By Muyiwa Adetiba
It is natural to develop some vested interests in a place when you have lived there for as long as I lived in FESTAC town.So ten years after I left, I still know about the traffic to and from the town; I am aware of the congestion in parts of the town that is threatening to turn them into slums; I know about the rising crime caused in the main by a growing number of loitering, jobless youths.
I am still updated on the activities of my former church. It is probably because of my abiding relationship with FESTAC and efforts to keep me updated, that a friend sent me the story of a lady’s encounter with okada riders along a major road in the town.
According to the lady’s story, a reckless okada rider had collided with her car. As she got out of her damaged car to complain, she was suddenly, besieged by a swarm of okada riders who came as it were from nowhere, beat her up and forced her to take their colleague to the hospital. This story is very familiar to those who ply areas where okada riders hold sway. You have a confrontation with one and you are suddenly surrounded by ten. FESTAC wasn’t one of those areas during my time there. But then, many areas in Lagos which were not involved with okada as recently as five years ago, have now been taken over by okada and have to contend with its menace.
One of such areas is my part of Oregun in Ikeja, where I have had my office for close to three decades. It was an Industrial Estate which used to be serene in the days when it was used for the purpose for which it was created. I have since watched as churches took over the warehouses and mechanics the side streets. Now, the intersections have been taken over by okada riders during the day and listless youths during the night. The latter caught me by surprise on a day I stayed late in the office.
I wondered where they slept, how they slept and how they cleaned up. I also wondered how they fed. The literal answer to the latter was provided by the twinkling lights of food markets all around. The deeper issue is what they do in other to afford their meals. This must be food for thought for anybody who is thinking security. And many people are thinking security these days.
One of such people was a friend who called me on Sunday to call my attention to the growing number of non-Yoruba okada riders in Lagos and the security implications. I thought he was being melodramatic when he said many of them were in strategic places waiting to be deployed to attack Lagos. Lagos had always been home to economic emigrants—from the East and from the North.
A disproportionate number is coming from the North now because of the worsening economic situation there. And those who used to go back home during the farming seasons no longer have farms to go to. I want to believe that many of them don’t have any political motive. But an idle man is a tool in the devil’s workshop. Their limited exposure to the host culture, their ignorant but tenacious hold to religion and their scant regard for the sanctity of life, could make them malleable to manipulative minds. In any case, hunger is the easiest excuse for crime.
It is sad that the North is the biggest manufacturer of poverty in the country. It is also the largest exporter of poverty to the South. Sad because the North has had a disproportionate hold on the levers of power in Nigeria since Independence. And power in a third world country translates to wealth and privileges.
For example, the North had had more crude oil licences given to individuals than the South. It has held more lucrative public positions over time than the South. Yet, according to statistics, almost 80% of its people are in abject poverty. The gap between the extreme rich and extreme poor is also the highest. It is instructive that the East which has not directly held power in years except when held vicariously during Jonathan’s time, has about the lowest poverty level in Nigeria. The gap between its extreme rich and extreme poor is also very favourable compared to other parts of the country.
Clearly, something is wrong. The northern leaders must put on their thinking caps and do some serious social re-engineering. The almajiri system which may have served its people in the past, is now a factory for poverty. Its original intention which was to be an alternative to Western education has been bastardised over time. It is now a cop-out for parents who abandon their responsibilities to their children. And to leaders who look the other way.
The solution to mass poverty in the north is simple yet complex. Population growth must be controlled. The situation where a peasant farmer has 20 children is irresponsible and must be stopped. It is no longer a sign of virility but of irresponsibility to have children you cannot cater for since humans are not litters of animals to be born and discarded. Out of school children must be seriously controlled. The more you can keep in schools, the less their chances of becoming potential criminals. Northern leaders must develop a social conscience and stop abusing their culture and religion to the disadvantage of the poor. The gap between extreme wealth and of extreme poor is embarrassingly high. They also have to learn to wean themselves off government. The South, especially the eastern zone, has done reasonably well for itself in this regard.
Meanwhile, Lagos has to think of the security implications of the teeming number of out of school children that are being shipped to them weekly.
Those northern leaders who are overly sensitive to South-West’s attempt at a better security network, should realise that they cannot solve their security issues by stopping the others from protecting themselves. They have tried it on the economic front and it hasn’t worked. It just made everybody poorer. Quotes from William Boetcker, made popular by President Reagan at a time, are timely here. ‘You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.’The way to attain parity therefore, is not to stifle the South. It is to lift the North up.
There is tremendous wealth in the North. But both the leaders and the led need to turn their mind-set towards social and economic parity. It is in everybody’s interest. We are running out of time.