Friday Discourse (179)
The Burden Called North
The first thing to learn about Nigeria is the variety that characterise its political geography. In the beginning was Northern and Southern Protectorates. Then three regions were created with the adoption of a federal constitution. Few years into independence a third region, the Midwest, was carved out of the former Western region. Finally, regions were abandoned and the federation became continuously sliced into increasingly diminishing units called states.
Moving from two protectorates to thirty-six states has been a journey of 100 years which involved three phases, each aimed at satisfying the political whim of the most powerful group of the time. The protectorates were desires of the British colonial masters; the regions were the demand of politicians who demanded for greater political participation; and the states are products of agitations at sub-regional levels – largely from minority groups, which have come to represent the most potent political block in post independence Nigeria.
Thus, the country has structurally been responding to for demands of power sharing. But while constitutions and military councils could easily change the political structure of the country in pursuit of unity and development, the minds of Nigerians appear fixated to the old regional nomenclature and taxonomy. People have failed to see the states as actual reference points for political identity. The North and the South, or the North, East and West, continue to define our vision of where we belong to in Nigeria. They have also become convenient chips for people bargaining for power within the context of the power sharing concept. The agitation for a Middle Belt is an effort, in spite of state creation, to find a geographical space that will accommodate the political whims of some minority groups that are intolerant to the concept of sharing a common North.
Our concern here is that North – a region that has been most incapable of liberating itself from the stronghold of history. On the one hand, the amalgam of tribes that form the dominant ethnic group in the region – the so-called Hausa-Fulani and their allies among the minorities – have continued to politically operate within the framework of one North in spite of the structural changes since 1967. Despite the clear signs of cracks in their house, such elite continue to perceive North as an indispensable tool in Nigerian political reality that deserves preservation at all cost. On the other hand, some of the minorities who have always been contemptuous of the unity of the North have failed to do away with the fear of domination by the major groups, again in spite of changes in our political structure that accords them complete freedom of political self-determination and management of resources.
The cracks have recently gone deep. They have culminated in the worst form of violence where the innocent has suffered for no fault of his. He has become a victim of the imprudence of the politicians that hold his future at ransom. Mistrust has taken over the minds of the once peace loving people of the region to the extent that neighbours who have grown together since childhood have been killing one another. They have driven themselves homeless. Towns like Kaduna and Jos are today divided into quarters along ethnic and religious lines. In some instances, the degree of barbarism exhibited by some of the participants in the violence defies the ownership of the slightest measure of civility. I cannot imagine a worst situation even in Rwanda, Somalia, or Sierra Leone.
The violence which engulfed the North can effectively be explained in the light of the above divergence in mission of its people. To ensure their relevance and preservation of their privileges at the national level, the major groups tend to pursue the culture of a homogenous region – like the Southwest – largely with a common vision, direction and goal. Put another way, they are still battling to continue with the vision of the Northern patriarch – Ahmadu Bello – that unity of the backward region is essential in pursuit of its rights and privileges as it competes at the national level with two other regions which are ahead of it with half century of development.
The above stand of the majority and their allies is rejected by the elite of the some minorities who continue to work on the presumption that their identity is defined by the cultural antithesis of the Northern majority, a view which must be expressed only through the destructive language of schism and violence. The best guarantee to their relevance is the assertion of that difference at the national level through a conspiracy to subdue the influence of the so-called Hausa-Fulani.
Two other factors have served to fuel the fire of discord and hate among northerners: religion and external influence. With the rising tide in fundamentalism in both Islam and Christianity that has resulted in the worldwide politicization of religion, trust among Muslims and Christians is becoming increasingly eroded by the day. Politics has become a subject of binomial mathematics. What is good for one is almost instantly seen as bad for the other. So entrenched is this distribution in the North that even the intellectuals can afford to be reckless with the most glaring facts at their fingertips. I remember the blunder committed by Rev. Mathew Hassan Kukah three years ago at Second Anniversary of the Arewa Consultative Forum. In a paper he delivered he asked a question that remains the epitome of disregard for facts. Why is it impossible, Kukah asked, for a Christian to become the Vice Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University? Cheaply, the discussant of the paper – Dr. Alkasum Abba –reminded the reverend that ABU has had many Christian Vice-Chancellors including Professors Ishaya Audu, Akingkugbe and Saror!
Agitation for Shariah was quickly used to whip sentiments of Islamization, an attempt to dislodge the status quo that is colonial and Christian. And despite the assurance that Shariah does not aim at forcing anyone to accept Islam and despite the reassurance by the President that it will wane out shortly, thousands of lives had to die before the tempers of some people could cool down. The disciples of Shariah themselves did not help matters. They introduced it as if they were serious about achieving its goals. Few years later, it is clear that it has woefully failed to reinstate social justice and equality among people, the very principles that form the bedrock of Islamic leadership. We can easily conclude that none of the Shariah governors has exhibited one-tenth of Danfodio to social justice. Instead, most of them are as pervasive in loot and sin as their non-Shariah colleagues in other parts of Nigeria. Dariye is not alone; many others are equally guilty. And if it were not for the immunity they enjoy under the constitution, the contradiction between Shariah and the character would have been exposed.
The second factor is outside influence. Politicians from other regions, realising the growing differences among Northerners have tried many times to seduce some of the minorities to their side. Awolowo has played this role during the First Republic. Before the recent religious crisis in Kaduna, the Biafran warlord, Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu addressed a congregation of Christians in Kaduna where he expressed the support of his people for the struggle of Christians in the North using an extremely inciting language. It is also widely believed that the recent ethno-religious violence was precipitated as part of a political strategy to divide Northern votes.
I quite agree that there is an urgent need to restore confidence and mutual understanding between the peoples of the North, if not for politics, at least for the sheer imperatives of survival. Geography has made it impossible to build barriers between ethnicities and religions in the North. Any attempt to assert one religion over the other, or deny some people on the basis of religion their constitutional rights will only fail, as we have seen since the inception of religious crises in this part of the country in 1987. These crises have yielded nothing other than breeding further hate and desperation. The North, we must understand, will ever remain home of people with different cultures and given the nature of liberal democracy and constitutional government it must imbibe the culture of free political intercourse. To aim at any political singularity will be a burden too heavy to carry, just as is the attempt to delineate part of it as their exclusive preserve of people whose commonality is only defined by their hate of others.
The solution to our problems will thus start by the realization of two core facts. The majority must realize that there has never been one North devoid of acrimony and divergence of political persuasion or even interest, and there can never be one. Thus the burden of unifying the North under one voice in politics is not worth carrying. They better drop it. The second is the real shift on the part of many minority politicians that are benefiting from the destructive indoctrination of their followers, telling them that someone up there in there – as far away as Bauchi, Kano, Sokoto or Borno – has all along been dominating them or threatening to convert them into his religion. This hysteria must be dispelled as a farce for the realities on the ground today point exactly to the opposite. The contrary – i.e. the domination of the majority by the minority – can easily be proved statistically.
Once the self-appointed task of the majority and the hysteria of some of the minorities are abandoned, then it will be possible to create an atmosphere conducive for meaningful discourse aimed at rebuilding mutual respect, accommodation and trust. Tolerance will naturally ensue and the ties of brotherhood will be strengthened.
But both the false cry for unity and the self-imposed hysteria against domination by others will not be abandoned without fighting one common enemy who continue to exploit our differences to his advantage – the northern politician who today suffers from the poverty of ideas and moral degeneration. He aims at a seat in government in order to plunder the treasury without any credential to prove his competence to govern effectively. He has not executed a single community project among his people, unlike his southern counterparts, which will attest to his sense of common good. His testimonials contain high grades in the art of thuggery and the science of deceit and theft. To win the hearts of his people his greatest weapon however is the exploitation of sentiments of his people, of religion or ethnicity, or both, whichever is convenient. Even after winning the elections, the sentiments help to conceal the colossal theft he partakes in office and the incompetence to deliver any of his promises. He does not care if his people will perish, for he has saved enough for his children.
My worry is that the country will not continue to tolerate the persistence of this trend. Without contributing to the major source of foreign exchange – oil – the North will be imprudent to inundate Nigeria with insecurity. We have seen that whenever there is a crisis in Kaduna, Kano or Jos, people from other regions are equally affected. It is therefore also in the interest of other Nigerians to help Northerners find a way of living peacefully with one another.
While Northern politicians continue to hold peace conferences at Kaduna and other places ahead of 2007, I intend to dedicate a number of subsequent articles on this page to the cause of mutual understanding that is necessary to breed trust. The present article is only an introduction. The thrust of my argument will be to dispel many prevalent misconceptions about our history, identities, positions and roles in one Nigeria; to prove that both the major and minor have been victims of oppression of the ruling class; that the real enemy is within, those who exploit our differences to further their political and economic goals; that we are united more in our problems than we are divided by whims; that our diversity is an asset, not a liability; that, in fact, peace and progress are easier to obtain in a multicultural society that the North is blessed with.
I will conclude this article with small story that portrays hope. Three weeks ago, someone, certainly among the northern minorities, heard my conversation with a German friend in a subway on my way to Central London. From my accent he concluded that I am a northerner. He suddenly shouted, “You are from Northern Nigeria. Right?” I replied in the affirmative. “So you are my brother,” he concluded, “I am also from the North.” When he was alighting from the train he said, “Sai anjima danuwa”, meaning, “Goodbye, brother”. Back home in Nigeria I am not sure if we would not hack each other during any of the ethno-religious crisis. But there we were, appreciating the commonness of our accent, lingua franca and a brotherhood fostered by our geography and common history. It appears, from this narration, that whatever the Suleimans, Lars, Dariyes and Obasanjos would like us to be, there still exists the hope that trust will one day be restored.