Elnathan John: Beyond Boko Haram: Working for a more tolerant North
by Elnathan John
The heat of the Sunday sun is sweltering. I have wound down all four of my glasses but I feel trapped in this boiling box that is my car. I am driving slowly between Makera and Kakuri in Kaduna looking for a cybercafé to send an email to a friend. As I move from the point where Makera becomes Kakuri, I can literally see the street change from shirts trousers and skirts to caftans and hijabs. I know that this is the case in much of Kaduna, but to see the difference in so short a distance is disconcerting.
I was born in the capital of the North. The state that once represented everything positive: developed, cosmopolitan, progressive. Today, having returned to live in Kaduna after a few years away, I have become a witness to the shameful dying spectacle that the North has become.
In some sort of self-inflicted religious apartheid, our cities, notably Jos and Kaduna- once quiet and integrated- are now religiously-exclusive, passive-aggressive (sometimes openly aggressive), mutually-suspicious contiguous communities. True some might argue that this quiet separation that has created Muslim and Christian communities has its positive effects, but it is not without obvious dangers. Sadly because of the increasingly widespread attacks of Boko Haram, no one is talking about the issues germane to the North, pre-Boko Haram. In fact some have cynically implied that the Boko Haram attacks (that affect everyone) have reduced the perennial Muslim-Christian crises. We must however look at the problems we have, beyond Boko Haram.
What separation has caused is a heightened otherness- convenient for trading blame and the spread of dangerous rumours and propaganda. One of the things I am grateful for is that I grew up not in a homogenous community but with Christian, Muslim, Hausa, Yoruba, Nupe, Igbo, Ibibio, Edo, Ebira, Urhobo, Tiv, Idoma, Igala and Fulani neighbours (in addition to the large numbers of people from the indigenous tribes of Kaduna). I did not grow up wondering if Muslims were good or bad people, if Southerners were good or bad people, because they were all around me and I did not suffer from the suspicion that is the product of ignorance. As a result it is hard for me to contribute or even listen to talk about how Muslims or Southerners are ‘our’ problem. The violence that has forced people to live separately is capable of creating even more deeply rooted violence. Children in Kaduna and Jos now grow up in exclusively Christian or Muslim communities where it is easy to speak disparagingly
of people of another religion or culture; where it is easy to blame them for the problems that is common to everyone; where the only debate is ‘Us vs Them’.
The violence which living separately is quietly breeding is further worsened by the irresponsibility of leaders from the North. Leaders who have benefitted from the perpetration of poverty and dependence and the divisions that have prevented Northern Nigerians from demanding good and responsible governance from their leaders.
The problem with poverty, which in my opinion is more acute in the North than in the South, is that it looks for enemies to blame and lash out at. That is why poorer communities generally have higher crime rates, more domestic abuse, more rape, more senseless rumours that lead to violence. There can be no quick fixes to decades-old problems and because change can be painful and demanding, the few but immensely powerful persons whose power derives from this current unacceptable situation, will fight any move to fix the North and liberate its people mentally and economically.
We must expect this while we chart a course for the reduction of poverty and the empowerment of women and young people in our communities.
What we must begin to do is to invest in the North and insist that those who seek our support for votes equally invest in the North. When we have industries, and businesses- real investment as opposed to the embarrassing poverty eradication schemes which governors in the North now bandy about like Keke Napep and motorcycles- then there is a possibility that people will be able to empower themselves and have a stake in developed, stable North, so much that they will be able to fight from within the forces militating against peace and stability.
While the current situation of separate religious communities is unfortunate, there is no quick fix for that either. The mistrust and mutual suspicion is deep and can only change over time and years of education and re education. We can achieve this if we start now teaching the next generation that the other is not the enemy. That the enemy is poverty and bad, wicked leadership. That we cannot all be Muslim or Christian. That no one is evil simply because of his/her religion. That every human being deserves to be treated justly and with dignity. That violence and oppression only begets more violence and oppression. That respect begets respect. That the construct of superiority of tribe and/or religion is only useful to those who seek to perpetuate themselves in power to the detriment of ordinary people.
I believe that real economic empowerment and re-education will make our cities have more tolerant, more cosmopolitan and more secure communities. The fact is that we are weaker, easier to exploit and attack, when we are hungry and dependent. In the end we have more in common than divide us, more common enemies to fight than differences.
We must as individual Northerners must look inward. Agriculture must be supported, not on small subsistence scale but on a scale that is capable to empowering poor farmers, their families and employees. Northern politicians and self-styled philanthropists should be judged based on how much concrete, sustainable development they have brought to the North. We must begin the critique from within.
I want to be able to drive through the Muslim Tudun Wada and Rigasa in Kaduna and not feel afraid. I want to be able to invite my Muslim friend who lives in Badiko to the non-Muslim Sabo where I live and not be scared that if a crisis breaks out, I alone may not be able to save him. Today I cannot. Tomorrow can be better.
I surfed the Arewa Transformation and Empowerment Initiative (ATEI) website after it was recommended to me by a friend. As I always do, I went to the ‘About’ section of the site. The words ‘non religious’, ‘non partisan’ and ‘professionals’ used in one sentence made me more curious. I think it is time that social movements are led by serious professionals who are able to think critically and apply pragmatic, tangible solutions to solve our real problems. I was also hopeful when I saw that one of their goals was ‘justice for all’. For without justice and equality, for all groups in the North, the bitter, dangerous feeling of intra-regional marginalization will fester and lead to more and more crises. Much will depend on the sincerity, courage and intellect of these professionals who are treading a path that has been full of empty words and impotent schemes. I hope that the ATEI will recognize the seriousness of the task that they have taken on and prove to those ordinarily cynical about the Northern problem that it is possible to get things right.