By Hakeem Baba-Ahmed
All monkeys cannot hang on the same branch—African proverb
I WAS part of a team of elderly men and women, shepherded by young and passionate northerners that braved a tour of the South-South and South-East last week. The goal was to commiserate, comfort and consult with northern communities that had suffered losses in lives and assets in those parts of the country following the #EndSARS protests.
It was the only visible and direct effort to relate with those communities, since no government or other authority from the North had reached out to them for these purposes. ‘Braved’ is the right word here since the team knew it was never going to be the type of tour that will go unnoticed or without controversy.
The Northern Elders Forum is not strange to controversy, but this one required elaborate fortification to withstand certain assaults from all angles. First, there was the need to establish the basis of the venture with facts. This was not difficult. There was a mountain of records alleging killings, burning and looting against the communities, and none suggesting that it was the aggressor.
It needed very careful handling. So the Forum sent a fact-finding team to establish from the communities real evidence that it was specifically and deliberately victimized. There was enough to warrant visits to engage the communities directly and the authorities who had responsibilities to keep them safe and secure. Finally, the most difficult part: make findings public, or as public as is useful and responsible, and advise all parties within the powers available to the Forum.
The visit was the only initiative to reach out to the communities and express sympathy and solidarity and encourage them to stay where they are and continue to earn a living as they had done for decades. If the north had leaders who cared enough, this would have been their responsibility.
Sadly, its seemingly powerful traditional rulers have lost the relative autonomy to speak as leaders. The bulk of its clergy has been too compromised by partisan politicians to raise voices unless prompted by the latter. Northern governors turned up in large numbers at the meeting with Federal Government officials and traditional rulers in Kaduna, and released a long communique which condemned the aftermath of the protests and threats of social media, but said nothing about the experiences of members of northern communities in states in the South of the country or much on insecurity in the North.
If anything was communicated to the communities or to southern governors by northern governors, somehow it would have found its way out in one form or the other. As the visit established, outside a lone voice raised in the heat of the falsehood that a mosque had been demolished in Port Harcourt, no leader in any position sent a word of sympathy to the community, or appreciation to one or two governors who reached out to assist members of the northern communities, or advised caution against targeting specific communities.
In this respect the initiative achieved a lot more than it would have if it had competition for the appreciation of northern communities or the willingness of some governors to open doors and place on record their genuine commitment to leading states where all Nigerians felt at home.
Like all communities, northern communities carry with them their basic social and cultural characters. They are intensely political, a character which makes them easy to be identified and treated as friends or adversaries in host communities. Some find it easier to adjust than others. Some fight for more space, while others take whatever is given by hosts.
Many have descended from generations of northerners who have known only one home, located in the south of Nigeria. Others move in and out, an army of workers, traders, artisans and seekers of opportunities that exist in lands that are distant and tough to adjust to, but ultimately rewarding.
For the elders’ initiative, the most resounding outcome of the visit was virtually unexpected. It was the realisation that Nigerians who live far from original homes represent the very deep and complex roots which hold this nation together.
It is clear that while politicians have gambled and toyed with the fate and survival of this nation for decades, simple, hardworking citizens have moved all over the country, made homes or found uses in distant communities and got down to the business of building lives and coping with challenges that are not radically different from those of local host communities.
For every Nigerian from Aba, Calabar or Akure who lives and makes a living in the North, there are Nigerians from Oturkpo, Kano and Sokoto who have built lives in the South. There are literally millions of Nigerians who will be lost completely if they are made to relocate to places of origin.
There are Nigerians whose lives are practical repudiations of the concept, practice and consequences of the settler/indigene conundrum. There are northerners who are born in the south, study and graduate in the south but cannot get jobs as citizens in the south or indigenes in the north. They have mirror images all over Nigeria.
Members of northern communities contribute a lot to the economies of the south, and they are critical to the economic fortunes of the north. There are Nigerians from the south with massive investments in many parts of the north and the idea that they should be anywhere is inconceivable. These are the nation’s roots.
These elaborate roots usually pay a huge price for being different, or bearing identities that ape local combatants in times of our numerous strifes in the history of the nation. On other occasions, they are victims of the failure of the Nigerian State to protect all citizens. On many occasions, Igbo people have suffered losses in lives and property in the North.
Now there are areas in Kano that are settled almost entirely by Igbo people, and only the bravest rioter will attempt to break a head or a shop there. Northerners living in the East are terrified of attacks by IPOB, just like many of their hosts, as far away as Rivers State.
Like their host communities, they know IPOB when they see it, and they feel its pain. They live in an environment that is being fiercely contested, and they get hurt for being northerners by those who see the entire North as the enemy.
There were inspiring moments that made the visits even more rewarding. There are governors that genuinely value peaceful co-existence and appreciate the value of promoting the welfare of their own kith and kin in other parts of Nigeria by limiting damage to other Nigerians in their midst.
There are northerners that are integral parts of what is the south today, and although they bear scars and carry huge luggage of grievances, they value the warmth and hospitality of host communities. There are numerous issues and challenges the northern communities want redressed, including who will help make restitution for losses, but the visit helped build bridges for their resolutions.
There were honest and frank discussions with leaders and the communities, one outcome of which was the statement by the leader of the team that victims knew the identities of their attackers. The attackers also know that the victims know them. Those who said saying this will cause more problems are now having to eat their words.
If this nation is to survive, it has to pay closer attention to the welfare and security of communities that are vulnerable and exposed. These are the nation’s real roots. Without them, it will be that much easier to uproot the tree. No Nigerian community will survive on its own, even as an independent, sovereign country.