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Nigeria with artificial internal boundaries – Football to the rescue

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Segun Odegbami

This is the story of a young man called Babankura! He is a breath of fresh air. I am not so sure how old because when I met him he did not come with a birth certificate.

He was brought to my school in Wasimi some 5 years ago. He must have been about 15 or so. He was one of 5 boys sponsored to the school by the governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima, to continue their education that had been prematurely truncated by the Boko Haram insurgency.

It was my idea to conduct an experiment with some of the affected children from that part of the country that were victims of the insurgency. Even without the insurgency that part of the country is known to have the highest concentration of illiterates and out-of-school children in the world. With the insurgency the situation was worse.

The meaning of Boko Haram is ‘Western Education forbidden’. The insurgents are up in arms against Western Education.

My thinking was that the agitators believed that Western Education is a tool used to indoctrinate Muslim children into the Christian faith, hence western education is forbidden. Yet, I am convinced that the way the world is structured now, makes education, of which western education is a strong component, key to development and advancement.

I grew up in Northern Nigeria and had a proper grounding in western education. So what could have changed in recent times to create this morbid fear that has led to the creation of, probably, Nigeria’s worst internal crisis in the country’s history?

I attended Catholic primary and secondary schools. Although I was a Christian, many of my classmates and schoolmates were Muslims, and throughout our years together in school our faiths were never topics of conversation or discussion. Everyone practiced their different religions. And that’s in Northern Nigeria of those days!

Yakubu Ibn Mohammed, the present Director General of the Nigeria Television Authority is a living example of a Muslim student that went through a Catholic school and ended up as devout Muslim today as he was when we were both students in St. Murumba College, Jos, our faith completely unaffected by the Western education we received.

So, in my personal experience I knew that missionary schools (Muslim or Christian) in those days did not even try to convert students to their faith. They encouraged students to embrace their faith more through the examples they set than in the doctrines they preached.

When I moved to Ibadan in the 1970s, what I saw and experienced in the South West of Nigeria was even more pleasantly baffling.  There were all kinds of schools owned and run by missionaries and religious associations – Christian and Muslim alike.  The schools existed side by side. They enrolled students of both faiths without discrimination even though there could have been some subtle ineffective quota system to ensure that more of one faith got admitted than the other (I am not even sure if that was the case).

Muslim students in Christian schools remained Muslim students after school, and Christian students in Muslim schools remained Christians afterwards, despite the two religions being taught as examinable subjects in both kinds of schools.

In the South West I saw a perfect demonstration of how religion is a personal choice particularly within the educational system. Christians and Muslim children lived and went to school without an iota of discrimination or indoctrination. Each to their own private faith!

That’s why I believe the rest of the world should come to the South West of Nigeria to learn how the challenge of religion is being solved, and to understand how my mother, an original Muslim, could marry my father, a Christian, and they would bear children who chose to follow faiths or spiritual beliefs of their choice. We lived together under one roof and there was not one day of discussion, or conflict, or disagreement about options, or even what anyone of us would practice as our faith.

A cousin of my generation is a Muslim cleric. His wife (now late) was a prophetess in a White-garment church. Their first son is a Muslim. Their first daughter is a staunch member of the Deeper Life Church.  They all lived together in Mushin, in the same house, each practicing their faith happily and freely.

This was the reality that existed around me when I arrived Ibadan. Everywhere in the South West of Nigeria I continue to see and experience a unique, peaceful co-existence of people of every faith, particularly the youths, devoid of the crisis of religious difference.

So, when I set up my sports academy that doubles as a full fletched secondary school, I had no doubt whatsoever that it would never be a school that would promote any particular faith, but one that would teach a common humanity and give to each and every student the independence to make their choice and freely practice it.

When I approached the governor of Borno State and suggested that he sent a few out-of-school students, victims of the Boko Haram insurgency, to my school I allayed his fears about indoctrination into Christianity by Western Education.

He sent five students who had completed their junior secondary school in Maiduguri and were idle at home following closure of their schools, but who were passionate about pursuing a football career.  The power of football buried their fear and lured them to Wasimi. BabanKura was one of the five.

When they arrived the school I could see apprehension written all over their faces. None of them had ever left that part of the country. They had been told stories of how western education was an undiluted indoctrination tool into forbidding ways and Christianity, both inimical to a good Islamic life.

I did not need to do anything to allay their fears. The environment did all the ‘talking’. They found in the Wasimi community a rock-solid Islamic practice with lots of Muslims even amongst the students.

They spent three years in the school. There was never a moment of religious teaching to force them away from their faith. Three of them sat for their WAEC examinations and passed well to be admitted into tertiary institutions where they are still pursuing their academics and playing their football.

The other two including Babankura, because of the low standard of their junior secondary education where they were coming from, still needed another year to be able to sit and hope to pass the exams.

All are still as Muslim as they were before they came down south for the first time five years ago.

In the past few weeks Babankura has returned to the South West on his own and has settled down in Lagos into the Cowbell Academy run by my friend, Godwin Dudu Orumen.

Dudu told me the other day that Babankura has developed into a very confident well-grounded young man, still practicing his faith without fear and developing into (in Dudu’s words) ‘one of the best crossers of the ball in the academy’. Dudu tells me that Babankura’s football skills are amazing.

Babankura’s return makes me happy.  He came back to the South West of Nigeria on his own volition, without the fear of religious indoctrination, without the fear of a negative impact of western education on his beliefs, issues that are driving a whole population of misguided youths in the North East of Nigeria to maniacal levels of insanity and senseless suicide.

Babankura’s return, insignificant as it may seem, is a pointer into the future. Our youths must start to sing a new song of hope and of a united Nigeria without artificial boundaries.

Nigeria has been in a warp since it went to war some 50 years ago, serving a long ‘prison’ sentence for the crimes of bad policies and politics, wanton corruption, religious conflict, ethno-centrism, and the worst attitude to western education.

The country and its youths must get out of that mental prison to be able to see the humongous opportunities ahead.

Babankura is an example of what can be achieved using sports to create the possibility of a Nigeria without any artificial internal boundaries, particularly those of religion and western education!



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