In 1989, then an undergraduate in Bayero University Kano, I joined a night J5 bus from Lagos to Kano. Most of the passengers were Yoruba. There were two of us who were vividly Northerners, a more elderly person and I. As the journey progressed, the Yoruba were discussing on National issues and I decided to comment. As I began to speak, they started clapping and laughing, “Mallam ya ji turanshi, Mallam ya ji turanshi!”. I had no option but to keep quiet and bear it. Those southerners were not speaking better English or following any rule of grammar or phonetics better than me. What was wrong with me was being a mallam who spoke with mallam’s accent.
What took me to Lagos was associated with a Chevron’s scholarship I enjoyed at that time. The advert for the scholarship was placed in the New Nigerian and Daily Times newspapers in March 1987 when I was in my first year of Electrical Engineering programme. Many of us applied from across Nigerian universities. There was an aptitude test that sieved away others and qualified us for the interview.
When he learned about the interview, a cousin who had already graduated lectured me about dealing with southerners who were controlling the oil companies. That I should dress corporate and as much as possible appear like them. He gave me a suit which he advised me to put on the interview date. I must say up to that point in my life I had never worn a suit. All my clothes were traditional. I thus felt very uncomfortable with his coat and decided to leave it in Kano while travelling to Lagos for the interview. My name is Abdussamad Umar. That was the name on the letter of invitation. That was also exactly me. If they liked they take me. If they liked they leave me. It was up to them. But no pretence, no change of dress and no change of accent.
That is how I appeared in my traditional kaftan when I entered the interview room in the Company’s building in Tinubu square. I had no doubt in my mind that I was well dressed, young and handsome. I looked every inch a Fulani boy even though I spoke no word of Fulfulde. I was told that we are Sullubawa, a special clan of Fulani people who do not speak the language. But when it comes to filling a form where tribe is required I always put Hausa which I speak. The Fulani can go home with their language. As far as I am concerned no human being is more special than another simply by belonging to a particular tribal group.
“Asshalamu alaikum”. That is what the chairman of the panel said to me as soon as I entered and even before he asked me to sit down. He was clad in his traditional Yoruba dress. Could he be a Muslim? I asked myself even as I replied, “Wa alaikumussalam warahmatullahi wa barakatuh”. He bore a Christian name, I understood that when he introduced himself. So there would be no religious solidarity.
The first part of the interview was introduction and it took more time than normal. Katsina state had just been created and there were many documentaries on it and its sister Akwa Ibom state created on the same day by Babangida administration. Kaduna state had 14 local governments, seven from the old Zazzau province and the other seven from the old Katsina province. The old Katsina province was made the new Katsina state while the other province was the new Kaduna state. The seven local governments were Katsina, Daura, Mani, Dutsinma, Kankia, Funtua and Malumfashi. Katsina local government was made up of what later became the six local governments of Katsina, Jibia, Kaita, Batagarawa, Rimi and Charanchi. “Are you from Dutsinma?” one of the panelists asked. “No sir. I am from Jibia”, I replied. “Is Jibia in Daura local Government?” another asked. “No sir. It is in Katsina Local Government”. They asked about the state and my feeling about its creation, etc.
With introduction over, technical questions followed. Somehow, all the questions asked were from my Ordinary level Physics and I answered them accurately. Thus, by the time I came out of that room I was sure that unless there was a mischief which is characteristic of some humans, I had passed the interview. I achieved two things. I earned respect for presenting myself as myself and answered the examinations questions correctly. Two months later, I received the award letter with the first cheque of first year. Twenty five successful names were later published in the New Nigerian and Daily Times by the company. I was the only one from Bayero University and the only one from the new state of Katsina.
This journey in which Yoruba youth mocked at me was in connection with a cheque I missed. They sent it by a registered mail but because I missed the slip the cheque was returned. They later wrote another letter requesting me to come to Lagos and collect it. The journey from Kano to Lagos and back would cost me sixty Naira and the money to be collected was two thousand naira. So it was okay.
This is how we have been tolerating southerners in our country. Once you are a Northerner, you have no right to speak English. The only sin of Dr. M. T. Liman, Abatcha’s minister of Education, for example, was speaking with Northern accent. Of course he said many unsavory things about Lecturers but his predecessor Prof. Nwabueze did worse. At the end of the day M. T. Liman was nicknamed, “empty–lay-man” by some Southerners and some Northerners foolishly echoed.
With my experiences I have since decided not to worry about the way a person speaks and whether or not they speak good English. The Chinese we rely upon today to produce cheap products for us do not speak good English when they speak it. Most of us in Northern Nigeria speak English the way we hear the Southerners speak it.
Do southerners speak with Queen’s accent?
President Buhari has been in power for five years now and many people have decided to mock him at every point he speaks in his natural way. They expect him to speak like a Yoruba or Igbo man. Sadly, some of the mockery comes from his supposed children and grandchildren in the North. What the young Northerners mocking at him do not know is that southerners would do same to any of their favourite Northern politicians be it Kwankwaso, Bafarawa, Zulum or any other.
Professor Jibia writes from Kano