Operation No Food for Southern Nigeria

March 1, 2021
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CYPRIAN Ekwensi’s fictional prose, Burning Grass, vividly x-rays the kings of the jungle. I am using the ‘Fulani’ here as the approximation of Nigeria’s far north – because he is the consequential being there. And, I think anyone who fights him or wants to fight him or is being fought by him should read the history of his assumed ancestors, the Hyksos (Shepherd Kings) of Egypt, and then read Ekwensi. The Burning Grass is an evocative exhibition of what disease and deceit, drought and decay and death do to shape the worldview of those who answer Nigeria. It is, more importantly, a character portrait of Nigeria’s owners of power. One of the major characters in that Ekwensi story boasts: “We are Fulanis, the sons of Dan Fodio, master magicians; we who fight like cats, who die a hundred deaths and live; we who test out manhood by the Sharro…We are men of cattle, our cattle come first and since it is our wish to take them to better pastures, all else must succumb to that wish.” This rings so true. ‘All else’ in Nigeria has truly been succumbing to our Hausa Fulani North’s pursuit of ‘better pastures’ across patches and ages. And you will understand why this sounds very correct if you know that fiction and reality are Siamese twins – one draws its breath from the other. It is part of the succumbing story that the North has just found a new stone to kill two birds – kill the arrogant southern peacock and kill the vulture of its burning grass. Because of ‘better pasture’ for its cows, the Hausa Fulani North last week moved to block the South from accessing its foodstuffs.

The fronts are expanding. As the bandits of the forest serially abduct poor kids and their education, those of the city, in quick march, are proceeding to kidnap the South with food blockade. They are of the same stock. An hitherto unknown group, the Northern Consensus Movement (NCM) allied with the Amalgamated Union of Foodstuff and Cattle Dealers of Nigeria to announce the commencement of a food strike on Friday. They said they had blocked all ‘borders’ between the North and the South and stopped supplies of cows and foodstuffs to the South. Speaking in an interview with the Nigerian Tribune on Friday, NCM’s National President, Awwal Abdullahi Aliu, said: “As I speak to you, my people are already shipping their goods, onions, tomatoes and what have you to Niger, Cameroon, and other neighbouring countries through Illela border…The strike has started. There is no movement of goods and any consumables from the North to the South. It has been blocked. The roads have been blocked by our members; all the entry borders between the North and the South, and between the North and the East. All the border towns between North and South, North and East, North and West where the vehicles pass have been blocked. Every angle, from North West, North East, North Central; all the borders have been blocked; even between Borno and Yobe, between Yobe and Bauchi, to Taraba, Nasarawa, to Abuja, and Abuja to Lokoja. And then Sokoto to Katsina, to Kebbi, to Zamfara, Kano, Kaduna, to Niger.” The man spoke with the steel confidence of governmental authority. And he and his people acted true. There was an audacious blockade erected by them somewhere between Niger State and Kwara’s Jebba. The Nigerian military later said Friday evening that it had cleared it off. Was anyone arrested for creating an ‘international border’ within our national landscape? Ask the government. But then, you look at where the North put its gate of sanctions and you ask: Is Kwara now in the South?

If these shots are not indicators of imminent and immediate troubles, what are they? War scholars have described ‘starvation’ as an active means of warfare. In simple terms, what does that really signify? It means “to kill with hunger.” It signifies deprivation of nourishment; it is a pressure suggesting to the other side to surrender – or die. There are copious accounts of this in American civil war literature where the Union sought to “weaken the South” and “bring it to surrender” by deliberately disrupting, and even destroying, the South’s food supplies. Indeed, General William Tecumseh Sherman of the Union army wasn’t apologetic about this. History quotes him as justifying starvation as a legitimate weapon of war. Sherman wrote: “I have destroyed over 2000 barns filled with wheat, and hay, and farming implements, over 70 mills filled with flour and wheat; I have driven in front of the army over 4000 head of stock, have killed and issued to troops not less than 3000 sheep…We are not only fighting hostile armies but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war as well as their organized armies…” Is this history part of what the writers of the northern script read? And is there truly a ‘war’ going on here? We need to get these questions answered to be very clear about what is going on. Blocking cattle and foodstuff routes to Southern Nigeria is an enemy action. Erecting economic border ‘walls’ inside our country should be treasonable in the eyes of our laws. A sanction from Northern elements on the South redefines, in fundamental ways, our national sovereignty. That the North serves this as its answer to Southern complaints about the killing, the rape and the kidnapping activities of criminal elements identified as Fulani draws a shroud on our sick nation.

The Igbo man says “he who holds me to the ground holds himself.” And it can even be worse for the ‘avenger.’ Who cries more when the onions and tomatoes of the North suffer rot and decay? Eighteenth century English antiquary and lexicographer, Francis Grose explained in his ‘A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue’ (1788) that he who cut off his own nose “to be revenged on his neighbour has materially injured himself.” That is what the North commenced last week with its perishable foods. But there is nothing you cannot wish to do – or actually do – when you feel you have the strength to bend the will of the street yonder. Being powerful tempts the unwary to act God. Those stopping food supplies from one part of Nigeria to the other probably believe there are no alternatives for those at the receiving end. And is that really the situation? They will be shocked. Juju musician, Ebenezer Obey once sneered at the impotence of such eunuch mindsets. He sang: ‘If not for me, my friend won’t have had anything to eat; but for me, my friend would have nothing to drink. Please, don’t say that again; God Almighty is the only One that decrees and has it done.” Around me were some dance steps to this beat last Friday. More than a few clapped when the blockade news broke that day.

I know that soup does not move in an elder’s belly. But then, one hopes that the South remembers to thank the Hausa Fulani North for the wake-up call in the ‘attempted’ food blockade. The North has now relieved the South of the battle for true federalism. Look at it this way: North’s cows and foodstuffs are no longer automatically for the southern market. There are other options; and the North is exploring them for its maximum economic and political profit. In the very presence of our government which borrowed food from ECOWAS a few months ago, the North is moving its agricultural products to ECOWAS countries, especially to Niger and Cameroon. And there are bragging videos and photographs about this. The South should reciprocate the gesture and thank the North for defining resource control and true federalism in so true and very practical terms. The motive might be to starve the South of Northern products, but it is also a wake-up call to the South to test its strength and show how straight and sure it could stand without the North’s straw crutches. Nigeria should draw benefits immensely from this northern initiative. The concept of unintended consequences should make this the dawn of a new day in Nigeria.

It is significant that the drivers of this blockade are audacious non-state actors. How much of official backing could they be enjoying? Whatever it is, we should know that they are filling the void created by official absence in our national life. Political scientists would argue that weak states – and weak governments – almost always produce strong non-state actors. Wherever what ails Nigeria has held sway, we’ve seen not just the failed regimes’ loss of territory but also what Hamid Unver described as disastrous uprooting of the “control tools and actors of the central authority.” David Kilcullen, a professor and theorist of guerrilla warfare and the future of conflict wrote about dragons and snakes and about weak states and strong non-state actors. His uncannily insightful ‘theory of competitive control’ comes to mind here. He postulates that when states fail, the most capable non-state actor moves in and wraps the local population around his mission. The last two months have seen Nigeria parceled out to warlords – each doing what he likes with the cowering state. Think of persons, North and South, in forests and in cities, who act government and effectively dare the state. Think of the characters who sliced the country into two with a trade wall and calmly announced same without consequences. Think of our government of complicit gestures, of clueless looks and of flaccid muscles. Think.

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