If You Can Read This, You’re In Trouble, -‘Tope Fasua

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I visited Kano recently. Precisely three weeks ago. I was last there about 17 years ago. When I went around year 2000, the Kano I saw was in a state of chaos. I spent only a brief night, but I remember a lot of Achabas (Okadas). I recall nasty hold-ups around some roundabouts and markets. I recall a lot of people milling around. So I was eager to go this time because I would have a bit more time to study the city.

This time, I saw the fascinating and enigmatic city a bit more closely. I went in the day, and had some time to drive around the day after, before setting off for Abuja. I saw a rich city trying almost in vain to hold on to its traditional roots. There is MONEY in Kano. Commerce thrives among the indigenous people. And the Lebanese influence is profound. Kano hotels are expensive. Kano puts Kaduna to shame in every way, infrastructure-wise. Kwankwanso, I learnt, had undertaken some very bold construction projects. The roads had been expanded. A few well-maintained bridges had been thrown in here and there. I saw a city that commanded the respect of its many inhabitants. Unlike in Abuja, Nigeria’s no-man’s-land, I saw that Kanawas have refrained from vandalising public property. The big buildings seem better maintained than elsewhere in Nigeria. The design of the city reminded me of places like Cairo. If you’ve been to the rougher and older parts of Deira, Dubai, like Al Sabkha, you are beginning to get an idea of what Kano was meant to look like.

The main roads are lined with shops in a straight line, which have provisions for walkways. The side streets aren’t as rough and poverty-stricken as in some cities I’ve been to in Nigeria. Unlike other northern cities, the residents of Kano are not slack. They have an eye out to make a quick buck. You are more likely to find a dishonest Northerner in Kano than elsewhere. This is a Big City. You can feel the desperation among the people; the desire to catch up with the Joneses. Park your car and ask for directions, and human beings will rush at you from different places, with some offering to go with you in the car, of course for a fee. Kano is where you can get four different directions from four different people at the same time. Everyone wants to get involved.

Kano had a shocking effect on me. Driving into the city and on the right side of the road I noticed a vast, plush, new estate of perhaps more than 1,000 luxury duplexes. It went on and on. And like some of those we see in Abuja, most of it are unoccupied. Kano – more than Kaduna – is the playground of the Northern rich, the land where they compete and show class. There is no luxury in Lagos or Abuja that is not in Kano. Like the average Nigerian from the East will build a mansion in the ‘village’, I got the feeling that Kano is where the super-rich Northerners put their mansions. Forget religion, Kano is a fully capitalist society. The people understand luxury and many times flaunt their wealth. And they want more.

I had more shock waiting for me in the morning. I drove to the Emir’s Palace to get a feel of what it looks like. I didn’t have an appointment with the Emir and I didn’t know anybody who was somebody, so I stuck to looking at the walls. I departed from there for Abuja. This time I had more time to look around and I discovered the dams of Kano, and the miles upon miles upon miles of maize, rice and millet farms. It is the maize that is visible from the road though. There are farm markets dotting every other kilometre. It could be for Albassa (onions), or tomatoes, or maize. I had never seen anything like these farms in my travels around Nigeria. Meanwhile not a drop of rain had fallen upon Kano at the time I went – the first rain came later that night. I marveled at the greenery. This was a city – and perhaps a region – that had planned to feed itself. Even the specie of Maize I saw was enhanced for productivity. I didn’t know such a thing was possible in Nigeria; dry season farming in an almost-arid region.

There was only one blotch on the otherwise perfect enigma-ness of Kano. The boys. The Almajirai boys. I sat in the car at one of the farm markets and while my driver bought some items, I filmed the boys moving around in packs of 10 and 20, early in the morning, fighting over food and whatnot. They had no care in the world. They bothered not about ambition, their future, or how they could be part of creating a better society. They had probably been programmed to believe that was their destiny. These boys were warriors of a past civilisation in a silent war with this new civilization. They were mostly non-violent and non-criminal, but who is to say what they can do when under extreme pressure. I hear some of the teachers (Mallams) give these boys ‘targets’, and punish them severely when they fail to remit such monies.

My sadness was simply that these boys, at that vulnerable age, were left to roam around. The minds of men, and boys, are fickle. Even in old age, men do stupid things. And they say, an idle hand is the devil’s factory. I don’t think we are better off letting our girls do nothing but wait to get married. But when you have boys roaming around, north or south, Christian or Muslim or anything in between, you are in great trouble. Very big trouble. Nigeria is in trouble, because the population of those boys are increasing, not decreasing; boys raised with no skill, and no perspective to contribute their quota to an unforgiving, ultracompetitive world that takes from the slack and slow, and gives to the rich and smart; a winner-takes-all world where Africa suffers a great disadvantage and is often cheated willfully by superpowers. A country populated by Almajirais may think it is defying the crazy western world, but in fact it will be raped over and over again, economically, geopolitically, diplomatically and otherwise. Countries are raising strategists and intellectuals, inventors and innovators, but Nigeria is breeding able-bodied young zombies who are resisting what is already a brutal reality. Frightening.

That is why I titled this piece “if you can read this, you’re in trouble”. You’re in trouble. If your child attends some nice private school somewhere and you see these boys and are not afraid to the extent of putting government and society under immense pressure until we start seeing visible action and profound reversal of the phenomenon, you’re in trouble. If you think it is smart to use the monies meant for impacting on this phenomenon to make yourself more comfortable, send your own children to private schools and foreign universities, you’re being foolish. If you say that is their destiny and God made them that way, you are being wicked. This has nothing to do with being conservative, but everything to do with having a positive, honest, altrustic and workable vision for society. Your children are already in trouble if they are not one of those Almajirais. And they are most likely not one of them if you are reading this. What do we do about this phenomenon that is blighting Kano and every other city in Northern Nigeria? But this is not just a Northern problem.

Governor Ganduje, in the weekend I traveled to Kano, made a statement to the effect that three million Almajirai boys roamed around Kano. He said they were mostly from Niger, Northern Cameroon and Chad. This raises a critical question about the porousness of our borders up North. That porousness is historic and cultural and at the bottom of many of Nigeria’s problems. We need to redefine the map of Nigeria. Niger and Chad cannot be passing their Almajirai children to us and selling us refined petrol, while we send our commodities to them almost for free. Perhaps we should recognise those regions officially as part of Nigeria so that we can plan properly. What are those countries doing on this Almajirai problem? If Paul Biya knows that poor children of indoctrinated people in the upper part of his country will simply move into Nigeria, why will he not gloat about how hopeless our country is? Why will he not be deporting our people on flimsy excuses? Have we ever heard of a tripartite meeting on this problem that has now been defined as an international issue? Or should we wait again for the white man to come and organise us, as we’ve always done?

Emir Sanusi has also bellyached over this matter, and drawn the flak of many who are simply showing human nature. It seems like people don’t just want to be criticised, even over obvious matters. They say things like ‘tell us in secret’, ‘respect yourself’, ‘it is conservatism’ and so on. I believe that many of our truths have been told in many secret places with absolutely no effect.

This is where I have problems with my friends who emphasise data. We say we are 180 million in Nigeria but that does not consider those who stroll in and remain in Nigeria by their thousands on a daily basis. We hear they are good recruits during elections – as mercenary voters and thugs. Even some of our leaders are said to be indigenes and citizens of these foreign countries. Who does that? Not even the USA will allow a full Canadian to contest elections on its soil except they obtain a US passport. But here everything, including our democracy, is a sham.

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Goodluck Jonathan as president built some schools which were expected to fuse the English and Arabic education. None of them are being used today. I heard an argument from one of the state governors that they were abandoned because they were called ‘Almajirai schools’; that none of the graduates of the schools will want to be reminded of having attended an Almajirai school. Why not change the names then? Again, they have become monuments and testimonies to our biggest single disease without which all our so-called policies will come to naught – WASTE. We never plan for anything properly before building them, and we feel no compunction, no pangs or remorse, in building the most expensive things, walking away from them, and seeing the results of our mindlessness on a daily basis, while we are busy stealing a new set of resources.

But no one should think this is a Northern Nigerian issue alone. The poverty figures the emir reeled out are certainly questionable. I’ve seen Southerners jump on those figures and gloat about how the South is ahead. I doubt if this is true. The problem of the North is not poverty; it is probably tradition or cultural. In spite of the famous ‘poverty’ that Sarkin Kano speaks about, the North, with the kind of agricultural enterprise shown in the miles and miles of dry season farming I saw in Kano, feeds the south! Lagos had to cooperate with Kebbi to grow rice. The South claims to have intelligent intellectuals, but those people have done little to reposition their regions. The maize specie I saw at the gates of Kano city are enhanced, and the only time I ever saw anything like that was on a train ride from London to Manchester City. How come we cannot have all-year-round farming in the South of Nigeria too? How come none of our Southern governors is using our vast stretches of land for large scale agriculture, even of tree crops? How come the vast farmlands of Ondo and Ekiti are now used to plant Indian Hemp? Whereas Kano’s problem is that the Almajirai boys, by their millions, don’t want to get involved in the productive process and would rather wake up and loaf around, thereby becoming unskilled adults and potential criminals in a world where sophisticated skills are even more essential, in the South, we have millions of boys too, many of them with degrees, walking around in despondency because society has chewed them and spat them out. The South of Nigeria has its own problems with drug addiction, criminality, unemployment and directionlessness among the youth. This is not the time for triumphalism, but for self-introspection.

They say the height of responsibility is self-criticism. I believe that is what people like Sarkin Kano and Prof. Muhammad Pate have shown. The North, in my view, cannot be the poorest place in Nigeria. And I have also met Easterners who believe the East is the poorest and complain about their people not investing at ‘home’, despite the Bureau for Statistics confirming that the South-East of Nigeria is the richest zone per capita. I personally and humbly think the South-West is the poorest. The East is massively into commerce. I greatly admire the fierce independence of Eastern Nigerians and their traditional business mentorship programmes. I acknowledge that the need for people to prove themselves in those parts comes with downsides. But almost anything one needs to buy today, apart from maybe food, one buys from a South-East Nigerian – car spare parts, building materials, household materials, the works. Most, if not all, of our cities are heavily dependent on these businessmen. Many an emergency situations are saved by their business acumen. They don’t know holidays. They are disciplined and consistent in business.

My sojourn in Kano revealed that in addition to the current control of the levers of government and the inextricability of administrative power from Northern Nigerians, agricultural capability is a clear advantage. I believe, just like Emir Sanusi, that my people from the South-West are the poorest. We can hardly feed ourselves and we are not strong in commerce. Most of the South-West is populated by mud houses falling where they stand because we run away from each other since our cultural beliefs promote mutual suspicion (check our film industry and their emphasis on witchcraft, etc). And so we hardly mentor each other. Our money goes to Europe and America, not percolate through our communities. Our educational advantage has turned out to be an illusion. South-East Nigeria is now way above everyone in that regards. So with no food, no education, and a growing drug problem among our youth, I believe Emir Sanusi got it wrong; South-West is the poorest. Now, I have set myself up to be attacked by the extremist and ‘conservative’ elements among my kinsmen (just like the emir), who will say ‘how dare you wash our dirty linen in public’. But if that is the price to pay for getting our people to look inwards and face the monsters that they would rather whitewash, then so be it.

Remember, if you can read this, you’re already in big trouble. Your English education is probably peripheral; we haven’t used it to solve any of our problems in a sustainable manner. Now is the time to start.


‘Tope Fasua, an Economist, author, blogger and entrepreneur, can be reached through [email protected].

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