A Stoning On The Plateau

A stoning On The Plateau

By Sonala Olumhense

Last Monday, President Umaru Yar'Adua visited Jos. It was an unforgettable trip for him: his convoy was stoned by local youths.

Three and a half months earlier, from November 28 to December 3, 2008, Jos was the epicenter of local fighting that was originally described as "political." It seemed to have started as a popular protest of the local-government elections, but deteriorated into sectarian violence.

Within a few days, about 400 people had died: new statistics to be added to the thousands that had died in similar conflicts in the city in 2000, 2001 and 2004. Thousands were injured and displaced. Homes, mosques, churches, schools, markets and businesses were burnt down.

Where, meanwhile, was Yar'Adua? Oh, he swept into Jos, sirens screaming. He was even armed with a gleaming executive ambulance and-presumably-medical personnel and supplies.

But that was only last Monday. No, he had not come to speak about the lives that had been changed forever by the conflict in late November and early December. He had not come to commiserate with bereaved families. He had not brought milk for orphaned children. The ambulance was for his private use; he had not brought doctors or medicines for the injured. He had not come to the area to speak about reconciliation, or about rebuilding homes and schools and businesses. He had not come to speak about how he would resurrect mutual trust among the people, combat unemployment, or rehabilitate fractured religious and ethnic relationships.

Yar'Adua had come to Plateau State from Abuja, less than an hour away by air, purely on private business: a traditional ruler had died, and he wanted it known he cared.

This is not difficult to understand. When the president travels, it has to be for an important purpose.

That must have occurred to the youths of North Jos Local Government Area. More respectful of the dead than they are afraid of the living, they began to gather their stones when they learned Yar'Adua's motorcade was arriving. Evidently, they resented his driving over the still-drying blood of their brothers and sisters. Unafraid of both federal might and state capriciousness, they wanted their anger or their poor city.

Monday's event was the second time he was being humiliated in the same area in just over two years, the first being when he campaigned for office. At that time, he was armed only with political clich�s and promises; today, he has great power, and he will want to exact vengeance. That is the nature of power and privilege in Nigeria.

Yar'Adua's worshippers in Plateau State have already indicated they will hunt down the culprits. Daniel Manjang, who is a Special Adviser to State Governor Jonah David Jang, has warned that the state government will exact punishment upon those responsible for the incident.

It seems Mr. Majang really thinks the boys of Jos North care about this. What is likely to happen is that in its vindictiveness, his government will round up any number of the jobless it can find, and throw them in jail. Then they will take steps to deny the people of the area drinking water and roads and scholarships for their children and their place in development planning.

All of which will answer the wrong question, because what communities such as Jos North have been trying to tell this and previous governments is that they do not have anything in the first place.

In any event, the right question is: will Yar'Adua stop visiting Jos North and similar communities throughout Nigeria?

This is important because the incident of last Monday is but a metaphor for the situation in our country. Once upon another time, Yar'Adua is alleged to have said: "To move forward, we have to start from the poor."

Unfortunately, there is nothing in his two years in office that shows he remembers he may ever have thought this way. Under his watch, the poor continue to be ignored, or massacred-or killed in large numbers, as Jos saw four months ago.

Under his watch, high-profile thieves continue to multiply, and they enjoy visiting rights to the presidential palace. His government and his political party flaunt the fraudulent and the mediocre that ought to be in jail: on the same day the President was stoned, for instance, the story broke that his party chairman, Mr. Ogbuluafor, had 'bought' a N400 million mansion in Abuja. The property was allegedly paid for through manoeuvres that included a crooked rice deal in the Sokoto State government that brought in N150 million. Other PDP personalities, including former Zamfara State governor Ahmed Sani Yermia, threw in the rest.

Little wonder Yar'Adua was thoroughly embarrassed in Jos, if he is truly still capable of embarrassment, because unlike the shoe-thrower of Baghdad, the young men of Jos spoke some strong words: "Thief, thief, go away," they cried, "We do not like you."

Yar'Adua may do whatever he pleases with those young men, but such punishment is not going to change the minds of those who refuse to accept his weakness or his complicity. The real issue is the pain and heartbreak of trying to stay alive and sane in Nigeria while Yar'Adua offers but a semblance of governance.

Had Yar'Adua genuine concern for right and wrong, he would have arranged to make a major statement on the recent crisis during his visit. He could have spoken about the vexing citizenship and ownership question that continues to divide Nigerian communities that have otherwise lived together for decades. He would have remembered the hundreds that died needlessly. He could have shown concern for the economy by visiting car dealer Hamidi Idris, whose Femma Motors, Jos' biggest dealership, lost over 200 cars.

Those youths must have put their lives on the line sadly knowing that they do not mean much in Nigeria's scheme of things, and that at any time, someone else may be starting another riot that will consume them. So they stepped into the path of Yar'Adua's gleaming new imported vehicles, and possible bullets.

Let us thank God the president's guards did not shoot. But let us be grateful those boys did not have access to the kind of firepower their mates in the Niger Delta and in robbery gangs now possess.

Then let us remember that once back in Abuja, Yar'Adua proved the cynicism of those boys right. The first order of business was the so-called Electoral Reform Act. Contrary to his advertised aim of ensuring that our electoral law never again shames us as it did in 1999, 2003 and 2007, the president dumped the panel's most pivotal recommendations. His narrow-minded decision guarantees that his party will "win" every election, and they can put in office, any office, whatever animal they desire.

When you think about it, that is the kind of leadership that makes the best of men want to reach for rocks and broken bottles. This is what Yar'Adua meant by the "children of independence" taking over?

*sonala.olumhense@gmail.com