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Our Sheikh Gumi Problem

What, however, began as an admittedly unsponsored intervention has been ruined by the Sheikh’s method

“He comes into this struggle for peace with a clear-eyed perspective and a very strong conviction,” wrote Professor Usman Yusuf about his medical school mate and friend, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, with whom he had been traversing the crevices of bandits to understand their perceived grievances and attempt to secure them amnesty from the government. Professor Yusuf’s Op-Ed, published on various online platforms, was a bid to emphasize that  “Sheikh Gumi’s peace initiative is not at the behest of or sponsored by any government or group.”

What, however, began as an admittedly unsponsored intervention has been ruined by the Sheikh’s method.  At first, his utterances in the media seem like attempts to appeal to the sentiments of the bandits, and that he merely said what those rural devils wanted to hear just to earn their trust. But his persistence, despite the unpleasant reactions, has confirmed that the Sheikh is much more than what his patronizing friend wrote.

The travelogue of Usman Yusuf, a professor of Haematology-Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplantation and former Executive Secretary of National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), introduced us to the streak of risks the duo overcame in establishing contacts with bandits and creating a channel of conversations around the question of amnesty. But, one may wonder, why are they doing this? “Curbing insecurity is the responsibility of all Nigerians and not the exclusive preserve of the government or the security agencies,” said the professor, and then embarked on a lecture on the sociology of the Fulani and why we must stop enduring the costly lie that the bandits are foreigners as propagated in several conspiracy theories.

But the professor’s beautiful portrait of Sheikh Gumi as a mediator ashamed of the bandits doesn’t fit this unravelling danger jumping from one TV station to another in what seems like a strategized public relations stunt for the bandits. On Arise TV, he warned against the press describing the bandits as criminals and then accused the press too of being criminals for simply practising their journalism, which requires them to describe a bandit as any “robber or outlaw belonging to a gang and typically operating in an isolated area.” Sheikh Gumi had angered the nation before this explosion, when a video of his meeting with the bandits emerged, and he was heard telling them that “In the military, there are Christians and Muslims; the Christians in the military are the ones killing you (bandits) to cause problems.”

Luckily, Gumi wasn’t the only courageous civilian to meet the bandits and return with interesting tales. In pursuit of a firsthand account of the bandits operating in Zamfara, which has been their headquarters, my good friend and award-winning  investigative journalist, Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, captured the realities of affairs in the ungoverned areas for Daily Trust newspaper. On his Facebook, he shared an amusing snippet of his encounter to solve the Gumi problem: ‘Sheikh Gumi’s forceful “image laundering” for the bandits runs parallel to their own image of themselves,’ he wrote, and then: “As we were planning to leave their enclave on Monday, Kachalla Halilu, the renowned bandit called me aside. He wanted to be sure I got a proper designation for him: ‘shugaban ’yan ta’addan Arewa’ he said. His lieutenant, who Halilu beckoned, emphasised that in English. “He is leader of all terrorists. Na him be leader.”’

Both Yusuf’s and Abdulaziz’s accounts present the image of statelessness the government has refused to acknowledge, that Nigeria lacks the monopoly of violence in the “occupied territories.” That private citizens have such access to bandits, a mission that seems like solving Rubik’s cube to our security agencies, amplifies the helplessness of the Nigerian state even more.

Even though Sheikh Gumi has undone himself, and let down even those who’ve given him benefit of the doubt, we must never miss that he’s merely an invention of Nigeria’s dysfunction. He stepped in because the government was demonstrably incapable of solving this puzzle. If  banditry had ceased after disbursing billions of Naira through amnesty programmes, there wouldn’t have been Sheikh Gumi. Unfortunately, after his divisive commentaries, he’s reassured Nigerians that he’s not the man to cure the migraine of this diverse nation.

It’s curious that the same Sheikh who once described the Shiite members of Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky-led Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IIMN) as delinquents after a confrontation with the Army in 2014, has suddenly developed a sensitivity to profiling parties in a conflict. The Shiites, whose offence then was traffic obstruction during their periodic Quds Day procession, lost over 30 members, including three sons of their leader in what the Army called self-defence. The repeat of this massacre on a large scale a year later got benign citizens to pause and reflect on the motive of these extrajudicial mass killings.

Sheikh Gumi’s stance on the crackdown on Shiites is a contrasting opposite of the dangerous pacifism he preaches today. In his letter to Sheikh El-Zakzaky then, in which he accused him of running a parallel government, he wrote that “The delinquency of your followers and the disturbance of public peace is what make you and them an easy target of the authority (sic).” That he justified the animalization of those Shiites and yet quick to launder the image of bandits who had destroyed lives and livelihoods—and whose territory he had to seek permission to visit—is a legitimate reason for Nigerians to ask questions.

But those questions he has mostly answered in his humanizing of the bandits.     As the backlash trended, he still made a case for the bandits when over 300 schoolgirls were abducted at Government Girl’s Secondary School, Jengebe, Zamfara State, on Friday. In a phone interview with The Nation newspaper, he was quoted as saying that the bandits he met “are not the ones that abducted the girls. It is a splinter group.” This is the job that should be left for the spokesperson of the group.

If anyone has access to Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, it’s not too late to advise him to stop digging. He’s done enough, enough damage to himself. Bandits are not the freedom fighters he portrays in his disturbing interviews, they are murderers and thieves. That a man with such a huge platform is legitimizing criminals who’ve destroyed lives and livelihoods under our watch, is just disheartening.

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