As ‘The North’ Goes Under

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EDIFYING ELUCIDATIONS BY OKEY IKECHUKWU 

The visit to Zamfara State in 2014 was at once frightening, sobering and demoralising. Though seated in a sprawling parlour with massive chairs, we were all unconsciously in a huddled position, as the then Secretary to the State Government explained how he abandoned his farm and ranch because of cattle rustling and fear for his personal safety. Zamfara was at the mercy of the elements and it was impossible to deploy law enforcement agents, even for himself, in any meaningful way. He talked about the humiliating experience some of the men were often subjected to by the bandits. They would take a man’s cattle and probably some of his wives and then still make him drive the cattle for quite a distance into the wilderness for them, before allowing him to go back home, alone.

Our visit to the state agricultural and animal husbandry project revealed some of the neatest looking cows and animal any of us had ever seen. There weren’t even animal droppings in the place. Why would cows in a local facility be looking like they came from a car wash? Then it hit some of us: the animals, not more than seven in number, were procured on the day of our planned visit and stationed for our viewing.

We eventually met with the governor. My first question to him before things became somewhat more formal was whether he was related to Sule Lamido, the Jigawa State governor. The physical resemblance was not just striking but totally and mercilessly so. He answered in the negative and observed that he has had to answer that question more times than he could remember. The man did not resemble Lamido in his performance in office, though. A visit to Jigawa State revealed a great contrast. The foresight, robust planning and incredible infrastructural strides of Lamido will leave you with one question: “what was this state before Lamido’s tenure.” But let us not digress.

The Zamfara State governor’s comments about his state and the misfortunes of his people centred around “derivation,” as a lot of gold was mined in the state and carted away while his people were ravaged by poverty. He said that “Abuja people” and other big men and their Chinese collaborators controlled the place. There was also talk about heavy gold hauls on several fronts, including occasional use of helicopters for minor quick evacuations on Thursdays. It was also a sorry tale of lamentations when we met his commissioners, who all seemed not to really have anything to do. It was written all over them. The ones we tried to engage in brief private banter about their portfolios had little to say. Their being called together to meet with our team from the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies was like a major international event.

The smell of death hung in the air everywhere at the once-vibrant textile mill in the state. It had enough electricity generating capacity to serve the entire state but, like the textile mill itself, the generators were severely underutilized. It was producing nothing, except for some bales of raw cotton it was milling for some local farmers. Listening to the very professional gentleman who gave the history of the mill, its capacity, its impact on unemployment and the local economy before it went under, left everyone with goose bumps. He lamented the decades of neglect. He also had a detailed breakdown of what it would take to revive the textile mill. But he had no answer to the competition from cheaper imported materials, especially from China and Korea.

The dam in the state was in a grievous state of neglect. It had been for decades. It displaced more people and communities than was anticipated by the original Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that preceded its construction. But most of such the displaced persons were not compensated. The swathes of lost farmlands, homesteads and local economies wrecked by all this was a matter of indifference to the powers that be, even at the time. There was this eerie air about the entire state, as there were only very few people on the streets at any time of the day. Shops rarely opened before 9.30a.m and would close sometime around 5p.m.

Then we visited Bukuyum, one of the holy lands of Zamfara’s gold production. The place was dull, drab and dreary. The few local people around had an inexplicable wan look about them. You could touch the poverty in the air. Then were taken to the local government headquarters to wait for the local government chairman. He arrived nearly an hour later in a whirl of dust. As he emerged from his impressively brand new Nissan Armada SUV, impeccably well dressed in high profile Agbada and looking every bit like an emperor from some foreign land, I knew that all might not be well with the people of Bukuyum and Zamfara State in general for a long time to come. This man was a stranger here, as defined by his lifestyle, but the people were happy to see him and clear the way for him.

We were well received, but we did not feel well about our reception. There were just too many tattered looking young and not so young adults everywhere. The refreshment we were given was raided partly by some hungry bystanders and by some of those who helped in serving the food. Whatever was available was appropriate for serving the food and some of us were advised to eat rice with our bare hands in the absence of enough spoons. We couldn’t. The scariest element of it all was that it all seemed very normal to the people from the area. Such grinding poverty! Such disconnect from the 21st century! Such shameless leadership! Such reprobate guardians of the commonwealth!
This is the state that registered only 28 candidates for admission into secondary school. Meanwhile only 24 Zamfara students passed the last National Common Entrance Examinations (NECO). Is this how the state will become part of tomorrow’s world? Some other northern states have a better record, with 50 and even more. But how does the total number of registered candidates from the 19 states of the north make sense in an examination that registered nearly 25,000 candidates from 36 states and the FCT?

And the relentless, daily killings are going on in all the northern states, while everyone thinks that power resides in the north today. It does not. Real power is seen in the level of living and social stability. The northern political elite would seem to have been diligently digging its own grave for quite some time now, but without knowing it. They have allowed a new breed of wild youths, not sufficiently socialised even in line with the ‘Ranka dede’ culture to acquiesce in want and deprivation, to become dominant. Drugs, poverty, motiveless criminality and rapacious daredevilry have chased all the northern big men to Abuja. But for how long will they be in exile? Is Abuja itself still safe? Are some high profile estates and exclusive neighbourhoods in Abuja not being quietly attacked these days?

Property rates have crashed beyond measure all over the north. Investors have fled. Local economies have collapsed. Re-desertification has taken over many places, as farmlands and animal husbandry are abandoned. Proceeds of crime have become the new means of livelihood for a new majority, who now pose a threat to the children and peace of mind of those who had the chance to make a difference but failed to do so. No one can see it clearly enough for now, but it is there. A mocking skull and demeaning emptiness! An unchartered malignancy that can best be described as a sickness unto death.

I listened with a mixture of dismay and consternation to a former, very highly respected, National Security Adviser at a stakeholders event he convened in Abuja on the herdsmen and kidnapping menace now plaguing the nation; and particularly North. He told us about his several meetings with kidnappers on various major routes and how they explained to him why nobody could ever come after them in the forest and hope to get out alive. He talked about the ready availability of AK47 rifles to every male as from the age of 14, the fact that kidnapping had become the quickest way of raising money to buy more cattle and improve their social status – since your pre-eminence is closely tied to the number of cows you owned. But the elders in the place were now worried that the younger elders no longer listened to them and were doing things they would not have contemplated themselves. Thus that even their free-band society was collapsing before their very eyes.

What really killed it for the retired soldier was when it was time for the afternoon prayers. Majority of these “Muslims” did not understand why he called for prayers. He also observed that many actually did not know how to pray. That was when a dreadful realisation hit him. The people he had come to see were ethnic Fulanis and lived the traditional nomadic life. But they did not understand the concept of kith and kin beyond their small hunting bands and immediate offsprings. He was horrified. Spread out before him were degenerate marauders who knew nothing about modern statehood, law and order etc.!

And it is in the midst of the foregoing that we are speaking of the abatement of the madness in the land? How? The late Abubakar Rimi would probably still be alive today if he had not encountered his ‘brothers’ on a lonely road in the dead of night. He spoke to them in Fulfulde. He even tried to reason with them about the wrongness of their “line of work”. Did they listen to him? Did they not still rob him? Was it not out of some inverted respect that they spared his life, after warning him to keep his preachment to himself as they were simply trying to “make a living” and feed their families?

The North is in trouble – and the rest of the nation with it. A region that has the highest allocation from oil revenue, the highest earnings from tax mostly paid by other regions, the highest earning from bunkering and the highest earnings from the illegal mining of gold and other natural resources, is ravaged by poverty, underdevelopment and a burgeoning population of unemployable youths. Is this right? Is this normal? Is anyone paying attention – as the North goes under?