By Suleiman A. Suleiman

Published in the Daily Trust Newspaper |
of Sunday, June 30, 2024

NEWSDAILYNIGERIA: Northern Nigeria is in tatters, politically, economically and socially. Almost everywhere you turn, the news is of death, destruction and despair as if we were a rudderless and leaderless people.

The sober detachment required to think through and illuminate what is going on in the North today is difficult to summon, given that we are intellectuals and ordinary folks alike, all caught up in the mess and nearly all overwhelmed by it. But we must try.

The argument for the social collapse of northern Nigeria is easy to make, if unpalatable to admit. First, an incline in religiosity has combined paradoxically but seamlessly with a precipitous decline in moral values right from the family level. Second, the traditional institutions, previously firm epicentres of northern society, have been degraded by politics and the narrow-minded political ambitions of a few. Third, education, which should be a prized heritage of this very society, is either priced out of the reach of millions or lost its real value among many who have it. And where personal integrity was the default currency of all social transactions in northern Nigeria to the envy and admiration of other Nigerians, money is the new god, such that people do just about anything in pursuit of it. The result is a society that has not only lost its social and cultural guardrails but is unable to reinvent them for the age we now live.

The economic case is equally easy to make, if all the more perplexing. The northern economy, based on agriculture, manufacturing, and trade, has long been effectively grounded. And none of the North’s two layers of leadership – the federal government and the 19 state governors – has proven capable of reimagining in 25 years what Sardauna achieved economically for the region in 10.

The Bank of the North building in Kano, the Turaki Ali House in Kaduna and other tall buildings erected in several northern cities and towns in the 1960s and 70s were a sky-is-the-limit statement for the future of the northern private sector. That future is here, but we might as well return to the 1960s because Sardauna’s heirs now know only to erect silly flyovers in a region where the predominant means of township travel remains the human foot.

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But all of these are a story for another day. For now, let us focus on the political dysfunction in the North in a Nigeria where almost everything is stacked against it. On this, I deduce a tripod of factors: former President Buhari’s failure to fully grasp and execute the mission of his two terms in office; the acutely disappointing quality of governance in many a northern state, particularly since 2015; and above all, the behaviour of northern politicians and officeholders under a southern presidency.

As I wrote recently for this newspaper, Buhari’s most important goals in 2015 were two: to reunite the North and its people politically as much as possible and to reinvigorate the region economically, even if this also meant achieving as much for the rest of the country. He failed woefully at the first, and badly at the second, even though his 2015 victory in the northern states was both a loud cry for political unification of the region and a demonstration of it. Had he but tried hard enough, he could have left northern Nigeria in a better shape, politically and economically.

And there is no contradiction of any sort here: a better North is a better Nigeria.

Instead, former President Buhari watched and fiddled, literally as the North burned, and as poverty, banditry, communal conflicts and criminalities of all kinds festered to uncontrollable levels. The result is very much the North we now have; that is, a region worse off in all but a few aspects than it was in 2015.

Buhari’s failure, in this regard, was compounded by the even worse failures of many a northern governor who served before, especially during his two terms.

I often wonder what ideals and values underpin political leadership at the state level in the North these days, since before politics or policy, there must first be values, as Dr Mahmud Tukur so admirably articulated specifically for our context in his Leadership and Governance in Nigeria: The Relevance of Values, published at the onset of this dispensation.

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But by far, the explanatory factor for why northern Nigeria is in tatters today, politically and economically, is the poor management of its affairs during a southern presidency. For 40 years after independence, and a few before it, northerners held the reins of power in Nigeria’s federal government, from the highest office to anything else of consequence. This was, and remains the main source of the bitter rivalry between the North and the South in Nigerian politics. But southern Nigeria, used to life without federal power, quickly built on its historical advantages to take effective control of the commanding heights of the economy, bureaucracy, the media, civil society, and everything else besides, all the while still fighting for “power shift”.

In fact, much of what is called the “struggle for democracy” in the later 1990s in Nigerian politics is more accurately a fight for power shift for many in the South. The North, on the other hand, long used to having federal power, did not bother to prepare politically for life under a southern presidency. The result is a different and characteristic feel to northern politics whenever a southerner is elected president, as happened under former Presidents Obasanjo and Jonathan. It is now also happening already under President Tinubu.

Northern Nigeria elites and ordinary northerners alike tend to be gripped by a strange political nervousness under a southern president. This is expressed in a heightened sense of victimhood, higher levels of political activism than under a northern president, and thus, a higher level of political unity among ordinary northerners, as was most evident under Obasanjo’s first term.

Among the northern political elite, however, a fierce competition for power ensues under a southern president. Some fight to be the next vice president and thus must undermine the current one; some fight to be the next president when power must return to the North; and yet others fight just to enter into or remain in the good books of the sitting president. This was most evident under Jonathan, and in the end, contributed to his ruin.

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Under Tinubu, both features – political nervousness and unity of the northern voters and fierce competition for power among the northern political elite – are happening already, and both at the same time. But the latter, in particular, means mutual destruction and dog-eat-dog for northern politics, as personal interest takes precedence over regional collective interest, which in turn weakens the region further politically and leaves it without any clear direction even when power returns. You can discern this already in the cold war against Malam Nasir el-Rufai (not exactly innocent himself), the hot war for 2027 in Kano; the barely concealed war against the Sultan; the silent wars between the presidency and Zamfara and Katsina states on the other over the approach to insecurity, and of course, in the “colt” (as in both cold and hot) war among highly-placed northerners within the presidency itself.

Which way out? Three things. First, northern politicians must learn a lesson from their forebears. Sa’adu Zungur, Aminu Kano, Joseph Tarka and indeed Tafawa Balewa and the Sardauna all had good friends and formed political alliances among southern politicians. They also fought bitter political wars at home. But they took care to avoid anything that could weaken the region through mutual destruction.

El-Rufai, Kwankwaso and Atiku all have their faults, but their political destruction, for whatever reason, will weaken the North as a whole. Second, it is time northern politicians developed a set of region-wide policies around which both federal and local politics must revolve. And in that, they can learn a lesson from southern politicians.

The South always gets what it wants in Nigerian politics: power shift, resource control, the economy, state police, constitutional reform, and what else besides. They have policies they fight for within Nigeria’s federal setting, and thus, know what to do with power when they get it. What exactly are northern politicians and high federal officeholders fighting for?

I rest my case.


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