How time flies. When Major Abubakar Umar was appointed military governor of Kaduna state by Gen Ibrahim Babangida in 1985, he was just approaching his 36th birthday. He was fresh-faced and handsome, with the trademark well-arranged moustache — the trend at the time. Beyond his looks, Umar came across as a progressive, one who cared about the ordinary people, one who viewed society with a pair of liberal eyes despite having royal blood. He voluntarily resigned from the army as a colonel in 1993 after being detained without trial for allegedly seeking to undo the June 12 annulment. Now 70, he is in a good place more than many of us to comment on national affairs.
To start with, Kaduna state is one of the most complex to govern in Nigeria because of the eternally bitter ethno-religious divide. As governor, Umar watched as age-long, pent-up ethno-religious sentiments exploded in Kafanchan town in March 1987. When the dust settled, there were 19 dead bodies on the ground. Hotels, vehicles, churches and mosques were set on fire as the riots spread to the neighbouring cities of Kaduna, Katsina and Funtua. And 33 years after, the dead bodies are still piling up. We still don’t know when the burning and killing will end but we definitely know that the last one is not the last one. That is what unresolved resentment does to a society.
Umar, a Fulani Muslim from Birnin Kebbi, needed to carefully tip-toe through the mines as governor. If he acted one way, Christians would scream “bias”. If he acted another way, Muslims would shout “Judas”. It was not a pretty situation. At a time in Nigeria’s history, Kaduna represented nothing but killings, killings and killings. Everyone predicted that a religious war would start in Kaduna, engulf the entire north and tear Nigeria to pieces. But, as Umar once warned, if you win a religious war, “you cannot win religious peace. Since the killing started how many Christians have been converted to Islam? How many Muslims have been converted to Christianity? It is an exercise in futility”.
In an open letter last week, Umar warned President Muhammadu Buhari on the dangers of lopsided appointments and took him on a historical excursion into how Nigeria’s delicate ethnic and religious balance has been managed in times past. He referred to the choice of the army chief in 1965 and how an Igbo officer, Gen JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi, was appointed on the basis of seniority even when some northerners were rooting for Gen Zakariya Maimalari, who was equally qualified. The Northern People’s Congress (NPC), led by Sir Ahmadu Bello with Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa as the prime minister, could have chosen Maimalari and damned the consequence, Umar said.
In 1976, according to Umar, Gen TY Danjuma, a northern Christian, willingly gave up being second-in-command to Gen Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian, for national harmony. Lt Col Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, a Fulani Muslim and Danjuma’s junior, had to be given double promotion and made second-in-command to balance the equation. Umar said two northern Christians, Chief Sunday Awoniyi and Dr Ishaya Audu, served as close aides to Ahmadu Bello. In fact, Audu was Bello’s personal physician. Umar warned Buhari that legacy is not just about the tangible, such as infrastructure, but also the intangible — the lasting impression about his sense of equity and justice.
The immediate trigger for Umar’s letter was apparently the ongoing drama on the choice of the president of the Court of Appeal. Despite being nominated by the National Judicial Council (NJC), Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem, a northern Christian, has continued to occupy the position in an acting capacity as Buhari has not sent her name to the senate for confirmation. What we are hearing is that Justice Mohammed Lawal Garba, a Muslim from Kano state, is being preferred to Dongban-Mensem. Umar wrote: “If she is bypassed in favor of the next in line who happens to be another northern Muslim, that would be truly odd.”
Umar was commended or condemned, depending on the camp. The southern and middle belt “leaders” who have sentenced the Fulani and Muslims to hell fire suddenly started hailing Umar — forgetting that he is also a Fulani and a Muslim. Well, his view serves the purpose, so that’s fine. Let the same Umar come out tomorrow and state the obvious fact that Fulani herdsmen are also a big problem for northern farmers and he will be called names. That’s the way life goes. Most of those condemning Umar are, of course, Buhari’s supporters; how dare Umar accuse Buhari of lopsidedness? Surely, they said, he’s always had personal scores to settle with the president!
Where do I stand on Umar’s letter? Let me make preliminary comments first before I go into the substantive issue. Anybody who knows me very well or has followed my writings over the years will remember one line of argument I always make: that in any multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, you can never achieve harmony and integration when any part genuinely feels marginalised or excluded. Those who developed the federal character principle are not idiots, no matter what they tell you on Twitter. The principle behind federal character, to my understanding, is to make sure Nigeria’s ethnic, regional and religious make-up is reflected in federal appointments.
However, there are those who argue against federal character on the ground that it promotes mediocrity. I have read comments that the principle was developed to favour northern Nigeria in federal appointments because they cannot compete on merit. I do not know if this was the basis for the development of the federal character principle in the first place, but it is absolute nonsense to say the north of today does not have qualified people. There is no field of human endeavour that the north does not have capable people. It is very condescending — and patently false — to suggest that a northerner can only get a job if he does not compete with a southerner.
Even when we look at the complaints about Buhari’s appointments, I have not seen anyone provide evidence that the northern appointees do not have the qualification and experience and are, thus, incompetent; at least on paper. The Justice Lawal that is being pushed to become the president of the Court of Appeal is as qualified as Justice Dongban-Mensem, so the question is not about the CV. The question is about what is right and what is fair. Why bypass the most senior judge, who is eminently qualified and who has been screened and recommended by the NJC, and pick someone else? That, to me, should be the question in this case — not the religion, not the ethnic origin.
Those who oppose federal character often tend to argue that it is the opposite of merit. Again, I disagree completely. There is no region, religion or ethnic group in Nigeria today that does not have competent and qualified people. I challenge anybody to name just one ethnic group or state that does not have competent engineers, accountants, lawyers, doctors, communication specialists, educationists, quantity surveyors, architects, and such like. The troubling issue is: do we nominate our best even in the application of federal character? It is untrue to suggest that all the competent people in Nigeria are from one region, or that one ethnic group has monopoly of merit.
Meanwhile, shortly after Umar’s letter was published, a list of Buhari’s appointees was circulated on social media to suggest that indeed, southerners have got more appointment than northerners. In fact, the south-west has the lion’s share. When you look at the long list, though, it is populated by special assistants, senior special assistants and special advisers. Ministers are also there — but that is a constitutional requirement that nobody can do anything about. However, I thought the general argument, even before Umar’s letter, was about heads of federal agencies. That is the list they should circulate to counter Umar, not the catalogue of special assistants.
In his THISDAY column on Thursday, Olusegun Adeniyi wrote and I quote: “While no president should be held hostage by those who maliciously reify ethnic or religious prejudices or those who still bellyache five years after suffering an electoral defeat, the pursuit of equity in the distribution of opportunities in a plural society offers not only emotional satisfaction and a psychological sense of belonging to all groups but aids national cohesion and development as well.” I align myself with his position. In the end, it is not as if distributing appointments benefits the ordinary people, but there is a place for optics and emotional satisfaction in nation-building. This is a natural fact.
I eagerly await the office of the SGF to release the full list of agency heads to prove the critics wrong — or right — on the distribution of positions. There can never be peace in any society where some parts feel they don’t belong or they are only being tolerated. Resentment and bitterness build up this way. Umar knows the devastating consequences of pent-up ethno-religious sentiments. He was governor of Kaduna state. He saw it all. Buhari is doing very well in infrastructural development, no questions about that, but Nigeria is fractured and needs healing. Nigeria needs to be united. Buhari must start applying the balm today. Otherwise, the resentment will keep building up.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
Why are pastors in a hurry to re-open their churches when the threat of COVID-19 is still very much out there? Various studies carried out so far have established that the coronavirus disease easily spreads in crowded or closed spaces such as worship centres, restaurants, gyms, markets and public transport, etc. Singing, it is said, aerosolises respiratory droplets. The classic example is a choir in the American state of Washington. Despite taking precautions, such as washing hands, using sanitisers and observing physical distancing inside the enclosed hall, 45 of the 60 choristers developed COVID-19 symptoms within four days. Two of them died. Those who have ears, let them hear. Wisdom.
NO TO RAPE
There are different forms of rape. There is the statutory rape: having carnal knowledge of a minor, one who is not legally old enough to give consent. Now, it doesn’t matter if there is consent or not; it is still rape. There is also the rape that occurs when a straightforward “no” is ignored, no matter how intimate both of you get. And then there is the brutal, bestial sexual act forced on a person under dehumanising circumstances, especially by someone they were not intimate with. Now, let us get this cleared up — rape is rape, no matter the form. As we rev up the campaign against rape, all these dimensions must be well captured. It doesn’t have to be violent to be rape. Perversion.
BLACKS CAN’T BREATHE
The sadistic murder of George Floyd, a black American, by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, has sparked nationwide protests in the US. Chauvin actually smothered Floyd like a goat. In truth, the impression I have always had about the US is that there is something in the system that condones and fans racism, especially against blacks. Erring police officers are hardly punished. At most, they are sent on “administrative leave”. Crime without punishment can only normalise crime. I know racism is everywhere, but in the UK, open misdeeds are usually punished. For a country that is already dealing with gun crimes and mass shooting, the US is fast turning into an eyesore. Pathetic.
SO LONG, MAJEK
Majek Fashek, the Nigerian reggae prodigy who started dying about 25 years ago, finally shed his mortal body on Tuesday in the US, where he had been receiving medical attention. The story of Majek is as tragic as it could be: from a handsome young singer and fine song writer with angelic voice to a scraggy, virtually homeless man in a spate of 10 years of stardom. Many believe the death of his mother affected his career badly, but that is neither here nor there. What we are very clear about is that at some point, he lost his way, got into bad habits and never recovered. Something tells you he could have been far greater, but nothing can diminish his greatness still. Legend.