In June 2013, five young people from very different backgrounds met at an NYSC camp in Ifisin-Ekiti, southwestern Nigeria. There was a young lady who had just returned from Canada, a young man fresh off a British Airways flight from Heathrow, two young ladies from the University of Benin and the central figure of the group, a Mass Communication graduate from Lagos State University called Binta Bhadmus.
You wouldn’t have known by looking at her, but Binta was a fiercely competitive, hardworking and supremely gifted broadcast professional who already had a job at a radio station in Lagos waiting for her after youth service – purely on the strength of her own performance as a post-study intern. After youth service, the motley crue of five went their separate ways. The Canada returnee jetted off to settle down in the U.S. One of the UNIBEN ladies went off to settle down in Canada, the UK returnee moved back to Lagos and married the other UNIBEN lady, and Binta returned to the radio station to take up a role as a senior news reader.
Young and embattled, but unbowed
In 2017, Binta was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a correspondent on Nigeria’s first political satire television show, The Other News, where she would appear next to the legendary comedian Okey Bakassi before a primetime audience of two million viewers every week. Amazingly, she wanted to turn down the offer due to the loyalty she felt to her job at the radio station. She eventually did change her mind when it emerged that the offer would more than triple her existing paycheck – but not for the reason that you might imagine.
You see, Binta had a longstanding back problem that was exacerbated by sitting on a hard surface with no lumbar support for several hours everyday. At the time, all she could do was get some basic medical help and try to manage the chronic pain – treating it was out of the question because it was simply too expensive. The new contract at the TV station would change that, and so Binta joined The Other News in July 2017.
Over the next two years, Binta spent the best part of N2 million on her health challenges, while concurrently juggling the commitments of a full time TV job, a part time online radio gig, weekly orthopaedic therapy and a Masters degree program at the University of Lagos. Anyone looking at Binta would imagine that she was going through a lot – and they would be right. In addition to struggling with excruciating physical pain while working two jobs and earning a graduate degree, Binta also had to deal with the emotional pain of losing her father in January 2018.
Despite all of this, Binta’s attitude remained as sunny, bubbly and irrepressibly positive as it was at the NYSC camp in 2013. She never complained about how hard life was, nor did she do anything other than take total responsibility for herself and always remain focused on the future. Every inconvenience or discomfort was merely a passing phase on the road to the future. As long as she had breath in her lungs, the ever-present smile on her face said that nothing else mattered. All the toil and pain was temporary.
Until it wasn’t.
We are all Binta
When I got a call two days ago informing me that Binta had died, my secondary reaction following the initial hysteria was complete disbelief. Since I first met her in 2013 at Ifisin-Ekiti, Binta had never been the subject of a third party phone call. If anything she would be the one to make such calls. Through the adventure of my short-lived marriage and the subsequent crisis period, Binta was the one constant entity in my life that was never in doubt. We were working on an application for her, and her personal statement was on my Google Drive awaiting edits that night.
How could Binta die?
After fighting so hard to get a break in the notoriously competitive broadcast media space in Lagos? After making history as the female protagonist on a popular TV show that was the first of its kind in Nigeria’s history? After completing a Masters degree program alongside a full time job? After fighting through the physical pain barrier to always show up for every work assignment and career opportunity? After blaming no one for her problems and assuming sole responsibility for her life? After maintaining that irresistible positive aura despite everything life threw at her?
What was the point of everything?
Why was she such a heroine if it only resulted in dying of a heart attack at the ripe old age of 32? Why was she such a greatly beloved person to everyone who knew her, if only to die prematurely and leave absolutely everyone who knew her in a state of depression? Why did she look so fiercely to the future if it only betrayed her right on the cusp of everything she ever deserved and worked so hard for?
As I agonised over this question amid hours of tears, I slowly came to an epiphany about Binta’s death and life in Nigeria as a young person – it’s really not about you. Nigeria’s dysfunction – which young people like us work so hard to safeguard themselves from – cannot be guarded against. You can work 12 to 14 hours a day. You can always stay on top of all developments in your field and constantly upskill and retrain yourself. You can work two or three jobs to earn an income several times the national average. You can maintain a positive, sunny disposition that makes the whole world fall helplessly in love with you. You can be an actual angel blessing people’s lives with your presence despite all that Nigeria is – you can literally be Binta.
And it would make no difference.
Nigeria will eventually – inevitably – find a way to destroy these efforts. It might be a lecturer who decides to obstruct your graduation for lack of sexual gratification or a bribe. It might be a rogue police officer or military personnel who decides to let out the infamous ‘stray bullet’ and arbitrarily end your hopes and dreams. It might be a medical doctor who prescribes a treatment regime that ends up killing you. It might be your senator who leaves you to die of lack of basic infrastructure while shouting “Aye!” for a ‘social media bill’ to stop you from complaining about it.
If Nigeria could happen to Binta – resistant to it as she was – it will eventually happen to all of us as well. Of course, a minority of the young people reading this article will be able to emigrate to better-run societies and escape Nigeria’s automatic death sentence – but how many? Speaking recently, Toluwani Obayan, a mutual friend and colleague of Binta pointed out that emigration alone cannot statistically be the plan for young Nigerians to survive Nigeria – the world does not have enough space for 10 million skilled Nigerians, let alone 100 million unskilled ones.
At some point, Nigeria’s overwhelmingly young population will have to take a long, hard look at Abuja’s Three Arms Zone and ask the individuals cocooned therein some hard, important questions that nobody is currently asking them. Questions like “What is the plan?”, “Is there a plan?” and “Am I next?”
It wasn’t me this time but honestly, compared to the thought of living in a world where Binta is only a tearful memory, it might as well have been.
Dedicated to my beloved friend, colleague and sister, Binta Bisola Bhadmus.
February 8, 1987 – November 26, 2019.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.