by Hakeem Baba-Ahmed
A little over 60 years ago, Northern leaders were faced with a very difficult choice. They were challenged by the need to take a decision over whether to go along with demands from compatriots from Southern Nigeria for immediate self-government for the Nigerian colony, or oppose it in the interests of Northerns. The stakes were very high indeed. To oppose immediate self government in an atmosphere in which the nationalist fervor was most intense was to risk condemnation from patriotic Nigerians, many of them Northerners, who wanted to see an immediate end to colonial rule.
On the other hand, to submit to the demand for self government then would have exposed the Northern Region to all the disadvantages of relative backwardness and the possibility of being overrun by the more developed Southern Region, economically and politically. Northern Leaders, aware of their powers to resist being stampeded or blackmailed, chose to demand for a delayed and staggered decolonization process, in the belief that the Northern Region needed additional time to prepare for self government.
History has recorded how Northern Region representatives were derided and harassed out of Lagos and all the way to the North for the decisions they took. It has also recorded the consequence: the first riots in the North with political undertones. The Southern Regions got their Self-Government two years before the Northern Region, and the specter of protectionism which informed many Northern policies right up until 1966 has since been the subject of much debate.
Sixty years after that historic ‘No’ by the North, the region is facing a different challenge under circumstances that are entirely different. In 1953, the North had a strong and visionary leadership and a hefty hand of support from the colonial administration. That leadership had the confidence to stand up to being bullied, and was comfortable with the certainty that its decisions were consistent with the interests of the people of the region. Today, the people of the old Northern Nigeria are without leaders who will take a stand on the National Conference and get the nation to respect that position. It has no leaders who will move against the crippling assaults on lives and property of its poor and defenseless citizens because power is in hands of people who appear too far removed from Northern interests.
In the sixty years since that historic nay by Northern leaders, the fortunes of the North have flowed and ebbed, largely determined by the consistent decline in the quality of its leadership. Sixty years after one North took one position, today we witness a most undignified stampede for crumbs from leaders and elite who should draw the line and offer leadership and guidance for Northerners. Simple northern folk are confused and bewildered by the conflicting signals those who should know are sending. Some say we are drowning, so we should swim further into the ocean. Some say we should swim towards land, but are unsure about the distance we have to cover. Some say we have lost the battle to survive, and should submit as a conquered people do.
Not long after the 1953 dissent by the North, all Nigerian leaders closed ranks and commenced the serious business of planning and negotiating for an orderly disengagement. Dates were set without apologies or recriminations until full independence was achieved in 1960. Northern leaders had respect, and in turn respected leaders from other parts of Nigeria. It took a statesmanly posture and a five minute speech from Sir Abubakar Tarfawa Balewa to resolve the bitter disputes over the 1956 census figures.
The 1959 elections disputes were resolved because the North realized the need for compromise, and because the two regions in the South realized that alienating the North entirely in a political gang-up was likely to end the Nigerian union. A confident North was able and willing to enter into alliances with powerful interests in the South; carve out a Region in the former Western Region and maintain a level head in the wake of the constitutional crisis which followed the 1964 elections.
The tragic consequences of the 1996 coup have shaped virtually all major developments in Nigeria since then. Even in times of extreme adversity, Northern leaders were consistent in standing up for Northern and national interests. The North sacrificed its cohesive unity when Northern officers created states to cripple the potency of the threat of secessation from the East. Its plural nature was given politico-legal expression by the creation of States on the basis of some elements of northern minority interests. Northern military officers led the war against a rebellion, and northern limbs and lives reclaimed the territorial integrity of the Nigerian state, while northern blood nourished its full re-integration.
The North paid its dues in terms of the damage of prolonged military rule. Northern officers overthrew Northern officers as well elected leaders in the scramble for power and its spoils. Northern military officers made thousands of southern businessmen millionaires through state patronage, while destitution and underdevelopment became more pronounced in their region. Still operating under the illusion that they had powers to decide who ruled Nigeria, they bungled the 1992 elections; reinstated full military rule with Abacha, and after him, embarked on an ill-fated attempt to re-engineer a new national leadership after their own image, under President Obasanjo.
Northern hegemony came unstuck after 1999. Obasanjo’s eight years showed Northern politicians that they had grossly exaggerated their capacity to control and determine the direction of political developments in Nigeria. Within the first four years of his two terms, Obasanjo had completely dismantled the northern political establishment that created him, and the northern political elite has been on the defensive since then.
The hunter became the hunted, when Obasanjo made a mockery of PDP’s zoning formula and showed up the impotence of the northern political leadership in the manner he engineered the emergence of the presidency of Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan. The ill-fated northern consensus enterprise against President Jonathan showed up the abject powerlessness of the northern political elite. A northern PDP gang-up played into the hands of Jonathan, who exploited all the faultlines of faith and fear in the North to weaken the region. Other northern politicians joined in the scramble for the heart and soul of the North, and thousands of people went on a killing and burning spree in much of the North to protest the 2011 election results.
After 2011 lines were more firmly drawn. The North had become politically decimated. Political opposition was weak and localized. The president took over the mantle of leadership in the midst of ashes and rubble and widespread bitterness. His immediate supporters saw a regional resistance and hostility against him only because of his geo-ethnic and religious identity. He himself felt alienated from much of the North, which is now having to contend with an intensifying threat from an insurgency President Jonathan had inherited. Tragically, the insurgency was wrongly labeled as a political resistance against a Jonathan presidency by people who lost power to him.
The nation began to drift further apart. The Southwest built up a politically-homogenous enclave and began to live under the illusion that it was safe from the rest of Nigeria. The East made capital out of the fortunes of the South South, and its people paid a heavy price as victims of a religion-inspired insurgency in the North. The South-South basked in new found affluence, and the confidence that comes from believing that it can get away with whatever it desires. The North became further fragmented politically, swamped by a rampaging insurgency and the crippling decay of its economy.
This was the context in which President Jonathan decided to convene the National Conference. Lets be clear about this. This is the moment of the greatest weakness of northern leaders. Of all the power blocs that could resist him, the weakest is the northern bloc. A dangerous insurgency has developed from within it, and it has been powerless to fight it, or to get the President to fight it with better results. Its politicians are generally hostile to him, but their hold on their people is very weak. The region has been badly damaged by ethno-religious divisions, suspicions and conflicts. Its economy is crumbling by the day. Its attempt to cobble, together with the Southwest, a broader political opposition holds some promise, but this promise can be subverted by deepening the faultlines around the region’s pluralism. In short, the North is powerless to resist.
In spite of major setbacks suffered by the National Conference idea, President Jonathan had insisted it had to go ahead. It suffered from the denunciation that it will not be a sovereign conference. It has been condemned for not accepting to end up with a brand new constitution. It has been condemned for having its output submitted to the National Assembly, without a referendum. It has been condemned over its timing so close to an election. It has been condemned for lack of legitimacy by its nominated delegates, for its no-go areas and for ignoring basic indices historically used in determining participation quotas.
The release of the delegates list has crippled this conference even more seriously. It is setting the North against the South, which may be a good for President Jonathan if that is his plan. It is offending Nigerian Muslims with roughly 198 delegates, while Christians have 294. It is offending northern Christians in the North-West; Muslims in Plateau State and the North Central zone; Christian communities in the North East; Ijaws, Ogonis and South Western Muslims. A few weeks ago the Nigeria Supreme Council on Islamic Affairs whose President-General is the Sultan published a paid advert in which it raised very serious questions around the credibility and legitimacy of the Conference. That was even before the list was released.
All these quarrels and reservations are unlikely to change President Jonathan’s mind over holding the Conference. Which logically leads to the question: what could possibly be the benefit to the President and the nation if a Conference so thoroughly condemned still goes ahead? At this stage, it is only safe to offer some possible answers. One is that the arguments and controversies have been deliberately designed to cause havoc to Northern unity and deepen its problems.
This will make it easier for President Jonathan to exploit the fall out for his re-election campaigns. Another is the possibility that these offensive and provocative imbalances are products of poor management and scant attention to sensitivities and details. That someone may be naive to think issues about faith and region, or even the loaded pro-PDP participation may be managed by a good agenda that allows issues to be discussed and decided without delegates subjecting them to parochial sentiments beats the imagination. In today’s Nigeria this is not an assumption that will find massive endorsement; particularly because the Conference itself has been convened principally because it is assumed that our federal system needs to undergo serious restructuring along ethnic lines. Whoever designs a Conference with the prime objective of addressing perceived grievances over how ethnic (and religious) groups relate to each other in Nigeria, and then fails to secure the most minimal levels of inclusiveness of such groups cannot be said to be in search of solutions.
In any case, here we are, on the eve of a an event which can have a major impact on our future, or end up as an almighty quarrel that will cost us billions. If it is seen as a mere talkshop, then some of the most prominent and accomplished Nigerians who are delegates should feel insulted that they have been reduced to participating in an infertile junket, that will, like past events, gather dust and become another reference point in our history of failures.
If it is planned as a serious forum to discuss matters that could substantially alter the manner Nigerians relate to each other, then the serious and patriotic delegates should ask whether they are going into an arena blindfolded. How will the Conference manage damaging quarrels that it is unrepresentative, and skewed deliberately to achieve very narrow partisan interests? This is where the weaknesses of the North show even more glaringly. None of the demands of its leaders on the timing, status or composition of the Conference has been met. In fairness, it should be said that neither have those of Ohaneze, Ndigbo and Afenifere.
Yet, Northern leaders have been nominated into a Conference at which they will be a numerical minority, and many of them lead prominent Northern groups and have the mandates of Governors, though not the people. If this Conference does take a life of its own and flies off against the core interests of the North which, in any case, will be represented by the most disunited and mutually-hostile delegation, who will apply the brakes? In 1953 the North stood as one, sure of its position and the nation respected and came to terms with that position. Its leader chose to stay back in Kaduna as Premier while Abubakar Tafawa Balewa went to Lagos as Prime Minister. This was what they thought best suited Northern interests.
Today our cream of leaders are scrambling to attend a Conference that their children should be attending. They have no fallback positions, no gameplan and very little strategy, since they are unsure of the nature of the game. An attempted walkout or withdrawal will expose the weaknesses of the region even more severely, because no one interest or group can muster enough influence over all Northern delegates.
This is a Conference that will have neither the time nor the clout to take up the alarming rise of violence in the lives of Northerners. It will not have the capacity to ask how the Nigerian military, the same military that fought a successful civil war; the same one that took peace to Liberia and Sierra Leone, the same one that has acquired an international reputation as peace keeper and paid for that reputation with blood, lives and limbs; it cannot ask how that same military cannot protect children from being slaughtered in their schools, or protect young girls from being abducted, or entire villages being razed to the ground routinely.
The Conference will be engaged in quarrels over composition of Committees, rules and agenda, while Northerners ask who exactly is killing them in towns and villages in Borno, Yobe, Adamawa, Benue, Plateau, Nassarawa and Kaduna States. No one is sure what Boko Haram is anymore; and questions are being asked over the claims that nomads-farmers clashes are actually about Fulani cattle rearers seeking for food for their cattle, and villagers are only protecting their little produce and their pieces of land. Nothing is more pressing for the North than to put an end to the horrendous assaults on the lives of our people.
We will not find answers at this Conference. And we will not find answers to the decaying infrastructure in the North; or solutions to millions of our young citizens who are uneducated, unskilled and unemployed; or solutions to the dangerous trend which sheds so much Northern blood every time elections come. We will not find answers at this Conference to the questions over how Nigerians can ensure that the elections of 2015 do reflect the will of the people; that the North does not become another battleground for an election that could make it an even weaker component on the Nigerian federation.
The North will participate in this Conference at best as a spectator, or at worst a helpless victim of a conspiracy to exploit its weaknesses. Yet, everyone says it must attend. They say it must attend because everyone else is attending. So the North is now reduced to escorting others’ agenda. This is the same North that determined the fate and destiny of this nation for many decades. This is the same North with over 70% of the productive landmass, the region with a much larger majority of the population; the region with potentials to develop and grow a world class economy.
This is the North that is reduced to reacting to dangerous political stimulus, or having its young people reacting violently at the slightest perceived provocation. This is the North that is powerless to protect Northerners who are now routinely labeled as terrorists in many parts of the South just for being Northerners travelling in lorries. This is the North whose leaders will sit with delegates from other parts of the nation that are creating islands of affluence from resources unfairly allocated to them. Leaders of the North will parley with delegates who see the North as the only problem in Nigeria; a problem that has to be reduced to manageable proportions. In simple terms, this means depriving the North of its capacity to utilize its population to re-assert itself as a key player in political competition.
When the Conference takes off, simple folk will follow it avidly, and some will even hope that some good will come out of it. Whatever happens, it will involve many Northerners. Many will attend because they believe they can right all its wrongs once they are there. They will be wrong. This Conference remains a provocative diversion. While it goes on, the killings may continue, but they will receive less attention. Political activities and preparations for the 2015 elections will pick up, but the Conference will divert attention from potential breaches and manipulations which may compromise the elections.
If the North had a strong, cohesive and visionary leadership today, no one will dare design a Conference that so blatantly offends all indices of justice and fairness. If they did, the North would have had none of it. It could, in fact, organize its own Conference and the world would have sat up and noticed. It would invite all leaders from all groups, because the North has no quarrel with any ethnic group. But above all, it would have ensured that there would have been no need for a Conference of this nature.
For the Northern delegates who are about to enter the ring with one hand tied behind your back, we can only appeal to your conscience to do the right thing. Do not attend if all the Conference will give you is a few millions in allowances and three months in a comfortable hotel, away from all the problems of your people. If you have to attend, pay close attention to how the Conference can redress its massive baggage. Insist that the offensive imbalance between Muslims and Christians are addressed; that Christians in some parts of North who are not represented are; Muslims who have been ignored find a voice in the Conference; insist, before the Conference takes off that its composition is balanced.
If you cannot achieve this, work to prevent any discussion of any substance, because this Conference is the least qualified of all Conferences in the past, to discuss serious issues. If you cannot do any of these, walk out. Resist the temptation to believe that the North will be hurt more if it has no delegates at this Conference. Every Northerner who walks out robs the Conference of more of the very little credibility it has. The more of you that walk out, the less likely it will be that they will claim that they held a National Conference.
So, for those who insist on attending, here is wishing you luck. While you talk with other Nigerians, please remind them of the abducted young girls from Borno and Yobe and Adamawa. Remind them of the reality that even as you sleep in your air-conditioned hotels, entire villages may be attacked for hours and young and old people killed, and girls and women abducted. Remind them that you represent a people who are proud to be Nigerians; who want to see a more secure, more prosperous Nigeria. Remind them that our people are tired of fighting, and all we want to fight now is poverty and impunity of leaders. If you have a chance to put in a word on the Conference itself, advise that the Nation holds a more representative, more legitimate and more popular Conference sometime after the 2015 elections.
Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed delivered this piece as a keynote address at the Northern Reawakening Forum, Kano Summit on the 10th of March, 2014
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.