Most people who hear of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates never knew that long before it became the preferred bride of the Middle East, there was a city called Beirut in Lebanon, which was the hub of the region. It may not have been like Dubai, but it was a city people wanted to visit. It was seen as a regional intellectual capital, a banking haven, and a major tourist destination, attracting tourists and business people from around the world.
I heard of Beirut and Lebanon in the early 1980s while in primary school. The reason was that a relative in the Nigerian Army was sent on the United Nations peace-keeping mission to Lebanon. Why did Nigeria send troops to Lebanon? In 1975, religious intolerance snowballed into war in the country. The country went up in flames as warlords fought for superiority. While the war raged, the Green Line (a no-man’s land) emerged to separate the Muslim West Beirut from the Christian East Beirut. As peace vamoosed and insecurity took over, people fled the country. Tourists and businesspeople avoided Beirut. Lebanese people scattered to other countries of the world. Their business acumen, however, helped them to succeed in business across the world. Even though the war ended in 1990, Beirut as well as the entire Lebanon has not recovered from its impact.
Since nature abhors vacuum, the UAE developed Dubai and positioned it as a replacement for Beirut. Today, Dubai is playing that role excellently well. It has refused to allow any form of religious intolerance to take root within. It has also not stopped being a good Muslim country.
Pakistan has a similar story. When the United States produced a female vice president in January 2021 in the person of Kamala Harris, many people celebrated it as a huge achievement. But as far back as 1988, Pakistan had elected a female prime minister in the person of Benazir Bhutto. In my primary six in 1982, some of the things I memorised were the names of the heads of government of countries of the world. I never forget that Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India; and by 1988, Benazir Bhutto became the Prime Minister of Pakistan: three great leaders!
Conversely, in Nigeria, we are still celebrating Dame Virgy Etiaba, my agricultural science teacher at Okongwu Memorial Grammar School, Nnewi, for being the only female governor of a state in Nigeria. Yet, she was not elected. She took over when her principal, Mr Peter Obi, temporarily lost his seat as the governor of Anambra State in 2006. This is to show how advanced in thoughts and freedoms Pakistan – a predominantly Muslim country – was years ago, ahead of many countries of the world, including North American and European countries known for championing liberties and equality. Note too that Pakistan is a nuclear state, a feat no African country has achieved.
Pakistan gained independence with India from the UK in 1947. On the day the UK granted independence to the old India, it divided the country into India and Pakistan, with India being predominantly Hindus, and Pakistan being predominantly Muslims. Decades later, Muslim extremists pounced on Pakistan. Anarchy descended on the country. Backwardness took over Pakistan. Today, while India is progressing in technology and other areas, Pakistan is retrogressing and being mentioned among the most terrorised countries in the world. Meanwhile, Bangladesh, which pulled out of Pakistan in 1971, is enjoying stability and is even led by a female prime minister despite being also a predominantly Muslim country.
Now, let us look at Borno State in Nigeria. Growing up, all I heard from relatives who lived in Borno were stories of Borno being a calm place. A prominent kinsman of mine is today known as Emma Biu because he lived in Biu in Borno State. Most people do not remember his surname. The most prominent figure from Borno while I was growing up was Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim who was the presidential candidate of the Great Nigeria People’s Party in 1979 and 1983. He was known for his mantra of “politics without bitterness.”
Then, early in the 21st century, Boko Haram began to gain root in Borno. By 2009, the sect had turned violent, employing suicide bombing as part of its modus operandi. Nigerians used to create jokes about how Nigerians loved life so much that suicide missions were not possible in Nigeria. But Boko Haram punctured that. The peace in Borno has been destroyed. The violence that started with religious extremism has spread to most parts of the North in the form of Boko Haram, bandits, and herdsmen. Mass killings and mass abduction for ransom have become commonplace. The activities of these terror groups have made Nigeria feature prominently in every list of most terrorised countries.
Today, the use of sharia law in Kano State to fight virtually every aspect of people’s life may sound good to those who believe that Kano is trying to live a true Islamic life of piety. But that is how religious extremism is nurtured in a society. Step by step, a vocal minority would want a total enforcement of the sharia as is obtainable in Afghanistan. The sharia police called Hisbah now determine how people should live their lives in Kano. They break the bottles of alcoholic beverages. They decide how people should dress, what music they should dance to, what hairstyle is allowed, and whether women should use smartphones and sunglasses. The most recent one was their ban on the use of mannequins to display clothes, with the excuse of promoting idolatry and eroticism. As they take these actions and step on the rights of other Nigerians, many people cheer, asking those who don’t like it to leave Kano.
However, that this is happening with the full endorsement of the Kano State Government makes it more worrisome. Our people say that the child sent to steal by the father breaks the front door with the foot rather than sneak in through the backyard. Boko Haram did not start overnight. It started from the fiery sermons and teachings of religious teachers. Some people sucked in these messages over a long period, believing that anybody not practising that type of Islam was an enemy. Subsequently, they saw themselves as warriors of Allah ready to die in the course of Islam because of the promise of eternal reward.
The second point is that the more some Northern states insist on enforcing the sharia law, the more they convince more Nigerians to agitate for separation from Nigeria, because of the fear that their safety is not guaranteed in a country where its constitution is breached and the Islamic law is enforced. India and Bangladesh are happy today that they are not in the same country with Pakistan. If they were still together, Pakistan would be costing them lives, money, peace and progress. Nobody wants to be associated with any country with a record of religious war, because it rarely ends. Nigeria has fought against Boko Haram for 12 years without any hope of victory.
Kano is the commercial hub of the North. When in 2013 the Central Bank of Nigeria published the names of the six states controlling 90 per cent of cash transactions in Nigeria, Kano was the only state from the North on that list. In addition to Abuja the Federal Capital Territory, the other five states were Lagos, Rivers, Anambra, Abia, and Ogun. When Mallam Aminu Kano was alive, he made Kano the centre of progressive politics in the North, standing out from the rest.
Politicians in Kano and other Northern states who use religion to gain cheap popularity among their citizens should think of the future of the people and not how to win the next election. They should realise that their actions are helping to divide the same Nigeria they fight tooth and nail to keep as one. The Northern masses need food, jobs, security, education and social amenities that will transform their lives, not politics.