeatedly. If you want dogs to fight, throw them a bone. It is happening now. The Yoruba that wanted a restructured Nigeria and the Igbo that wanted probably something more loose than a federation have both dropped the ball. Their bulls and their dogs, old and young, educated and uneducated, are pitiably pitted against each other now over Nigeria’s cripple presidency. The dog handlers are watching, smiling.
While the Yoruba and the Igbo fight over Nigeria’s poisoned chalice, and the North watches, Nigeria gets encircled by the real enemies, back from recess. Evil men are always back to continue where they stopped. Long before the 2023 elections, life was Hobbesian: “nasty, brutish and short.” But, shortly before the elections, our forest of a billion demons went calm and quiet. Now, the elections are over, Nigeria’s bandits are back. One Ogboni chief lost his life last week in Osun State while searching for his kidnapped wives. Some abducted locals in Ikorodu, Lagos State, currently nurse wounds they got in kidnappers’ den. Eighty-something children kidnapped in Zamfara; inter-ethnic killings somewhere in Sokoto; mass murder of mourners and displaced persons in Benue. Katsina, Kebbi, Niger and part of Kaduna are not different. We’ve not heard a word from leaders of the North. They eat the yam of collapse of values with the palm oil of silence. Yet, in a signed statement last month, they gloated when hostilities broke out between a faction of Yoruba partisans and the Igbo in Lagos.
Nineteenth century English romantic poet and author of The Masque of Anarchy, Percy Bysshe Shelley, harps on the bad being a continuum; the cycle of evil. To him, “change is certain. Peace is followed by disturbances; departure of evil men by their return.” In case you get exasperated by the doom and the negative bell in his philosophy and the infinity of its ringing tone, Shelley offers a pall of consolation: “Such recurrences should not constitute occasions for sadness but realities for awareness, so that one may be happy in the interim.” That is it; all human experience is an interim arrangement; sorrow and its flip side are tenured. Nothing is made to last – not governments, not the governed, certainly not a contraption. Only change lasts. That is Shelley’s thesis, and it is true and valid. What better explains this poet’s position than the ‘interim’ life he lived: Born, August 4, 1792, died in the Mediterranean Sea on July 8, 1822. He died at 29, very short by all standards, but long enough to influence great writers and thinkers like William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi and, particularly, Thomas Hardy in arguing the theme of evanescence of power and impermanence of passion.
Professor Wole Soyinka asked a question last Friday in his diatribe against Peter Obi’s people, and he answered the question himself. “Project Nigeria, I must confess, has become near terminally soul-searing. Do I still believe in it? I am no longer certain but…” There should be no ‘but’ following that negation of certainty. James Joyce, Irish novelist, says (and I consider his position valid) that he “will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church…” Read Soyinka again and ask yourself that question. After a failed Nigeria, where else for you? Nigerian youths have asked themselves that question and are reacting with anger; we should understand their position. The choices we made in the past (even the ones we made just yesterday) have served to alienate them and sear their souls. They scramble for safety from our bad choices and we say they can’t raise their voice to make their own choice. Japa is a choice. Going abroad may be an exciting way to escape from the Nigerian nightmare, but it is increasingly chilling in discriminatory disappointment. For the youths, it is a case of being rejected at home; unaccepted abroad (ilé ò gbàá, ònà o gbàá). And we say they must not shout – and even fight dirty. They will, otherwise we will soon make them homeless – and without hope and certainty of nationality. They have read Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, the state of nature and the warning of war. They know what it means to be ruled by hollow men who lack legitimacy but are rich in fart and hifalutin. Where such non-government rules, Hobbes says war “of every man against every man” ensues; and where it happens, there exists “no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Does this not sound like where we are right now? Nigeria appears right down that valley. I do not think anyone, whether old or young, wants such a life as a continuum of experience. That is why the Nigerian youths are not keeping quiet or keeping still. They shouldn’t.
A dictionary meaning of ‘future’ is “time still to come.” That is not a period for the geriatric, near-departure-lounge judge to magisterially legislate on. To do so is political terrorism of the worst form because the future belongs to the young and it is theirs to protect and project. They need a home to rest after trotting the globe. Who wants to leave home and not come back? At the far opposite side of ‘home’ is what the Greek experienced and named ‘Diaspora’, a connotation for dispersion, alienation and nostalgia and thirst for the self, for love and for accommodation. I have a professor-friend in America that is home sick. He has been holed up in the US since 2016. Of course, he knows where the airport is and will buy a return ticket from his living room with the click of a button. As a Nigerian, he does not need a visa or anyone’s permission to enter his country of birth. But that freedom ends where concerns for safety start. It is like the Idi Amin joke of his countrymen having freedom of speech but lacking freedom after speech. “I long to see Nigeria. I miss the special scent of home. I am a citizen here but there is no place like home. Even if it is for two weeks, I want to be at home soon.” My professor-friend told me last week during one of our long midnight WhatsApp calls. My friend spoke back and forth and went back to his longing for Nigeria. But he sounded helpless. My friend voiced out concerns about his safety if he came to Nigeria. “Worse, we are worried here about the prospect of a war, a civil war in Nigeria. We discuss this among ourselves here.” He and his friends had thought the election would give some respite, some breeze of peace; but the post-election dispute and the rhetoric have been even more frightening. “Will there be a civil war in Nigeria?” He asked me directly. It was obvious from his tone that he wanted a reassuring answer. But I had no Balm of Gilead for the aching; there is none. Indeed, as I write this, there are reports of deadly gunfights between Hausa and Fulani in Gwadabawa, a town 36.7km (just 38-minutes drive) to the Sultan’s palace in Sokoto. In the six-year Jihad of 1804, those two groups were together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in their holy war against the enemy.
“Are we not already fighting a war?” I replied my friend. “Is Benue not at war? People get killed there every day without consequences. The Nigerian state is helpless or complicit. What of Plateau and Taraba and Nasarawa and Niger states? The North-East has been fighting Boko Haram since 2009. How many years ago was that? And insecurity there is still work in progress. The North-West is fighting a war against industrial banditry. The South-East is at war with itself. Street gangs and piratical bandits rule the creeks of the South-South. The only oasis with a semblance of peace is the South-West and there are signs of leaks there already. You may, perhaps, add to it some parts of Kwara and Kogi States. Even then, the question about these areas is how long can they push back on the threat closing in on them?” My friend was quiet for some minutes and I could hear deep sighs at his end. But, professors are patient birds; they are never short of optimism. My friend thought a new government of Bola Tinubu would make a difference. “What will he do?” I genuinely wanted to know.
“He won’t make the mistake Buhari made. He will fight the bandits and neutralize them on time.” My friend has so much hope and confidence in what is coming.
“Really?” I thought I should ask him. “If the president from the South is hard on northern bandits, will your people not accuse him of killing the children of the North?” I can’t remember my friend’s answer to that question.