The Passport of Mallam El-Rufai


The title of this column was inspired by one of my favourite books as a child called The Passport of Mallam Ilia, written by Cyprian Ekwensi.

A young man on a train to Northern Nigeria wants to meet his mother, Dije and unearth the whereabouts of his father. There, he runs into an old man with an equally worn out passport. They start talking. The young man listens while Mallam Ilia, the old man, would be the novel's principal protagonist.

Bear with me as the plot of this great book needs some telling. The Passport of Mallam Ilia was written and set in colonial times, and Mallam Ilia by his own accounts was a hot-head, a travelling man who abhorred convention. When the time came to marry, Mallam Ilia “did not consider it gallant merely to 'buy' or 'take on' a wife.” And so his chance came one evening when roaming Arab traders challenged a young Mallam Ilia and others to a game of Sanchi to win Zarah, the beautiful daughter of Kanemi, the Prince of the Tuaregs.

Shanchi was the equivalent of Rome's gladiator matches. The men were warned that 'some of you here will not breathe tomorrow's air. For this night, Shanchi may claim you.'

But Mallam Ilia fought till he faced Usman (or was it Adamu?), the last contender. Rather than kill his opponent, Illia left him wounded. The burly man would never forget, and sent Ilia to prison, before killing Zara and fleeing. Mallam Ilia devoted the rest of his life to pursuing Usman, seeking revenge. Along the way there were bright spots; he married a woman called Dije and when she got pregnant, he gifted her with a talisman.

Mallam Ilia, though ailing, finally got his revenge on the same train where he recounted the story with his last breath. It also happened that the young lad was his son, the same one fathered with Dije.

I find that in many ways, The Passport of Mallam Ilia reminds me of another Mallam…Nasir El-Rufai.

Mallam Ilia's travelling is similar to Mallam El-Rufai's political journey, one which started from a point called “accidental civil servant,” has moved on through “certified ruffler of feathers” and may well have “intentional government heckler” as its final destination.

When you remember that both men from different generations struck a conversation on a journey and the younger man becomes a notable character himself, you will be forgiven for thinking the young man who chats up Mallam Ilia is the same as Japheth Omojuwa, Mallam El-Rufai's understudy of sorts on Twitter.

In fact, when the distinguished Mallam got into an argument on Twitter with presidential spokesperson Reuben Abati over the government's aircraft fleet, Omojuwa jumped in with: “Dr. Reuben is a frustrated man. He needs to find a Jacuzzi or find a good spa. You need a holiday sir.”

Which got a prompt retweet from Mallam El-Rufai. Great back and forth between generations on a train called Twitter, as with Ekwensi's masterpiece.

Speaking of Twitter, more often than not Mallam El-Rufai's utterances and retweets therein would confer instant playground status on the menacing game of Sanchi described by Ekwensi.

Where Mallam Illia used knives and weapons, Mallam El-Rufai uses words to hack away at the opponents he has even dubbed “Jonathians.”

A tame sample of his recent gems:
Mallam has also retweeted posts that drew strong criticism from Christians. He apologised over one such retweet, in January 2013.

All the bodacious achievements Mallam El-Rufai had during his time in government I now struggle to remember…this is because he is constantly coming off as intentionally divisive, vengeful and petty on Twitter, with words that are often as uncharitable as they are needlessly sensational. This sad development is something which makes me both wary and mindful that I can barely remember much about how Mallam Ilia started, but I am struck by how he ended; poisoned and dying, in a hurtling train carriage.

In effect Twitter and Facebook, those fleeting yet enduring bastions of social media, are turning out to be The Passport of Mallam El-Rufai to a downward spiral of disrepute.

The Passport of Mallam Ilia was about revenge, and how one man was consumed in his quest for it. In the end though he avenged his wife, his actions meant a son lost his father.

I am not sure what the “Zarah” or ultimate prize is that drives this Twitter and Facebook “Shanchi” bouts between Nigeria's politicians, with their hangers-on aka protegees and aides feeding off of it. Not sure which “Kanemi, Prince of the Tuaregs” is pulling the strings in the background to ensure this shameful spectacle continues…but it is clear all this will end in tragedy.

The message will remain lost, and though the messenger(s) may put up a damn good show, they will never leave the fast moving train “alive.”

Worse off, those in the coming generation misguided enough to pitch their compasses on this same path are guaranteed to perpetuate the same culture of vengeful speech which blights clarity in our national debate, online and offline.

Knock yourselves out why don't you.