By Chido Onumah
This piece is not a response to the “North’s” position on the National Conference. I believe every individual or group has the right to respond to the conference as they deem necessary. Rather, it seeks to address the crisis of identity which is at the root of the Nigerian tragedy.
Who are we? What is Nigeria? The answer to these questions can help us understand the various issues confronting us as a country and what our responses have been, whether it is the politics of oil, religion or geo-political space.
There is nothing new about the comments of those who claim to represent the “North”.
If we look at developments in pre-independence Nigeria, the “North’s” response to the Unification Decree No. 34 of May 24,1966, by the military junta led by Gen. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, or the introduction of Sharia law in some states in the “North”, historically, the “North” has always been in favour of political autonomy and fiscal federalism. It is strange, therefore, that there is so much angst in the “North” when it comes to the issue of autonomy and fiscal federalism.
When we hear people talk about the “North” in Nigeria, what exactly are they talking about? Is it a people bound by a common religion, culture, history or geography? Are there really “Northerners” in the sense that there are Fulanis, Hausas, Jukuns, Tivs, Igbos, Egons Yorubas, Ijaws, Efiks, etc? I assume that just as the Afenifere Renewal Group and Odu’a People’s Congress can’t claim to represent the “West”, Ohaneze Ndigbo and Biafra Zionist Federation (BZF) can’t claim to represent the “East”, the NEF and the ACF can’t claim to represent the “North”.
Which people or what interest do our “northern” hegemonists represent? That of the major ethnicities in the “North” or that of a particular religion? Will the proponents of the theory of the “North” accept, for example, a President David Mark or Bukola Saraki – not that I wish for either man to come anywhere near the presidency – as truly representative of the “North”?
I don’t know what goes on in the minds of the likes of Bugaje, Mohammed and their fellow travellers in the NEF and ACF when they have to refer to themselves as Nigerians or when they see Nigerians who are not from the “North”. They approbate and reprobate at the same time. Bugaje, for example, appropriates 72% of Nigeria for his “North”; the NEF talks about the “exploitation and management of its own (emphasis mine) human and other resources,” yet they deny other people the right to lay claim to “their land” and its resources!
The political and intellectual class in northern Nigeria talks and acts as if the “North” is a separate country from the rest of Nigeria. But the “North”, just as the concept of the “West” and the “East”, is a myth; a convenient alibi for those who seek to perpetually keep Nigeria disunited in the promotion of their personal agenda.
Of course, northern Nigeria may have peculiar problems which are the result of the activities of the criminal band called rulers (many of them from the “North”) Nigeria has had since independence, but if we see the “North” as part and parcel of Nigeria, then these problems become the problems of Nigeria rather than the problems of the “North”.
Perhaps, the belief in the theory of a monolithic “North” explains the warped view of some commentators who, rather than hold military dictators like Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha responsible for ruining the country, make reference to the “North” as being responsible for the country’s woes. As if the majority of the downtrodden in the “North” gathered and agreed to give power to these iniquitous generals and join them in the ruination of Nigeria.
We can find many Usman Bugajes and Junaid Mohammeds around the country; people who still live with the pre-1914 and civil war mentality. When we talk of the “North”, “East” or “West” the way Bugaje and others describe it, we set ourselves in perpetual conflict with Nigeria. The political and military class from the “North” has ruled Nigeria for the better part of its independence. What have northerners, much less the rest of the country, to show for it?
It is scandalous that after more than 50 years of independence we are still embroiled in the debate of “who owns the oil”. While other countries are working hard to wean themselves off oil and develop alternative sources of energy, we are busy wasting scarce human and financial resources searching for more oil. Rather than planning for a life after oil and developing other resources in the country, our indolent military and political rulers luxuriated in the easy and quick wealth that crude oil provided.
They became drunk on crude oil and nourished a generation of Nigerians for whom nothing else matters apart from oil. Perhaps, if that vermin, Sani Abacha, and the “Evil Genius”, Ibrahim Babangida, both military dictators from the “North” knew that the oil belonged to the “North”, they would have used the proceeds judiciously in the interest of the working and toiling people of the “North” whose names are invoked at every opportunity.
Nigeria will not be great simply because our rulers say so. Nigeria will not be united just because our politicians say at every opportunity that, “The unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable” or that “Nigeria will not disintegrate”. Nation-building is not a whimsical business. Our rulers have done absolutely nothing to advance the unity of Nigeria. What our rulers have succeeded in doing is that where we should see Nigerians we see Christians or Muslims, Igbos, Yorubas, Fulanis, Ijaws, Jukuns, Efiks, Tivs, northerners, etc.
We argue that there are more Muslims in the “North” and more Christians in the “South”, so we talk about “Muslim North” and “Christian South” and give ammunition to those whose interest is to keep us perpetually divided as if it matters to the Muslims and Christians in Sokoto, Owerri or Lagos who earn N18,000 a month what label they wear.
Let’s take four major cities (Lagos, Port Harcourt, Enugu and Kano) as examples. Have we asked ourselves why more than five decades after independence, an “Igbo man” born and bred in Lagos, a “Fulani man” born and bred in Port Harcourt, an “Ijaw man” born and bred in Kano or a “Yoruba man” born and bred in Enugu can’t aspire to be a local government chairman much less a representative or senator. There are politicians across Nigeria who can make this happen but won’t because of their provincialism and greed. Yet we go to foreign countries and aspire to run for political offices in places where we have no roots.
The fact that the “North”, according to Bugaje, has 72% of the land mass does not make “northerners” more Nigerian than the rest of the country or give them more right to anything that Nigeria has to offer. The delusional theory of the “North” explains why the so-called representatives of the “North” are paranoid about the presidency of Nigeria. If you have 72% of the country and 60% of the population, it is only natural to assume that the presidency of the country is your birthright; after all, democracy is a question of numbers.
Back to the structure of Nigeria. There is nothing like the “North”. It only exists in the imagination of those who are benefiting or seek to benefit from what that agenda offers. The so-called “North” came to an end on May 27, 1967, when Gen. Yakubu Gowon divided the country into 12 states. The “North” is a fairy tale. We shouldn’t buy it! The Constitution of Nigeria recognizes only states and local government areas, not regions. Perhaps, we can talk about geo-political zones for planning and administrative convenience.
We gloss over these issues at our own peril. We can’t talk about building a united Nigeria, a new nation that will be a global contender, while still clinging to the old ethnic, religious and regional stereotypes and fault lines that do us no good.
What is Nigeria and who is a Nigerian? If Nigeria is a federal republic, what constitutes or should constitute the federating units? Is Nigeria just a geo-political space or a mosaic of multiculturalism and multi-ethnicities? Is a Nigerian anyone born in Nigeria or with Nigerian parentage with equal rights and opportunities wherever they find themselves in Nigeria? These are some of the issues that should concern delegates at the National Conference.
We need to build a nation that is workable and acceptable to a majority, if not all Nigerians; one that the Bugajes and Mohammeds of the “North” can live freely anywhere they like and enjoy the God-given resources in the state they are domiciled while contributing their quota to the uplift of the state and the country; not a country where, at every opportunity, we talk about what divides us; a country where we treat foreigners better than our fellow countrymen and women because they speak our language or share our faith.
Clearly, Nigeria has a greater chance today of becoming the poster child of failed nations – à la Somalia – than it has of following the footsteps of Czechoslovakia and Sudan.
Beyond the sleeping delegates and the squabbles over allowances for personal aides, pimps and prostitutes, the National Conference is bringing into sharper focus the many prejudices in the country. How do we overcome these prejudices?
This is the discussion we must have – of course, in a civil manner.