By Emma Agu
These are difficult times: for Nigeria and Nigerians; for the Government and the people of a potentially great country but whose extraordinary endowment has been squandered; to the point that it is now begging other countries for peanuts, compared to the colossal wealth that has been frittered away. These are times that task the resolve of men and women and challenge leadership to either play on the highway of nobility or totter along the alley of mundane pedestrianism.
I have always believed that the best time to assess political leadership is when danger lurks, particularly when the existing social order faces the risk of collapse. The recent #EndSARS protest was one such conundrum and despite the posturing by some commentators, it caught Nigeria’s political leadership flat-footed.
Credit had been given to the Federal Government’s handling of the agitation before some elements in military uniform bungled the response through a mindless shooting spree, at the Lekki Toll Gate, in Lagos that is now the subject of an intriguing investigation.
Today, as the denials and the blame games make the rounds, and frantic efforts are being made to douse tensions and restore a sense of normalcy, our thoughts and prayers go the families of both the protesters and the security personnel who lost loved ones to the mayhem. It will remain one sad blot on the bloody canvass of Nigeria’s quest for enlightened policing and an effective internal security architecture.
Be that as it may, it was not bungling and fumbling all the way. Though belated as it was, the dialogue initiated by President Muhammadu Buhari, aimed at engaging critical stakeholders, particularly the youths, in finding a solution to the problem, is step in the right direction. A flurry of town hall meetings and entreaties, by prominent Nigerians, to the protesters to sheath their swords appears to be making the right impact. By happenstance, I witnessed the town hall meeting in Bauchi, where stakeholders beamed their searchlight on the protests: the events, probable causes and likely solutions. Fireworks, there were: but ultimately, what obtained was akin to a family meeting where members subjected the existential threats confronting the nation, particularly Bauchi State, to honest and rigorous scrutiny.
The time was short but well utilized; credit to all those present but more to the Bauchi State Governor, Senator Bala Abdulkadir Mohammed. To appreciate the yeoman’s role he played, one needs to understand the peculiarities of Bauchi State, in which the House of Assembly, is controlled by the leading opposition party in the state, the All Progressives Congress (APC); yet nobody could use the EndSARS protest for political ends. Here is a state that, prior to May 2019, had the highest number of out-of-school pupils of 1.3 million, a potentially lethal reservoir for recruitment of jobless youths; yet they did not take the bait to pour into the streets. Here is a state where prior to Bala Mohammed’s assumption of office as Governor, restive youths known as Sara Suka regularly terrorized the people, yet the youth present at the event heeded the entreaties to remain calm even as speaker after speaker, lamented the parlous state of the national economy and the high-handedness of some elements of the disbanded SARS!
Why then did the youth of Bauchi State shun the protest in spite of pre-existing socio-economic conditions? One answer lays in the systematic shrinking of youth unemployment through sustained empowerment programmes by the Bala Mohammed Administration. As if the Government envisaged the impending implosion, as lately as September 2020, it had started distributing 1000 tricycles and 250 transport vehicles to the youth, under a highly subsidized hire purchase scheme. Before that, four thousand youth who were trained by the State Government, in modern farming techniques, had taken to the farms and were no longer available for recruitment either as insurgents or protesters. The implication is that, if an idle head is the devil’s workshop, then the devil could not recruit followers from Bauchi State.
One other important deterrent was Bala Mohammed’s single-minded commitment to pre-emptive security which entailed deploying resources to intelligence gathering, logistical support to the security paraphernalia of the state and the domestication of rural security in the hands of local leaders. All the security chiefs at the meeting confirmed that the Administration has encouraged various stakeholder groups, particularly the security agencies, to take ownership of internal security. The result is the presence of an effective intelligence network that ensures that, more often than not, security threats are nipped in the bud before they get out of hand.
But if those were the remote conditions predisposing the youth of Bauchi into calm sobriety, his handling of the actual town hall meeting on, security, threw ample light on those leadership qualities of Bala Mohammed that have encouraged the people to take ownership of their own security and ultimately their lives. As Chairman of the occasion, Bala Mohammed assumed the posture of a neutral leader, albeit in a deeply polarised political setting. He had an ear for everyone who wanted to speak, empathised with every complainant, regretted the wanton killings that took place, assured every despondent person, assuaged some restless youth who, from their persistent gesture and thinly disguised heckling, had obviously targeted some of the guests at the Town Hall meeting.
For those who expected the Governor, to play the partisan card, who expected him to blame the APC-controlled Federal Government for the crisis engulfing the country, they were wrong. To Bala Mohammed, the crisis that had engulfed the country called for statesmanship, not politics; for honesty, not duplicity and for compassion, not grand-standing or threats. His antecedents, as a statesman, speak to a predictable consistency. The one that readily comes to mind was when, in 2010, some elements tried to stall Goodluck Jonathan’s ascent to the Presidency. Bala Mohammed, then a Senator under the banner of the All Nigeria Peoples Party, ANPP, sponsored the Doctrine of Necessity resolution that paved the way for Goodluck Jonathan, to become acting President and later President. Here then, was one such other situation: the nation was in the throes of anarchy; political hounds were baying for blood and to get that blood could throw the nation into irreversible destabilisation.
Towering high above petty partisanship, he wore the garb of a statesman, giving deserved recognition to the empowerment programmes of the Federal Government. As speaker after speaker lamented the deepening economic woes that had bedevilled the country, Bala Mohammed did not fail to acknowledge the bold initiatives of the Buhari Administration in the areas of youth empowerment and poverty alleviation and how Bauchi State had benefitted immensely from those policies. His statesmanship gave ample cover to both the Minister of State for Industry, Trade and Investment, Ambassador Katagum and Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, both of whom reeled out an impressive inventory of Federal Government empowerment and economic stimulus packages, with the National Social Investment Programme of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, occupying a prominent position.
In all, the Bauchi Town Hall meeting on security was a huge success. By making it a patriotic, non-partisan affair, Governor Bala Mohammed paved the way for a peaceful stakeholder engagement. His entreaty for speakers to express their views without fear, was heeded to the letter. Representatives of the various entities: student leaders, women organisations, traditional rulers, journalists, civil society organisations etc rose boldly to speak their minds. The preponderance of the comments showed clearly that the anti-SARS protests were only a trigger for deep-seated anger, over the economic downturn, waiting for an opportune time to erupt. That perhaps explains the indiscretion of the protesters who, after the President had acceded to their five-point demand, embarked on a ritual of demands whose end nobody could foretell.
That sentiment found greater expression when, speaker after speaker, while admitting that the disbanded SARS exceeded acceptable limits in bestiality and brutally, warned of the danger of labelling every policeman as a villain and inadvertently throwing the baby away with the birth water.
The maxim that one man’s meat is another man’s poison was sharply brought to focus, at the Bauchi Town Hall meeting. While some people elsewhere were busy criticising states where the protests were not “successful”, most of the guests, at the Town Hall meeting, shared President Buhari’s commendation of Bala Mohammed, for the latter’s ability, to successfully restrain the youth in Bauchi from participating in the protest. Obviously, critics of the abstention option, do not understand the vulnerabilities of the North East; a zone that has been traumatised by war, displacement of citizens, near complete disruption of lives and livelihood; where to most people, every day is like the last day on earth. This is a zone in which the slightest indication of instability quickly snowballs into uncontrollable inferno. Beyond the over-hyped geo-political fault-lines of Nigeria, the risk of playing into the hands of insurgents and other agents of destabilisation, always looms large in the psyche of political leadership and followership in the northern states of Nigeria. Thus, from the perspective of national security, they consider it imperative that Bauchi State should never capitulate to the Boko Haram advance. It was Bob Marley who sang that, “Who feels it, knows it”.
So far, in the face of this grave national crisis, Bala Mohammed continues to successfully navigate the delicate balance between partisan political attractions (of office) and the patriotic demands of political stability and national survival. Not surprisingly, his unique leadership attributes have placed Bauchi State on the path of sustained development through aggressive provision of infrastructure, rehabilitation of the educational system, productive youth engagement and people-empowerment, an imaginative IGR enhancement strategy and above all, unprecedented welfare administration that has placed state government workers on the first charge of funds disbursement thereby energising the civil service into a reliable machine for driving the ambitious agenda of the State Government.
- Emma Agu is a former managing director of Champion Newspaper