Northern Nigeria

Thugs Disrupt Peaceful #BringBackOurGirls Protest

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It has been over a month since the abduction of over 200 school girls from a secondary school in Chibok Borno state in Northern Nigeria. Since that time, protests have erupted in several cities across Nigeria, and around the world under the banner of #BringBackOurGirls. Influential politicians, global figures and celebrities have lent their support The protests started from Abuja, and have been ongoing.

I have attended several of the sit-outs in Abuja. Yet, today, things took a completely different turn. Scores of women wearing red t-shirts emblazoned with #ReleaseOurGirls and thugs disrupted the usually peaceful sit-out in Abuja. Several local Nigerian media had previously reported that the #ReleaseOurGirls protesters were meant to counter the narrative of #BringBackOurGirls which had put the government under national and international scrutiny.

From around 5pm, things started happened at a dizzying pace. All I could remember was that several angry young men, some of them in red t-shirts began yelling and hurling insults. Suddenly, they were confiscating cameras and mobile phones, pushing and shoving people, grabbing and breaking plastic chairs all at once. It was frightening.

Surprisingly, the over 50 policemen who were there to contain any disturbance stood by idly and did nothing as the hired goons went on a rampage. We were all told to huddle close together, not cave in, and then we broke into solidarity songs until the thugs left us alone. Eventually some of the police men reluctantly took away away one or two of the thugs.

Everything happened really fast, and I barely managed to capture this short video of the disruption:

Some photos I took as well:




So, who ‘sponsored’ these guys?

Maybe the answer lies in this picture of the vehicles and equipment used by the #ReleaseOurGirls hirelings:





Boko Haram and a Nation Gripped By Fear

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In most cultures of the world, a word exists for a frightening creature or the bogey man. In Hausa for instance, it is the dodo. A fiendish entity, other-worldly, yet beastly in its aggression and human in its scheming prowess, the dodo lurks, stalks and terrorises. Stories of the bogey man are used strategically by parents to whip misbehaving children back into line, because no one knows quite what the bogeyman is – it is everything and nothing.

In Nigeria’s North-East, the heart of the Boko Haram terrorist insurgency, the bogeyman may have traversed the realm of fantasy into cold reality. Boko Haram militants lurk at night, to murder school children while they sleep. In the last few days, we have been held spellbound by the brutality unleashed on defenseless school children in Borno and Yobe. 43 young people were killed in the attack on a secondary school in Buni Yadi, Yobe. About 20 female students were abducted by the militants from a school in Konduga, Borno.

Survivors have recounted spine-chilling stories of dormitories set on fire and of escapees gunned down. The few that evaded gun fire were chased, and slaughtered like cattle. Photos of charred remains of adolescents and of bodies drenched in blood from sliced throats and bullet wounds have flooded the Internet. The massacres occur daily. The bogeyman has come to life – it spares no one in its violent wake.

Naked fear is firmly embedded into the spines of most. The fear in part stems from the realisation that regardless of class or economic status, no one is safe. The ‘unknown gunmen’ who routinely terrorise others are hardly ever caught and prosecuted. The murders of prominent citizens such as Bola Ige, Saudatu Rimi and Sheikh Jafar are yet to be resolved years after, not to mention crimes against faceless and nameless ‘commoners’ in Bama or Baga. The Police, the Civil Defense Corps and the Army seem to be out-gunned, out-motivated and over-whelmed. In a country with massive economic and social inequalities, this collective insecurity is one area where all Nigerians are equal.

Mostly, this fear comes from confronting a deadly enemy which appears fluid, formless and extremely vengeful – a bogeyman. Boko Haram is a rapidly changing, complex and fragmented movement. Its doctrine is as fast changing as it is contradictory – anti-democracy, anti-secularism, and anti-establishment. Yet it liberally employs internet enabled smartphones and other tools of modernity and western education to perpetrate attacks. Any criticism of the group’s approach by ordinary citizens, Imams or traditional rulers in the North draws a swift and vicious response.

The eccentric pre-2009 hermetic ragtag sect, avenging the death of their slain leader Muhammad Yusuf from 2010, have quickly metamorphosed into a highly sophisticated terrorist group with deep local and global networks. From laying siege on police stations and army checkpoints, they have attacked churches, brothels, prominent Islamic clerics, mosques, northern traditional rulers and now they’ve added the murder of helpless school children to a blood-drenched résumé. It’s difficult to project what tactics they will adopt next.

So little credible information about the group is available. Boko Haram itself thrives on secrecy. The Army bragged about the leader, Abubakar Shekau’s death in August 2013 only for his taunting videos to resurface shortly. Whenever an evident victory is proclaimed by the authorities, a more daring attack is perpetrated. The insurgency has become like the monster in Greek mythology, Scylla – when one head is sliced off, three more sprout up in its stead. As the rise of the ‘yan Gora or the Civilian Joint Task Force – the youth vigilante fishing out suspected insurgents from the community – is celebrated, Boko Haram ferociously retaliates against such communities working with the authorities.

Where little information is available, speculation thrives. Where speculation is rife in the midst of unbridled fear about a formless enemy, conspiracy theories fill the gap. In Nigeria, these conspiracy theories are as numerous as they are destructive: Boko Haram is a creation of “disgruntled northern politicians to destabilise Goodluck Jonathan’s government”. “Boko Haram is a creation of the Federal Government in Abuja to destroy the North for political advantage”. The group “is a creation of the West to fulfill their prediction of a disintegrated Nigeria by 2015″. Some of these toxic opinions neatly overlap with people’s innate prejudices particularly in the wake of the divisive 2011 elections.

While these conspiracy theories are mostly ludicrous, anecdotes of suspicious events give them weight. According to the Yobe state governor, the soldiers guarding the school in Buni Yadi were mysteriously withdrawn from their duty posts a few hours before. The traditional ruler of Bama bemoaned that while the town was sacked and torched over several hours in February, frantic efforts to call local Police and Army chiefs were futile as they were all mysteriously unavailable. Ground troops, whose courage must be appreciated, are known to be severely under equipped relative to the sophisticated weaponry carried by Boko Haram despite the almost one trillion naira allocated to security in the national budget.

Most troubling is that recently, Reno Omokri, the President’s Special Assistant on New Media was identified as the author of a malicious article falsely alleging that the ‘suspended’ Central Bank Governor Sanusi Lamido is a Boko Haram financier. Many such unexplained events have planted suspicion in the minds of many in the North-East, and allow for dangerous conspiracy theories to flourish.

A Screen Shot showing the article and the author details. Source: Feyi Fawehinmi on Twitter @doubleEph

The reality is that fighting such an entrenched insurgency anywhere will be a grueling and bloody war of attrition. The difficult experiences of America in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, despite being a highly militarised super power are instructive. In this trying period, it is necessary to ensure that some semblance of national cohesion against the insurgency exists.

For a start, genuine efforts must be made at restoring the trust of residents in the North-East in the Federal Government. Symbolic gestures by the President to sincerely console victims of brutal murders would alleviate some of the widespread sense of alienation in the region. Greater efforts must be made to address lapses and incompetence by the security agencies in order to lay conspiracy theories to rest. Proper investigations of leakages in the security infrastructure must be made to understand why combat troops in the firing line are under-paid and under-equipped. President Jonathan must as a matter of urgency, take decisive and punitive action against the despicable act of his aide- Reno Omokri, failure of which would send the message that the frame up attempt was sanctioned by the Presidency.

Finally, Nigerians must be commended for the resilience and the solidarity in expressing collective outrage in the wake of the recent escalation of violence in the entire North-East. Despite the prevalence of fear and the sense of helplessness, we must have faith that Nigeria will somehow endure and emerge stronger from this all.

Thoughts on Nasir El-Rufai’s “The Accidental Public Servant”

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Paperback and kindle editions available on or

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing

Publication Date: February 2013

ISBN-10: 1481967401

ISBN-13: 978-1481967402

“…to put on record my version of events…” is one of the reasons Nasir El-Rufai puts forward for writing his provocative autobiography, The Accidental Public Servant. It’s a book which could easily tie with Chinua Achebe’s memoirs, as the most debated in Nigeria’s recent history. Flipping through the pages, it was apparent that readers could choose to either verify or refute El-Rufai’s version of events in government, or appreciate its rare insight into the intricacies of Nigeria’s fourth democratic experience. I opted for the latter.

As the title suggests, the overall theme of the book revolves around the intriguing journey of an individual from very humble beginnings in an idyllic post-independence era, in a rural part of Katsina, northern Nigeria, to occupying one of the highest public offices in 21st century Nigeria. The reader glimpses into how El-Rufai’s fiercely independent, resolute, feisty and cerebral personality evolves from the tragedy of his father’s passing, the calculated attrition against Sunday, the primary school bully, the role-model influence of his brother in his early years and becoming a self-made private sector millionaire by his mid-twenties (p.36).

The “accidental” part of El-Rufai’s journey begins, from the age of 38 with his reluctant entry in government in 1998 as an adviser for the military government of Abdulsalam Abubakar. It continues through to his appointment as the Director-General of the main privatisation agency, the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE) and then as the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, and his membership of the elite corps of economic reformers between 2003 and 2007.

Along the way, lifelong friendships are built and broken, alliances are forged and betrayed and the gruelling challenge of public service and reform in the midst of entrenched practices and powerful vested interests takes its toll. He strives to balance public and personal interests with loyalties as he gets caught in the middle of altercations between a strong-willed President Olusegun Obasanjo and his equally powerful Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. At the height of these disagreements, El-Rufai inadvertently rises to a defacto Vice-President, a position which would ironically lead to his persecution and exile less than a year after leaving public office.

A refreshing aspect of the book is the revelation and demystification of the inner-workings of the highest levels of governance in Africa’s most populous country. For instance, El-Rufai stresses how appointments for the highest public offices, are mostly fortuitous, having little to do with meritocratic or rigorous processes. His narration of events during his first few days as FCT minister (p.199), what to expect after a ministerial nomination, the obstructive tactics of entrenched civil servants opposed to reform are insightful and invaluable details that offer a useful departure from textbook political theory or international ‘best practice.’

In particular, the author’s revelation that without a coherent plan, a new and mostly unprepared government minister could easily drown in administrative routine attending to “more than 100 visitors and 200 phone calls” daily for the duration of their tenure, is instructive (p.201). He discusses the immense influence such appointees wield and how they become devastated when they leave office, once the lucrative perks of office are withdrawn and the “hundreds of phone calls a day… drop to near zero” the very next day (p.393)! These are valuable disclosures for the younger generation planning to go into public service.

El-Rufai also underscores the absolute importance of political will by a president in effecting key reforms. With Obasanjo’s backing, the residence of the powerful chairman of the ruling party was demolished as part of the restoration of the FCT master plan (p.296) and a number of seemingly impossible tasks are implemented seamlessly. The reader thus gets a glimpse into Obasanjo’s ambivalent approach to governance: a wilful, ex-military leader, with an eye for good people, an ear for good advice and a vision for Nigeria despite his links with vested interests and rentier elite, but who was unfortunately consumed by his vindictiveness and narrow ambitions to run for a third term in office. The reader is likely to come off with a better informed and more respectable view of The Obasanjo personality.

El-Rufai also rightly reflects on a fundamental yet overlooked implication of the decline of Nigerian public education and constituent alumni networks which are critical to leadership and elite incubation (p.42-43).  He stresses how friendship and alumni networks in Barewa College and Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria proved useful in several instances in his life and in public service. He laments that the decline of hitherto elitist public institutions mean that their local and important alumni networks such as the Barewa Old Boys Association are now unavailable to foreign-educated Nigerians, his own children inclusive.

However, the scant mention of the highly controversial NITEL-Pentascope privatisation controversy is quite conspicuous. This is especially since El-Rufai studiously accounts for the key hallmarks and controversies of his stewardship of the BPE and the FCT Ministry. While the author does state that a full account of the NITEL saga would come in a BPE monograph (p.128), most readers would have appreciated at least a few paragraphs devoted to this contentious issue.

The author’s approach of divulging the inner workings of governance at the highest levels, and naming and shaming the key players irrespective of ethnic or religious affiliation is truly refreshing. Yet in a few instances, there’s a nagging feeling that he probably divulged too much. This ranges from revealing verbatim, some conversations which held in strict confidence to the extremely personal details about meeting and marrying his subsequent wives.

Notwithstanding, the rare insight El-Rufai provides into the highest echelons of power, politics and decision-making in Nigeria is unprecedented. The heated debate sparked by the book should prompt other key actors to document their own version of events, ultimately to the betterment of Nigerians outside the tight power circle. For Nasir El-Rufai the successful entrepreneur, technocrat, exiled student and now leading opposition politician, one can only wonder what the future holds.

Favourite Quote:

“Some mosques in particular consistently condemned me and prayed for my downfall. One or two declared me an apostate for daring to demolish a mosque, conveniently forgetting that Prophet Muhammad ordered the demolition of an illegal mosque in Madina Al-Munawwarah, some 1,400 years earlier. Many  of the affected ‘churches’ prayed that “by God’s grace, El-Rufai will go down, El-Rufai will lose his job, El-Rufai will die in Jesus’ name.” I was there for nearly four years and we removed all of them.” (p.212)

The Burka Avenger “fights” the Taliban in Pakistan

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The Burka Avenger. Photo credit: Human Rights Watch


Culled from Aljazeera:

“She is called the Burka Avenger and is like no other superhero before her.

By day she is a Pakistani school teacher, but by night the secret martial arts expert dresses in a veil while fighting bad guys  (who want to shut down schools).

The animated children’s series is about to hit TV screens across Pakistan.”

This is a potentially effective form of positive indoctrination and soft approach to fighting terrorism and extremism in a society. Given the numerous similarities between northern Nigeria and Pakistan in this regard, perhaps northern Nigeria also needs its own version of the Burka/Hijab Avenger to fight the Boko Haram baddies.

Malala Yousafzai’s Phenomenal Speech at the UN

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This is a video of the courageous Malala Yousafzai delivering a phenomenal speech at the UN Youth Assembly earlier today. Malala is the teenage education activist in Pakistan who recently survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban.

I was moved by her strength and passion, especially when I recalled how dozens of innocent school children were viciously murdered by terrorists in northern Nigeria recently.

For added symbolic effect, Malala delivered the powerful speech whilst wearing a shawl that belonged to the late Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto.

Some excerpts:

The Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead, they shot my friends too… They thought that the bullet would silence us, but they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought that they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died, strength, power and courage was born


“Let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism”

Quote of the Week: General Theophilus Danjuma

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“The masses of our people are chained down in dehumanizing and grinding poverty while we continue to maintain few islands of false prosperity in a turbulent ocean of penury and squalor… There cannot be peace and harmony where there is wide disparity between the few rich and a multitude of the poor”

This is an excerpt from a former Nigerian Chief of Defense Staff, General Theophilus Danjuma’s (rtd) speech, at a traditional turbaning ceremony. His statement, which was in reference to Nigeria in general and northern Nigeria in particular, could easily apply to a number of African countries.

The Story that Got an Al-Jazeera West Africa Team Arrested

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On Saturday 15 June, the Al-Jazeera West Africa correspondent Yvonne Ndege, and her 3-man crew were arrested in Niger. According to information posted on the Al-Jazeera website:

The team was initially detained at around 9.00 (GMT) on Saturday, questioned, and asked to hand over the material from a story they were filming about refugees.

The four were then interrogated for about ten hours before being officially arrested and charged with espionage, with no evidence being presented to support the charges.

…the authorities confiscated the team’s passports, filming equipment and personal belongings before putting them in a shared cell without food or water.

On Sunday, the Attorney General said that there was no evidence against them and the team was free to go, while the police headquarters said the filmed footage was cleared for release.

Within an hour of this order being given, the team was detained again without charge and the filming equipment was once again confiscated.

The team was eventually released, according to Premium Times:

“The four-person team was released late on Monday evening without charge to make way back to the border into Nigeria,” Kevin Kriedmann, a spokesperson of Aljazeera disclosed in a press release early Tuesday.

As for the reason behind their arrest, The Washington Post reports the team was arrested on charges by the Nigerien government that they failed to get proper accreditation:

Niger’s government spokesman said the group was filming illegally, having entered the country with only a visa. Journalists in Niger are required to also apply for an authorization from the ministry of communication, said spokesman Marou Amadou, who is also the country’s justice minister. He denied that the team had been held, saying only that their material was seized and inspected.

However, the reason for the detention may not be unconnected with the story the Al-Jazeera team was covering, about thousands of refugees fleeing across the border into Niger, from neighbouring Nigeria. The Nigerian government declared a State of Emergency on 14 May and launched a military operation to flush out the Boko Haram insurgents in their stronghold states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa.  Borno state in particular shares a border with Niger.

Here is the first footage of the reportage by Al-Jazeera on the refugees in Niger:

So far, Al-Jazeera is one of the few media agencies (among both local and international media) that has covered the plight of refugees fleeing these areas. Mobile communication networks have been switched off in these states since the military operation started, and thus, there’s little information coming out, and the little that does, is heavily controlled and determined by the Nigerian Army.

What I find more disturbing is the Nigerian government’s hasty dismissal of these refugees as citizens of Niger “fleeing” back to their country, and not Nigerians, even though it is common knowledge that when conflict erupts in an area, the residents tend to leave for somewhere safer until the conflict abates.  Agence France Presse (AFP) has also reported on the plight of Nigerian refugees in Cameroon, fleeing the military offensive in the North-East.

This hasty dismissal by the Nigerian government, along with the knee-jerk response by the Nigerien authorities confounds the situation further.

Boko Haram Rejects Amnesty Offer: Now What?

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“Mr Shekau said his group had done no wrong and so an amnesty would not be applicable to them.

It was the Nigerian government that was committing atrocities against Muslims, he said.

“Surprisingly, the Nigerian government is talking about granting us amnesty. What wrong have we done? On the contrary, it is we that should grant you [a] pardon,” AFP news agency quotes him as saying in the Hausa language audio recording.” 

Read the full report on the BBC News website

Of course, this was to be expected and sadly, many of us “observers” were just waiting for this. Boko Haram NEVER requested or plead for amnesty, it has no use for it whatsoever. You don’t need a sophisticated anti-terrorism profiler from Mossad to tell you that Boko Haram thrives on and draws its strength from the fear it inflicts on those commanding the machinery of government and the people, in seeking its “vengeance” (however warped that quest for vengeance is). Amnesty as it stands, would rob it of its lifeblood (its ability to inflict fear and terror). By default, Boko Haram is wired to reject this offer, as it has.  Now what?

This phase of the Boko Haram insurgency against the Nigerian state and the offer of amnesty by the government is analagous to two people, Mr. A. and Mr. B., engaged in bloody physical combat with Mr. A gaining the upper hand against Mr. B. Upon realising how imminent his defeat is, Mr. B., proclaims in between steely punches smashing his face “I forgive you Mr. A., I grant you amnesty”. Of course at this point, Mr. A will realise how powerful he has become, and simply finish off Mr. B.

I have keenly followed the pro- and anti- amnesty debate over the past two weeks or so in Nigeria. I found it all rather confounding, disturbing, distracting and absolutely pathetic! The debate got so heated and was as usual, unnecessarily politicised by both sides. I actually supported the President’s initial position of “not granting amnesty to faceless ghosts” because Boko Haram did not request for it, has insisted that it doesn’t recognise the authority of the Nigerian state (not to mention its feeble amnesty offer) and has continued butchering innocent Nigerians. However, President Jonathan was cajoled and bullied by SOME northern leaders into offering the amnesty.

On the other side of the divide, even those who genuinely and naïvely assumed that an amnesty offer would be the magical elixir to solve this bloody insurgency quagmire, were viciously painted by vociferous anti-amnesty voices as Boko Haram “sympathisers”. Now Boko Haram has flipped the bird or as we Nigerians call it, did the “uwaka” sign to us all, by rejecting it!

Photo credit:

Personally, I am more incensed at the folly of SOME of the proponents of amnesty and their gross inability to see how this would play out. I say a big Thank You for giving the world the opportunity once again, to laugh at your sheer recklessness. So, what next then? Start begging Boko Haram or bribe them with Hajj pilgrimage or Dubai trip offers?

The baby steps towards a sustainable solution should be clear and visible. In my opinion — based on my humble observations and from general discussions — I believe they include:

  1. Implementation of recommendations of several reports by various commissions and committees set up, on this insurgency. Most of these reports have concrete recommendations proposed by committee members who are in the know, yet they have been dumped somewhere. Go back, pick them up, and start working from the recommendations, if they haven’t been eaten by dust mite that is. If the Federal Government seems unwilling or keeps dragging its foot, our “esteemed” and opinionated northern elders clearly have their advocacy work cut out for them;
  2. The JTF needs to stop killing innocent people and thereby providing a ready supply of recruits and suicide bombers to Boko Haram from a pool of angry, spiteful, vengeful and disillusioned orphans. The logic here is so ridiculously simple and apparent: the more you kill fathers in the presence of their impressionable teenagers and brutalise innocent young men, the more likely the victims are to fall into the willing embrace of Boko Haram or just refuse to help the government. Government needs to realise the pivotal role of winning the hearts and minds of people caught in the midst of all this, and denying Boko Haram any sort of popular support;
  3. In addition to spreading fear through its carnage, Boko Haram primarily thrives on spreading its warped and twisted ideology to angry, frustrated and hungry Nigerians. Its ideology needs to be countered by Muslim clerics all over the country, especially in northern Nigeria. Already, we have people like Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, who, despite his sometimes controversial statements, has come down hard on the sect, and because of that, he has been the target of several bomb-assassination attempts. Importantly this de-radicalisation needs to filter down to the grassroots, and shouldn’t be restricted to the elitist spheres such as the Sultan Bello mosque in Kaduna or the Indimi mosque in Maiduguri. The real recruitment takes place in inner-city districts, slums, suburbs and rural areas. This is where some of our noisy northern leaders could be helpful, rather than bullying the President to offer a hollow and meaningless amnesty, they should (if they are doing so already) continue convincing local imams in every street mosque and district, to preach fearlessly against this radical ideology, with credible evidence from the Holy Qur’an and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), to expose the flaws in the ideological basis of Boko Haram and hopefully turn some of its members against it;
  4. There might still be a chance for amnesty… but there has to be a different approach. Again related to (1) above, the government (Federal and States) should go back to those reports and their recommendations, importantly, to start prosecuting perpetrators especially those in the security agencies responsible for extra-judicial killings of innocent citizens. This might be a highly contested approach but yes, start by prosecuting the killers of Mohammed Yusuf and others, which Boko Haram has frequently cited as the reason for its war against the Nigerian state. Prosecution of these erring officers might draw whatever humanity is left in some of the sect members to the negotiating table.

Lastly, the main problem with Nigeria, as is evident from this insurgency is that of sheer and criminal impunity. People steal, plunder, rape, murder and do everything under the sun, yet they are allowed to get away with it. This not only sets a precedent for other members of society to do same or worse, but it leaves victims with malicious grievances and a thirst for vengeance. Mohammed Yusuf, the sect’s alleged founder was brutally murdered (captured by the lens of Aljazeera’s cameras), the perpetrators are still walking about freely. The various suspects of church, market, mosque and school bombings are still walking about freely. Soldiers who have snuffed the life out of innocent citizens are still walking about freely. This breeds nothing but hateful grievances while the cycle of bloodletting continues. In the case of the sect, Jama’atul ahlul Sunna Wal-Liddawati wal Jihad, or Boko Haram, it is quenching its thirst for vengeance with the blood of innocents and this is what needs to stop.

A Glimpse into the World of Almajirai in Northern Nigeria

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I first met Hannah Hoechner in May this year, at the Oxford University Pan African Conference. I was outside the conference hall, getting some fresh air and chatting with several people when this friendly long haired brunette came to us and said hello in Hausa. Fascinated, we proceeded to ask her how come she could speak the Hausa language, to which she replied, that she had lived in Kano for some time, doing field research for her DPhil, as a student at the Oxford Department of International Development (ODID). We chatted briefly before she left.

Fast forward to October 2012, as a new DPhil student myself at ODID; I met Hannah again, and I learnt about her DPhil research on Traditional Qur’anic Schools in Kano. The research “aims to understand the experience of Qur’anic students (almajirai) in Kano State in Northern Nigeria”. One of the most interesting things she said during a presentation of her field research findings to ODID a few weeks ago is that not all almajirai in northern Nigeria are beggars and not all child beggars are almajirai. Infact if one comes across an almajiri (singular) who isn’t begging, it’d be difficult to identify him as such. Think about it!

During the course of Hannah’s 13-month field work in Kano, she produced a docu-drama offering an arguably never-before-seen comprehensive view of the life and experiences of an almajiri on celluloid. The movie, titled, “Duniya Juyi Juyi” (How Life Goes) was co-produced by the Goethe-Institut Kano and had some touch of the Kannywood (Hausa) movie industry. What I found quite fascinating is that real life almajirai were fully involved in the movie – nine almajirai from different parts of Kano were trained to write the script for the film, to do most of the acting, to handle the camera, and to give the stage directions.

On set of the Duniya Juyi Juyi movie. Almajirai playing the roles of cameraman and actor. Photo credit: Carmen McCain's Flickr photos
On set of the Duniya Juyi Juyi movie. Almajirai playing the roles of cameraman and actor. Photo credit: Carmen McCain’s Flickr photos
Some of the crew members of the movie. They are almajirai. Photo credit: Carmen McCain's Flickr photos
Some of the crew members of the movie. They are almajirai. Photo credit: Carmen McCain’s Flickr photos
Some cast and crew. Photo credit: Carmen McCain’s Flickr photos

Watching the movie at ODID, several strong emotions — mainly of gratitude and guilt — coursed through me. I was grateful that first hand stories of these young boys, involuntarily enmeshed in the complicated traditional-Qur’anic system (whose present utility is hotly debated) have been shared. These boys are often vilified and even demonized by society. For instance, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka inaccurately described almajirai as the “Butchers of Nigeria”, depriving such boys of their humanity and agency, depicting them as would-be arsonists, killers and terrorists who in his view are “deliberately bred, nurtured, sheltered… ready to be unleashed at the rest of society”.

I was also grateful that Hannah’s in-depth and highly analytical research provides new information and sheds light on the almajiri system – the truths, the stereotypes around it and confirms what many have pointed out, that is a system in dire need of urgent reforms. At the same time, a streak of guilt flashed through momentarily, that Hannah, from Germany, is the one providing an insight – and she does it brilliantly – into one of the most contentious socio-cultural issues in Nigeria.

I obtained Hannah’s permission to share the absolutely amazing work she is doing with her research and the fascinating first hand story of these boys on this blog. Due to technical (in)compatibility issues, I couldn’t embed the Duniya Juyi Juyi video directly here, but find below two links to the video posted elsewhere:

To view the video in small format, click on this link HERE
To view the video in medium format, click on this link HERE

The movie is just about one hour in total. Enjoy!!! …and please leave your comments and/or questions below, I am sure you will have many!

Northern Nigeria: The Disconnect Between Our Leaders and the Rest of Us

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It is becoming a tired cliché to note that Nigeria is a country with vast potentials which have remained unrealized due to socio-political and economic challenges of which dearth of transformational leadership is at the heart of all. Again, it is common knowledge that this leadership deficit is more severe in northern Nigeria relative to other parts of the country. A disturbing yet overlooked dimension of this leadership conundrum however, is that leaders who ought to be responsible for identifying the problems and finding solutions seem to have little understanding of what these problems are, they prefer to ignore them or both, and hence have little or no solutions to them. The leaders are also becoming progressively disconnected from the ordinary people and their concerns.



The summaries of various communiqués of meetings and fora involving northern political leaders (mainly the Northern Governors Forum) and most northern elders (mostly former public office holders) of recent, on the North’s numerous problems are baffling and frustrating as it is apparent the agenda of these meetings typically have little to do with the region’s gargantuan economic, socio-political and security challenges. Neither do the final recommendations.

The themes of these meetings usually revolve around increased revenue allocation to northern states from the Federal Government, lamentations over existing conspiracies to “marginalize” and “destroy” the North; emphasis on the North’s “turn” to produce the next President in 2015; hollow, rhetorical lamentations on the decline of the northern economy and the need to revive agriculture, countering the Boko Haram insurgency and occasionally, a passing reference is made on the need for good governance, and in the end, these ills are ascribed to bad leadership and that’s  about it. These meetings typically produce virtually no solid, detailed, implementable blue prints on how to methodically, systematically and effectively address the North’s well-documented problems.

As the communiqués and press briefings for these meetings become public, one’s hopes of tangible solutions are further dashed by the crushing realization that our leaders are running round in vicious circles. At best, they gloss over the most critical problems, and at worst, their recommendations have practically no bearing on these problems. While the last meeting of the Northern Governor’s Forum belatedly established a committee to propose ways of addressing the insecurity in the North, it is an open secret that many of the governors have their eyes set on and are working towards contesting the 2015 presidential elections. Recently, at least two prominent northern leaders have made the case for revisiting the Federal Government’s revenue allocation formula, while at least three northern elders have variously “advised” that President Jonathan “renounces” any intention of  contesting in the 2015 elections to “defuse political tension”.

While I am not disregarding the importance of these issues, there are more critical issues requiring the immediate attention of our leaders on which the fate of ordinary people and the region as a whole hang. The problems bedeviling northern Nigeria can be broadly classified into four distinct but interrelated categories: the steady economic decline of the region over several decades, the breakdown of social cohesion, the insecurity especially the Boko Haram insurgency and the gradual decline of the North’s political influence at the centre. The disturbing fact though is that the priorities of our northern Governors and many of our northern elders, are skewed towards the North’s access to political power and how to bring back the Presidency to the North come 2015 while the more important economic, social and security challenges are of secondary importance to them.



As our leaders and elders focus on these non-issues, one wonders how these would actually translate to a better life for the ordinary northerner when 8 out of 10 people in most northern states live in abject poverty, how President Jonathan’s shelving of his 2015 ambition would translate to better equipped schools and medical centres, or how abrogating the Onshore-Offshore Dichotomy Bill and revising the “unfair” distribution of Federal revenues will attract needed investments to a region where in many state capitals it’s a herculean task to find one large departmental store (an indicator of modernization), when the current revenues are clearly being mismanaged. These are the leaders and the “voices” of the North and from what they talk about, one can reasonably conclude that these are their main priorities.

The tragedy here is that not only is there an acute misdiagnosis of the numerous problems bedeviling the North and its people by our leaders and elders, those ideally best placed to know the problems and formulate solutions, but that even their proposed solutions to the misdiagnosed problems are deficient, while the region continues to decay, collapse and burn, literally. Few of our “leaders” and “elders” have for instance, actually proposed realistic and pragmatic steps in containing the Boko Haram insurgency, the most glaring manifestation of this decay and impending collapse.

Beyond the usual mantra on the need “to engage in dialogue” with the sect, is there any concrete plan on the sequence of events that would follow in the event that the sect does agree to negotiate and is somehow convinced to lay down its arms whether by an amnesty-type cooption into the system or via another means? Is there a blueprint on integrating the brainwashed flock back into society, to guarantee the safety and security of those who agree to cease fire or for massive disarmament of arms now overflowing the North? Is there any incentive (or protection) to encourage those who genuinely want to renounce violence or to convince the militants that it’s in their best interests to lay down their arms in an environment where upward social mobility for the unprivileged is almost non-existent even to the educated ones? Are there plans for engaging these youth and other legions of unemployed, disillusioned and frustrated young men and women in our northern cities to prevent their co-option by other such anarchist groups? If any of such plans or proposals exist, they surely haven’t been regularly featuring in the communiqués of these fora involving our northern leaders and elders.



Consequently, as our leaders and elders focus on issues which seem to have little bearing on the lives of the rest of us, we the rest are increasingly dissociating ourselves from what they have chosen to prioritize, while the rest of the country is moving ahead and increasingly dissociating itself from the North as a whole. Some of our leaders speak on behalf of the North and we wonder whether they are really speaking on our behalf. They speak of the North but we wonder if these are really the aspirations of the ordinary people.

While our leaders and many of our elders attribute the North’s underdevelopment to a lower share of federal revenues, many of us see how some non-oil producing states south of the Niger, some of which receive comparatively less revenues from the federal purse are embarking on relatively more transformational policies: free health-care scheme for pregnant women, children, the physically challenged and senior citizens in Ekiti state; free education policy from primary to university level in Imo state; the rail transit system and other transport infrastructure in Lagos etc. At the same time, we see our own state executives, spending N2.7 bn ($17 m) on Ramadhan gifts, more than that state’s entirely monthly revenue allocation or jetting-off to Saudi Arabia for the lesser hajj in August as Boko Haram and Joint Military Task Force (JTF) slugged it out, further traumatizing the already battered residents.

Caring Heart Primary School is one of the “five star” public mega primary schools being built by the Ondo state government all across the state. This ambitious project aims to ensure such public schools “compete favourably” with the best private schools and that the underprivileged have access to quality education.

We wonder when the communiqués of these meetings by our northern leaders and elders would shift focus from their obsession with the 2015 elections which is still 3 years away or revisiting a controversial revenue allocation formula laid to rest or from endlessly whingeing about a conspiracy to “cripple” the North by others or the over-flogged flashback to a glorious era of Northern agricultural buoyancy of decades past, and when the agenda of these meetings would actually table viable blue prints for economic rejuvenation of the region — viable proposals for mechanizing the largely subsistence agriculture, making grants and credit available to farmers and SMEs, subsidies and assistance to the comatose industries, attracting investors and development partners with business friendly policies, tax breaks and land leases; exploiting the abundant mineral resources in the North such as gold in Zamfara which dubious (local and foreign) businessmen and impoverished villagers are already mining illegally anyways; employment generation schemes; road-maps for investments in health-care, education and transport infrastructure; engaging in massive enlightenment campaigns for the masses on their civic rights and duties, the list is endless. We wonder when these communiqués would demonstrate seriousness on the part of our leaders and elders to start looking inwards for home-grown solutions which are all around us.

Little girls crushing stones at home, to obtain gold in a remote part of Zamfara state. Source: Environment360



It is worth noting that leadership deficit is not unique to the North as it is a general Nigerian problem, and arguably a global phenomenon. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, writing in June 2012 identifies two components of the global leadership deficit prevalent in many countries — generational and technological. When this is applied to the situation in northern Nigeria, it becomes apparent that the disconnect between our leaders and the rest of us has much to do with the little generational change amongst those responsible for aggregating and articulating the North’s aspirations, with mostly the same people who have been in the thick of things since some of us were in diapers, whom we’ve read about in social studies textbooks in primary and secondary school, still dexterously recycling themselves continuously back in power – as governors, ministers, legislators, permanent secretaries, board members of parastatals – still calling the shots today.

The incredibly persistent longevity of many die-hard power-brokers in northern Nigeria has ensured that few neophytes have been genuinely groomed as successors. This situation of course is connected to the technological dimension of this leadership deficit which beyond the use of modern technology in governance, refers to the stale, archaic and retrogressive approach to leadership as a consequence of this generational gap, with little input of fresh ideas and approaches to governance. Therefore, the same top-down, gerontocratic and quasi-feudal approaches to leadership of decades past is very much the norm in the North today, increasingly incapable of addressing present-day 21st century challenges. In fact, a former Head of State of northern extraction (in)famously remarked that Nigerian youths are not ready for leadership.

Looking at northern Nigeria through the prism of generational and technological dimensions of leadership deficit put forward by Friedman enables us to understand the disconnect between what our leaders and elders regard as the North’s aspirations and what the rest of us really think are our aspirations, that they seem not to realize this gap exists, that the communication gap is widening and that it potentially has grave implications.

Now the danger is that as the North’s problems and aspirations keep being misdiagnosed, ignored and misunderstood by our leaders, with wrong solutions prescribed to non-issues, our problems continue intensifying rapidly, entrapping us further into the cavernous stranglehold of poverty, underdevelopment, political instability and conflict while other parts of the country forge ahead. According to a May 2012 report (PDF) by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), 7 out of 10 young women aged 20-29 in North-West Nigeria are unable to read or write, compared to just about 1 out of 10 young women in the South-East; while maternal mortality rate in the North-East is 1,549 deaths per 100,000 women, three times above the national average of 549 deaths.

As stale and musty ideas that pervade the northern atmosphere continue choking the very life out of a long comatose region with approaches that reinforce rather than address the glaring contradictions and atrocious inequality in the North, it is no wonder the incident of violent crime – something alien to the North jut a decade ago – is now a daily occurrence as the spate of drive-by shootings and assassinations have increased exponentially.

As our leaders and elders have chosen to focus on non-issues, pointing the blame outwards rather than looking inwards, conducting sincere assessments and proposing solutions, even the narrative about northern Nigeria outside the country is changing. I have come across many references to northern Nigeria on international websites and blogs as the “poor” “backward” or “violent Islamist North”, while Google image searches of our major northern cities such as Kaduna or Kano routinely produce stomach-churning images of mangled corpses of bomb blast victims, burnt vehicles, or arrested suspects of one vicious crime or the other.



We need new approaches to our multifaceted economic, social and political problems as the current stale and archaic ways of thinking are grossly inadequate and incapable of addressing our numerous 21st century challenges. In order to do this, we ought to realize that leaders like all human beings are driven by self-interest, and as such they are not by default prone to accountability or altruism. It is pressure from citizens that forces leaders to act in the collective interest. It is agitation by ordinary citizens especially labour and trade unions in post-war Western Europe that was instrumental in pressuring the political elite to make inclusive social reforms of hitherto exclusive and aristocratic political systems and implementation of welfare policies (such as health care, housing and employment benefits which exist to this day) to cater for the less privileged.

Thus, a huge responsibility lies with northern academics, intellectuals, commentators, analysts, professionals and just about anyone concerned about their own future (or lack of it) and that of their children to continuously and consistently speak up on these burning issues that affect us all and ensure they are brought back onto the agenda of our leaders and elders. It is just not enough to assume our characteristically fatalistic position of “Allah Ya isa” or “God dey” and then resign ourselves to this sordid fate that certainly awaits us!

The intellectuals and columnists of northern extraction should beam the spotlight more on what state and local governments are doing with the same vigorous consistency that the activities of the Federal Government are scrutinized – how revenues and resources are managed, how investment decisions and contract awards are made, etc. because our governance challenges are mainly under the constitutional purview of states and local governments, and for the most part, information on the activities of these sub-national governments is a black hole of sorts.

Public opinion moulders should provide information to ordinary citizens on what these governments are doing, whether they are living up to their responsibilities, highlighting and applauding the efforts of political leaders who are performing well so that a performance benchmark would be set for others and proposing concrete recommendations no matter how idealistic they might seem. Public debate and public opinion moulding are enabled when conversations are started on important issues that others can relate with, build on and carry along and thereby creating mechanisms for vigorous discussions, actions and demand for accountability.

For our leaders, they ought to realize that the situation in the North today is completely unsustainable and it doesn’t require the clairvoyance of a seer to foresee the imminent disaster of chaotic proportions that awaits the North as a whole. Thus it is in their own self-interest that the North is brought back from this dangerous precipice, by providing good governance we tirelessly complain about and being true representatives of the people and their aspirations at best to ensure the region does not tear itself apart and at worst maintaining the grossly unequal, predatory and destructive status quo.

For some of our “elders”, who have had rewarding careers in public service, they could use their good names and influence in proposing concrete steps towards containing the Boko Haram insurgency and plans for reviving a post-Boko Haram North. They could also take their campaign abroad to counter and disprove some destructive narratives emerging in some Western publications (at the prodding of some Diaspora based Nigerian lobby groups) that Boko Haram is a religious war against a certain religious group in northern Nigeria.

With their influence, some of our elders could also play instrumental roles in enlightening the masses on their civic rights and duties, what to expect from the government, being more proactive to demand accountability from their representatives at the grassroots level, resisting electoral fraud and selling their votes for peanuts and so on. Importantly for other “elders”, it is just time to BOW OUT, as the standing ovation has long died down, RETIRE for good and allow others to take the stage. Overall, more links between the citizens and the state need to be established with more communication channels between the leaders and the led.

Really it is time we woke up from our deep complacent slumber and started playing our roles in rescuing not just our future but our present from this steady free-fall into the dark pit of misery and underdevelopment. For in the end, what will probably kill the North faster than any insurgency’s bullets and bombs is our own silence, complacency and lack of pro-activeness in demanding accountability from our leaders and representation of our interests in their actions.