By Tope Templer Olaiya
“LET’S not beat around the bush. We are dealing with a monstrosity. We are dealing with an affliction the likes of which the nation has never encountered,” our respected world citizen and Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, last week.
“This menace has to be internationalised; every country has to be involved in finding solutions to the problem. It is not a Nigerian problem but the problem of the whole world. From the activities of the group and the response of the government since this madness started, it is clear that this government cannot handle this problem alone,” he said.
I completely agree with the professor on this. What I may wish to add is how the North can internalize this problem and come up with homegrown solutions that their leaders, henceforth, can be held accountable to, particularly a rethinking of the North’s value system and its appreciation of education in bridging the wide gulf between the wealthy elite and its general populace.
But how did Nigeria get to be brought to her knees, at no other auspicious time than days leading to the World Economic Forum on Africa, which the country hosted last week.
In the midst of pondering over this and being inundated with the global #BringBackOurGirls campaigns and protests, I recall how as a youth corps member serving in Baga, Kukawa Local Government Area of the now dreaded Borno State, I was witness to how the seeds of this insurgency were sown and nurtured to what has today rattled world leaders in unison.
Dateline was 2007, a significant period in the history of Nigeria. It was an election year and there were desperate attempts to break the jinx in the country’s history of a civilian administration not successfully transmitting power to another civilian administration, but while on national assignment in Borno, the political battle ongoing was the re-election of the incumbent governor.
The Batch B National Youth Service Corps members arrived Maiduguri in September 2006 in the mix of a heated political climate and we were sternly warned in camp to keep our heads low and not get caught in the ensuing scramble for power. Months before then, there was an orgy of violence in Maiduguri after a Catholic priest was hacked to death.
It was hard to decipher this hot political climate we were warned of. All we could see were beautiful posters of incumbent governor, Senator Ali Modu Sheriff of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), popularly called SAS and his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) challenger, Kashim Ibrahim-Imam. After three weeks in orientation camp, I was posted to Baga, a commercial town very close to Lake Chad and popular for its fish market, but more than three hours drive from Maiduguri, to serve as a teacher in Government Day Junior Secondary School.
I stayed in the elite part of town, Mile 3, with other corps members posted to Baga at the Federal College of Freshwater Fisheries Technology (FCFFT), a full-fledged tertiary institution sadly with no students. We were assured of safety due to the presence of a Multi National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) comprising soldiers from Nigeria, Niger, Cameroun and Chad not too far from the college. Its operational head at the time was Colonel Olubunmi Oyebade.
I immediately settled in to my new environment and interacted with the locals, with a deep appreciation of the essence of the NYSC scheme. It didn’t, however, take too long before some obvious contradictions about what the future holds for my country assaulted my sensibilities.
At the heat of the 2007 general elections, the campaigns began to take a threatening dimension, but we were told by the locals to relax and just be at peace with ourselves, but avoid being caught in the ensuing crossfire from the political divides.
“Nothing is strange here, it is just that politics is the mainstay industry in the North and elections could appear to consume everyone, but it’s just hot air that would die down,” I recall.
It was bizarre to me that an incumbent governor would mobilize thousands of youths following his long convoy in motorbikes to rallies, all brandishing glittering curve-ended swords that look like sickles, and chanting Sai SAS.
When the governor came to campaign in Baga, I was bewildered that a quiet community I had stayed in for over six months could turn up thousands of youths, many of whom were too excited to do some theatrics with the long swords – the visible item of identification to show you were for the ruling party.
The weapons display was meant to scare political opponents away by dousing any dissenting voice at the rally. The holder simply stretches the sword towards the dissenter’s head and pulls it back to sever the head from the body, as if one is harvesting some fruits. This was a few of the horrors I witnessed.
According to our chaperon to the rally, it was important we saw it to be fully prepared for our duty as INEC Ad-hoc staff for the 2007 elections.
The day after the rally, I moved around town, I couldn’t find traces of the vicious youths anywhere; not at the schools, markets or motor parks. They had simply returned with the governor’s convoy. There and then, I could decipher where the ugly future lies for these bands of vicious youths.
At the college where I was lucky to be provided a decent accommodation, it was a big institution left to rot. There are only three of such specialised institutions in this country, the Federal College of Fisheries and Marine Technology at Victoria Island, Lagos; Federal College of Freshwater Fisheries Technology at New Bussa, Niger State and the college at Baga.
Their locations are strategically placed to the study of fisheries and underwater bodies with the Atlantic Ocean in Lagos, the Kainji Lake dam in Niger, and the Lake Chad basin at Baga. As at 2007, the colleges at Lagos and Niger were operating in full throttle, while Baga was in snooze mode.
The reason was pretty obvious, the institution offering certificates in Ordinary National Diploma had almost all facilities for tuition in place, except students. From the Provost (Dr. Femi Daddy at the time) to the academic and administrative staff, all were resident in the college and reporting for duties at their offices, but there were no students to teach. The only academic exercise going on during my 11-month stay was the college’s staff primary school.
Other things that were strange to me included using Hausa language as the language of instruction even to conduct the morning assembly and the tacit approval of educational authorities for examination malpractice. During my stay in Borno, I invigilated examinations for the junior and senior secondary West Africa Examination Council (WAEC) and on these two occasions, we were told the norm was for answers to be prepared and written on the board for students to simply write down. Our job as invigilators then was to ensure students write the answers correctly and legibly.
This was complied with and scripts sent to the exam body at Maiduguri. Some weeks after, corps members were engaged to mark the papers. By this time, it wasn’t shocking anymore to receive some august visitors at our Corpers Lodge, who were officials from another local government in Borno.
They had visited us to ensure we show some leniency in marking of the WAEC scripts that would later be sent to us from Maiduguri. I couldn’t be more awed considering how I had sweated to get my five credit passes in the same examination nearly a decade earlier.
We may pretend to continue to live in denial that some of these misconceptions are real, but they are now staring us in the face and about to tear us apart. So, when a group violently professes that education (Boko) is Haram (forbidden), the northern leaders who have for years allowed this toxic idea to fester should be held responsible.
• Olaiya is an editorial staff of The Guardian