Home Opinion Northern Nigeria: The warning from Obasanjo and Jonathan, By Lasisi Olagunju

Northern Nigeria: The warning from Obasanjo and Jonathan, By Lasisi Olagunju


On Thursday, October 13, 2017, there was an uproar when the then World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, innocently announced that President Muhammadu Buhari asked his bank to focus its developmental programmes on northern Nigeria. “In my very first meeting with President Buhari, he said specifically that he would like us to shift our focus to the northern region of Nigeria and we’ve done that. Now, it has been very difficult. The work there has been very, very difficult,” Kim said at a press briefing on the sidelines of that year’s World Bank-IMF annual meeting in Washington, D.C. That was four years ago. We complained loudly, and bitterly then and stupidly accused Buhari of being what he had always been. Now, we should know better. Perhaps Buhari was right and we were wrong. Even we, all of us, have had to focus all our inner and outer eyes and attention on the North. Twelve years of unremitting dispersal of terrorism across all zones of the country has been enough to teach us that no one is safe until the North is made safe. Boko Haram and ISWAP now fight with rockets; they did that near Maiduguri just few days ago. The more Nigeria kills them, the more they recruit from our North’s pool of the abandoned.

Ex-presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan said last week that if Nigeria wanted peace, it must educate the children of the North. Nigeria has 14 million out-of-school children. Seventy percent of those children are from northern Nigeria. Properly read, the figure means we have on our hands 14 million hungry, angry young boys and girls. Imagine a quarter of these children becoming bandits and another quarter joining Boko Haram. Thirty percent of the 14 million abandoned children are from the South. Do the maths. What you get is 4.2 million southern Almajirai. Imagine having one million out of that figure as street urchins, another one million searching for money rituals and the balance hawking nothing in the many traffic jams that string together our highways. It is a national problem but the source is the North. Now, our ex-presidents want the kids saved so that we all can be safe. They have to go to school; it is an emergency. Whether in the South or in the North, it is evident that families that escaped poverty early were the ones that embraced education early. “Education is the keystone of a people’s life and happiness,” Kwame Nkrumah’s Minister of Education, Kojo Botsio, once wrote. No matter how tall or big-boned you are, you can’t climb a tree from the top. The wisdom that lifts up the lowly is given by education. The poor in northern Nigeria are still not convinced. The rich and powerful there would whip out a quote from the past: “if you move our kid-beggars to school, to whom then shall we take our alms?”

Our two former presidents spoke 606 kilometers away from each other, yet they uttered the same thing, same week. Obasanjo said that “a situation today where we have 14 million children that should be in school but who are not in school, does anybody need to be an oracle to tell that 10 years or 15 years from now, those will be where you will recruit pure Boko Haram?” Obasanjo spoke that truth at a youth retreat in Abeokuta last week. And he has been consistent on this point, his blacksmith repeatedly beating that crooked spot of the iron. In March 2018 (three years, nine months ago), he gave the same warning. He said in Maiduguri at a peer-review meeting of the Nigeria Zero Hunger Strategic Forum that without education for the children of the North, there would not be peace for Nigeria. Hear him: “Boko Haram did not start overnight. It had an incubating period, but I do not know how long. And although I do not know how long it took to incubate, I am sure if the level of education in the North-East had matched the level of education in the South-West, there wouldn’t have been Boko Haram. If we do not cater for and educate women, children and youths, they will become the Boko Haram of 15 years to come. Education is the panacea, education is the key; it inculcates the values that guard against the emergence of Boko Haram.” Neither the Northern Elders Forum nor the Arewa Consultative Forum, not even the young turks who should know the value of these warnings took heed. Their focus is always on something else: power and privileges.

Jonathan, at an alumni event of his university mates also spoke in Port Harcourt a few days ago on our fate and these street kids. He said some governors in the North were not happy that he established schools for the Almajirai. That programme took billions of cash and sense to launch. What has happened to it? The former president said: “We used the Federal Government’s money from Universal Basic Education. It was just to partner with the state governments to create these learning environments, and I did that because of my knowledge about the ethno-religious crisis.” He said his administration felt for the children “who had no homes because of the traditional and Almajirai education that is common in the North.” He added that “they only train them on Islamic education, and at the end of the day, even their local governments don’t employ them. These are the people that make it look like we are sitting on a keg of gunpowder. That was why we started the almajiri programme.” Jonathan, a compulsive minimizer who is given to euphemism and restraint, won’t directly call for a scrap of the Almajiri system; he carefully tasked governors of the North to run the Almajirai system “in a way that we would not have these numbers of out-of-school children.”

The North and its major shareholders won’t listen but we should not be tired of speaking to them. They are our husband. And they insist that ‘by fire by force’ we are Nigerians; they say that Nigeria is a Catholic marriage. So, if it is till-death-do-us-part, can we do the rational and make the country safe for all the partners? A combination of ignorance, want and miseducation is rolling us in the mud of insecurity. And we are snorting and grunting like pigs. Obasanjo and Jonathan said educating the minions of the North is the way to our salvation as a country. That sounds almost impossible, right? I think so too. If the children of the poor are educated, where would the northern elite get servants? That is the direction of their thought.

Two ex-presidents have asked the North to rebirth itself. Under the leadership of that corridor of blisters, we have lost our country to a pride of cannibals who hanker after power and more power. The Nigerian sore festers and smells badly. And the government shrugs and says so what? If famine and pestilence like, let them continue to bestride Nigeria like a colossus. Fourteen million kids may roam the streets in search of hope, many more may join them next year; that is no problem as long as the seats of politics are safe and secure.

The new year is less than a month away but on this battlefield, it is a long, long time. Many looked forward to seeing this week but they died last week at the hands of terror. How many more will die before this year ends? How many more uneducated youths will grow into banditry and terrorism next year and shell Nigeria the year after? These are questions that perennially bother the terrified in Nigeria. The answers are too gory to ponder – and that is because those born to rule have refused to rule well. The street is hungry, ill and abandoned — and angry. Rome is on fire, where is Nero? Unlike what the preacher says, weeping here has endured beyond the morning. But where really is the fault? We saw rabbit as the lord of this field, yet we planted our last grains there. We all know that it is not well, still, the song across the land is Horatio Spafford’s ‘It is well with my soul.’

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