As I visited my Muslim friends and enjoyed sumptuous ram-themed dishes commemorating the sacrifice of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) in total obedience to God’s directive to sacrifice his son, I wondered why the two Abrahamic religions in Nigeria have not elicited obedience to rules as a matter of course. As I pondered, I remembered a story I heard recently that reminded me that we were not always a lawless country.
I had to use Chinua Achebe’s book title to tell this story of a meeting I had with a Man a few days ago. He is from Yobe and in his 60s. In the course of our discussion, he mentioned that he spent one year at Nike Grammar School Enugu in 1976. I got curious. How did that happen? Was your father a federal civil servant or soldier? He answered in the negative.
“In the early 70s Borno state and Anambra state had a student exchange program that after the state common entrance examination those selected for the exchange program got two admission letters one to a school in Borno and the other to a school in Enugu.” I listened with rapt attention.
In his case, he got admitted to a school in Maiduguri and Nike Grammar School in Enugu. His father, an uneducated man who lived in present-day Yobe, elected that he should go to Enugu. He was sad as this was a few years after the war, and he had grown up on a diet of widely held false notions fed by war propaganda about Igbo people.
His father took him to Kano and put him on a Bus to Enugu. He was barely 12 years old. He cried most of the journey. An Igbo man seating next to him promised to take him to Nike Grammar School upon arrival at Enugu. He kept his promise.
At Nike Grammar School, he was received warmly but was told he came a week early as the school had not resumed. The principal handed him over to a teacher and he stayed in his house for one week.
On resumption, other Borno students arrived by a Bus provided by the Borno State Ministry of Education. All the Exchange program students stayed in school from the first term to the third term before going home. During the first and second term holidays, the school looked after them, provided meals, and ensured they were comfortable.
At the end of the third term, the Anambra State government provided a Bus that took them to Maiduguri and handed all of them over to the Borno State Ministry of Education. It was an experience for him. To his regret, he changed schools to GSS Maiduguri without his father’s consent.
Upon school resumption, he left home and resumed at GSS Maiduguri. When his father found out, he was disappointed. He asked him why he did not return to Enugu. The young man said it was far. He further asked him whether he was mistreated in Enugu. He answered in the negative and said he enjoyed it but the distance from home and the fact he had to spend a whole year before coming home was an issue for him.
His father told him that he sent him to Enugu because he wanted him to be bigger and better than him and his mates around their home. He sent him because he believed that he had the capacity to withstand the difficulties which is why he did not send the sister. As a true Muslim, his father told him, he believed that he had not hurt anyone knowingly in his life, and as such no evil will befall his family no matter where they go. His father told him that those who have friends across Nigeria will be the leaders of the Nigeria of the future.
At GSS Maiduguri, he bonded with the Anambra students on the Exchange Program, who was excited that he was at Enugu for one year.
His one year in Enugu redefined his perception of Igbo people and framed his future interactions with other Nigerians. To this day, he maintained contact with his Igbo friends at Nike Grammar School. Three of them ended up as Lecturers and are still in touch with him. Some of the Igbo students at GSS Maiduguri are still in touch with him and consider him a brother. A few years back he got in touch with one of them, who is now a Pastor in Umuahia.
I was sober as his narration ended. I had never heard of this student exchange program between States in the 1970s. The story was another sad testament to our failure as a nation. I thought can I send my 11-year-old son alone on a bus from Enugu to Maiduguri today even with mobile phones and GPS tracking? Can a government school in any part of the country be entrusted with students for one whole year without parental visits?
Our bureaucracy is badly damaged almost irretrievably. As a nation, we took a wrong turn at some point and need to press the reset button NOW. The idea of a deliberate and intentional promotion of national integration should be pursued with renewed vigour. Unity in diversity should be a national aspiration and a measurable indicator of our journey to nationhood.
The man who told me this story is today the Acting National Chairman of the PDP, Ambassador Umar Iliya Damagun, former Nigerian Ambassador to Romania. He wished he finished at Nike Grammar School, and I wish his father was alive to see how his vision for his son turned out.
There was indeed a country.