In a world where people hardly remember you when you are out of office, it came as a very pleasant surprise when at Christmas, on Boxing Day to be precise, I received this strange phone call and the caller was telling me he had three cows for me from Governor Kashim Shettima of Bornu State.
In Nigeria, the first natural response to such a call is to think that some fraudsters are at work. But this is a genuine gift from a loyal friend from the north who stood by me in my hour of pain and sorrow, when I lost my bosom friend, who spoke words of comfort to ease my pain, who encouraged me to keep the banner of friendship flying, even in the death of one partner. What was most touching was Shettima’s instruction that one of the cows should be given to the wife of my late friend, Pastor Dimgba Igwe. That was where the governor got me. I was gripped with emotion. All kinds of emotions. As I reflected on the three cows, I remembered the three wise men and their three gifts. I tried to write a poem but the poem just won’t flow. So I decided to write a column. A song of gratitude to a Muslim who remembered me and my late friend at Christmas. A governor mired in crisis, locked in an unwinnable war with Boko Haram, yet remembered me.
My mind went poetic. One poem instantly came to mind: Fulani Cattle. A poem by J.P. Clark, the most lyrical Nigerian poet who as a student of University of Ibadan founded The Horn, a poetry journal, the poet whom I interviewed extensively as the Literary Editor of Sunday Concord under the celebrated editor Dele Giwa of blessed memory.
As I reflected on Shettima’s cows, my mind went back to my A-Level Literature exam in 1972 where we were asked to analyze an unseen poem which happened to be Fulani Cattle by J.P. Clark. The poem that starts with the famous lines: “Contrition twines me like a snake/Each time I come upon the wake/Of your clan/Undulating along in agony.”
Like Clark, I am filled with laments for these cows that travelled all the way from the deserts of the north, across the Sahelian regions, through the grass and forests of Nigeria, all to end in slaughter houses where they go to feed the people of the “hungry towns by the sea.”
J.P. Clark wrote his poem in the age of innocence. An age when cows stoically went to the gallows without complaining, when cows were led by drovers armed simply with a gentle rod which they hardly used, except during moments of stubbornness. An age when cows were as meek as lambs and gentle as doves. Even when led to the slaughter house, they simply co-operated, causing the poet to ask: What secret locked in the cow’s “hump away from man, imbues you with courage” such that even at the point of death, the cow is “not demurring nor kicking” right up to “house of slaughter”? Such was the peaceful nature of cows and cowboys that the poet begged the cow to spill their secrets: “But will you not first reveal to me,/As true the long knife must prevail, the patience of even your tail?” Bereft of an answer, the poet conjectures: “Can it be in the forging/Of your gnarled and crooked horn/You’d experienced passions far stronger/Than storms which brim up the Niger?”
Those indeed were days of innocence. Today, we are living in the days of cowboys armed with AK-47, destroying farmlands and killing in their wake. Cowboys that you cannot even distinguish from Boko Haram warriors—these merchants of death and destruction afflicting our people with sorrow, tears and blood. This is the age where thieves kidnap cattle and their owners for ransom.
If Clark had written his poem today, he would have expressed a different feeling. He would have sung a psalm of lamentation over the audacity of Fulani cowboys, shooting from the hips, causing death and destruction in their wake. Clark would have cried for Nigeria and for poor Shettima who has suffered a lot.
Since, 2011, he has had his own bitter taste of the insurgency madness ravaging our land. Just imagine being a governor in a state made ungovernable by the apocalyptic Boko Haram warriors. In September 2014, the Bornu State capital was on siege, causing many to evacuate with their families. The governor who was then out of the country on official assignment had to return quickly. Like Winston Churchill, he courageously mobilized and led the fight against the insurgents who controlled 20 out of the 27 local governments of Bornu State. Thanks to our gallant soldiers who uprooted and liberated Bornu in 2015 and 2016. From then on, the governor engaged in Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Resettlement of displaced citizens of the state. His feat was recognized by media houses that chose him as the governor of the year from 2015 rolling down. But then, today, there is the resurgence of the familiar Boko Haram nightmare, causing Governor Shettima to run to Aso Rock, along with the elders of Bornu, calling for help one more time and breaking into tears. Who says men don’t cry? On Tuesday, a lachrymose Shettima hit the front page. Amidst tears, he read his epistle to Buhari which goes: “Between 2013 and 2014, we witnessed the most daring and most vicious evil of Boko Haram, losing 20 local government areas. We have rushed here because of the recent upsurge in the activities of the demented monster called Boko Haram, especially in northern Borno senatorial district. We are here because since 2015, Mr. President, you were able to restore our hope.
“Sir, you have demonstrated sympathy for Borno and an overriding commitment to ending Boko Haram. This is why we rushed here upon witnessing some setback. We are here because we thought that Allah would use you to fully reclaim Borno’s traditional glory of being the home of peace. We are here as a people who worked, prayed and waited for your presidency in the firm belief that with you as Commander-in-chief, Boko Haram will become history in Borno.
“Mr. President, we have not, and insha Allah, we will not lose hope in you because we have witnessed and survived worse moments before you came. We do not feel hopeless. Our hopes are very much alive and they are very high. We came with some observations and requests for urgent presidential intervention. These observations and requests are products of discussion in the aftermath of our extraordinary security meeting held one week ago. We didn’t rush to come after the meeting. We felt the need to travel to northern Borno and interact with displaced persons and the military, so as to strengthen public confidence. I will seek the understanding of journalists in not making public any of our observations and requests. They are matters of security, which we hope to discuss with Mr. President behind closed doors.”
My prayer is that the governor’s prayer will be answered and no one will weep this year!