By Sam Omatseye
A sense of peace crippled me as I boarded the aircraft and left behind the crisp air of Jos. I reflected on the irony first: Jos of firebombs and fleeing feet, of internecine feud, of blood-stained fault lines and arbitrary borders and breach of borders, of prostrate streets and pious hate, of Muslims at the throat of Christians and vice versa, of official impotence, of the loss of innocence.
Then I recalled what I had learned in three days last week in the city of fabled weather and its cosmic earth, a democratic soil that abides all fruits and vegetation from apple to roses. I had come to deliver the keynote address at the Nigerian Bar Association Week on the topic: Restructuring: A Panacea for National Development and Cohesion.
On entering the city I had a flush of foreboding. But the genial exchanges of three governors who attended the event mitigated some of my misgivings. They were the host Governor, Simon Bako Lalong, who, in a yet understated electoral triumph, toppled the cocky mainstay in Plateau power, David Jang; Governor Mohammed Abubakar of Bauchi State and Sokoto State counterpart and the Matawallen Sokoto, Aminu Tambuwal.
The striking moment came when Governor Lalong mounted the podium and joked that Tambuwal loved the Jos weather so much that he came a day earlier and he would not mind to stay another day. Tambuwal responded with a ironic smile and interrupted Lalong by thrusting his right hand out of his voluminous babaringa in a hand gesture, indicating he was leaving town that afternoon. The governor was making the point that the three governors were, in varying degrees, products of Jos the beautiful, the literal city on the hill.
All three were baked in Jos. Yet they belonged to three geopolitical zones. Tambuwal from the northwest, Abubakar from the northeast and Lalong from the north central. All three blossomed as lawyers in Jos. They inhaled the weather, blended with its shrubberies and hugged the people. Their successes in that city predated and even foretold their political ascent.
Lalong noted that Abubakar was one of a string of Bauchi State governors, including Yuguda, bred in Jos. The chairman of the law week planning committee Barrister Steve Abah said he served in Tambuwal’s chambers. I was to learn later that Tambuwal brought his team to Jos for their retreat recently.
The point? So beautiful was Jos not just as a place where seed budded but any tribe bloomed. Before I presented my address, all three governors stamped their support for restructuring with Tambuwal reiterating that the north wanted restructuring but it must be preceded by understanding. Abubakar, who gave a short speech aligned himself with Tambuwal. This was Jos as conduit, as the umbrella of all people, from the Fulani to the Birom to the Afemai to the Yoruba to the Urhobo. It was mini Nigeria in hope and harmony.
I also recalled, in the midst of that morning air of happy levity, the yarns that television producer Peter Igho had spun to me about how he grew up in Jos and everyone lived together without ethnic interspaces. In his lament, he was puzzled about how that great city stumbled into the arms of bandits.
Jos has become a metaphor not only of how we fell as a nation of economic promise, but also how we crumbled into malice. Without soliciting comments, residents spoke of how the soul of their beloved city had left them, how hate, bigotry and political egos had truncated the example of the north. They spoke with glum eyes and wistful resignation. But they ended their complaint with natal cheer.
That quiet cheer I noted when I engaged Governor Lalong. Articulate with a sober grasp of the task ahead, he expressed how he had brought together the 53 ethnic groups in the state to agree to live in peace. He set up the state’s version of truth and reconciliation commission that encompassed representatives from each of the 53 tribes, so that it did not become a case of over-inclusion and exclusion, which would generate another round of suspicion and spilling of blood. The issue of herdsmen and cattle rustling was also resolved with representatives from both sides coming to the table to eke out an agreement.
Though still fragile like a healing wound, Jos has moved far ahead today beyond the days when it was hard to predict a day. Many people left town, and may not return. But what Governor Lalong has pulled off with the 53-tribe entente is a model for our fractious nation. He said he was working with the Federal Government on establishing a ranch. While ranching is a marvel of an idea, there is already understanding before it comes into being.
This shows that building institutions is a good idea, but institutions are vacant without trust. As the African proverb says, who would accept a shirt from a naked man? When the ranch comes to Plateau, it will become a technicality. If, that is, the peace holds up among the tribes. It also reifies the power of leadership. That we have ethnic tension on the national scale is the failure of leadership and trust deficit from the people. We don’t have the Lalong effect in the centre.
Lalong has to sustain this. Jos is not just about a town. It is about its vast array of people. As Ghanaian playwright Ama Ata Aidoo wrote, “humans, not places, make memories.” We are not asking Jos to become the city it lost. We only want it to become the city it can be. “I don’t want to repeat my innocence,” noted a character in Scott F. Fitzgerald’s novel, This Side of Paradise. We can remember the past but as a resource to own the future. We will not lament in the words of the poet, Birago Diop, “If we tell gently, gently all that we shall one day have to tell.”
Cities have fallen and were reborn. We know of London, Berlin, Paris, Warsaw. The Second World War broke their backs. They came back, reinvigorated. Those cities lost brick and mortar, Jos’ soul became mortal. Biafra lost structures but its soul survives. The task before Lalong is not just physical rebirth but to give it new life by dismantling forever the infrastructure of prejudice. It is a state I will monitor, especially when other states like Kaduna, Taraba and Benue have sought Lalong’s formula on how he is doing it on the Plateau. The Federal Government can learn a thing or two about how a state with 53 ethnic groups in a small geographic space can wake up from a slumber of bloodshed. It, therefore, can work for the 250 ethnic groups in the country.
– This piece was written by Sam Omatseye/The Nation