By Lasisi Olagunju
(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 15 May, 2023)
May Sudan not happen to Nigeria. This piece starts with prayers. It has to. “Everyone in Africa believes in God…It’s the only way we can survive. People leave home praying that there will be electricity when they return. On the road, they pray that they will avoid motor accidents. If they crash, they pray the hospitals will be functioning. Their prayers mostly go unanswered, but still they pray. Life in Africa is a long prayer.” This long quote I picked straight from the review of a new novel by Stephen Buoro, brand new writer, Nigerian-born. The book’s title is ‘The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa.’ I have not got a copy to buy and read, but I have read its reviews in The Economist and The Guardian of U.K. I find the introductory paragraph of the review in The Economist particularly very engaging; the quote above is from that review. Life in Nigeria “is a long prayer.”
Muhammadu Buhari is northern Nigeria’s third most consequential and influential leader since Uthman dan Fodio. The Jihad of 1804 was about conquest and power; it could not reach the sea. After dan Fodio, the North had Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto who could not go far beyond where fate stopped his push; now the North has Muhammadu Buhari who was crowned Bayajidda II in June 2015. When the Emir of Daura made Nigeria’s president a reincarnation of a tribal warrior-ancestor, he presented him a gold-plated sword and a horse. From that moment till this moment, Buhari has faithfully lived that life as president; his reign has been about that sword and that horse of sectional battle and deliverance. Yet he says he has been the best for all of us. Leo Tolstoy spoke about sitting on a man’s back, “choking him and making him carry me and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible.” If you are not wicked, you will know that the yoke will only be off if you get off the back of the burdened. Buhari rode the horse of Nigeria’s diversity so badly that his victims cannot wait to see him dismount. They check the watch every second for the bell to toll for his tenure and for May 29 to dawn; the marginalized, the ignored and the ditched cannot wait for the northern General to leave power in two weeks’ time.
Perhaps because I am an overthinking person, I feel that Buhari’s impending exit should worry me. The president’s dismount will significantly mark the North’s exit from eight years of very sweet, unpretentious sectional hegemony. I have asked myself what happens after the handover? There will be business-as-usual attempts to govern the new man by today’s men who claim to be makers of the coming king. If the new man truly has the capacity to resist being mis-governed, and he proves it, then there will be lots of drama. And that is where my fear lies. The elites of the North will rally to preserve their privileges; Buhari will be too happy to fight for his people. His people will be fortunate to have Buhari as the rallying point. And you know what happens to the field where privilege and principle contend? It loses its lush, its green.
Never mind Buhari’s promise of retirement after Aso Rock. Bayajidda The First, Prince of Baghdad and founder of the Hausa states, stretching from Nigeria to Niger Republic, did not retire until he overcame the invasive sarki snake of Daura’s Kusugu Well and won everlasting water for his people. Read Sir Gawain Bell’s ‘An Imperial Twilight’; read the legend of Bayajidda in Hausa texts. The president will hand over Nigeria on May 29 to assume his duties as the reincarnation of his people’s guardian angel. And that can be pretty tricky, especially when the new president comes far from the North and may take decisions that directly threaten the hoof of the northern horse. Therefore, when Buhari leaves power in two weeks’ time, everything must be done to retain him as Bola Tinubu’s friend. Even in our current position of supine surrender, we may not fancy their company but we need them to be friends for our collective peace and safety. Read the Sudanese tragedy, if you have not. The two generals at the heart of the madness there were allies who did good and bad things together in the past. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is the leader of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF); Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemedti) is the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). These two men of power, a few years ago, bandied together to do a coup which made one of them Head of State and the other his deputy. Then they fell apart and their country is the huge casualty of their war. Hundreds of innocent people have died and many more will die. Countries have scrambled to evacuate their displaced nationals – all because, between the two Generals, there is a battle for supremacy.
In Nigeria, a lot is said to be happening or simmering as I write. The details are not known beyond what the winds and their dry, rustling leaves tell. Some relationships, like adultery, are doomed to end in fights and fisticuffs. No one would bother if the resultant war is strictly between the two ‘slayers.’ But, it doesn’t happen like that. As John Pepper Clark wrote, war casualties always go beyond “those who started a fire and now cannot put it out.” They include millions who will burn in that fire even while they “have no say in the matter.” They include millions who die; more millions who await “burial by installment.” They include millions who would live but would lose “persons and property.” They include “those led away by night” into “cruel” cells by power. What do you think really caused the Nigerian civil war? The immediate cause: One colonel would not accept another as his Commander-in-Chief. Then a shooting war started, two million innocent people died; many more became ruined forever but the two rivals and their backers lived to enjoy life, including marrying new wives. Their descendants sit on thrones of diamond.
Leaders that conceive themselves as god among men are potent threats to peace. Political leaders that equate themselves to, or raise their ranks above their heroic ancestors and are further convinced of their own divinity don’t sleep, they don’t retire. They see their mission as lifelong; it is till-death-do-them-part with power and contestation for power. We’ve had deities here who used to be very far-seeing; today’s gods of power are blind; the future they see is only about their privileges and their descendants’ bottles of food and wine. And they will not mind fighting a war to sustain that lifestyle. You are seeing what is happening in Sudan? The whole world is the casualty. Watch videos of shrieking bombs and whistling bullets. Listen to horrifying stories of evacuees; the black African ones among them tell grimmer stories. I pray that Sudan never happens here.
Yet, it almost happened this year. Or, what do you think would have happened if Bola Tinubu had lost the APC primary to the favoured aspirant, Ahmed Lawan, from the North? Tinubu would, most likely, have contested the general election on the platform of, maybe, the SDP and would have been declared one of the losers by Mahmood Yakubu, a professor from the North. Tinubu would have, in the name of Jesus, rejected that verdict and cried blue murder. He would have invoked the spirit of Sango and NADECO and would have joined forces with Peter Obi and his implacable Obidients to draw a cracking, vertical line of thunder bursting the bowel of the nation. Afenifere, Ohanaeze, Arise News, Channels TV, Tribune and Thisday and the other critical voices of the Lagos-Ibadan press would not be the enemy they are called today. The shriek you hear in the Sudanese skies would have been thundering through here too. The battlefield would have been painted in the incandescence of “South l’ókàn.” But, thank God, it has not happened. We should prepare special ritual dishes for everyone who gave Tinubu victory at the APC primary.
In a nation of free regions, no part should see itself as the choice makers – people who choose for everyone and cannot be chosen for by anyone. Where such exist, and they gain ascendancy, they ultimately make their country a cauldron of fire and lava. Two weeks to a constitutional change of government, so many things are happening beyond what we can see; many more will happen. You heard about a group led by professors in the north of Nigeria who met in Kaduna on Friday and demanded the headship of the National Assembly as a matter of right. Reports said the leaders, who described themselves as northern stakeholders, converged on the symbolically important Arewa House from the 19 northern states. There they made their demands and threatened the yet-to-be inaugurated regime of Bola Tinubu. They vowed that it would be denied oxygen except the North was given the leadership of the National Assembly and key ministerial appointments. Their communique, signed by Professor Tukur Muhammad-Baba and Dr Benjamin Izra Dikki, lamented that the North is not presently in control of the executive and the judiciary and therefore their demands for legislative powers are “non-negotiable.” They presented a table of votes predicating their demand for privileges on percentages: North-West gave Tinubu 2,652,235; North-Central gave him 1,742,993 and the North-East, 1,185,458. “The total contributions of the North (to Tinubu’s success) was 63.5 percent,” they claimed, and roared that their “demand is non-negotiable.” I don’t think the Èmi l’ókàn people plan to be ungrateful to those who clothed them with the furs of their uncountable votes; but threats are counterproductive. What the North is saying and doing we call it ìrègún in Yoruba – giving someone something good and squatting over it. It devalues the good done and hardens the heart of the beneficiary.
The auguries are not right. The demands in Kaduna are ‘legitimate’ for a region that will leave power and lose privileges in a matter of days. The “non-negotiable” tone may be provocative but it should also be understood as one of the birthmarks of Nigeria. Albert Einstein said stupidity, fear and greed are the three great forces ruling the world. I think the genius was very right. Those are the precise forces behind what we’ve put up with in the past one decade plus: stupidity that the cart could push the horse forever in Nigeria; the fear of losing Nigeria as some people’s unaccountable shop, ATM and dispenser of unmerited privileges; and the greed that excludes partners from profiting from their stake in Nigeria as a collective investment. Count the years and the tears you’ve shed from regime to regime.
Nigeria is some people’s kusugu well. They will get out ground and air forces to shell any snake that may stop them from drawing satiation from what they think they possess. The forces are stepping out already. Bayajjida will be very happy to drive the tank.
I started this long talk with prayers; I will end it with prayers. A character in Steven Erikson’s Reaper’s Gale said “I have my throne, I have my sword, I have an empire. But I have . . . no one.” That should not be the portion of anyone who becomes our king or president.