Look into any cloudless sky, you'll see marvellous consistency of blue. Translate the blue into sand, that is Borno state. When I was posted there in 2001 for NYSC, I refused because they had recently adopted sharia and since it was unconstitutional, I argued I had been posted to another country. I was advised to go for camp since it was a federal enclave then subsequently apply for redeployment. I boarded a flight from Lagos and like Google Earth descended into the great consistency of hot sand. I imagined myself amidst the remains of civilisation after its extinction in some future catastrophe.
After days of practising, we were to march past and salute state dignitaries who had come to declare the camp open. The emcee recognised the federal minster of youth and women affairs, the state deputy governor, immediately I heard a sharia judge recognised, I stepped out and told the soldiers, I'm not marching anymore. Are you crazy, they asked. Not yet, I replied. We southerners do not recognize sharia judge and I will never march past or give salute to one. What about other marching corpers, they asked, are they not from south? That is their business, I replied. I was beaten and booted to fall back in line. Refusing, I ended up in the guardroom. There, I became intimate with the almajiris.
They had been beaten and driven away by the soldiers but they kept scaling fences back into the camp. They ate with glee our leftovers including those in garbage bins. Each child's large unwashed bowl multitasked as food plate, water cup and at night, it turned into a pillow. There was a rope from each bowl that was tied to their left wrists. It was as if the children had been harnessed to their destiny which was in begging. I was amazed at how open they were to new things and how fast they learnt when I taught them call-and-response songs to keep up our spirits in the guardroom. The soldiers didn't like our sudden joys so they constantly shut us up. I began to teach them protest songs not for the soldiers alone but for the system that kept them roped to a begging bowl.
Almajiris of yesterday are the Boko Haram of today. There were schools in Borno that had no Maths, English and science teachers for years. Corpers proposed that besides the federal monthly top up, if the state government remunerated them enough, they might stay. The state refused. When children ÔÇśgraduate' from schools with no teachers, how would they not believe education is illegal or western education is a sin? Boko Haram is not a perversion of the religion but its natural extension in an atmosphere of dispossession.
Yet Governor Modu Sheriff boasted some years back that he had 77 jeeps. He stopped scholarship of students in England because he was at loggerheads with his predecessor Malla Kachalla who'd placed them there. When there were calls to probe N7 billion Kachalla didn't account for, Sheriff said he had forgiven his predecessor. The forgiveness would have been appropriate had the money being his hard-earned personal savings not public money. To show his commitment to freedom of expression, he expelled the BBC reporter who first broke the news of Boko Haram far back in 2004. Though the current carnage has its own identity, it was also a nemesis the ruling elite created.
In camp, we corpers donated blood to state hospitals and contributed money for the VVF epidemic. Yet months before, Ovation Magazine splashed a volume on the stupendous wealth of Mai Deribe and his $100m palace nearby. His son told Babangida while taking him down the 200-metre hallway during commissioning: ÔÇśEverything here is gold or made with gold. Not gold-plated - gold.' There were local governments offices outside Maiduguri that only opened the week federal allocation came in. Once that was shared, they advised corpers to comeback next month because that was when the doors opened again. We have local government offices that were not accessible by vehicles or okada only through camels and donkeys. We have others that only a bus per day went there, once you miss it, come back the following day. And the Federal Government is asking Lagos to close down its ÔÇśillegal' local governments.
People of Borno were warm, pleasant, and resigned to a terrible fate like average Nigerians everywhere. The men were open to strangers and southerners to a large degree and the women were to an unlimited degree. Tell them you were from Lagos, you have their hearts pro bono. They yearned to go places and they were opened to the world. I had been to 34 states in the nation, Maiduguri was where listening to Indian music was taken with the same seriousness southerners listen to gospel music. Yet they don't understand Hindi. Maidugurians loved going to the movies rather than claustrophobically staying at home to watch them as we do in the south. I mistakenly stepped on a praying ground with my keferi shoes and was cautioned warmly. In other places, I would have been dead along with hundreds of other innocents. When a pregnant woman boarded a taxi, the driver was obliged to drive her from bus stop to her door and other passengers would not complain.
Borno, called home of peace, was not acquired by extremism and violence until recently. Their tolerance made them to tolerate the intolerant. This can happen anywhere. When the Danish cartoon riots erupted in 2006 and dozens were killed thousands displaced, southern press labelled it "cartoon riots." The mujahedeens did not know the cause, they were just responding to blood orders. Proof: Razed down were churches, southerners businesses and residences, what do those have to do with Denmark? Boko Haram lends credence to what we have known since: the pervasive attempt to Islamise Nigeria. When sharia was introduced in 12 states and federal might did nothing to assert itself, the fanatics grew bolder. Now they want sharia for the whole nation.
President Yar'adua must be applauded for moving in the army swiftly after the failure of state police. Obasanjo would not have been so swift because he would be cautious not to be seen as a Christian president. In Jos religious carnage of 2004, Obasanjo was busy trying to be seen berating both sides instead of laying the charge where it properly belonged. The officer commanding this Maiduguri operation boasted naively ÔÇśmission accomplished.' No sir. It has just begun. Boko Haram is likely to come back. The case generated international attention so they are likely to get financiers. The SSS must be all ears. Also there is nothing called western education anymore. Arabs, Japanese, Africans, Latinos have contributed and still contributing so it is no longer western it is just Education. To combat Boko Haram, the state government should strengthen the schools, entice more corpers and not rely solely on police and soldiers. For the works of violence cannot endure.
It should be the fate of every Nigerian child to be pioneers and entrepreneurs not almajiri or talakawa or do ranka dede baba to anyone. The earlier we realise that our leaders in both north and south have been using our ethnic diversity and religious differences to prevent us from presenting a common front against them, the sooner we are freed from decades of these undeserved pains. The governor who cut the hand of a cow thief stole millions in public funds has his own hands still intact. Likewise his deputy who pronounced a fatwa on a female journalist in 2002. Present and past governors of sharia states are on corruption list yet their limbs are still intact doing what they do best. Mathew Hassan Kukah in his book Religion, Politics, and Power in Northern Nigeria argues that religion is the most effective method of politics in the north. This is not new. But why must the politics take the course of tyranny, fascism or a generic rebuke to life and hope, why not the blissful blue skies of freedom, civil liberties and democracy?