The first difficulty was caused by my fading memory. Before I could find her I had to find Tchima Illa Issoufou, the BBC correspondent in Maradi who aired the voice of Aisha in a report on food shortage last March. As I tried to remember her particulars which Tchima mentioned at the end of the report, I mistakenly thought she said Aisha came from Unguwar Hardo outside Damagaran.
So I set out for Damagaran – or Zinder, as the French call it – very early in the morning through Bauchi, Dutse, Gumel and then Babura. I crossed the border at Babban Mutum and reached Damagaran through Magarya an hour before sunset. The road was not good, I must say, though it was far better than what I am used to between Jos and Saminaka. The shallow potholes, though numerous, were filled with sand unlike the car-swallowing ones we have on some Nigerian roads.
At Radio Amfani in Damagaran, I was told that Tchima lives in Maradi, not Damagaran. A colleague of her was able to connect the two of us on phone. I then booked an appointment with her against the following morning. And so without much waste of time, I was out of Zinder chasing the sun on my way to Maradi, though the red star did not take time before it disappeared from my sight altogether. The road was perfect except for the bumps that are located at every settlement along the 300 km stretch. By the time I checked into Jangwarzo Hotel in Maradi around 9.00pm, I discovered that I have covered a distance of 930km that day.
The following day, as I was discussing with some officials at Universite de Maradi, Tchima called and together we went to pick a female friend of hers, Rakiya of Radio Amfani, who would later prove to be very useful in locating Aisha. Tchima would readily confess that she is not good with directions, something that her friend Rakiya does with fascinating ease. Tchima on her part could recall fine details of conversations and faces with an amazing accuracy, as we will see shortly. The two makes a perfect company for any one in search of Aisha under the prevailing circumstance.
Together we left Maradi that afternoon for Gidan Hardo Isa which is in Hawan Dawaki ward. We left the Maradi-Zinder road at Gazaoua (Gazawa) and drove along the quiet laterite road until we reached Hawan Dawaki, at every point guided by the good senses of Rakiya to whom we conceded defeat in any argument regarding direction. It was in this village that Tchima interviewed Aisha and her friends a year ago when they came in the entourage of the President. From there we were guided to remoter village south east of the Gazaoua-Maiadua road.
At Tuburtu, a person I thought was old enough to know Hardo Isa said there was nobody with that name among all the Fulani settlements around. I returned to the car and told my already tired co-travellers, “Il y a une probleme”. However, the old man was kind enough to direct us to a settlement where the oldest Fulani leader around lives. I left Tchima and Rakiya in the car and trekked about a kilometre away where I met Hardo Jibgau in his hat. He counted, and my heart started racing in despair, all the five hardos in the area and said there was only one Hardo Isa. Mentioning Isa immediately rekindled the hope of locating Aisha. He described the site for his son who volunteered to lead us there. After promising Jibgau that i will look for his sister Rabi, the mother of Hardo Ango at Gadan Maiwa in Bauchi state where he once lived, we returned to the car and drove through the narrow sandy path until we arrived at Hardo Isa quarters. Aisha must be living in one of them, we hoped.
The quarters are sparse. Like other Fulani quarters, they form a group of houses separated from one another by distances that could be as wide as 500 meters. Before we could even pull the brakes, there was Tchima at her best: from afar she amazingly spotted one of the women, Fatouma, that were with Aisha the day she interviewed them. We approached the woman who was processing some guinea corn in a motar.
First, the apprehensive Fatouma denied being at the spot of the interview that day. She did not even go to the event, she claimed. Tchima and Rakiya tried hard to describe Aisha to her but she declined knowing anyone like that. Aisha did not help matters either. She did not give Tchima her actual name during the interview. However, as the women realized that we were not there to bring any trouble, they opened up and named Aisha, pointing at her house, some 300 meters away. They sent for her and she arrived shortly. Tchima instantly recognized her. As she sat on an empty mortar to answer Tchima, the clear voice of Aisha as it was aired on BBC hit my ears unmistakably.
Aisha is middle-aged, dark, slim and medium in height. She is a guest every journalist would like to host. She is not shy to speak her mind, eloquently and frankly. Yet, when she spoke to Tchima about the food shortage they were facing last year, she was kind enough to acknowledge the effort of government in distributing foodstuff even though she was yet to receive any personally. What was more interesting in that interview was how she kept on entrusting her hope in God, “E. Ana rabawa amma mu Allah bai ciyar damu ba tukun”. What a good citizen! And God did not fail her. He did not wait much after the interview was aired to answer her prayer as well as that of others around her in Gidan Hardo Isa.
The following forty minutes we spent there before we started our return trip to Maradi were among the happiest moments one could experience in life. It is fascinating to see other people happy, especially when something good visits them unexpectedly. A unique blend of joy and gratitude remarkably changed their faces before us and I had to fight hard to suppress the tears their happiness instigated in my eyes. God is gracious. Very gracious. Whatever little aid we took to them was from Him. We remain grateful to Him for the opportunity.
We bade the residents of Gidan Hardo Isa farewell amidst the joy that surrounded their homes. You would think Zaytouna, the teenage girl of Aisha, would jump into the car out of sheer happiness. As we drove back to Maradi, the eastern sky had better news for the inhabitants of that region of the Sahel. Rains fell just before sunset. And by the time I went to bed in Maradi, they have arrived at the regional capital in considerable quantity to make the rest of the night enjoyably cool for our sleep.
Throughout my visit, I was delighted by the development and orderliness of Niger. If the Ghana I saw in 2007 had given me the hope that Africans can achieve good governance different from what obtains in Nigeria, Niger brought that message closer home because of its proximity and our cultural affinity. Niger is no longer a country of hunger and underdevelopment as the media portrays it. Of course, shortage of rains will contnue to be a problem in the Sahel but the country is increasingly becomng adept in facing the challenge.
What is more interesting is how the contrast with Nigeria would bring out Niger as a true jewel of the Sahel. Right from the first village after the Babban Mutum border, one cannot fail to discern the difference. “With their opposites, things become clear,” said Al-Mutanabbi.
Their primary schools, except those built by communities – and all public buildings for that matter – are built to an impeccable standard. The nearest types of structures in Nigeria to which one could compare the official primary school buildings I saw in their villages are those built here by professional companies like Julius Berger. Even their very large and numerous agricultural stores have defied the instable earth and violent winds of the Sahel. They stand rigid and intact. Contrast this with the subhuman standard classrooms in both our public and private schools, the vandalized and empty stores that were mercilessly stripped of their fittings and roofs by the gluttony of thieving officials, etc.
The student/teacher ratio is small in all the schools I visited. I have not seen any classroom holding under shade. The same children go to school morning and afternoon, including Saturdays as it used to be here in the 1960s. There are sufficient instructional materials and the standard of learning is really high compared to ours. The Primary III children I met at Gurguji, some kilometers away from Magarya, were reading and writing composition in French. On the other side of the border, it is not uncommon to find Nigerian children in SS III who cannot make a single sentence in English – after 12 years of seducation.
The comparison is the same even on matters of governance. Nigeriennes – commoners and elites alike – that I spoke to are unanimous on one point: that ‘doka’ – or rule of law – is the fundamental difference between their country and Nigeria. Niger is where one can say nobody is above the law and readily win a nod. Officials do not engage in the bizarre corrupt practices that take place in Nigeria with impunity. They have a genuine patriotism for their country.
Officials in Niger have direct contact with their people and they show remarkable concern for any plight that might visit them. Officials, including the President, convene ‘town hall’ meetings even in the remotest areas. In fact, the reason why we learn about their food shortage is precisely because the government is concerned about the welfare of its citizens. There are millions of Nigerians under similar circumstance but I have never heard of any effort by government to provide food for them and their livestock. Who cares in Nigeria if you or your cow would die of hunger? Even the “fuji” or cattle vaccinations exercises that were common up to the 1960s have completely disappeared. And when the vaccinations are done in order to patronize a party official, they are counted as a favour to the herdsmen.
Millions of our children are malnourished in Nigeria; we lose hundreds of thousands of cattle to hunger annually. But the world does not know about our hunger for two reasons: one, hunger is the last thing the world would expects to exist in a leading OPEC country and, two, Nigerian officials are too wicked to give it a damn. By contrast, government in Niger knows that its population would take it to task on any lapse, more so if there were reports of animals dying of hunger. The government too is responsive and does not pretend that it is rich. If a cry would bring assistance from donors, it is ready to do it loudly. And it does not wait for them. Along the way to Hawan Dawaki, Rakiya keenly showed me what they called “demi lun”. As the name applies, these are half moon basins which government pays villagers to dig on vast areas and plant them with drought tolerant grasses. The ones we saw along the way to Hawan Dawaki were still not harvested, indicating that the cattle, as we saw them, will escape the lethal effect of the drought this year.
The present government in Niger is particularly doing well. Throughout the regions of Zinder and Maradi, there is a common sight of trucks carrying food and animal feed to stores and people in the hinterland. A journalist that is critical of the regime confided in me that if this dry season passes without significant incidents of human and animal deaths, he would lead a delegation of his colleagues to commend the President in Niamey. President Mohammed Isoufou is not waiting for them. He is already trying his best to fulfill his campaign promises. He promised building 2,500 classrooms annually throughout his tenure, for example. In his first year that just ended, he has built 2,800. This is remarkable in a country with just a population of 15 million and which is regarded among the poorest in Africa. At the peak of the recent fuel subsidy crisis, by contrast, the federal government in Nigeria promised to put thousands of buses on the roads of Nigerians cities. Nothing came out of that simple promise. How much would it take to buy a bus in a country that receives billions of naira daily as rent from oil companies?
The result of the responsiveness of government and its resolve to institute rule of law is the prevailing atmosphere of security and peace. The governor of Maradi, Sidi Mohamed, drives around his capital city freely. I saw the richest person in the region, Umaru Laouli Gago, driving in the city alone in his car. And when night falls, I am sure both will go to their houses and sleep quietly. Nigerian governors cannot dare drive around their capitals without a coterie of hostile and trigger happy security personnel. In fact, mine is reported to have requested his House of Assembly to allow him officially relocate to Abuja. It refused. If he would come to town, it may be once a month or less, since Boko Haram placed him on its hit list in spite of his apology. In the Southeast and South-south, the rich have resorted to residing in hotels, for fear of abduction by kidnappers or attack by armed robbers. Of what worth is our wealth?
Now, there are no go areas even for the Nigerian president, like Eagle Square that is just a kilometre away from Aso Villa, many places in Abuja and security risk states like Borno. By contrast, the President of Niger travels to very remote areas to meet his people and pass the night along with his ministers in mobile tents pitched in open air. I remembered the story of Kusroe’s (Persian) messenger who was shocked to meet the second caliph, Umar Bin Al-Khattab, taking a nap under a tree in the outskirts of Medina, alone without any guard, when his domain had already encompassed the entire Arabia, Syria and Palestine. He said, “I wish my King will enjoy the same level of tranquillity!” I also wish to see President Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign train in Tilde one day where he will pass the night in a tent at the foot of the Shere Hills. Hahahahaha…
As a result of rule of law also, Niger is one fo the democracies to beat in Africa. Tchima told me that if there is any manipulation, it could only take place before balloting. But once the ballot is cast, nobody can change the result. Results are announced instantly at polling station and agents are given their copies of the return sheets. Every party collates its results independently at its situation room. Immediately the pattern shows the winner that would emerge, Tchima assured me, other candidates would call that candidate on phone to concede defeat and congratulate him or her. “Shi ke nan,” she said, waiving her hands as we drove towards the Jibiya border.
That is Niger, with its scant resources and population. And here is Nigeria, with over a hundred billion naira spent on elections, with a PhD as President, with hundred times more policemen than those in Niger, with thousands of election officials that include numerous professors and PhDs as returning officers, with thousands of magistrates and justices, and with thousands of lawyers. Yet, we cannot afford to be honest enough to conduct a single credible election. What a shame!
The reason is simple. The Qur’an says, “Say, the bad and the good cannot be equal even if the quantity of the bad has amazed you. So fear God, Oh people of talent, such that you can succeed.”
It was then I realised the stupidity in the idea I put across to Aisha back in Gidan Hardo Isa the previous evening. I asked her why they would not just cross over to Nigeria where there is enough grass for their cattle and arable land to grow crops. She said they prefer to remain in Niger in spite of the difficulties. “If we leave, to whom do we abandon this place: these huts, this fence, this land? Let our men go and search for whatever they could get for us. But here we shall remain.”
More oil is discovered in the Sahel. Definitely, Niger will get rich in the next two decades. I told Tchima that I am afriad that the grip of the state on the affairs of the country may become loose. She disagreed, averring that more resources will be committed to law enforcement comensurate with the challenges. After two days of discussion, I conceded that Niger will face the challenge of wealth squarely, given the long experience it has in French style of administration and the blessing of learning from the bad experience of its ‘oil rich’ southern neighbour.
In the end, I returned home pleased with my union with Aisha and her people, and, more importantly, with the first hand knowledge that our northern neighbour is not as poor as we think. It is developing fast; its riches are increasing by the day; and its people are proud of it. Its people are Africans too, except that they believe in rule of law. With it, their future would certainly be better than ours. I cannot help but wish them success.
If any of my readers, any student of law or any Nigerian official wants to breathe the air of rule of law, he or she may not need to visit far away Europe or America. Niger is closeby. That was the prayer of the late Mamman Shata before his benefactor, the late Emir of Daura, Alhaji Muhammadu Bashar. Hear him in the famous LP, Kwana Lafiya Mai Daura:
“In kasar waje ta yi nisa Mamman
Nan kusa ma kamar nan Nijer
In ga Magarya, jikan Abdu
Kai ni Damagaran, dan Sanda
Sannan sai ka kai ni Maradi
In kwana in gaida Sarki Buzu.”
By sheer coincidence, not by the design of my pocket – unlike Shata, this was the same route I took in search of Habiba few days ago and forty-one years after I heard that song for the first time as a primary school child.
As I bade Tchima farewell at the border and thanked her for her invaluable help, I was immediately greeted on the Nigerian side before I drove into Katsina by sights of blown roofs of newly built classrooms, by a large acreage of firewood bales (not a single piece have I seen sold by the roadside in Niger), by police and soldiers soliciting for tips even under the current security situation, by bare walls of stores that used to harbour tonnes of fertilizer and other agric inputs, and by a people each left to his own devices.
I was definitely back to Nigeria, my one and only country, the land of religion without faith, of nothing amidst plenty, of poverty amidst wealth, of ignorance amidst knowledge, of impunity amidst laws, and of dictatorship amidst democracy.
8 May 2012