In Nigeria you cry with one eye open

A woman walks in Nigeria’s federal capital Abuja. Photo/Reuters

In Yoruba land you are urged to weep while keeping one eye dry and clear. This wit can be rendered in several versions. In its simplest form it means that even if you are weeping ‘Don’t get carried away by the emotions of the day as to give room for people to take advantage of you’.

A second meaning warns that ‘even in your moment of doubt there may be trying times.’

And the times have been painted with palpable anger by Adamu Adamu one of the country’s most perceptive, erudite and forceful columnists writing in Daily Trust newspaper. His anger was provoked by the death of Muhammadu Rimi Abubakar 70 kilometres away from Kano City.

Rimi was travelling home from Dass in Bauchi State where he had made political deals that may well have included his interest in running for the presidency in 2011. With president Umaru Yar’Adua down with ill health since November 2009, a man with a record of contesting for Nigeria’s presidency in 1999 and 2003, could not have failed to have one eye open to 2011.

Wrote Adamu expressing his anguish about Rimi’s death while capturing the general insecurity in Nigeria: “At every turn someone is waiting to kill or maim you. It could be that extrajudicial killer with gun and ammunition bought with tax payers’ money; an armed robber – on the road, on the highway, in the streets of the city, in the alleys of towns and villages, or even in the inner sanctum of your bedroom – looking for your money or your life; a ritualist desperate for human body parts to appease a pagan power structure, a religious fanatic at the service of some sanguinary deity; or a genocidal local landed gentry. It is as if the whole nation has decided to embark on a long retreat to a primitive, pre-modern barbarism”.

Adamu’s punchy writing has repeatedly drawn despair out of Nigerian officials who are convinced that such damning depiction of Nigeria’s affairs by her own journalists feeds premeditated designs by foreign powers to give Nigeria a nasty and brutish image.

Abubakar Rimi hit the Nigerian firmament in 1979 when he was elected the Governor of Kano State, the most populous Hausa State in northern Nigeria. His road to that victory is traced to 1964 when he joined the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) — a party led by Mallam Aminu Kano, a former secondary school teacher who became a relentless critic of the oppressive feudal rulers of northern Nigeria.

Using the religious ritual of interpreting the Holy Koran and hadith to hundreds of ordinary faithful during Ramadan after they had ended the day’s fasting, Mallam Aminu Kano taught socialism while criticising corrupt local rulers.

During the elections of the 1950s NEPU fielded barbers and bicycle repairers who trounced the candidates of the ruling Northern Peoples Congress. That strategy would win the 1979 governorship seat for Rimi on a Peoples Redemption Party ticket. PRP was the successor of NEPU.

Rimi’s victory, however, pitted him against President Shehu Shagari whose victory had been decided by a ruling of the Supreme Court following his failure to win in 13 States of the Nigerian federation. Shagari’s closest challenger was Chief Obafemi Awolowo of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). That party had won governorship seats in all the five states with dominant Yoruba ethnic population. When between, 1979 and 1983, Rimi repeatedly attended meetings of governors of 12 out of 19 states not won by Shagari’s party. Shagari’s pressure on Aminu Kano to prohibit Rimi from membership of the group caused a fatal rift between Rimi and his leader.

One such pressure on Rimi was the incitement to violence of unemployed youths in Kano metropolis, mainly hungry immigrants from rural areas including neighbouring Niger Republic.

Led by Marwa Maitesine, the youth gangs robbed and brutally attacked motorists and passengers, and anybody who wore a watch or eye glasses – all regarded as symbols of idolatry and contamination with profane Western cultural values.

The violence was apparently planned to justify the deployment of federal troops to restore order in Kano and toss out Rimi for failing to maintain law and order in the state. Rimi defeated the plot by quickly inviting the troops himself.

But his administration annoyed northern Nigeria’s feudal classes. In four years, he had built secondary schools including those for girls; science-based secondary schools and technical colleges and rural roads that enabled communities to take their agricultural produce to Kano’s metropolitan market. In short, he had shown the people what good governance could do for them. His achievements invited desperate plots for his termination.

The ruling party at the federal arena decided to either terminate or severely cripple all the twelve progressive governors. Rimi’s political twin-brother Balarabe Musa, the PRP governor in neighbouring Kaduna State, was impeached out of government in 1981 by a State Assembly dominated by Shagari’s party. In the 1983 elections incumbent governors in Imo, Gongola, Bornu, Oyo, Kaduna and Ondo States were rigged out of office. With that one rod of political lightning, competitive multi-party politics, animated in large areas of the country by radical social democratic politics, was burnt to ashes. Protests in Oyo, Ondo, Borno and Imo States were met with guns and police armoured vehicles.

It is paradoxical that Abubakar Rimi and a crop of charismatic politicians, notably: Bola Ige, Solomon Lar, Lateef Jakande, Jim Nwobodo, Sam Mbakwe and Balarabe Musa had emerged out of an election organised by the military for their exit from the political stage on October 1, 1979. It was also the emergence of a galaxy of direct political descendants of Nigeria’s three leading politicians with a flare for promoting the welfare and development of the masses of the people, namely: Nnamdi Azikiwe, Aminu Kano and Obafemi Awolowo.

Their collective enthusiasm and informal alliance seems to have provoked panic and a defensive counter-attack by feudal classes and their allies within the military. The election-coup against them in 1983 also sent into a deep freeze their politics of economic, social and cultural development and human rights.

This termination, in 1983, of a political culture that had its roots in the fiery nationalist politics of the 1940s and 1950s, evoked the memories of the military coup of January 15, 1966.

The Federal Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister of Northern Region, Ahmadu Bello, and the Prime Minister of Western Region were killed in that coup while Michael Opara, the Prime Minister of Eastern Region survived.

Civil war

These regional premiers had been determined to make their states models of governance. With their pace and passion, Nigeria was headed for industrial take-off on three regional legs. It was the kind of pace that would have sent panic to, among others, minders of France’s neo-colonial empire in West Africa, and racist rulers in Apartheid Southern Africa.

With the termination of Nigeria’s run to development in 1966, the populous republic rushed headlong into a most destructive civil war (1967-70) while the termination of the ‘progressive twelve’ in 1983 led to four traumatising military regimes (1984 -1999).

Chroniclers of Nigeria’s affairs trace to this period an explosion of a culture of corruption, massive looting of official funds, killings of crops of talented military officers in successive coups, attempted and failed coups, as well as naked terrorism by the state during the Sani Abacha dictatorship. It is also a period when the politics of the voice of the people became overwhelmed by politics of the stomach. Like the civil war, the death of the politics of the Progressive Twelve also derailed Nigeria’s run to a human and physical development paradise.

Abubakar Rimi’s funeral in Kano last week was overwhelmingly attended.

The poor were there to recall his past and the development he had brought to them in a short tenure of only four years. It was a testimony that the common people never forget their true servants even when they later lose their way into a forest of “opportunistic pragmatism”.

It was a message which Nigerians even these times of political ‘weeping’ should not allow to escape their attention.

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project