My earliest contact with the Yoruba people was at the age of six during my primary school days in the early 1960s in my home state of Borno. Born in Bama, my father took me to Gwoza for my primary school education after the area was accorded the status of a Native Authority (now called local government).
During my primary school in Gwoza, I was captivated by two shops belonging to two women (mama Sheri and mama Audu) who both originated from Ogbomoso in the present Oyo State. It was from these shops that we got our essential commodities. The two women also owned the only two restaurants and bakery in the town which was the only source of bread for the entire community. As children, we were curious at the menu served in these restaurants such as gari and amala, which were amazingly strange to us because they weren’t part of our local diet then. Their children Jamiu, Fasasi and Bayo and others attended same free Native Authority primary school along with us, and I was fascinated by the entrepreneurship of these women and their integration into the local community.
My connection with Yoruba people was reinforced when I gained admission into Government Secondary School Ganye in Adamawa, which was a considerable distance from Gwoza. The principal of the school was a Yoruba, so also the history teacher who fascinated me with the history of the Oyo Empire.
As fate would have it, I was sent on training to the Federal School of Forestry Ibadan in the heart of Yoruba land being the foremost technical forestry institution in the country. The institution admitted students from all over the country, and one of its strict rules was that each room must be occupied by a student from the North and the other from the South. Coincidentally, I was paired with a Yoruba man from Ife (the ancestral home of the Yoruba), while his closest associate and fellow town’s man was in the next room. Both men, who were older, always enjoyed chatting with me. They always travelled to Ife on Fridays and return early on Mondays. My room-mate had a car, and surprisingly when he got to know that I could drive, always asked me to drop him and his friend at the motor park to catch a commercial bus in order to save costs for their regular trips. He trusted me so much that he left his car in my custody whenever he travelled, despite the presence of numerous other Yoruba students in the school.
As forestry training exposes one to extensive field work, I visited many rural areas, which afforded me the opportunity to know more about the culture and traditions of the Yoruba, and of particular interest to me were two issues; leadership structure and dietary preference of the Yoruba people. My several visits to Dugbe, the main market in Ibadan coupled with the rural areas visited during practical trainings, made me realise that significant percentage of the food items sold in the South West markets were sourced from the North.
As for the leadership angle, there are striking similarities between the South West and the North in terms of respect for elders and rulers. While in the North the emirs were revered and highly respected, in the South West the obas were held in high esteem. Whatever one’s position in the society or however rich one is, the moment you are told that the oba or emir or Hama Bachama or Tor Tiv is calling you, you must respectfully answer the call with dispatch. Also, within a family setting or community, respect is accorded to someone older. Such is the beautiful cultural heritage of similarity between the South West and the North.
Another area of similarity is in the mode of dressing between northerners and the south-westerners. Traditionally, both have their men wearing three piece dress comprising trouser, jumper and agbada or babban riga with a cap to match, while the women tie wrapper with a blouse and a head tie. Here also, just as in the North, are large adherents of the Islamic religion.
Unfortunately, these years of shared cultural and religious similarities coupled with economic inter-dependence has come under threat lately which makes make me wonder how the dimensions of a break up as being pushed by very few regional irredentists from the South West, may take.
In a recent discussion with a big time maize farmer friend who partly resides in Ibadan, he narrated his experience to me on visiting a flour mill in the outskirts of Ibadan to negotiate the sale of his tonnage of maize from his farm in the North. He was amazed to see nearly a hundred trucks from the North at the gate waiting to off-load their maize in the factory, while similar number were waiting to evacuate the manufactured products from the same factory back to the North.
He noticed there were nearly five similar factories located in same neighbourhood, mostly processing fish feeds and other agro-products whose main source of raw materials are predominantly from the North. During further discussing with the management on why they prefer the maize from the North than that of the South, they responded that the maize from the North was of better texture and density – probably due to differences in climatic and soil factors.
It is a fact that northerners are predominantly agrarian in vocation and livelihood while in the South West they tend towards industrial production. While the North produces the raw materials and sends to the South (a wake-up call to the North), the South processes and sells the finished products to the North. Economically of course it is the South West that earns comparatively higher.
It is also worthy to note that the North constitutes over 100 million of Nigeria’s total population, probably equal to or more than the population of West African countries put together. Not only does the North provide a ready market, but also acts as the bridge for the haulage of Nigeria’s products across other African countries, such as Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Central African Republic and going up to Sudan. The unforeseen danger of a break up of Nigeria is the potential loss of these markets by the South West.
It is also important to note that the South West dominates the corporate sector to the disadvantage of other sections particularly the North, a fact which is not always highlighted in open national discourse. The economic benefits enjoyed through taxes and employment opportunities can better be imagined.
The North will also suffer loss of income in the event of a break up because the South West constitutes one of the markets for their products, and also one of the windows through which commodities are exported. This ugly preposition is therefore not in the interest of any group.
Break up of Nigeria as propagated by few uninformed youths in the South West without weighing the social, cultural and economic consequences of their actions, is to say the least unfortunate. However, my knowledge of the South West leaders and elders who are analytical in whatever action they take rekindles my hope of the indivisibility of the North and the South West.
Goni Ahmed, is the former Director-General, National Agency for the Great Green Wall