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Who Speaks for the North? By Bolaji Abdullahi


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‘Who Speaks for the North’ is the title of a research paper written by my friend Leena Hoffman, a Chatham House fellow, in 2014. This question is even more pertinent today than when she first raised it six years ago.

Evidence abounds that the north of Nigeria one of the worst locations of human misery in the world today. However, as if the gruelling poverty, the disease burden and the widespread illiteracy is not tragic enough; the north now appears to be trapped in an endless orgy of vicious violence and nihilistic blood lust that makes nonsense of our avowed faith in God or religious principles of any kind.

I am aware of the dominant fears in other parts of the country of the ‘northern menace’. But the truth is that the north has reserved its deepest hatred only for itself. Boko Haram, or the more recent acts of banditry may raise some anxieties in the south or affect the price of food in Lagos, but the real victims are northerners; it is the north destroying itself with great dedication.

But even as confounding as this tragedy is, we must resist the temptation to treat it as something mysterious. It is not. Much of what we are witnessing are the direct consequences of the kind of politics that the north has played, which has been based on the elite’s understanding of politics and the purpose they think it should serve. Like some analysts have argued, politics and political control has been the north’s way of balancing power with the more industrious and developed south. However, what several decades of northern power domination has shown is that political power in itself is useless, it is not anchored on a vision of development.

In 1999, few weeks after the then Governor of Zamfara, Alhaji Ahmed Sani announced the introduction of the Shari’a law in his State, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zaky-zaky told journalists that he was afraid that the political elite would use the emotion of the people to exploit them. He proved to be prophetic. A raft of state governors across eleven other states in the north soon joined in the “introduction” of shari’a law. The people cheered and celebrated these governors. In late 2000, I visited Zamfara to witness for myself how the operation of Sharia had gone. It was clear to me that even within just one year, the people were already seeing the initiative for what it is, a scam.

When the people trooped out to celebrate the so-called introduction of the Shari‘a, they did so in recognition of the pervasive social injustice around them. They know that Islam abhors injustice and oppression. Therefore, they expected that anyone who promises to govern according to God’s law would not condone injustice. In short, they expected a better life, in accordance with the Shari’a. In no time however, they saw the promise of social justice give way to the entrenchment of ill-understood and ill-motivated social order, which prioritises the amputation of hands and stoning of women for adultery. A compassionate and loving God was reduced to a coercive one that is oppressive of women. In the end, the politicians enjoyed their reign, and the only thing that changed in the lives of the people was that they now had fanatical Shari’a enforcers to contend with in addition to their grinding poverty. In the article that I wrote for THISDAY when I returned from Zamfara, I said:

“It would soon be daybreak. Somebody would rise, in the heart of Gusau or Zaria, who would shake the people awake and show them that this is not the will of Allah. The emergence of fundamentalism that seized Egypt and Algeria followed this pattern. When Hajiya Bilikisu Yusuf said she felt sorry for the governors introducing Shari’a because they don’t know the implication of what they are toying with, not many people paid attention. But when trouble starts, it would require no special introduction.”

The Shari’a move of 1999-2000 was political populism of the worst kind. Like many have now argued, it was this flirtation with the divine law and the failed promise of social justice that it ought to herald that sowed the seeds for the kind of ‘revival’ movements that eventually became Boko Haram. I doubt if any of the governors would realise that there is a connection between their Shari’a misadventure and what is going on in the north today. But they must accept responsibility and seek Allah’s forgiveness.Without doubts, religion has a great role to play in the social and cultural re-engineering that the north desperately needs now, but not the kind of cynical deployment of religion for political purpose, which appears to be the favoured strategy of the northern political elite and which has landed us in the mess that we have now found ourselves.

2023 presents a great opportunity for the north to embrace a different kind of politics. And this returns us to the question of who speaks for the north. The generation that has led the north for the better part of 60 years are either dead, retired by biology or politics. The so-called professional defenders of northern interests have become so jaded that no one listens to them anymore. The north is certainly in need of a fresh voice. The ethnic jingoists cannot remain the voice and face of the north. The challenges that we are faced with are too deep and too complex to be left in the hands of those who still think that their roles start and end with abusing other people and alienating potential allies.

Two major afflictions bedevil Nigeria today, which makes rational conversation or productive debate impossible across the divides. Northernphobia, an irrational fear of anything framed as northern or Arewa. The other is northernphilia, an irrational support and defence of anything framed as northern or Arewa interest. The conspiracy theorists who spread the fear of an impending northern invasion are as afflicted as the professional defenders of the north who feel obliged to defend anything as “our way of life.”Both afflictions are at the heart of the distrust that has made nation building impossible even after one hundred and six years.

A newspaper headline of Thursday, May 14 reads, “83 Northerners Intercepted in Oyo, Ondo.” Perhaps, nothing could have expressed the utter vacuity of Nigerian citizenship than this unfortunate news headline that allows for Nigerians to be “intercepted” within their own country. However, in the context of Nigeria’s endless politics of difference, it is perfectly understandable, if not acceptable.

I have spoken with several political leaders from the south of the country, who are convinced that the migration of northern youth to the south means that the much-feared northern invasion has finally started with this “deployment”. I have also read more than a few rallying cries for the southern youth to rise in defense of their “fatherland.”

If this is not xenophobia, then what is? All through history, people have moved in search of opportunities and better existence. In the days of slavery and in the immediate aftermath of the abolition, blacks migrated from the south to the more tolerant north of America. Before the collapse of the Berlin wall, Eastern Germans risked everything to migrate to a more prosperous, capitalist West, just as North Koreans moved to the South in search of better opportunities. At some point in this country, as many Yoruba or Igbo people could be found in northern towns and villages as there were Hausa or other indigenous tribes. I am convinced that these young people, who are now being criminalized, “intercepted” and “deported” are economic migrants seeking better opportunities for themselves. If they had the means, they would probably be on their way across the Sahara Desert or the Mediterranean to get to Europe.

However, the full blame for the mistreatment of these youths must still be allocated to the northern elite, whose failed politics has turned our part of the country into a hell-hole that every young man is desperate to escape from. After all, what is there in any part of the north for an educated young man to do, not to talk of the uneducated majority? In the south, at the very least they could work as gatemen, potters, farm hands or whatever. Agriculture used to be the major employer of these youths, but banditry and other forms of insecurity has ensured that even this is no longer possible.

The future of Nigeria as a Federation lies in regional development. Nigeria is going to be strong relative to the strength of the sum of its parts. As usual, the Southwest is clearly ahead of everyone else in understanding this dynamic. If we wonder if our northern governors appreciate the wisdom of joint efforts, we only need to look at the manner they have handled the Almajiri issue or the widespread insecurity across the northern states to appreciate how far behind we are in developing the capacity for regional co-operation across an area that used to be a single entity only about half a century ago. Instead, we prefer to be kings in our respective hell.

Yet again, this underlines the fact that the north is in desperate need of a new generation of political leaders going forward.And 2023 presents a great opportunity. From the north, a new set of political elite must emerge who must make the development of the north the single item agenda of politics in northern Nigeria and interpret northern interests in this context alone.

Some have argued that the development of the north has never been a part of the northern political agenda and that is why our elite have behaved more like predators than visionaries. We may debate this as much as we want. But how other people see us is sometimes more important than how we see ourselves. The truth is that our counterparts in other parts of the country, even though they are hardly any better, regard us largely as parasites, opportunists and quota hunters. This has gone on for so long that is appears to have resulted in a kind inferiority complex, which in turn makes us overtly insecure and defensive in our dealings with other people. Yet genuine co-operation is only possible where there is mutual respect and everyone is capable of playing their parts.

I do not suggest that the political elite in the other parts of the country are essentially better than their northern counterparts. The truth is that our democracy has failed to deliver on the expectations of the people and the promise of development. That is why the majority of our people today are cynical about politics and distrustful of politicians generally. Indeed, the entire country is in dire need of new voices, new defenders and new proposals for change. But even in our collective race for the bottom, the north appears to be well ahead of others. My guess is that within the next decade and a half, it would be hard to find a child outside the north of Nigeria, whose parents have not gone to school at all. This is in itself is a major factor of development that will determine whether we will even be able to play catch-up at all.

The Nigeria that we must all seek to build has to be that which is driven by a shared vision of development, where every region of the country is trusted to play its parts. The bitter truth for everyone is that we cannot have a developed Nigeria without a developed northern Nigeria. We cannot have a secured and healthy Nigeria without a secured and healthy northern Nigeria. But Nigeria, or any of its regions cannot develop unless the people are primed for development. Therefore, the most important challenge for the northern political elite is how to break the people away from age-long cultural practices and behaviours that have stifled progress and begin to mobilise them for the self-empowerment and the change that they desperately need.

A new generation must emerge from the north with the self-confidence to trust ideas coming from outside the north and be willing to engage with those ideas strictly on their merits and based on a re-interpretation of what qualifies as the interest of the north and not just the interest of a self-serving few. If the media report is true that the government of Zamfara has declared the state an Almajiri State, then this is unfortunate because it demonstrates the kind of inverted snobbery that has held the north back, that tendency to essentialise outdated behaviours and practices that we should be working hard to eradicate.

A new generation of political leadership has to emerge in the north with a theory of change that is anchored firmly on human capital development. A huge population may guarantee that the north wins in any game of numbers. But a huge, uneducated, unproductive and youthful population is only a time bomb. While this is true for the whole of Nigeria, it is even more true for the north where the leadership must begin to see the people as potential assets for achieving development rather than potential votes.

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