The 123 bikers from Jigawa

We have watched on television simple criminals who confessed to the police that they were trained in Libya. What assurance has anyone that this full truck of ‘strange’ faces contained no such graduates of Libya’s school of terrorism? They came to do business but could not speak the language of that business. They came to ride commercial motorcycles but are complete aliens to the routes bikes ply.

When last Friday the Lagos State government intercepted 123 young men ‘from Jigawa State’ in a truck in Lagos, questions were asked. They are still being asked. What if these are terrorists escaping the heat of the armed forces in the North-East? Or what if they are the famed bandits of Zamfara and Katsina – or the invincible herdsmen of Benue and Plateau? What if they are even not Nigerians? Could some of them be violent migrants from war-ravaged Sahel countries of Mali and Burkina Faso? How many of such well-stocked trucks have offloaded thousands of the unknown into the thick forests of southern streets?

Ten years ago, no one would be bothered by any mass movement into anywhere in the country. No one would ask any question about a whole state up north pouring into another down south. If attempts had been made to ask questions, no one would have listened. In fact, the South-West used to rejoice that other people were coming to help the economy of the area. But 10 years of pampered terrorism in the North, almost five years of government’s inertia and complicit behaviour and the general refusal of the elite there to condemn the system that birthed the tragedy have changed all that. There is a deficit of trust, and rivers of suspicion are flowing everywhere. No one wants mass movement of strange men into their homes. The South-West is simply scared of the North turning its relatively sane space to Zamfara, Katsina, Borno and Yobe.

The police within 24 hours finished their investigation and issued a statement on Saturday. They said the young men were not criminals and thus had been set free. The police said some of them were commercial motorcyclists. Again, here, there are questions: Did the police ask for their licence to ride motorcycles? Or are licences no longer a legal requirement for bike riding? Did the police ask for proofs of ownership of the 48 motorcycles found with these ‘gentlemen’? What if some of those motorcycles were stolen items? Or did the police give it a thought at all that those hapless fellows could be victims of human trafficking? Who bought the motorcycles for the obviously poor young men and on what terms? But, is it not too late to ask any question? The police said they’ve been released because they are Nigerians. They have long left the gaze of surveillance and melted into the deep bowels of Lagos. Should we trust our police and those who sent them?

People who venerate flexible loyalty and who see danger in permanent friendship cannot be trusted. They are, indeed, poisonous; very dangerous. That is the wisdom which the almost five years of Buhari presidency has taught everyone outside his favoured ancestral constituency. It is the reason the South sees red alerts and smells unholy agenda in every move and movement from the North. The advice to victims to accommodate their attackers, the Ruga misadventure, the Water Bill and the Fulani Radio moves were audacious steps that have caused a major shift in the national axis of trust. The naked exodus, down South, of the North’s misgoverned young can, therefore, not be pleasant to the senses. It is not.

It should bother the political North that Senator Bola Tinubu’s Lagos was the state that moved against the bike riders from the North. If it were a state like Oyo that did the interception –an unthinkable – it would have become another ugly agenda sculptured in Dubai by the fallen opposition party and its corrupt henchmen. But no one would say Lagos did it because it didn’t like Buhari and his clan of internally displaced persons. Was it not Tinubu who recently helped them to ask “where are the cows?” to deflate southern passions inflamed by murderous activities of herdsmen? Ironically, it is the government of the same emeritus governor of Lagos that has moved against the cowed youths of the North in Lagos. Their enemies would have the temptation to see it as a family affair. There should be no case, really, if Lagos’s puff adder and Abuja’s python decide to glide in a dance of poison. It is about survival and its politics.

A friend from the North said it was in the character of Lagos to deport northerners. I disagreed vehemently. He said a former governor of that state did that without consequences. The current case, he said, was just a continuation of Lagos’s narrative against the poor of the North. To him, this was not a move against insecurity; it was simply a war against the poor. “If those guys came well dressed and in chartered planes, no one would arrest them. And it is people like that that are more dangerous.”I felt my friend missed it here; this is not a social class matter, per se. It is a security issue which understands no political or ideological turenchi. I reminded him that the elite don’t personally and directly do suicide bombing and all other things bandits do in Katsina and Zamfara. It is people like these uneducated, unskilled dudes who do a thousand kilometers dash in an open truck that always wreak bloodcurdling havocs which Lagos is afraid of. I told my friend that there is a general fear of young, uneducated northerners injecting raw terrorism into the bloodstream of the West. But my friend would not listen. He felt it was not enough to target the hungry northern youth. Boko Haram, he stressed, was started by rich kids of the Kanuri elite. “Many of them blew themselves up and killed hundreds,” he said. Now, should that point count in favour of the North getting a space anywhere outside the North? My northern friend would not see my point of view that it was dangerous to have 123 young men who don’t understand a word of English and the local language but who, like a thief in the night, silently stream into a troubled southern territory in an open truck. We are told that loaded trucks like the one intercepted in Lagos leave the North for the South daily. It is scary – for the future of the North and the survival of the South.

Now I understand Cyprian Ekwensi’s Burning Grass thesis: When ‘they’ set fire to the plains, the grass gets burnt and the vulnerable move South in search of pasture and fodder. This is happening in real and proverbial terms. The elite of the North have scarred the green of their region. There is nothing more for anyone outside the privileged class to wait on. It is time to move on foot and in trucks down South, and they are moving. Ekwensi says: “It is time too for the harmattan to blow dust into eyes and teeth, to wrinkle skin: the harmattan that leaves in its wake from Libya to Lagos a shroud of fog…like muslin on a sheikh.” I like the ‘fog’ and ‘shroud’ imageries. Fog sickens; shroud is the cloth of death. What can we do? I know that “on the day of death, medicine is useless.” But has it reached that threshold of finality? Time is running out so fast for those who still think education is sin and migration to anywhere on foot and in open trucks is life. The North should not just do mass weddings and mass procreation for election and census and revenue allocation purposes. It should produce to create wealth and for good life and peaceful living. It should know that there is a limit to its living off the southern lady of means. The Lagos reaction should tell the North that even friends reject leprous guests – and it is happening. The solution lies in the North re-grassing its brown, stabilising the displaced, educating its millions.

There is poetry in the prompt arrest of the northern boys by Lagos and their immediate release by the federal police. Does it occur to all of us that the whole country has become an unwalled camp of the displaced? Was the huge migration we saw in that Lagos truck not symbolic of the collapse of the country before our very eyes? And the options are very limited now. Unskilled northern youths migrate to the choked South because it is the only greener pasture they know. Skilled and unskilled southern youths are migrating out of the country because the South has lost its lush. And the world outside is pushing them back, doing precisely what the South is doing to unwanted migrants from the North. The heat in the foundry of Nigeria has become so unbearably destructive to destinies that anyone with a dream at all seeks its fulfillment outside the country. Rejection home and abroad is bursting the seams of patience and resilience. And while these go on, our power elite are steeped in haggling over the right price for the soul of the nation. They are buying and selling, and planting their children, nephews and nieces where money and power is. They forget that the grass of the poor that is on fire everywhere, uncontrolled, will soon burn down their castles of privilege.

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