His head swathed in hoary beard, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi might be ensconced today as a recluse, the holy man in his mosque in Kaduna, projecting a less dramatic persona than his father. His voice might have emitted lower decibels in the country if bandits did not go into and come out of the forest. If they did not ransack our bushes and made them home. Suddenly he became a prophet as a sort of rock star, his hood, beard and demeanour making him sometimes cooler than Davido!
If he had patience with his life in uniform, we might know him today as a general, a retired soldier with exploits we shall never know. And he seemed he made his path for moments like this. Especially when he volunteered to walk into the bush. The bandits are sick people in the flesh. As a doctor, he can conjure his scalpels and tablets and heal them. The bandits are sick in spirit. As a sheikh, he can redeem them. He has no reason to fear their hoods and guns and bravado. He left the army a captain. He knows how to make a gunner gone. A healer. A fighter. A Preacher.
He was trained a medic but he picked a cleric’s life over a clinic. Hence he is a shepherd over souls. That’s all he ever wanted to be. He could preside in a consulting room, a scalpel replacing his sideburns. But his eyes beam in between ruddy and sometimes scraggy white beard. To be sure, he is sheikh rather than chic.
He seemed to be the deliverer just over a week ago when Lai Mohammed enunciated the federal government’s official surrender. The information minister said his government had no influence with the brutes. Only a non-state actor like Gumi could meet them and mitigate the turmoil in the land. Gumi also seemed to forget his ascetic aspect and swiveled into the grandiose role of a rock star peacemaker. It was the vanity of the priest, but some had hope.
The bandits did not see him as a traitor. They did not fulminate at his shadow. They did not rustle in the woods, growl or shoot him, or even threaten. They welcomed him as a father of sorts, as a man they could engage.
He did not alight from the forest as a man of light. He came out as an advocate for sinners. He said the bloodthirsty youths needed to be listened to. A professor of bones and blood, Yusuf Usman, who reportedly accompanied him, said on Arise News that the boys were between 13 and 17 years of age. The sheikh and professor say the bandits have grievances. They have legitimate points. We should not sit in our moral high horses in Lagos and Abuja and condemn those who have made the bush their habitation and our homes, schools and roads their hangman’s noose.
They changed the narrative before our eyes. The boys are arboreal heroes, new-minted revolutionaries in the woods. They deserve the pardon we gave the Niger Delta militants. The priest made a sacerdotal heresy. He was asking the sinner to forgive the sinned against. We who are afraid should now show faith. They who made us fear are on God’s side. Who are the sinners now? Those now in trauma that they abducted and released? Mothers who died, fathers who bled to silence in front of children? Mothers looking in impotent horror as goons raped their daughters? Schools vandalised, those whose bank accounts now atrophied of millions? We should pardon them for stealing, killing, raping and stirring anarchy? Whose justice will it be? Is that the Sheikh’s own definition of good and bad? In fact, it means we should be begging them for pardon so they do not barrel into our lives again.
First, we have what is called false equivalences. Savage as they were, the Niger Delta militants did not abduct students, or crash into homes. They did not stop vehicles for kidnap of whole families. They blasted the jugular of our oil wealth: the pipelines. They targeted the governments, and enriched themselves with illegal bunkering. They were daredevils and lawless. But the communities even shielded them because they sometimes played robinhood, stealing from the state and plying them with some of their resources. They had a cause, if they did not fight the good fight. With such comparison, Gumi is making the Niger Delta militants glorious though they were not.
But Sheikh Gumi says the boys have a cause. They hate being ostracised. They hate being left jobless because of their rustled cows. They want free access to the farms of others, to trample and graze with impunity.
He seemed to have scored when some of the bandits dropped their weapons. But we had not heaved a sigh when, Gbam!, over three hundred girls were whisked into the lorries and driven into the shadows of Nigerian forests. When asked what happened, he said the bandits under question were not the ones he met. Chibok, Leah, and the long trek of boys from Buhari’s backyard, the slaughter of innocents, the dread of parents, the closure of schools, all took new dimension with the 317 students snatched among the gold mines of Zamfara.
But Gumi’s narrative had hit a snag. He was not a Nigerian negotiator. He was not making peace for all, but for a section. He distinguished the Christian and Muslim soldier. According to a now viral speech to the gangs, Gumi said only Christian soldiers were after them. “What I want you people to understand is, soldiers that are involved in most of the criminality are not Muslims. You know, soldiers have Muslims and non-Muslims. The non-Muslims are the ones causing confusion just to ignite crisis.” What a peacemaker! This is the peace of the bandits, not peace for Nigeria. He wants them to become converts to the priesthood of division, of a bigoted clergy. Gumi has not walked back that tirade.
This episode only recalls his father’s Islamic orthodoxy, an oedipal legacy. His father did not hide his contempt for Christianity. He was a cleric of division. He espoused the purity of faith, the firestorm of bigotry. He took on the Sufi, who saw Islam as dynamic. His father Abubakar saw it as dynamite. He was a slash-and-burn puritan who set the stage for religious hate in the country. He did not believe Christians should lead, only Muslims. His son only followed his father’s path in spite of the cosmetics of education as doctor. His father once made headlines when he said, “Christianity is nothing.” As editor of The Guardian Express, Nduka Irabor called him “fire mouth.” He was a Grand Qadi, the last to hold that title. That was before Boko haram.
His son is aping the father. As he walked into the forests, he saw himself as alternate government. Not only that, he took on the toga of religious alternative to secular government, a theocratic presence. This is what happens when a government has no strategy, when the police scratch for solutions, the air force lumbers in the clouds, when the army thrashes about in the bushes, when intelligence has given up the ghost, when the centre cannot hold, when a sizeable population believes the president is enabling the bandits with his silence, and when the president would not break that silence with a reassuring speech in which we can measure his voice, facial expression and then say, yes the man means it.
As this essayist has noted, the bandits are not invisible. They are juveniles with hot blood and death in their cargoes. If we cannot strafe them, and dissolve them, we stand the present danger of being eliminated as a nation. It is not civil war I fear. I dread anarchy, the mere anarchy that the Poet Coleridge moaned about, the sort we saw in Rwanda not so long ago.