The news came in trickles. First, it was said a Nigerian may have been lost in the stampede at a Holy site during the Pilgrimage. It was one Professor. Then, it seemed some judges had also been lost. At some point, when I called a friend to ask how the Sallah celebration was going, I was told the joy of the day had been dampened by news Bilikisu Yussuf was among the dead. Oh no, I screamed, not her. Not long after, I heard that professor was not just some professor; it was Tijani El Miskin, who, along with several others, I had a fabulous time with, as graduate student in the United States from 1979 through 1982. 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 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 affirms, 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 effort, in multilateral institutions, for example, to fight poverty, threat to the environment, which fights back with consequences from global warming, and Terrorism that mindlessly targets the innocent.
As I wrote this, the breaking news came that bombs had gone off in Kuje market and Police Station, in Abuja, the Nigerian federal capital, an unwelcome return after a hiatus during which the UN 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 colour commentary on these people I knew so well.
How would I forget Tijani 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 post-graduate students at different stages of working on PhD degrees, the apartment 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 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 the ultimate Bohemian, I used to say. Hardly the athletic type, he would suddenly wonder past and call out to one of the Ethiopians, not by her name but the name of her tribe. Tigre, he would call as he passed, and we knew we would soon lose the company of one whose looks could account for several of the men being of good behavior during the game. I would typically look at Gidado, who as Professor Tahir, many years later would serve as Executive Secretary of the UBE scheme, we would smile and fall into consolation of a depleted stock of the other gender on the teams. Had Tom Adaba and Matt Mogekwu not left just before that long hot summer, I could have imagined them running colour commentary on the game, and dragging Tijani into that part of the sport.
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, Bilikisu Yussuf was comfortable with a strong voice. I still remember the eve of October 1, 1998. General 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 1980s and 1990s people.
As with natural selection, those few sat together for lunch that afternoon at Gateway Hotel in Otta. 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 Tijani el Miskin and Bilikisu Yussuf, I wish so deeply that a civilization 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.
Pat Utomi, Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship, is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.