Arewa, in Search of another Awoniyi
Last Saturday 15 December 2007, Chief Sunday Awoniyi, the late Chairman of Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), was given a befitting burial at his home town, Mopa. The burial, which I attended, has already been elaborately covered by various newspapers. I will not, therefore, dwell on it here; rather, I will turn my attention to considerations which the organization he bequeathed needs to take in its search for a new leader.
In Awoniyi, the Last Sardauna, just as the Secretary of the organization also said, we expressed the fear that finding someone like Awoniyi will be very difficult in the light of his multiple identities, experience, sincerity, vision, hard work and humility. The task is made more difficult with the nature of ACF. If it were a monarchy, it would have been a matter of appointing an heir apparent. If it were a constitutional government, it would have just been a matter of swearing in his deputy instantly. If it were a business company, the seat would be declared vacant and a new appointment made through adverts or selection from existing general managers. We are confronted with the hard fact that ACF is not a monarchy, a republican government or a business company.
Still, the task would be easy were ACF a tribal organization like Afenifere or Ohaneze because of the homogenous composition of their followers. These organizations are exclusive preserves of members of their tribes. Contrarily, ACF pursues the interest of the diverse peoples of the North, a region inhabited by more than 400 tribes, each with a distinct language, culture and other micro-identities, in addition to the wider interest of the country. The only common thing which northerners share is a history of interaction largely characterized by conquests and migrations in the pre-colonial times and a common regional government for half a century between 1914 and 1967. It is this variety of tribes, languages, religions, geography, history and inevitably politics that makes the North unique and at the same time difficult for any leader to handle comfortably. Its first and only Premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello, was for twelve years always preoccupied with how to keep the region together in peace while at the same time pursuing the task of bridging the fifty year developmental gap between it and the other two regions. But even at the time of his brutal assassination in 1966, the problem posed by its diversity existed, and does so to date.
The cultural variety of the North which makes it difficult to control is at the same time a source of its strength were it to be utilized creatively. In nature, variety is an asset and an assurance for continuity of species. That is why nature created varieties of every plant and animal species, each with its shared and distinct adaptive capacities. In times of difficulty especially a choice could be made out of the rich pool of genes, abilities and skills.
It is like playing golf. A player who carries only one club (the equivalent of hockey sticks) can hardly go beyond the T-box. After taking his first shot, he is immediately challenged by the rough, bunker, hazard, trees or even a plain fairway that requires him to play a specific distance to the hole. He needs different clubs to meet these challenges. That is why he is allowed to carry up to fourteen different clubs in his bag, each with its distinct characteristics in terms of the loft he can attain and the distance he can cover with it. His success will then depend on knowing which club to use and how to use it whenever he is challenged by an obstacle. Therefore, whenever I look at the North I become gladdened by the multiplicity of its people because it accords it the tools it needs to meet various challenges on our path of nationhood in the same way as the variety of clubs accords the golfer the capacity to get out of various troubles in his game.
The task of ACF is not only to ensure sufficient harmony among the various peoples in its domain but to also get them work as a team. Here, the analogy with golf is more striking. Some golfers are better at driving, some in short game, and some in putting. I wish a team in a Ryder Cup tour would have players who, on the one hand, have mastered the power game like Moe Norman, Ben Hogan, Lee Trevio, Tom Weiskopf, Tom Purtzer, Johnny Miller and Tiger Woods, and, on the other, the best putters like George Archer, Ben Crenshaw, Dave Stockton, Loren Roberts, Bob Charles, Brad Faxon and Greg Norman. The North is a team that has these best players. The major task of ACF is getting such players to play as a team in order to facilitate its progress instead of allowing its diversity to become an impediment.
Such teamwork is more imperative in a democracy. Politicians will do whatever it takes to gain support. To win the Presidency in Nigeria, for example, requires support from every region. Here the North becomes easily vulnerable if it does not have the leadership that will prevent politicians from exploiting its differences to play the divide and rule game. That is why ACF emerged during the first tenure of Obasanjo, and not earlier. When the dictator realized that the unity of the North – with nineteen out of the thirty-six states – will constitute a clog in his wheel of dictatorship, he chose, right from the beginning of his administration, to divide it by pitching its smaller groups against the dominant ones through appointments, sacking military officers from the far North, religious and ethnic crisis, and so on. This is not to mention the atrocities of the terrorist group, Oodua Peoples’ Congress, which under the last dictator was given the license to kill northerners and Igbo with impunity. An elaborate media campaign to demonize the North was also staged. We had to come out and start firing salvos in self defense. The North was pushed to the position of an opposition for the first time in the history of Nigeria.
The divide and rule strategy worked but for a while. The North soon realized its vulnerability for the second time – the first was in 1966 – and came together to form ACF. The dictator had to rig elections shamelessly to remain in power in 2003. With the leadership of notable people like Awoniyi, peace was restored to the region which would have otherwise been engrossed in self-destruction. Finally, when he tried to become a life President through his third term bid, ACF along with other forces in the forefront gave a humiliating defeat to the dictator.
Outside forces aside, the North also needs to guard against its own internal elements that are ever ready to use the region to further their political ambition. In 2002, we have seen the desperate maneuvers of some politicians to get ACF to endorse them or at least intervene in their favor by persuading other aspirants to abandon their aspiration. There are also internal divisive forces of religion and history. The Muslims-Christian divide became sharper especially with the introduction of shariah which was used to foment disturbances in various cities, causing the deaths of thousands and large scale destruction of property. There is the long standing misconception among some groups that they have for long been dominated by others. All these factors tend to divide, rather than unite the North and ensure the peaceful coexistence of its people.
More difficult than the aforesaid is the political and administrative division of the region into constitutionally independent states. Since 1967 when the North was disbanded, the task of ensuring its unity and common good was deposited in the hands of its governors. Recent developments, however, has proved that they should not be entrusted with such role any longer, hence the emergence of ACF, which many of them did not take kindly.
Getting the governors to work in tandem for the peaceful coexistence of the region and its progress has proved very difficult in the past eight years for many reasons. Many of the governors were competing with one another to win the favor of the former dictator and become his heir apparent. They would not also like a father-like organization that will suggest to them where to belong or what to do with the resources of their state. Power got so much into their brains that they felt they must have total control over everybody and everything under their domain. That was why late Awoniyi had to go round all the nineteen northern states to assure their governors that ACF has no political ambition; it will not put its weight behind any candidate; it will, as it did in 2003, only define the parameters which people should use in choosing candidates during elections.
Also, getting the governors to concentrate on tackling the common problems of the region like education, health and agriculture meant interfering with the looting plans that many of them hatched. That was a dictation they were not ready to jot down from anyone. I will cite just one example here. The ACF once formed a committee after receiving a report of how backward the North still is educationally. It was composed of some distinguished former vice-chancellors from the region. Their task was to visit these governors – who do not even qualify to be their students – and plead with them to pay more attention to education. Most of them were paying N1,500.00 annually as scholarship before we lambasted them in this column. The first governor the committee visited, a governor in the north-central, kept them waiting for over four hours, only to shoot them, point blank, with a bullet of insult. What is this fuss about education, he queried them. Education is not my priority, he added bluntly. My priority, he continued, is electrification and roads. After that shocking disappointment, the elder statesmen decided to leave the chaps alone.
To make things difficult for ACF, it is not a rich organization. It does not run a business nor own any asset. It is run by volunteers, many of them retirees, who believe in its objectives. The governors, on the other hand, are loaded. Each of them has at his disposal over N60billion annually which he had the constitutional immunity to squander, in collaboration with his houses of assembly and local government chairmen. Now, given the parasitic nature of region’s elite and high poverty level of its masses, ACF is in no doubt as to who owns loyalty. I will not be surprised if ACF itself depends on the cash backing of governors to meet many of its financial requirements. The piper cannot dictate the tune.
Finally, the national challenge to keep this country united and peaceful is there resting on the shoulders of the ACF. The history of Nigeria shows that unscrupulous people from other regions are quick to cash on any instability in the North to generate a national crisis. The political instability of the 1960s led to the assassination of prominent northern politicians and their allies and, as a consequence, the Biafra cessation and protracted civil war. Just before the Kaduna Shariah crisis, Ojukwu, the former Biafran leader was reported to have addressed a congregation of Christians in a Church in Kaduna. He said the Igbo sympathize with Northern Christians for the situation they find themselves and assured them of Igbo support in case of any eventuality. These are shocking facts reported by dailies and still available to any researcher. Within days, Kaduna was engulfed in flames, leaving thousands dead.
If the effect of such crises would be limited to the North, things would have been less worrying. However, they affect other regions as well because their people living in the North get affected too, invariably, and you have a backlash in which northerners, regardless of their religion or ethnic group, are killed in those regions. Pastors of northern origin working in churches in the East were not spared. We have seen this occur time without number. That is why I believe so much in working for the unity of the North because it amounts to working for the unity of this country. I fail to see such effort as pursuing parochial sectional interest as some pseudo-nationalist would quickly allege. The imperative on ground contradicts their utopian stand. I will not concede that I am less patriotic than they are; the only difference between us is that while I vividly see peace through understanding our differences they claim to see it through sweeping them under the carpet.
These are the considerations which I believe the North must give in its bid to find a successor to the last Sardauna. The composition of ACF is unique, the challenges many, the resources little, the options few, and the task excruciating. In the wide consultations that are going, I beg that these considerations be given much weight because when the task is defined the right person to shoulder it is easier to find. If you have a trailer-load of goods, you do not hire a pick-up van; you go for the trailer that does not only have the room but also the engine capacity to convey it.
In the apparent, leaders of the organization must fight against the maneuvers of those ambitious leaders who would like to install one of their stooges. The governors will definitely prefer someone they can juggle with. Our political megaweights – Yar’adua, Babangida, Buhari and Atiku – will each be glad to have someone close to him as Chairman of ACF. The challenge before the organization is to get someone who belongs to none of these camps.
The organization needs someone – preferably outside the major tribes – who shares the vision of our common good, experienced, hardworking and sincere. He must be independent minded and humble at the same time. Since ACF can only command moral authority, its chairman should be someone who our minorities will accept and our majorities respect. We need another Awoniyi. I wish we could find one.