Let us take a break today and say something about this column, the way I see it and run it.
On a visit to Kaduna in February last year, my attention was drawn for the first time to a publication called Weekly Trust. That was several months after its debut. I had earlier boycotted our local news media because of their sectional bias and poor content. I was glad to learn that the Weekly Trust was established and edited by a former colleague and another academician in Diaspora. After finding that copy interesting, I immediately felt that he deserved to be congratulated on his noble initiative an effort.
So I visited his office along Alkali Rd. As a personal contribution, I promised to be sending some contributions from time to time. However, he immediately suggested something I thought then was too big. He said: “Sheikh, why not a column?” (For those who do not know, ‘Sheikh’ is my ‘Toronto’ name that was actually coined in 1977 from my surname–Shehu. Two things made me drop it officially in 1985 but retained Usman and added Tilde to avoid an ‘Evan or Evans’ situation. One, it was often mistaken for mine. Two, my late ‘old man’, the real owner of the name, was disappointed that I am not growing towards being a real sheikh, contrary to his expectations. He once said: “Gashi kuma ana kiranka Sheikh kana amsawa.” But the name has refused to disappear especially among my good old friends and colleagues. I hope it will not one day be a ‘Tinubu affair’. Thank God I am not a politician.)
I am sorry for the digression. The column today will be loose. I promptly declined the challenge from the editor, knowing very well my numerous shortcomings. It has been ten years since I wrote for public consumption. The struggle to survive has for the past eight years preoccupied my brain. After all, deep inside me I knew, and do so still to the extent of belief, that I neither possess the terrorizing vocabulary of columnists nor their incisive analytical proficiency. Sometimes I hardly understand them.
I might have even quoted for the editor a Tradition of the Prophet that I often use as an escape route under such circumstances. It says: “May God have mercy on his servant: he (the servant) knew the limits of his ability and stood by them.” That dose of authority was enough to make the editor give up on his demand for a column. So before I left him, we agreed to defer the matter for a while. The contributions would be welcome meanwhile.
On my return home I tried to write some articles with a lot of difficulty though. First was Recalling the Past at A. B. U. Then others like P.T.F. before Crucifixion, Death of Magog and so on followed. I noticed that sometimes the editor is stampeded with contributions. Mine, like those of others, had to wait longer than I wished. That started to daunt my interest in writing that gradually picking up again. And since I am not much gifted with patience, I started to give the idea of a column a second thought. It will be the best option that would guarantee continuity and independence. What else could be better for a ‘runaway’ academician?
When I reasoned that man could be forgiven for attempting and failing but not for declining to attempt at all, I approached the editor to convince him that I am ready for a column. But I insisted on a full page because I am ordinarily a verbose and clamorous person. He agreed. I gave him a copy of the series Living under Siege and off we went. Mahaukaci ya hau kura!
Since the debut of the column mid-last year, I have tried to keep my words, even if it means writing rubbish sometimes. While the editor feared that my sea would soon dry as it happened with others before me I feared that aluta would force me to default. Readers might have noticed that I avoided both calamities by cleverly choosing to broaden the topical base of the column. Today it is politics, tomorrow education, then history, science, sociology, religion and so on. It is not that difficult in Nigeria. This is a country in decline with several interests engaged in a ceaseless entertaining political battles and drama.
For example, the President, Uncle Sege, was there with his policies that took some by surprise, including myself, sometimes creating a lot of fun. I tried to follow him. But I had to abandon him when it became clear that he will end up not much different from his predecessors. He shattered our hope for integration when it was at its peak. He promised that there will be no scapegoats but it is clear that he has created many in addition to the previous ones. His policies on the economy have portrayed his eagerness to satisfy the World Bank, the IMF and other suckers. Corruption, insecurity, ethnic butchery and unemployment have not changed for the better. Amidst these shortcomings, the regime is contemplating of hiking the prices of petroleum products. This lethal concoction of ‘Babangidanomics’ and ‘maradonism’, discouraging as it is, continued to create opportunities for noise making for a while. I am yet to be proved wrong on my stand that the President has already failed, and woefully for that matter. The praises from the southern press are gradually decelerating to a standstill. Newswatch has started with Uncle Bola. They are welcome.
Sometimes I forget that this is a newspaper column and some articles become very unwieldy. This is partly another strategy to avoid drying the sea. It could also be an attempt to avoid ambiguity. But largely it is a way to cover up for my textual imprecision. Imagine Rights of Our Women run in six gruesome parts coming after Living under Siege and Re-educating the North, each in three. I often wonder when readers say they find them interesting. May be they did not know the trick of my magic. A disadvantage of these ponderous articles is that some opportunities on our national political theater would pass unutilized. Imagine delicious sagas like the Buhari-Enwerem-gates. My wide mouth said nothing about them. Only Tinubu got a soft touch.
The shariah debate took me off-guard. From time to time, I had has to go back on the issue in order to put up a defense or launch another offensive. It has not ceased to preoccupy our minds. Occasions like Christmas and the new millennium are always handy especially when one of them comes once in a thousand years.
This year will as usual come with its controversies and opportunities. We shall treat them as they do so. One of them for sure will be on restructuring the federation. In addition, we shall continue to scout for topics of interest to our immediate environment. The tricks may not cease after all.
Once a while I travel out to Kaduna or other nearby towns. There I would often meet with my readers. On many occasions they will cease the opportunity to express their approval of the views expressed in the column. The same thing with those who sent their comments by mail or telephone calls through the Weekly Trust office in Kaduna or to my office in Jos.
I am really surprised at their level of interest. The usual explanation I proffer is that both the newspaper and the column might have come at a peculiarly discouraging time in the history of politics in Northern Nigeria. We are thirsty for a press that will blow our trumpet. We have finally and painfully realized that other section of the country that owns the existing press is busy blowing theirs, to borrow humor from the late Sardauna. As a result people do welcome even the trash published in page 14 of the Weekly Trust. I am hopeful that if the situation improves, there will be numerous columns in other northern newspapers that will be better than Friday Discourse in addition to the already existing ones. I will then promote myself to the status of a reader. That will spare me the hazard of going public weekly. My views will then remain purely mine, correct or wrong as they might be.
The reactions I am most interested in comes from those who are critical and do so in writing. Bravo to Sani Yola! He sent a small peace critical of the second part of the Rights of Our Women. I know his taste now. If I had known his address I would have sent him this poem. It is different from the one he was a bit bitter about. Let him enjoy reading a husband that once generously described his wife in the following words:
“I see men beating their wives
But my hand declined to beat Zainab.
Should I beat her for no sin committed?
Would it be just of me beating the innocent?
Alas, Zainab is like the sun;
Other women are stars.
Once she rises, no star will be seen.
I hope we will some day reach this level in relating to our wives. I agree that Muslim women do have more rights than many others in this country. But there is a wide room for improvement. It is a journey of a thousand kilometers, and we have covered only twenty. It will interest Yola to know that this was the motive behind the series. I am glad also with another brother who tried to convince me that despite the sufferings of the girl child as depicted in that article, matrimony is still the best option the society can offer her. I listened attentively, surprised that he was persuading the Pope to be catholic!
Another brother sent in a good contribution from Zaria on our women, shariah and restructuring. One other person would have equally gained my appreciation had he not turned personal and abusive midway in his rejoinder. He alleged that I am paid to make noise in the newspaper. God knows best. Allah ya isa. I will not be intimidated by the bigotry that would like to deny us our divine right of expression. I will rather refer the brother to the Exegesis of Kitab at-tasheel of Mohammad Ahmad bin Juzay al-Kilabiy. In his commentary on the last verse of chapter al-Falaq the author has quoted some excellent poetry that will help cure the sickness of the brother in question.
Many other readers might have decided to keep silent, though disagreeing with my views. Some fear that I will explode on their face. No. Such people are not doing the public any good either. Newspapers have an incredibly wide circulation. Any wrong opinion that is allowed to go unchallenged will be swallowed by majority of readers. It will settle in their subconscious and unavoidably influence their behavior. So to correct them is a divine responsibility. Please feel free.
I therefore look forward to the day when such brothers, distinguished teachers, scholars and respectable readers will send not only commendations but also some constructive criticisms. Once I find them helpful, I will be glad to publish them no matter their length. I believe there are hundreds of such able contributors. What the Weekly Trust family detests generally is abusive language that some of us are so fond of. It is unfortunate to say that this is common with reactions of some few readers on religious matters. Some of them feel that once a comment on a religious matter sounds contrary to their opinion, it is their spiritual obligation to let hell loose on the entire newspaper, even if it was just an opinion of another reader.
It is not peculiar to Nigerians. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi, a respectable scholar throughout the Muslim World, is often confronted with the same thuggery on his weekly program Shariah wa al-Hayat in Qatar. He almost lost his temper before his audience on one of such numerous occasions. Religion, in my shortsighted view, teaches us to be civil and polite. God regards abusive language as fusuq.
I have told the chief editor of Weekly Trust that what I like best with his newspaper is that it does not suppress ideas of contributors. This goes a long way to prove how independent the newspaper is. I was therefore glad for example when God Save Us from ‘Religious’ Laws of Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim was published as a lead comment some weeks ago. Why should his anti-shariah opinion be suppressed? He has expressed his support for secularism, firing a ballistic into our camp. We will squeeze some time to retaliate, perhaps next week. I am suggesting a missile commensurate with his own, like “God Save Us from Secular Laws.” That is dialoguing, the chief tool of the Quran. God instructs us to use it in relating with people of different opinions.
The Art of Writing
People often feel that writing is difficult. I do not find it funny either. Like any other thing, it requires effort. The reader who is not a regular writer may have to set aside some hours amidst his tight schedule to scribble something. The opening sentences may be difficult. But with enough motivation and a sense of mission subsequent ones usually become easier.
The draft may not be very interesting to its author. He may even consider it not worth publishing. Think about it overnight and return to it early in the morning when the brain is fresh. Try to rephrase it where necessary. Polish it with some humor if possible. Finally edit it over and again to rid it of editing, spelling and grammatical errors. I hate writing in haste because it does not afford me the opportunity for self-criticism and thorough correction of the draft. I often feel bad whenever I notice that an error has reached the reader unedited. In writing columns however, urgency is many times unavoidable.
In as much as we would not like to offend our dear readers with bizarre errors, perfection is not an attribute of a mortal. So please let them bear with us. Diya ad-Din, Sidi Khalil bin Ishaq has said in the introduction of his celebrated Precis of Jurisprudence (Mukhtasar), that “few writings are above reproach and few authors have written and not made mistakes.” May God elevate us to the station of humility of our humble predecessors!
I would like to express my profound gratitude to the editor that allowed me a full page every week to make some noise in this weekly. I am also grateful to his staff. They have always cooperated with me anytime I visit the office in Kaduna. My gratitude also goes to the many friends whose comments have served as inspiration to the column. I am also grateful to those readers that called me on phone or personally at home to express their opinions about its contents. They have unknowingly played the role of moderators.
Others have written the editor or myself. I have found their comments invaluable. A whole engineer from Funtua spared his time to send me the “I Love and Support Shariah” sticker. Unfortunately, I do not have a chemistry or space for stickers generally. All the same I am grateful to him. Finally, I remember the sister that wrote me from Kinkino Rd., Kaduna after we concluded Rights of Our Women. Her comment on the content of the series and the position of women made me their partner in tears.
I will not be wrong if I would say that a small family is emerging out of this column and a greater one out of Weekly Trust. Let us work hard and keep in touch to sustain it. With your strong interest, critical comments and invaluable contributions the performance this year will certainly be better. The sea may not dry fast, though not without the usual tricks. Above all, please overlook and forgive all mistakes as a famous poet, Nabighah, who once said:
“My soul is a ransom for the person
Who, when I come to him,
Will accept my virtue and overlook my defects.”