The Saudi tragedy had gone from statistics of the unfortunate to a personal tragedy that diminished me personally.
That moment brought me to a time of introspection. There was much violent death all around, from the Boko Haram killing fields in the North-East to the community clashes in Anambra State and oil pipeline thieves created infernos, and flood victims. Often, the statistics are reeled out. A shrug of disbelief is let go as another 39 human beings go before what may have been a span of life which could be their due. Behind every statistic are flesh, blood, brain, brawn and emotions that brought joy to some, laughter to many and reason for being to others. Yet, like the words of wisdom of the Ibusa people of Delta State affirm, the body in that casket in a funeral cottage escorted by wailing friends and relatives is just a piece of log to the stranger.
Surely, our lives must gain greater meaning and rise in value when we are diminished by the unwholesome squashing of human life no matter whose, and where it happens. This shared humanity should breed solidarity that drives man to cooperating to ward off every assault on the dignity of the human person. Such cooperation and collaboration should fuel cooperative efforts, in multilateral institutions, for example, to fight poverty, threats to the environment which fight back with consequences from global warming, and terrorism which mindlessly targets the innocent.
As I wrote this, the breaking news came that bombs had gone off in Kuje market and a police station, in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, an unwelcome return after a hiatus during which the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, came calling to mark the sad anniversary of the earlier journey of bombs of death from the bowels of hell. That time it took down the UN building in Abuja. It would not be about how many people died in Kuje and Nyanya. This was a colour commentary on these people I knew so well.
How would I forget el-Miskin? The summer of 1980 was the high point of our paths crossing. A group of us, African graduate students, got together in the evening to play recreational volleyball in mixed teams of men and women, just across from Evermann Apartments in the Married Students Housing area in Bloomington, Indiana. As many of us were not married but more mature postgraduate students at different stages of working on the PhD degrees, the Apartments would probably have been better called Graduate Apartments than Married Housing.
A small group of African students formed a neat social web that had late evening volleyball in summer as a central recreation. Among us were Aminu Kano Zaria, Gidado Tahir, Tijani el Miskin, Jonah Ifegwu, Collins Ajiniran and a small squad of good looking Ethiopian women.
Tijani was likeable, revolutionary and determined to see a better world. In the 35 years since those fun summers, I have spoken with him only about four times on the telephone, the last being nearly two years ago. Still a huge part of what meaning I have for patriotic commitment to changing society for the common good had to have died with him.
Then, there is the case of Bilikisu Yussuf. Beyond being a pioneer as a woman in editorial chair positions and a social enterprise pacesetter, Yussuf was comfortable with a strong voice. I still remember the eve of October 1, 1998. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, just released from prison, had called together the cream of the Nigerian political and civil society elite. Most were of an older generation, the dominant players of the 1960s and 1970s. A sprinkling were the 1980s and 1990s people.
As with natural selection, those few sat together for lunch that afternoon at the Gateway Hotel in Ota. There was Clem Nwankwo, Bilikisu Yusuf, Olisa Agbakoba and I. Her views on the issues were firm and fair. She had won my respect long before that for her work at the New Nigerian Newspapers but the small banter that afternoon made her voice even more important to lend an ear to.
Her passing surely had to diminish my sense of mission and purpose.
As our world turns on axis of discontent and violent expression and the death of many gets expressed in the gruesome statistic of many more killed today, it helps to place faces, habits, loves found and lost, dreams dreamt and abandoned, in that statistical maze. As I see the manners and moods of el-Miskin and Yussuf, I wish so deeply that a civilisation of love could govern our times and deaths of this nature affect every man and not attract blame like it’s the Africans who took the wrong turn or “it is that party that failed with procedure.”
When people stop being statistic, human solidarity becomes an anchor of culture. It is then it becomes easier, in empathy with the dignity of the human person for collective action to get to the roots of these challenges.
As we pay tribute to the memories of two remarkable people who were leaders who had no need for title (LWT) to lead, Hadjia Bilkisu Yussuf and Professor Tijani el-Miskin, we must come to terms that no life is just a statistic and that our being is enriched by the lives of others.
– Utomi, political economist and professor of entrepreneurship, is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.