Sardauna: The North after Your Departure
You left us in the early morning hours of 15 January 1966. Then Nigeria was 52 since the amalgamation. For twelve years then you served as the premier of the Northern Region. During that tenure you were able to bring the North from obscurity to the forefront of Nigerian nation. Those who thought it was a habitat of donkeys and illiterates soon found that they had to work extra hard to match your giant strides. When they could not do so successfully, they resorted to assassination.
For you, the assassination was a realization of a vision which you long saw coming. You told your friends and personal physician about it; that you will soon die, not later than the age of your grandfather, Muhammad Bello. A friend in Kano became sleepless two nights before the sad event. The security reports were also there. Akintola flew in that Friday to intimate you about it. Niger Republic was very close. But you refused to flee. When you saw Nzeogwu scouting your premises that evening, you asked him: “Young man, what are you doing here?” He was the coward that lied. You were brave to tell him off: “Do your duty, but nothing will happen except by the Will of God.” You did not blink, because it was neither your tradition nor that of your ancestors.
The Fruitless Delight
The people who planned the coup and those who executed it had only a little time to rejoice. That savage chap, Nzeogwu, who danced to their tune, did not know that he was signing his death warrant, for, despite the protection accorded him by your successors, he did not live long to see his ambition fulfilled, if he had any beyond your assassination. He died the following year, most likely under a conspiracy by his tribesmen. Who lives by the sword will die by it. Ironsi, who also cannot be completely exonerated of complicity or blame, breathed for only six months after you. Their tribe as a whole suffered, perhaps as a revenge by providence for your assassination, lost about a million of its own and saw the starvation of millions others, no thanks to the advice of their ally in the confraternity against you, Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
Your political opponents who mistakenly thought that you were the stumbling block on their way to supremacy might have rejoiced at your death. They jumped at ministerial positions under the military boys, thus abandoning any democratic principle they might have had. In the long run, they all had to die with a mission unfulfilled. But the world is only a while. They lived for that duration in the dream that once the military vacates power, they would return triumphant. It never happened. Both of them contested elections 13 years later, and though the tree of your person could then be said to dead, its trunk was huge enough to prevent the ambitious shrubs they were from growing where it stood. They remained backbenchers in 1979 as they did in 1958, 1960 and 1964.
Others, especially among the traditional rulers in the North, who thought that your Native Authority reforms was a threat to their hegemony, would have been happy with your departure, but could not also live forever. They have already joined you. While they briefly lived here, they saw their powers gradually eroded in a more painful process that was devoid of all the consideration and veneration you were careful to accord them.
The different small communities in the North that you assiduously tried to court and who gave you the greatest headache in the administration of the region had the leadership of the country in their hands just six months after your death. Your death offered them the opportunity to realize whatever dream they had of the independence and progress of their tribes. They divided the North into smaller units called states, in their effort to ‘free’ themselves from what they perceived as ‘Fulani’ domination. For over two decades there is nothing to show in the Middle Belt that is progressively better than the rest of the North. However, they gained little more than misguided emotions. Frustrated by stagnation, they have resorted to wholesale killing of other innocent northerners.
If you were to resurrect today, you could have said just a word to all these groups. Standing high as ever among others and with your characteristic smile, you would have said Murnar mutuwa murnar banza. But since God has decreed that the dead shall not return, we cease the opportunity to do so today on your behalf.
However, you will prefer to learn about the fate of what preoccupied the last twelve years of your life, the North. In 1966 the region was a baby at two or three, particularly when we consider that it was in the Third World and in competition with two others that both started earlier. At two, a child has started to show some promising signs of growth and intelligence and is most amiable to his parents. Often, the father would pray that he would live long to witness his maturity. Sometimes, his prayer is answered. In others, he is overruled by God’s Decree. Afterwards, the orphan child would struggle to make it into a responsible and successful citizen like his father. In most cases however, and especially in these days, his story is best imagined than told.
This is what happened to the North after your death. Right from day one, no one was ready to come forward and stand by you. It took hours before your body was buried after it was denied a rest beside that of your ancestors, as you willed. Most of your ministers went into hiding. Even when they appeared later, they remained apologetic in the face of opposition to your principles and practices.
Few, if any, among your disciples, shared your courage, honesty and prudence. Of course, all of us in the North were shocked by the ruthlessness of your assassination. We were shocked because we never knew that our brothers from other regions could go so savage in order to check our enviable growth. We never thought that the degree of hate and envy has reached such abominable heights in their minds. But after a month or so, we expected that the crop of Northerners that surrounded you would muster the courage and step forward to continue with the good work you started. One would like to think that in their task of building a strong North to completion, they would remain guided by the vision you had, with an equal dedication and a sense of justice and equality.
You had a conception that for the North to be treated as an equal by other regions in a future Nigeria its citizens must bridge the ‘gap’ that existed in education and industry. Reading through your twelve years as the Premier of the Northern Region gives a wonderful account of how you pursued that vision with an unbelievable degree of courage and dedication. You established numerous secondary schools, teacher training colleges and technical schools in almost every province. From our scant agricultural and mineral resources that you honestly managed, you had the vision to establish a university of international reputation. In industry the growth was extensive and sound. The factories are the only ones running. Those built later were a sham. Even in the media you were able to establish a newspaper that remained for a decade and a half after your death the most authoritative in the country. The radio and television station that you founded became so strong that thirteen years later a military head of state had to personally intervene to reduce its efficacy.
If we were to talk in quantitative terms, one would say that the rate, the quality and even the quantum of growth in the region in the twelve years of your tenure couldn’t be matched by that of the thirty-four years of your successors.
The majority of your first generation disciples compromised your principles, lost your vision and became consumed by mundane interests of family preference and material gratification. You were successful because you were honest, hardworking and fair to everyone despite the financial constraints on you and the diversity of our culture. They failed because they were deceitful, lazy and selfish. Of course there were some few honest and hardworking ones. But the majority carried the day. Conversely, if the majority was honest and hardworking, it was then prevailed over by the dishonorable few. Both ways, as is true with all but one case of converse arguments, the result is the same. The North lost its direction and got outwitted in the battle of survival by other regions.
The second generation that followed was not more honest. And so continued the progression of rot down to mine. In fact it is worse today than ever. Maintaining piety is like climbing up a staircase. It requires energy. To climb down, and especially if he does not care of the consequences, a person may decide to simply drop from the edge of the balcony. The motion is easy and fast. The consequences however are obviously grave. He may get crippled forever, if he is to survive, and the task of climbing again will forever remain a thousand-fold more difficult, if at all possible, than ever.
So in quest of the temporal and amidst the abundance of petro-dollars we collectively decided to drop from the elevated position your endeavored to place us. We have crippled ourselves in every sector of life. I would not like to say we are dead, but the difference is not significantly different. The hopes, the foundation and strategies for ‘catching up’ with others were finally abandoned.
No leader emerged that could carry the entire North along. So we immediately succumbed to the slightest temptation of dividing the country into several smaller states and to make the center increasingly powerful. The reasons for this are three: first, the search for national integration because the regional structure of the federation you negotiated for was seen by the ‘saints’ that took over from you as being responsible for the political acrimony that led to your assassination. The second was the ambition of the ‘minorities’, as explained earlier, to ‘free’ themselves from what they perceived as domination by the ‘majority’ tribes. A third reason was that the military that were responsible for all the coups and countercoups cannot to date comprehend any logic beside the unitary structure for the federation that would ensure a single line of command.
Every state was happy to be ‘independent’ not economically, but of the other, even if it means going to beg for bread at the federal level every month. But acrimony and bad blood did not cease with state creation. On the contrary it got intensified and manifested itself where it did not exist during your time. We saw it between Plateau and Benue; Katsina and Zaria; northern and southern Zaria; Bauchi and Gombe; and so on.
So further divisions became necessary. As a result the North is today divided into 19 small and economically bankrupt units. They survive by hanging on to two ropes: one by appeasing whoever is in control of the center and, two, by loans. I do not know what will happen when the two ropes cut. I wish they would one day. The total size of their civil service is nineteen times greater, in size and budget, than the one you left behind in 1966. Add to this the paraphernalia of political offices, with nineteen governors and their commissioners, political advisers, assistants and so on.
There might not have been such bitterness with this arrangement had the center behaved responsibly. If leaders of your charisma were in control, the country could have been different. I believe after thirty years, we could have been in the forefront of world politics. Our exports in agriculture and industry would have been competing with others in the world market. Our education would have been of international standard. There would have been so many industries fairly distributed throughout the country to employ our youth. Etc.
But the center was occupied by the military for all except four years since your death. The ‘boys’ were too young to lead a nation, too brute to hold it together and finally, except for Murata and Buhari, too corrupt to be responsible. As a result, all civil institutions were wrecked with remarkable insensitivity. There were many civilians involved in this shameful act. Some helped to misguide the military in order to achieve their selfish goals, misdirecting national policies to that effect. Others, even when educated, were jolly ready to serve as their agents. During the seven-year tenure of one of them, among the boys you picked from a secondary school and recruited into the army, the level of decadence managed to reach the highest possible level one could contemplate of a leadership. We pray that neither him nor his style of leadership ever return.
The few honest ones in the civil service found it hard to serve, and they did so only with tears. The effect of this plague that stormed the center rippled and multiplied at the state and local government levels. This has led to a total collapse of anything one could think of: education, health, agriculture, industry, infrastructure, values and principles. In the process, the military systematically grounded itself. It is today struggling with dilapidated infrastructure, dysfunctional equipment and a life in barracks that could be justifiably described as morally sub-human.
Everybody in the country today accepts that things are bad, too bad in fact. In the light of this, many groups are suggesting a restructuring of the federation, of course in a line that will protect or enhance their interests. Other regions have made their stand clear. Part of it is the decentralization of power to regions or states.
What does your North proffer? I am afraid, nothing! Opinion leaders here would still prefer to wish away the quest for restructuring without offering alternatives. This aging class is not ready to tolerate, let alone give way to, new hands or new ideas. They feel that it is their almighty responsibility to keep the unitary structure of the country intact, regardless of our past experience and future consequences.
If you were to return today, what would have been your stand on the matter? Would your legs have shaken, as did theirs, at such a proposal because other regions have petrol while you have ‘nothing’ as they claim? Would you have preferred the boat carrying the entire North to continue sinking deep in the ocean of corruption and incapacitation simply because you feel you have stolen enough to secure yourself and your children? Would you have succumbed to the idea that the North is no longer one, and thus cannot on matters of national interest speak with one voice?
In more than an instance, I have heard people, those overwhelmed by the perversity of corruption, arguing that even if you were to return there is little you can do to save the situation. I believe in the contrary. There is no time a father will fail to do anything about his sick child. In fact if death were visible, parents would have waged war on it. I believe with your characteristic charm and political assiduity you would have once more united us and fought another successful battle for our reintegration and progress. I look around and hardly see anyone ready to meet that challenge.
But this is not your responsibility. You have played your role diligently. Rather than live among us, the incapacitated, please remain in your grave. But I cannot prevent you from biting your finger saying Allah wadan naka ya lalace.