By Ikechukwu Amaechi
ON May 29, that is tomorrow, President Muhammadu Buhari will mark his fifth anniversary in office. Questions will concentrate the minds of many. What does the North want out of Nigeria? Is there an exclusive Northern agenda? If there is, to what extent does that agenda promote national unity?
These questions could be stretched further. Does President Buhari subscribe to the idea of a Nigeria that works for all? Is he an inherently good but misunderstood man? Does he mean well for Nigeria and Nigerians? Has he done well for the country?
These posers have become more germane in the face of ongoing smuggling, enmasse, of able-bodied young men from the North to the South in the midst of a nationwide restriction on interstate travels. The mode of transportation amplifies the desperation. The complicity of security operatives who have the presidential mandate to enforce the lockdown orders betrays the motive. The deafening silence of the Presidency, despite public outcry, makes the matter more ominous.
This week, Imo State recorded 20 new COVID-19 cases, all of them Northerners who were intercepted as they were being smuggled into the state. Because they were not quarantined after their samples were taken, nobody knows where they are right now. So, Imo is in crisis. There are new 20 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the state, yet no one has an idea where the people, who are neither indigenes nor residents, are. These émigrés are taking advantage of the coronavirus-induced restrictions for their furtive voyage aided by Nigerian security outfits dominated by Northerners. And these are not economic migrants.
Let me digress with an anecdote. Nigerians can never forget Mrs. Patience Jonathan, the irrepressible former First Lady, in a hurry. She breathed life into the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, asphyxiating political campaigns after the 2015 presidential election was postponed from February 14 to March 28 by dramatically taking over the floundering re-election campaigns of her husband, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, through a parallel campaign organisation – Women for Change and Development Initiative.
In her outings leading the PDP women presidential rally, she paid no heed to political correctness. She was raw and wild and effective. During a rally in Calabar, Cross River State in early March 2015, she unsettled many, when, speaking in Pidgin English, she touched on what had become the shame of the North.
“Our people no dey born children wey dem no dey fit count. Our men no dey born children throway for street. We no dey like the people for that side.” Only a Patience Jonathan could muster the political will to say that. It was tantamount to committing political hara-kiri and she was never forgiven by those who saw in her comments an attack on their “way of life”.
Mrs. Jonathan was talking about the almajiri phenomenon: A system of Islamic education practiced in Northern Nigeria which encourages parents to leave parental responsibilities to an attached Islamic school. Sent away to distant places by their parents in the name of religion, all alone with no guardians, some at the tender age of four, the almajirai are handed plastic plates for begging to fend for themselves. That is archetypal child abuse, which promotes youth poverty and delinquency and destitution. Besides, most are radicalised in the process and become ready recruits for criminal gangs and terrorist groups.
A 2014 UNICEF estimates had a figure of 9.5 million almajirai in the North, quite a sizeable number more than the population of some countries. That is a very lethal army of children without compunction. Something is definitely wrong with a system that encourages “mass production” of children with no parental responsibility. The Northern elite who claim it is their way of life know that, which explains why it is meant only for the hoi polloi.
Now, back to Buhari. Many Nigerians wonder what legacies he will be leaving behind after his tour of duty as president. With three years still remaining of his second term, many strongly aver that he has been very unfair to the country that has given him so much. Insecurity is at its worst, level of mistrust unprecedented. Our national fault lines have never been more magnified. Most Nigerians outside the Hausa-Fulani ethnic nationalities believe the worst of their president, who has done practically nothing in the last five years to promote national unity.
Can a president plot evil against his own people? While Buhari’s apologists say it is absurd to contemplate such, history is replete with precedents. But whether he is guilty as charged or innocent, if I were him, I will be worried. It should bother him that half of the country view him with so much suspicion. They don’t trust him and think the worst of his government.
The feeling is pervasive. And this time, it is not only the Igbo, already labelled naysayers, that are mourning. The Yoruba are shouting. The Ijaw are screaming and the Middle Belters are crying blue murder. So, there must be something fundamentally wrong with the way Buhari carries on that engenders strong suspicion and resentment.
The last five years for most Nigerians have been years of strife, tension, blood, sorrow and tears. It is time President Buhari had a rethink, changed strategy. Today, most Nigerians from the South are more afraid of the spectacle of human cargoes stowed away in every movable object from the North to the South at a time when interstate movement is prohibited by both state and federal governments than they are of coronavirus.
Recently, the Niger Delta Forum, a pressure group, demanded through its national chairman, Air Commodore Idongesit Nkanga (retd.), an explanation from the president. The Forum is flabbergasted that the almajirai, with all the subsisting lockdown rules, are “still transiting across the country in long vehicles, without being detected and stopped by security agents.”
Similarly, on May 19, the Association of Southeast Town Unions, ASETU, weighed into the befuddling phenomenon. “We have the strange arrival of able bodied young men in such a coordinated fashion. These bizarre occurrences can only make sense if there is an equally bizarre plan afoot,” ASETU lamented in a petition addressed to the UN alleging ethnic cleansing.
Another group, Igbo Board of Deputies, made similar allegation in an open letter to the international community where they alleged impending genocide in Nigeria. “Under the cover of the COVID-19 lockdown, thousands of armed men between the ages of 18 and 35 years were being systematically transported across the length of Nigeria, over 1,000 kilometers from Northern Nigeria to occupy Southeast, including other Southern parts of Nigeria,” they alleged.
It may well be that these groups are crying wolf where there is none, but these movements are real. On April 21, the Northern Governors Forum resolved never to “allow the (almajiri) system persist any longer because of the social challenges associated with it, including the perpetuation of poverty, illiteracy, insecurity and social disorder.” The 19 governors also agreed to totally ban the system in the North because of the “risk that almajiri children are exposed to because of the coronavirus disease” and unanimously resolved to “evacuate the children to their parents or states of origin”.
But why bring them to the South, which is neither their states of origin nor abodes of their parents? It is typical for government to play deaf and dumb at a time like this. But a president with eyes on the verdict of history and a government conscious of constitutional obligations to the citizenry should be worried. At a time like this, silence is not golden. If government is not behind these dangerous movements overtly or covertly, then an investigation is in order.