It was a sign with an enigma. Against the backdrop of an empty street, on a white, slightly billowing sheet, its words conveyed a mysterious injunction: EVERY BENUE YOUTH IS A YUSUF. The young men who held the sign imparted a look of protesting sobriety. The president was visiting to mourn their state’s dead. The young men were picketing. The nation’s number one citizen was ensconced in meeting with Governor Ortom and other heavyweights. The youths walked like outcasts outside.
A funeral air had draped Makurdi again over 73 deaths on whose behalf mourning ceremonies have mounted on mourning rituals. Enter governors. Enter elders. Enter opportunists and rhetoric. Enter Obasanjo. Exit common sense. The sadness has become more political than tears. More funeral than funereal.
But who is Yusuf? In the Christian ambience of Benue State, you are bound to see more Josephs than Yusufs. But, in spite of the look of quiet defiance, it was a call to brotherhood. We have had two significant Yusufs in our recent history. One had it as surname, and the other as first name. The former’s name is bound to violence. Mohammed Yusuf was the founder and trigger of Boko Haram. The other Yusuf was unknown until he became a victim of violence. An apolitical violence, a violence of leisure and commuting, on a bike that tossed him to the headlines. The nation learned that he is Yusuf Buhari, the son of the Muhammadu Buhari of Aso Villa. Thankfully, the violent Yusuf is dead, although his ghost hoisted flags, wields guns, kidnaps young girls and hides bombs in nubile bosoms.
We want to exorcise the Yusuf of violence and embrace the Yusuf of healing, of a rebound from the territory of death and mourning.
Suddenly, we had two men with antipodal backgrounds bearing the same name. Shakespeare would have chuckled with his “what is in a name” quip. The Benue youths could be saying that their young are also like the president’s son. The president’s son fell and rose up. He whipped up sympathy, was whisked to a hospital and when that did not suffice, he flew to Europe. A sycophant not only ran a newspaper advert to show a heart of flesh for the president, a minister received the healed son of his Excellency at the Airport. A burlesque show of official duty worthy of a comedy of errors.
But the protesters are saying that their youths never enjoyed such compassion. They are saying, when did anyone pick up any Benue youth who was maimed, or on life support, and exhibited the same quality of care or concern? None of them went to the hospital abroad. No minister visited them with anything close to the concern that Yusuf enjoyed. Fewer consolations than visits to IDP camps.
In a sense, they were also thanking Mr. President for coming. He had been flayed for not coming when tempers rose and tears flowed like brooks. But he has come at last, and they had an opportunity to say “thank you but remember us. We are like your son.” They must have had in mind his remarks to the elders for the president to live with their neighbours. The neighbours are like Yusuf. It is a call not only for compassion about herdsmen on the prowl, but a more national call for accommodation. About appointments, about jobs, about healthcare, about a sense of national belonging. They are also addressing him as a father, a plea of sons to a patriarch. About taking lawmakers with reckless N13.5 million monthly allowances.
Significantly, though, it is a call across faiths. Yusuf is a Muslim. His Christian counterpart is Joseph. The Koran and Bible have a similar story of the same person. It is not the province of this essay to say who stole whose story. The plagiarist, who will stand accused of holy fraud, is a subject that has engaged historians, theologians, priests and scholars.
Few insights can rival a series of novels titled, Joseph and His Brothers where Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann recasts the tale in entrancing passages that compare with the most ambitious of all novels, War and peace.
The story has a young man accused of a coat of many colours. That may lie at the bottom of the story of the sign on the Makurdi street. A coat of many colours is a rainbow coalition, a metaphor for a nation of varied outlooks. The Afemai, the Fulani, the Idoma, Tiv, Kanuri, Yoruba, Itsekiri, Igbo, Ijaw, etc. They are the many colours in the coat of Yusuf. If every Benue youth is a Yusuf, it means every Benue youth is human, and should enjoy their creature comforts.
Yusuf or Joseph was a victim of violence. Just like Buhari’s Yusuf and Benue youths. His brothers threw him for dead in a pit. Some Benue youths did not survive the onslaughts of the marauders, but others who did want a lifeline. The brothers thought he was gone for good and a father who did not understand what his brothers were doing mourned a son who still had his life intact.
So, the president should go beyond his kinsmen around him and find the truth about sufferings in the land. He exhibited a “warm,” childlike naivety when he confessed that he did not know that the inspector general of police had flouted his order to remain in Benue State. He promptly issued him a query. I wonder how many of such acts of disobedience abound in the presidency and cabinet. Yusuf or Joseph’s father Yakubu or Jacob relied solely on facts from his sons. He trusted them too much. He might have saved him from the pit if he had other ways of knowing.
But the youths are a metaphor for the vulnerable. The children who could not hide, the old who could not run, the women hunched over by rapists. They are also Yusufs. It is also for those whose houses are now ashes, whose livelihoods are history and their hopes lie like the wastes of their farms.
But hopes flash on the horizon. If Yusuf Buhari rose from the perils of a bike accident and is up and about, then the Benue youth and other vulnerable Nigerians can cheer. After all, the Yusuf of the Koran and Joseph of the Bible rose from servitude to be served in the palace. Yusuf Buhari is in the palace today, so the Benue youth and all Nigerians aspire to such luxury. If not exactly in the palace, at least they should live in a country where all are treated equal in jobs, beliefs, tribes and associations.
The sign was thus a good sign that calls to mind Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, ‘The Scarlet Letter.’ A girl carries a permanent sign on her chest to draw attention to her sin, but in the end, it is pricks the society’s conscience and hypocrisy. The Benue youth’s sign holds similar power. It is either we see it as a rebuke or a call to harmony. The choice is ours, especially the president’s.