On a walkway in front of Ali Modu Sherriff Primary School, a girl of about nine appeared. Fatimatu, a Boko Haram orphan, frail and cherubic, stepped into the presence of Kashim Shetima, the Governor of Borno State.
She was not attending the school, which was overlooking the street. Shettima named the institution after a man who boasted that his people, including kids like Fatimatu, could never know he was a failed leader because they did not read newspapers.
It is time to muse on that man, and how the biography of one man can make a difference, for good and ill.
Borno then was not what Borno is. The signs sang in low register, but the omen was stark. Ali Modu Sherriff was governor, and took his position as shepherd like a peacock. He belongs to the class of cynical men who want to lead in order to diminish. He had no joy for posterity. He had no plan for it. So he disdained prosperity. It is not too clear today if his cynicism came from breeding or from a contrived sense of contempt.
But Sherriff loved to be sheriff, and that meant he was both cop and governor. He had to be a democrat. He did not love that. He embraced tyranny. He was no hypocrite. He is like the hawk in Ted Hughes poem, Hawk Roosting, in which the hawk has no penitence about preys. Except that Sherriff’s lack of hypocrisy opened him up to the sort of hubris that would have sainted him if he were a pretender.
Such persons are a metaphor of leaders as crisis. Sherriff was a crisis as governor, and it began to show not when Yusuf, the licenser of Boko Haram, was murdered. That happened later. It was when he said that he did not care what the newspapers wrote about him because his people were illiterates.
He took refuge in ignorance. He knew, so his people didn’t. Prophet Amos said “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” Sherriff did not care because he thought they would remain so forever. He probably wanted to fulfil the wrong intent of Prophet Isaiah’s lament: “The leaders of these people cause them to err; and they that are led of them are destroyed.” He wanted to be like the Roman emperor Nero, who wanted to wipe out all Christians. When asked what history would say of him, he replied, “By the time I have finished with them, history would not be sure if they ever existed.”
At least Nero counted on a literate world in future. For Sherriff, history did not count. Not long after, the unlearned boys crystallised Sherriff’s idea, and so Boko Haram was born. They said Western education is sin, or haram. Sherriff’s idea had taken root. The army of the ignorant had been unleashed. He was the philosopher as portent, the prophet of mayhem and disaster in the land.
The young who could not read looked for family. Yusuf gave them. Those who had no roof over their heads, he gave shelter. Those who were hungry, he gave food. Those whose libido burned around their loins, he gave wives. He created an alternative society. He had formed a mini-theocracy, an army of the Almighty. It was a coalescence of the underclass. His crusading ardour paid off with Boko Haram.
Sherriff had degraded Borno into a failed state. It failed because of many things. Principally it failed because he made himself into a feudalist in a democracy, and because he did not think his people deserved to be enlightened. Awolowo’s free education, a generation earlier, shed light on youth. Sherriff afflicted his people with moth-eaten minds.
While Awo’s seed fattened the west with prosperity, Sherriff’s bred a colony of monsters with killings, rapes and rapines. His successor Kashim Shettima served as Zenith Bank’s general manager and posted the most transaction – of up to one billion naira a day – in any bank branch in the country. It was now the wasteland. A wasted mind gave us a wasteland.
That gives us an irony. The same Shettima became governor, and recently named a primary school after Ali Modu Sherriff in Maiduguri. It was, also for irony, when he was inspecting the school that Fatimatu came along and Governor Shettima insisted to his commissioner of education that she must be admitted to the school. Fatimatu is now a Boko Haram orphan of hope.
Who knows, from that seed of an hour, Shettima just planted an eternity of potential geniuses. Fatimatu can be a Marie Curie, the famed physicist, or Chimamanda, or Yaa Asantewa, or Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, or Benazir Bhutto or Margaret Ekpo. In the school, a Fatimatu would not want for breakfast, or a soap to wash her body, or a bed to sleep on or a notebook to solve a maths problem or stroke out a thoughtful essay or an electric light to study at night. She will not suffocate in a sweltering weather. She would not fear for VVF or assault from oversexed adults or a prospect of premature betrothal. A boarding school with modern amenities will nurture, comfort and protect her.
The kind of Borno State that Shettima is bequeathing is a state of renewal. In spite of the smouldering zeal of Boko Haram, the state is in its best ferment. It is now a state of a new adventure. It reminds one of Joseph Conrad’s graphic capture of England in its age of adventure. In his Heart of Darkness, he described the men as “hunters of gold, or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of the spark from the sacred fire.”
Fatimatu was like the girl in Jim Crow America, who was guided to school in the 1960’s because American racism forbade anyone to illumine the black mind. In Fatimatu’s case, it is a culture epitomised by Sherriff and his fellow travellers on a Neanderthal boat.
But unknown to him, men like Shettima had already been unfurled in Borno, and the same democracy we lament will ensure that girls like Fatimatu will bloom in season, and this is the season. And she will fulfil what Conrad wondered when he wrote, “What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … the dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.”
So, from the ebb, the Fatimatus will float to a great unknown. Even as Shettima is about to bow out, his successor, the tall, self-effacing work horse of a professor who sold firewood and drove taxi to fund his education, will take that task to the next step. Babagana Umara Zulum, the Marshal Plan Governor-elect, will now ensure that the Fatimatus will not be what Conrad calls “a lurid glare under the stars.”
Sherriff represents all that is wrong in the north and Nigeria. Shettima lights up the antidote. The choice is ours. Emerson said, “There is properly no history, but the biography of great men.” Whose biography beckons us?
The air is still frenetic in Abuja, especially now that the battle for the leadership of the Senate absorbs the nation. One of the positions taking prime spot is that of deputy senate president, and it looks good for Senator Ovie Omo-Agege. He should get it as the top person from the South-south. He has been around, and his recent victory at the Court of Appeal affirms his legitimacy. This caps a second victory, the first being his tiff with the Senate leadership under Bukola “Eleyinmi” Saraki over some rowdy men in the Senate, especially when they had no evidence against him. They were trying to blame a security lapse on a man who walked in at the same time.
We need a Senate of responsible engagement with the presidency, not an adversarial one. The Saraki Senate has been an impulsive hawk, seeing enmity first before progress. It was fight for fight’s sake, and Omo-Agege has been a contrarian voice against that mind-set of instinctive pugilism. We don’t want doves for doves’ sake as lawmaker, but we want the people first.