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Long walks to freedom? Nigerians hit the road for Buhari




When Muhammadu Buhari was elected as Nigeria’s next president two months ago, it sparked wild celebrations on the streets that lasted for days, particularly in his northern stronghold.

For 33-year-old construction company worker Suleiman Hashimu, the country’s first ever victory by an opposition party prompted a more unusual response: to walk half way across the country.

“Two years ago, I made a promise to God that should General Buhari win the 2015 presidential election, I would trek from Lagos to Abuja to celebrate his victory,” Hashimu told AFP.

The 750-kilometre (470-mile) trek from the Atlantic coast in the southwest took him through difficult terrain and robber-infested roads, with just a knapsack on his back, some toiletries and cash.

He reached the capital on April 20, 18 days after setting out, earning him widespread publicity and a meeting with his political hero, who formally takes over the reigns of power on Friday.

“At one point I felt like giving up,” said Haishimu, describing the journey as “stressful and energy sapping”. But he made friends along the way, who offered him accommodation, food and drink.

Residents of the six states he met during the walk also gave him something else to take to the capital: special requests to the incoming president for Haishimu to pass on.

“I feel happy and fulfilled to have made the journey and for being the first at it,” he said.

“It has made me know and feel the daily plight and aspirations of the masses. I intend to take up these issues with Buhari at our next meeting.”

– ‘Chief Trekker of Gwoza’-

Haishimu’s walk was not a one-off. Instead, it has sparked copy cats, whether to celebrate Buhari’s victory, his opponent’s acceptance of defeat and even military success against Boko Haram.

In the past three weeks alone at least a dozen other people, including a woman and a man with no arms, have announced or embarked on their own walks.

Adams Afolabi Ndabagi, 28, walked 100 kilometres to honour political godfather Bola Tinubu, who founded and heads Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) party.

“I trekked from Abeokuta (capital of southwestern Ogun state) to Lagos to celebrate the change that Nigerians have craved for and the major role Bola Tinuba played in democracy,” he said.

Ibrahim Musa, 30, whose two arms have been amputated, is making the trip from the northern city of Kaduna to Abuja to urge the government to pay more attention to disabled people.

Paul Tankwa, 35, is heading more than 700 kilometres from Jalingo, in northeastern Taraba state, to outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan’s home village of Otuoke in southern Bayelsa state, to honour him for conceding defeat.

Ibrahim Mairiga took 11 days to walk some 450 kilometres from Jalingo to the Borno state capital Maiduguri to thank soldiers for liberating his home town of Gwoza from Boko Haram insurgents.

The 30-year-old was forced to flee the town, which the militants made their headquarters, but has since been rewarded with 250,000 naira ($1,300, 1,110 euros) and a new car for his efforts.

He was also given the title “Chief Trekker of Gwoza”.

– Political activism –

With no specific goal to the walks such as charity fund-raising, some critics have dismissed those involved as mere attention-seekers.

“Soon an agency or ministry to handle trekking affairs will be created,” scoffed television presenter Jennifer Uloma Igwe, from state broadcaster NTA.

“Maybe a minister of trekking and ‘copy-copy’ matters will be appointed. The rate at which more Nigerians are embarking on this trekking for Buhari is becoming irritating.”

But for others, the phenomenon is a novel form of political campaigning and a way of drawing attention to the many issues Buhari needs to address when he becomes president.

Nigerians have not been known as great protesters or campaigners because of decades of military rule and a realisation that with corruption rampant it wouldn’t make much difference anyway.

“It’s a form of activism that is new and plausible,” said Lagos human rights lawyer Jiti Ogunye.

“That people are showing their political ecstasy for a democratic issue is laudable.

“It may symbolise the proverbial ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ as titled by Nelson Mandela in his book of that name. For the trekkers, it is their way of expressing their freedom.”

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