A few weeks ago, Kaduna State governor, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, delivered a bomb, and its shrapnel ricocheted all over the media and the oil industry.
It was at a lecture organised by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalists. No stranger to controversy, the governor suggested that the NNPC should be dissolved. It had become a cesspool of corruption, and splurges close to half of its receipts on itself.
The speech caused quite a stir at the Sheraton Hotels venue, and later all over the country. As a discussant at the event, I intervened that such a prescription was rather sweeping. The problem, I contended, was not NNPC, but us. If we scrapped the NNPC and formed another corporation, we ran the risk of reincarnating the scum.
NNPC did not materialise out of MARS. The leeches in its entrails are Nigerians. We need to purge Nigerians of our greed and impunity and set a standard for transparency before deciding on what step to take on NNPC. If NNPC dies from an official poison, we can bury it without instilling a new set of values. But it will be like a real-life pastiche of a movie like Jaws. The monster is killed, and a respite ensues. But in a cistern below, a little monster, its child, is born.
It was a feisty debate before an audience of journalists, technocrats and practitioners of oil. The governor acquitted himself well as a master of broadsides.
What struck me about his suggestion was its parallel with a step he had just taken in his home state of Kaduna. He had banned the almajiri from the streets, and he promised to construct a colony for them worthy of their dignity.
The beggars kicked, and they did not beg the governor. They lashed at him for taking what they regarded as a high-handed step against an invaluable asset to the society.
The irony was not lost on me. Within a week, he had taken a stand against two major heavyweights. The one, the NNPC, was temporal, and the other, the al majiri, spiritual. The NNPC represented money and the flashy lifestyle, bread and butter. On the surface, the almajiri represent bread and butter. But they are rooted in the faith of Islam, and they began as apprentices of clerics sent out to proselytise the ways of Allah and peace. They have morphed over decades as mere mendicants in the eyes of many. But those who understand their history and culture see them as integral to society’s conscience of charity.
So, El-Rufai slammed the NNPC for its spiritual rottenness. In this regard, he wore the toga of a priest. On the other hand, he took on the almajiri as a materialist, wearing the toga of a man of the flesh.
In both cases, he had good reasons. In the case of NNPC, he ribbed them for corruption as a spiritual cesspit. In the case of the almajiri, he wanted to save them to save the society. He contended that Boko Haram goons were using the boys as couriers of bombs and death without knowing it. So, if they were out of the reach of the goons, the society will have its berth of peace.
The almajiri protested and they are appealing to a right often ignored by constitution mongers: the right to beg. Again, the story of the almajiri calls to mind the African classic novel, The beggars strike, by Senegalese writer, Aminata Sow Fall. It is the tradition of the power of the open bowl. In her novel, an official bans beggars and consigns them to a colony, just as El-Rufai proposed.
Just as in the Kaduna case, the beggars protest. In fact, the city dwellers miss them, and line up in a long queue to give charity to the beggars. I am sure many in Kaduna, who had done good to the al majiri, are happy to have them back. Also in the novel, a holy cleric warns the government official that if he does not have them back on the streets, he will not rise to the post of vice president.
That is the dilemma of begging. It became a case of the beggar becoming the nemesis of their tormentors who must beg them to keep his career.
That, essentially, is the threat from the Kaduna beggars association. Their leader, Abdullahi Jugunu, an ebullient and visually- impaired figure, has become an instant celebrity as an exponent of beggary.
He said almajiri lined up behind him and used their resources to fight for El-Rufai’s electoral victory, and that the diminutive governor had promised to appoint a special assistant on disability.
He argued that they did good to society. That was the premise in Fall’s novel. They said many gavezakat, and it was essential as an article of faith. German writer Karl Kraus once wrote that “there are people who can never forgive a beggar for their not having given him anything.”
Begging is necessary, according to the thesis, because charity will vanish without them. The givers need the blessing of charity. It is a spiritual need. Even the Bible says those that give to the poor lend to God. The almajiri, I think, created a problem for El-Rufai, whose profile in politics rose with some of his actions as he ascended the throne. He has appointed a blind man, Mallam Aliyua Salisu, as special assistant on disability, and without a wink or nod he has allowed the almajiri back on the streets.
That is where governance collides with culture. How does the governor handle the use of thealmajiri as couriers without touching the sensitive button of faith and the poor as a class? Just as the beggars in Fall’s novel threatened to puncture their tormentor’s career, Jugunu railed that they would support his impeachment. It was life imitating art.
It also shows how an organised lower class is more dangerous than upper class resentment. The NNPC dissolution may not have been easy if, perhaps, a Buhari dissolves it. But to flush out such a group as the almajiri takes a lot of guts. It is like standing in front of a wave.
El-Rufai, never naïve in matters of politics, knows when politics flashes danger signals. Now he has to hope and pray that Boko Haram does not hit a market, a school, a prayer ground, etc. It is ironically a smaller headache than having the army of beggars erupt. Shakespeare knew that beggars are never meek. In the play King John, a character roars: “whiles I am a beggar I will rail.”
In fact, beggars are dangerous because they organise themselves in bodies, and they have nothing to lose. Their leaders are usually fierce. Jugunu may not have the devilry of the beggars’ leader in John Jay’s play The Beggar’s Opera and its adaption by Bertolt Brecht in Three Penny opera. Both plays take jibes at the hypocrisies of capitalism, which I noted when former Jigawa State governor, Sule Lamido, cynically turned the almajiri into a class of official charity.
The point though is that beggars are everywhere in the society, and the worst are the drones who parade the vaults of power. They offer nothing but cart away billions. NNPC was their charity. Some of them go to banks, take loans, never pay, buy jets and laugh at us from above.
Those are the beggars we need to flush out first. They help sustain the almajiri system by not allowing us focus on how to mate merit to industry. Soyinka’s play, Opera Wonyosi, also adapted from Jay’s Opera, mocks both executive and plebian beggary in Nigeria.
Perhaps El-Rufai the priest will now focus on NNPC. But he must first deliver the sinners and not point the way to hell, a la dissolve NNPC. He is one of four governors assigned to look at the maggoty edifice. We are waiting for a sustainable solution. Meanwhile, the almajiri exercise their right to beg.