Stanley Azuakola profiles Kashim Shettima: The Comforter-in-chief (Y!/YNaija Person of the Year 2016 Nominee)

In late September 2016, the governor of Borno state, Kashim Shettima, gathered his closest aides and relocated to Bama town, 70 kilometres from Maiduguri, the state capital, with one promise — to remain there until “a good number” of buildings, schools, clinics and markets destroyed by Boko Haram had been rebuilt.

Bama is Borno’s second most important town after Maiduguri. When it was captured by Boko Haram in September 2014, it became their most prized possession. By the time, the Nigerian military regained control and lowered the flag of the terrorists in March 2015, 80 per cent of the town lay in complete ruin.

Shettima’s inspired temporary relocation to Bama was a marker to the rest of the world that Borno is finding its feet again. That it does not intend to remain the object of pity for much longer. It would rebuild and rehabilitate and resettle its people.

Due to the sudden death of one of his commissioners, Shettima ended up spending just one week in Bama: coordinating cleanup of the streets, fumigating, ensuring the return of security personnel, reconstructing schools, parks, houses and health centres. But his intent and industry were clear and everyone noticed.

There’s no manual for leading a state at the epicentre of an unpredictable terror onslaught. For some time, Shettima despaired as village after village, town after town, and entire local government areas in his state came under Boko Haram control.

But as the military found their might, Shettima brought his head above water and is determined to raise his people with him. “What we are facing in Borno is a temporary eclipse of the sun,” Shettima said. “Very soon the Borno sun will start shining once again.”

Kashim if you can

Shettima is in a hurry. Sometimes it feels as though the governor works round the clock, starting as early as 6am with inspection of construction projects. Across the breadth of the state, massive works projects are ongoing which are not being reported as widely as the stories of the major challenges which continue to trouble Borno. Boreholes are being sunk; irrigation facilities being provided; barracks, schools, markets and clinics being constructed; displaced persons going back home.

Shettima believes there is a danger that the government and development partners may become too “fixated” with the camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). While the camps are “critical lifelines” and the conditions in some of the camps unacceptable, the governor says it is time to think about the future — to restore the dignity of displaced persons by fixing their destroyed communities and ensuring safe and voluntary return.

The National Universities Commission (NUC) in November approved commencement of academic activities for the Borno State University, constructed by the governor, which is expected to resume in the first quarter of 2017. Shettima is already talking about building a second university.

As the rebuilding phase progresses in Borno, Shettima has had to draw on his armoury of experience as a former banker and general manager in a top commercial bank, former commissioner of finance, local government affairs, health, agriculture and education at various times, showing an impressive knowledge of the issues at stake and expressing a clear vision of the Borno he wants to leave behind. “Borno has no business being poor. The kind of things we will unleash on the state in the next six months will be unparalleled in the history of this country,” he told a group recently.

Comforter-in-chief

One of Shettima’s major responsibilities has been that of “comforter-in-chief.” It is his lot to look in the eyes of thousands of orphans and widows, injured and broken, and assure them that there is hope yet. It’s his place to comfort survivors of the blasts which ripped homes and settlements across the state, terminating lives and maiming flesh. And he has played the role admirably, quite unlike any other politician in recent times. After all this is a country where a former president told victims of a bomb blast to shut up as he did not have to be with them, and yet another president chose to dance away at a political rally less than 24 hours after scores of young boys were slaughtered in their school hostel. Empathy isn’t the strong suit of the average Nigerian politician – but Shettima isn’t average.

“Adversity like the Boko Haram carnage isn’t the worst affliction,” the governor told a visiting European Union delegation in November. “The worst affliction is to lack who shares in your pains; to lack who shows compassion and to lack who offers a helping hand.”

For the people of Borno, he has decided to be that man.

Losing yourself

One difficult conundrum for the government of Borno is that it needs all the help it can get but can hardly get good hands to come in because of the security challenges.

In November, about 1400 corps members were posted to Borno state. At their orientation camp in neighbouring Bauchi state the majority applied to be redeployed citing security concerns. So Shettima drove to the camp and launched a charm offensive to convince them.

He told them them that corps members in Borno state are entitled to extra allowances, he regaled them with tales of his NYSC year in Calabar, he sang the NYSC anthem, he reminded them that no corps member has died in Borno in the last five years.

Then he invited those with an open mind, especially the doctors, nurses and pharmacists, to join him on a trip to Maiduguri. By the time he showed them their proposed accommodation, measures for their safety and other efforts to make them comfortable, half of those seeking to be redeployed changed their minds.

Quoting Mahatma Gandhi, he told the corps members that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” He could have been talking about himself.

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