Journey To The North

Journey To The North

By Reuben Abati

THE farthest that many Southern Nigerians have travelled in Northern Nigeria is Abuja, between the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport and their destination within the city; as soon as whatever may have taken them to the Federal Capital Territory is ended, they rush back to the airport to catch the next available flight. I am just as guilty as every one else. The last time I went to Kaduna until I visited again, recently was about 20 years ago. Zaria even much earlier and then sometime in the 90s, I visited Professor Kyari Tijani's village in Borno state, outside Maiduguri, close to Lake Chad. .Jos is probably the most popular city in the North and many of us go there because it is a major centre for conferences and workshops, and like Kano and Kaduna, it has an airport. But to all intents and purposes, many Southerners particularly members of the middle class do not quite know the North that they comment upon ever so eloquently, and I guess the same can be said for the Northern middle class and its attitudes towards the South.

The civil war, age-long prejudices and in contemporary times, religious intolerance and violence are all conspiring to turn parts of the country into forbidden zones. Southerners who had lived and worked in the North are leaving in droves out of fear of religious persecution. Few parents still want their children to be posted for NYSC primary assignment in any part of the country where their lives may be in danger. Increasingly, we are nurturing a generation of Nigerians who do not know their country.

There are Nigerians who can draw the map of London, France, Dubai, Singapore, China, the Eastern Coast of the United States and parts of Canada with their mouths, but who do not know where Calabar is in Nigeria not to talk of Vom. History has become an optional course in the school curriculum and gone are those days when young Nigerian children were asked to draw the railway lines of Nigeria or a map of Nigeria's food and cash crops, and mineral resources and their respective locations. I took the opportunity recently to begin to discover Nigeria anew. Travelling in the North proved to be a great experience. Some of my prejudices were confirmed, some old biases were displaced, and I got a chance to ask new questions, and see new realities.

On one occasion, my host and guide was Ishaq Modibbo Kawu. I had accompanied him to a village called Tula, some distance off the road between Gombe and Yola, after Kaltungo. A sleepy, modest community, it contains only a few mud houses, sitting atop a hill. There is a prison there which was built in 1932. Outside the prison gate, the warders and some policemen played a game of draught. Under a tree, some prisoners were busy fixing a motorcycle. Our arrival caused some stir as the mobile police guards suddenly sprang to their feet. But they soon relaxed seeing that we meant no harm. I tried to imagine what Tula village would have looked like in 1932. Behind the Southern wall of the prison is a very deep gorge. During the treasonable felony trial involving Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the First Republic, the old sage was to have been held in this prison. Whoever suggested this was really determined to break Awo's will. But till today, Awo's name is part of the mythology of the prison in Tula. Eventually, Awo was incarcerated in Lekki and the Calabar prison, taking him to a remote prison in Northern Nigeria would have made certain things too obvious at the time.

In fact, up until a few years ago there was no road to this village and the people had no electricity. A former Military administrator of Bauchi state (when Tula was in Bauchi state, now it is in Gombe state, which was created in 1996) had told the villagers to leave the mountains and try to settle down close to the main road because he had no intention of constructing a road to a remote community. The people refused to move. Governor Muhammadu Goje, first civilian Governor of Gombe state has now constructed a road to Tula. Tula from the rather poor Gombe-Yola road, (former Vice President Atiku could not fix the road leading to his own state in eight years!) takes all of 15 minutes. It used to be a three-hour journey!

On the way from Abuja to Tula and back, I was struck afresh by the immense size of Nigeria, the beauty of the landscape and the country's bio-diversity. From Abuja we got to Nasarawa state, a state that is often overlooked partly because of its proximity to Abuja. Along the way, I saw ordinary Nigerians by the roadside going about their daily businesses. Ultimately, all Nigerians are the same. We soon arrived in Jos, the city where politics, religion and ethnicity are so delicately intermingled. It was now difficult to see the bold evidence of the violence that attended the council election in Jos North local Government, save for the burnt churches and houses that litter a section of the city. But the politics of it is still problematic.. I had been in Jos twice since the last crisis, and although the people pretend that all is well, the rape of the innocence of a city once known for its cosmopolitanism is the most painful part of it all.

When a city's soul is injured, the people bear the pains. Governor Jonah Jang seems to be the target of Fulani and Muslim anger. Joshua Dariye, former Governor of the state who had been pushed out of the Peoples Democratic Party is now being welcomed back to the party. The PDP seems determined to create a strong competition for Governor Jang. But while PDP leaders are busy politicking and personalizing the situation in Jos, not much thought is being given to the challenge of lasting peace. The PDP at the centre should be more concerned about this rather than setting one politician against the other in Plateau state.

Jos to Bauchi took another two hours. By now, I was beginning to complain about the hot and dry weather, and the long distance we were traveling, made less stressful though by the continuous munching of anything that a mouth could accommodate: groundnut, suya etc, I drew much pleasure from the changing landscape as we drove into the heart of the savannah. There was one village on the Bauchi road, where the rocks are arranged in a curious formation, as if a large boulder sitting on other boulders would tip over onto the main road or onto the house below. Grazing cattle, donkeys, goats....and vast open land. Southern Nigeria is heavily urbanized, with sprawling population density. You can hardly travel in the South without coming upon settlements and people, but up North, except in the cities, the countryside spectacle is one of vast open fields with occasional small settlements by the road side. "Where are the people?", I had asked.

"The people in this part of the country", I was told "are nomads. They don't stay in one place."

I could see the cattle of course.

"The cattle you see are very important to the Fulani. I inherited cattle too."

We got to Bauchi. It looked so dirty. Some of the public buildings begged for a fresh coat of paint. The state Governor, Isa Yuguda is obviously distracted. He has recorded one big achievement which the people of Bauchi state would not forget in a while though: He married the President's daughter. And he has defected from the ANPP, the party that brought him to power, to his father-in-law's ruling PDP. Aggrieved members of the state House of Assembly went to the Government House to return the Sports Utility Vans they were given by his administration. We needed to buy fuel in Bauchi so we stopped at a fuel station where there was a long queue. Such queues are common in the North. Modibbo went and talked to the station manager and we were allowed to jump the queue.

"Here in the North, if you explain that you are traveling and you need help, people will readily oblige you. Nobody will protest that you are jumping the queue." I noted that such a practice does not quite exist in the South. In the first place, nobody would believe you if you claim that you are a traveler. Someone is likely to tell you to shut up because "we are all travelers". An army of almajiris soon showed up, wielding plastic bowls and begging for alms, as they closed in on the car.

"Don't worry, they are not violent. They just want money." Moddibo soon engaged them in a discussion. They are students of a Quranic School, they claimed. So he asked them to recite something in Arabic and if they did so successfully, he would give them a prize. They just kept giggling.

"You see, the Malams are just exploiting these young children. They are not teaching them anything." After advising them to go to school, and grow up properly he still gave them money. An elderly woman also came around insisting we must buy fura and milk. We bought her entire stock of milk, with the instruction that she should go to a mosque and distribute it. "You think she will do it?", I queried. ""She will, I spoke to her in Fulfude. I believe she will do it".

More dirt around Bauchi. I had been in Kaduna about two weeks earlier, Kaduna is a much better city, with well-tarred roads. Gombe, Abuja and Jos are also clean. From Abuja to Tula, any time we came upon the country home of any important man, my attention was drawn to this. I saw mostly modest houses. Apparently the Hausa/Fulani and other Northerners do not build mansions in their villages. Even their modest bungalows or detached houses are built either by the roadside or among the people: those mud houses with thatched roofs and no windows.

"I think the Governors of Northern states must come together and begin to advise the local people to start building their houses differently. Building a house without windows or with very tiny windows in this hot weather is precisely what is responsible for the spread of meningitis in the North"

"It will be difficult. Those houses are built that way because the average Northerner wants his privacy. Besides, the windows are small in order to keep the winds out."

"They can't keep building this type of huts in 2009. Haven't they heard of President Yar'Adua's Vision 2020?"

"Most of those big men in Abuja, they are from houses like this, so don't bother yourself."

I then said something about so much land being available and how if a Southerner were to build in many of the Northern villages, he could take a whole acre and turn it into pieces of avant-garde architecture.

I wanted to ease myself on the way to Gombe from Tula when I was told that the particular town I had chosen for this normal routine is full of snakes, and a particularly deadly snake that kills in minutes. I immediately suspended the task. We passed through Farida Waziri's husband's village, and then Kaltungo, the village that produced Helon Habila,, the award-winning writer.

Arik Air had been advertising that it would soon commence flights to Gombe. Gombe International Airport was along our route so we went there out of curiousity. Built by the Muhammadu Goje administration, it is a product of vision and leadership. In at least three other states of the federation, the Governors have turned the building of an airport into such a huge enterprise. Goje has proved that it is indeed possible for a state government to build an airport.

The Gombe airport is a simple and functional airport, even the lounges are modest. It should further open up the North East. Arik Air is to run it and make returns to government. This airline seems to be getting all the big opportunities in the aviation industry. It reciprocates by running an efficient operation, although its ticketing officers are the most discourteous I have seen. They actually treat and talk to customers as if they are doing them a favour. However, the Gombe state government should not allow Arik to exercise a monopoly right over the Gombe International Airport. Other interested airlines should be allowed to make use of the facility.

We went round Gombe: a city that is opening up and modernizing with great speed. The roads are well-tarred, and there are street lights, there is even a big Olympic-size stadium being built by the Chinese who had earlier constructed a water dam for the state on the banks of the Gombe River. I later told a friend: "You know the belief in the South is that the elite in the North do nothing for their people, that they just sit down at the end of the month to share money that is meant for development purposes."

"That is the same impression we also have in the North about Governors in the South. We think they are thieves and that they talk too much, and do too little for their people", came the retort.

It was getting late and some friends at the Gombe State University had promised to accompany us to a nightclub later in the evening. So we went to see them. What I met at the university is a very beautiful campus, probably the most beautiful state university in Nigeria today, with green parks, orchards, gardens, and look-alike buildings. It reminded me of the University of Ife of old. Established in 2005, and with a students' population of a little over 1, 000, this university holds a lot of promise. All the students live on campus and school fees per semester is only N15, 000 (!) We ran into many Ibo and Yoruba students; hopefully with time, this university will help to promote education in that part of the North...