COVID-19 may be composing a requiem for Nigeria. Or do you sincerely think the country would be the same again if the North’s unhealthy conducts explode in unimaginable deaths as is gradually evolving before our very eyes? The South’s zest for life or what the French call joie de vivre, won’t let them allow the North infect them with suicidal foolishness. If the present resistance to infiltration of the South by the almajirai is sustained and the push from the North is unceasing, what do you think will be the result, ultimately? A new traditional ruler was enthroned somewhere in Borno State a few days ago, we saw how suicidal the crowd behaved. Why is it difficult for the far North to live in the 21st century like the rest of humanity? That part of Nigeria cannot continue to treat civilized protocols of safety in a pandemic with disgust and still want to share the Nigerian room with people who don’t want to die. The North needs be told clearly that suicide is not a native of southern Nigeria.
Confucius was a Chinese philosopher and politician who lived between 551 and 479 BC. At a point in his life, one of his disciples was down with a very bad contagious disease. The wise man went to inquire after his man, and, through the window, Confucius greeted the sick and comforted his friend for having “that hateful disease.” Although Confucius blamed “the will of God” for the affliction, the man of wisdom did not insult God by entering the house and getting afflicted also with the disease said to be leprosy. He offered the balm of his regrets on his friend’s misfortune through the window and left. That tells us that maintaining both physical and social distancing during a contagion is wisdom that is over 2,500 years old.
But today, it is not strange to discover yourself sharing a bus with a leper in Hausaland. I experienced it during the national youth service; I froze and fled the bus. Locals in the vehicle were surprised at my ‘disgusting’ behaviour. Where I come from, we experience lepers only in gory-imaged story books. Lepers live isolated lives deep in dark forests of misfortune, not in towns and cities; not in public buses. But before me was ‘something’ the severity of which I could not describe. And the contagion was right there sharing space, oxygen and carbon dioxide with other passengers, unfazed. That moment taught me that there is a cultural response to every calamity in Nigeria. If the North is today playing with the fire of coronavirus, we should know that it is coming from somewhere.
The disease beautifully named COVID-19 is proving resilient like an abiku. We were told it is only the medicine man who ventures to marry an abiku. But a real abiku knows how to shame the man of medicine. It delivers death right on the laps of the medicine man’s arrogant herbs, exhibiting him as a miserable counterfeit. Àbíkú s’olóògùn d’èké is what my people mutter when they are confounded by such humbling experience. But where I come from, the elders don’t surrender to anything – including illnesses and deaths. In repeated trials, they seek to tame the monster of repeater lives and deaths until they win. But is it the same with the North of Nigeria which is not only rolling in the beds of coronavirus but has decided to distribute it to others using its homeless troops?
Recent spikes in coronavirus cases are traced to the almajirai moving across the country. The South is aghast; the North is unbothered. And we are in the same country.
Disease and death have their meanings within the different milieux of Nigeria’s variegated experiences. COVID-19 may be a very deadly contagious disease but the North is not losing any sleep over it. It is treating it with the same disdain it had for older bad diseases, especially leprosy. Patient behaviours are historically and culturally constructed. Leprosy is viewed generally down South as one of the most deleterious misfortunes a man could be afflicted with. And so, the Yoruba would warn a bad-behaved child to be prepared for solitary confinement in a leprosarium unless he mends his perfidious ways. But what meaning would that make among the Hausa? A researcher, Allan Shiloh, in 1965 examined the relationship between disease and culture among the Hausa of northern Nigeria. His findings showed that the Hausa perceived diseases such as leprosy as being “built into their culture pattern as one of the norms with which they must operate.” We are seeing the same reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time southern states are enforcing lockdowns and pleading that their people stay at home, the North is dispersing its millions of potentially COVID-19 positive almajirai everywhere.
The almajiri system is at the core of northern Nigeria’s politics of national domination. It is a key component of the North’s “infrastructure of violence.” Almajirai are the region’s well-nurtured, purpose-grown, ever ready troops, useful at all desperate times – elections, censuses, riots. Now, they are suddenly made a major vector of this bad season. That northern governors see the almajirai as a problem to be solved with COVID-19 is suspect. When you look into the eyes of those street boys, you see ghostly destinies frozen by accidents of their geography and birth. Those we see regularly are predominantly boys. Where are the girls? The ones not killed by random diseases have their destinies ruptured by the rape of child- marriage. Those who created them as problems are now pushing them South through unimaginable channels. They are daily hidden and daily discovered in unseemly, unlikely enclosures. Some under sacks of beans, some in millet and onion bags; some in suffocating containers and inside empty petrol tankers. They are dispersing them everywhere but nobody wants them anywhere near; no one, not even those who created and raised them to be street children forever. The most unwanted people in Nigeria of today are the almajirai — used, abused and now unleashed to spread viruses. And they are doing it very well; one of the COVID-19 patients who escaped quarantine in Oyo State last week was a 10-year old almajiri. He is still at large.
Weeks ago, I had discussions with colleagues up North on reports of mass deaths and burials there. They all expressed worries on what the harvest would be from that region if COVID-19 should bare its Italian and American fangs in Nigeria. Now, it looks like Italy has landed in northern Nigeria. The wages of misbehaviour are being paid in bales of disease and death. Saudi Arabia may have stopped congregational prayers to stay alive, but very little has changed in the North, one of the reporters told me this past Friday. To compound the problem, the Almajirai-Must-Go policy came on stream threatening everyone with a spike in coronavirus cases. And, so, when people die in multiples and the media scream, the power establishment in the North promptly muffles such cries. The media are exaggerating; the deaths are normal and within seasonal limits, the governors, one after the other, claim in criminal denials. A former member of the House of Representatives said on Friday that over 100 persons died in one week in a town called Azare in Bauchi State. The state government made a counter-claim on Saturday; it said that only 30 people died in the community in one week. Thirty people dying in a small community of less than 150,000 people would elicit an uproar anywhere South of Nigeria. But that is nothing in northern Nigeria. The Bauchi State government said there was no cause for alarm, that even out of those 30 who died, only one was a COVID-19 corpse. What is seen and said about Azare in Bauchi is equally true of Hadejia in Jigawa State. It is true of Daura in Katsina and of Birnin Kano in metropolitan Kano.
Denial and concealment of contagious ailments, and even deaths, is a familiar policy in the North. I use early leprosy claims in the North to speak to this. While colonial figures in 1930 estimated a total 95,000 leprosy patients in all British West Africa, it was soon discovered that northern Nigeria alone had hidden under its sick hut leprosy cases five times that figure. The Federal Ministry of Information in a 1961 report put total leprosy figures in Nigeria at 100,000, but just a few months earlier, Dr F. K. Schaller, Chief of the Leprosy Control Service in Ethiopia, in a report to the WHO covering April 17, 1960 to October 3, 1960 submitted that there were 550,000 leprosy cases in northern Nigeria. Ironically, the Federal Government document which underreported the cases has the title: ‘A hundred facts about Nigeria.’ Official ‘facts’ are seldom factual in Nigeria.
That there is a deliberate, concerted effort to downplay the severity of COVID-19 in the North is seen by anyone who is not ready to be deceived. People are falling sick and dying in the middle of a contagion but persons in charge of official actions are denying the numbers, cooking their own figures and reasons for the mounds of graves sprouting daily in cemeteries. The only big thing that governors of our North have done is to disperse millions of their street children across the country, untested, untreated. Officially, they are being moved to their states of origin, but they are soon embedded in trucks and tankers moving South on expeditions of sickness. The South won’t be Nigeria’s open-mouthed fool forever. It is now asking why it should be the inheritor of the North’s deliberately untreated ailment. You cannot seek to offload the excess products of your unplanned lives on neighbours and have peace. Someone wondered aloud, cynically, why the state makes licence to drive mandatory but won’t insist on licence to procreate. By hunting, capturing and deporting almajirai back to the North, the South is saying clearly that since the North is strong enough to sire a monster, it should have the muscles to carry it.
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