Time for Home-baked Truths
This has been a week of deep reflections and soul searching about how and why Nigeria has gone astray. As if on auto-cue, past and present national leaders rose to warn about the dangers that unemployment and widespread violence posed to the unity and socioeconomic development of Nigeria. At no time in the history of this country have we seen political and former military leaders tell the truth about the enormity of the problems that confront the nation. From Kaduna to Abeokuta, from Olusegun Obasanjo to Yakubu Gowon, from Vice-President Namadi Sambo to Senate president David Mark, including the Sultan of Sokoto, the truth about how Nigerians underdeveloped Nigeria is beginning to be exposed in public forums.
At a workshop in Abeokuta, Obasanjo said emphatically that there was widespread disapproval about the lack of attention to growing unemployment and the danger that this could trigger popular unrest, the kind that swept through North African countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Obasanjo told the audience at a workshop on “Economic diversification and revenue generation” in Abeokuta: “There is the possibility of having the Arab Spring in Nigeria if similar conditions, hardships and unemployment which gave birth to it are not addressed.”
Everyone has been warning about the threat that unemployment poses to the social cohesion and economic advancement of the nation. Everyday popular discontent continues to grow a notch higher. Opinions are rife that the federal and state governments, including other political and religious leaders must address the stifling social, economic and political problems that tug at the heart of the nation. The danger is that rising expectations, if unfulfilled, could lead to rising frustrations and violence. This is the ugly scenario that stares everyone in the face.
Obasanjo said investment in “agriculture and agro-business” should be seen as viable channels for creating employment opportunities for the growing “army of unemployed Nigerians so that the Arab Spring does not rear its head in the country”.
From Abeokuta to Kaduna, from concerns over unemployment to worries about rising insecurity, public opinion remains the same. In Kaduna on Monday this week, Senate president David Mark made the harshest criticism of the culture of silence by political and religious leaders in regard to incessant violent crimes and bomb explosions in the northern states. Mark was forthright and angry. He was passionate and open. He was brave because he touched on issues that some spineless leaders had regarded for a long time as sensitive or too delicate to handle.
At the peace and unity conference convened by the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) in Kaduna, David Mark made an historic mark through the strong speech he delivered. His address was in many ways remarkable because the man has struggled, over the years, with an image problem. Regardless of his position as Senate president, Mark has never really been regarded as a defender of the common people. In fact, he is more commonly remembered for the contemptuous manner he treated his critics in his previous capacities as Federal Minister of Communication and also as the military governor of Niger State.
For example, Mark was once accused of coming down hard on all those who opposed his performance in the Communication Ministry when he repulsed them with the uncomplimentary assertion that the telephone was never really intended for the common people. True or false, Mark has had to carry that baggage of adverse public opinion about his character. This week, the man appeared determined to turn his image around by publicly expressing his disapproval of the way northern leaders handled serious issues pertaining to mindless killings and ceaseless bomb explosions in the region, as well as the general apathy of the youths to western education. Whether he succeeded in uplifting his depreciating image remains an open question.
In his speech at the conference, Mark posed the most uncomfortable questions to northern religious, political and community leaders, including all those who seek to perpetuate a culture of violence through the agency of some hideous organisations such as Boko Haram. To understand the import of David Mark’s address, it will be necessary to quote his speech extensively, as reported in Thisday’s edition of Tuesday, 6 December 2011. Hate him or love him, his address was courageous, breathtaking and insightful. If it was designed to compel everyone, in particular regional and national leaders to engage in some kind of self-criticism, the speech surely achieved its objective.
Mark focused his speech on some key elements – violence in the north sponsored and backed by advocates of the Boko Haram movement, the failure of the northern leadership to take a united action against violent behaviour, and the silence of regional leaders over the poor level of education of northern youths. Why would anyone, he wondered, object to western education which he identified as a precondition for personal growth and national socioeconomic development.
Mark set the tone of his address when he asked the conference organisers and participants bluntly: “Will this conference avoid what may be regarded as sensitive issues and not discuss them? Will we be able to condemn current degree of insecurity in the North occasioned and heightened by Boko Haram?” He continued: “Are we afraid to openly condemn Boko Haram either for political reasons or out of fear of possible attack by the sect? How can we keep quiet when a group begins to propagate the ideology that Western education is Haram? Western education today remains the pivot of development.”
In his eagerness to get the northern leaders to confront the problems that have held the region hostage for years, he asked penetrating questions: “Have we forgotten that evil thrives when good men are silent? A Northerner killing a Northerner, a Northerner maiming a Northerner, a Northerner disrupting business activities in the North, a Northerner destroying properties in the North and so on and so forth cannot be helping the North by any stretch of imagination. Can this help Northern cause?”
In regard to general aversion to education, Mark was quite categorical. He asked: “Why has the North continued to lag behind in education? All available statistics show that in both literacy and numeracy, the North lags behind the South, and even within the North, there is much disparity between the zones and between states.”
As he spoke, you could sense some members of the audience feeling uncomfortable and nervous. Mark continued his probing questions: “Is it that the states are not investing much in education? Is it that we are not providing basic infrastructure? Is it that we are not encouraging and mobilising the pupils to go to school? I am dwelling so much on education because I seriously believe that there is a linkage between education and development on the one hand and between peace and development on the other.”
Former Head of State Yakubu Gowon was equally critical of the situation in the north. He said current events in the region did not reflect the glorious condition of the north that was handed down to the present generation by our forefathers. He challenged the leaders to commit to work hard in order to halt the negative perceptions of the north as the centre of violent crimes, killings and bomb explosions. These damaging events, he said, have had adverse effects on the economy of the region. Although Gowon asked many questions, he must stand up to answer some of them because he was a former Head of State.
In his speech, the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III, echoed David Mark’s sentiments about the need to engage the youths in the classrooms. He underlined the value of education to everyone when he said: “We must bring education to the front burner. The state governors must set up education fund that will make children go to school at no cost. I believe they have the wherewithal to do that. Many people are tired of what is happening and want to see peace reign in Nigeria.”
The Sultan cautioned against inequitable treatment of citizens and advised the government to be fair to everyone, irrespective of places of origin. He said: “Our leaders, especially the political leaders, must lead with justice, fairness and transparency while dealing with the masses. Then, and only then will peace and stability be restored not only in the North but in the entire country.”
It will be wrong to attribute all the problems to the leaders. The civil society must take some of the blame. If the leaders failed to provide direction for the country, it must be said that ordinary citizens also failed to snatch control of their destiny from the grip of clumsy leaders.
After all the talk and head scratching, the key query must be: will this conference end wastefully in the tradition of other previous meetings? It’s alright to speak melodramatically in a public forum but if nothing happens, if action does not accompany all the prescriptions, it will be a waste of everyone’s valuable time. Productive conferences are not usually the ones in which nice speeches are delivered but forgotten almost immediately after the convention has ended.
This week has seen public scrutiny and spotlight focused on northern leaders and the people. It will be wrong to assume that other regions have no fundamental problems to sort out. Will northern leaders do something about rising violence and educational backwardness of their people? Are the people capable of helping themselves if their leaders remain apathetic to their socioeconomic conditions?