It’s a long drive to Birnin Gwari, By Is’haq Modibbo Kawu

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We landed at the old Kaduna Airport Terminal this windy afternoon, and waited for the plane that brought His Excellency Bola Ahmed Tinubu, and his entourage. Today is Monday, the 12th of December, 2022. I am in the company of Kashim Shettima. Airport formalities during electioneering can be hectic and electric, at the same time. Tinubu was in his elements as he shook hands with the waiting dignitaries: Kashim Shettima; Nasir El-Rufai, and other leaders of the APC. A few minutes of refreshments followed in the terminal building, and the convoy of vehicles snaked out of the airport, through Mando and Afaka, and the long drive began.

I’m hitching a ride in Hamisu Mairago’s vehicle. I’ve not seen him since the 2014 National Conference. We were both delegates and worked actively together in the Northern Delegation. This has been a ride to catch up on happenings in Nigeria. The politics, society, and related issues. Even the campaign. As well as books.

We are headed for Birnin Gwari. That used to be the beaten path, on the way to Ilorin, and destinations in the Southern part of Nigeria. I recall driving on that road so many times. When there was peace and the road was still in good shape, we would drive through Buruku, Udawa, Birnin Gwari, then through other locations like Bokani, Kagara, Tegina, Mokwa, Jebba, Bode Sa’adu. We left Kaduna at exactly 0700Hrs one remarkable morning in 1990, and we were entering Kwara Polytechnic at 1300 hours! These were the halcyon days of peaceful travel on Nigerian roads. Not anymore!

The Birnin Gwari route has become particularly notorious. Farmer-herder conflicts morphed into rural banditry, becoming one of the most challenging problems of recent times. Communities in this part of Kaduna State have been particularly hit, and good old Birnin Gwari, home to one of our National Parks, the Kamuku National Park, has been sacked several times over. The road itself, a major artery of national economic life, has long been abandoned by travellers. It’s just not safe to travel here.

And the tell-tale signs of an abandoned road were everywhere. I’ve counted just six vehicles driving towards Kaduna, as we drove through an expansive and lush rural scenery that speaks to the incredible beauty of our country. Five of the vehicles were petrol tankers. At Buruku, there was some economic life; the roadside market was functional; the same was replicated in Udawa. Rural folks took in the long, snaking convoy of vehicles, with surprise. Of course, they won’t have the foggiest idea of who the distinguished travellers in the vehicles were.

And then the security presence. Every couple of kilometres, there was a group of Nigerian security men deployed to secure what has become nightmarish for all. Reassuring as that was, it certainly spoke to the depth of the crisis. The fact today is that what used to be one of the busiest routes in our country, linking the North and South, is now so desolate. The road is in bad shape at several points. Thus, the convoy had to slow down, and we moved at snail speed literally, and some of the potholes couldn’t be avoided. It is a perfect guerrilla attack scenario! No wonder a chose to desert this route. Again and again, Hamisu and I couldn’t stop admiring the enveloping beauty of the landscape; the open plains that transition into lofty hills, poised against the horizon, and because it is also the harmattan, the fog enveloped distant mountain ranges. And we kept going!

The team is headed for Birnin Gwari. His Excellency Bola Tinubu is leading this gruelling trip to see first hand, what life is for people in this part of Nigeria. Gani ya kori ji, as the Hausa say. It is remarkable that we are completely cut off, because there wasn’t telephone service, despite the presence of masts, of the different TELCOs. It must be nightmarish for the people in the different towns, villages and settlents on the road, to be so completely out of touch with the world, as we are experiencing on the trip. They hug the roadside and looked on with surprise as we drive by, the old and young, alike.

We left the Kaduna Airport at three o’clock and as I write these lines, it’s already 25 mins past five in the evening. Birnin Gwari is still not in sight. The various military trenches along the route plus the strategic placements of the troops speak to the security situation. This validates further, the trip by the dignitaries, gruelling as it is certainly turning out to be, for everyone. In a fundamental sense, it is also the beauty of campaigning; that opportunity it offers to discovery the lived realities of the Nigerian people. This might actually be the only opportunity to ever see this side of Nigeria, for some of the people in the entourage.

And what’s politics without the razzmatazz of electioneering? As we got closer to town, a crowd of posters bearing politicos met us, and the APC candidate for Senate, for the Birnin Gwari area, Muhammed Abdullahi Dattijo, appeared on the roof of one of the vehicles in the convoy, waving to the delight of the supporters. They joined our convoy on motorcycles, with many of them holding aloft the posters of APC candidates. Even at this moment they still didn’t know that they would be seeing live, the APC Presidential Candidate candidate, His Excellency Bola Tinubu, and the running mate, Kashim Shettima.

The seriousness of the situation with banditry was underscored by the story that Hamisu Mairago told me. In the last farming session, the Birnin Gwari community reportedly paid half a billion Naira to bandits to be allowed to farm. By 1830hrs, we entered Birnin Gwari. We are enveloped by the darkness of this time of the year, in a town that seems to be used to the absence of electricity. The only illumination came from the approach to the Emir’s Palace.

The arrival in the Palace was a climax of the long, gruelling drive. When His Excellency Bola Tinubu was introduced to the Emir of Birnin Gwari, Governor Nasir El-Rufai told the story of the insistence of the APC Presidential Candidate, to visit. He has read a lot about the situation in the community. That’s the reason we came. Why would he come to a campaign in Kaduna State without seeing the situation in this community?

Governor El-Rufai pointed out that the situation has considerably stabilised. Nevertheless, it was indicative of the feeling of the two APC helmsmen, that they chose to come here to meet the Emir and his community. And even while some of the visitors dozed off, as we drove, His Excellency Bola Tinubu, was alert and observant. He noted that there was remarkable greenery, which underscored the agricultural riches of the Birnin Gwari area. What would be needed here, are industrial boreholes to assist the farmers. A peaceful community offers several possibilities!

His Excellency Bola Tinubu described the Emir of Birnin Gwari, as a very forthright leader. They held extensive discussions in the past. The Emir underscored national unity in Nigeria, and related issues. Tinubu assured that the elections would offer good opportunities for all. He restated that he is serving bandits notice, that his administration will do everything to eliminate banditry. He affirmed what Governor El-Rufai stated about his observations on the quality of soil in the Birnin Gwari area. “The elections are here, and I stands before Your Highness as a democrat”, Tinubu assured. He calls on the people of the Emirate to vote APC. “Leave the rest to us”. He added: “We saw the land, we saw the children; we will give them the education to succeed us. We are thinkers and doers. We will keep our promise”.

Tinubu is a politician and so couldn’t let the opportunity to hit the opposition go: “We know those who didn’t keep their promises in the past. We will not allow scorpions in the pockets of the Progressives. We will turn around the ship”. The Emir was scheduled to travel for his medical, but had stayed at home, to receive the APC team. Tinubu prayed for him to return safely.

The visibly elated Emir described Bola Tinubu, as “Jagaban Nigeria, Jagaban Duniya”. He similarly welcomed Kashim Shettima, as a man that he has loved for a very long time. His Royal Highness then annouced that he was turbaning His Excellency Bola Tinubu as Jakarin Birnin Gwari. This was to underscore “fearlessness”. “Please remain fearless”, the Emir urged. Similarly, Governor Nasir El-Rufai was turbaned Sadaukin Birnin Gwari. Securing the community and the reconstruction of the Birnin Gwari road, were the two main demands made to the APC Presidential Candidate. This was the first time a Presidential Candidate has ever visited Birnin Gwari. It won’t be forgotten in a hurry.

The newly turbaned Jakarin Birnin Gwari, Bola Tinubu, responded to the request from the Emir, that there can only be one President at a time: “Be a bit more patient. We appreciate the importance of infrastructure”. The wait won’t be long for Birnin Gwari, given the disposition of the APC Presidential Candidate, His Excellency Bola Ahmed Tinubu.

It was a long drive to Birnin Gwari, but it was worthy. It opened new vistas of knowledge; knowledge about the peculiar problems of Birnin Gwari, especially the damage wrought by banditry and the negative impact on several aspects of community life. The good old road, for one. It has almost been forgotten. By extension, the distinguished politicians who made the gruelling trip would also have added to their knowledge of the complexities of our country. We drove out of the Birnin Gwari Palace grounds at 1943 hours. We face an equally long drive back to Kaduna. About four hours of driving. The scenario today, couldn’t have been scripted! It’s certainly a long drive to Birnin Gwari. And back to Kaduna.

-Dr. Moddibo is Assistant Director, Public Affairs, in the APC Presidential Campaign Council.

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