Northern Nigerian Elites and National Power Struggle in Nigeria
In the July 17th edition of “Sun: Voice of the Nation” newspaper in Nigeria, a news item reported by Noah Ebije from Kaduna was published, which was entitled: “2015: Power won’t return to the South again –Sharia Leaders.” The newspaper reported some important remarks and comments made by Professor Ango Abdullahi, former Vice Chancellor of the renowned Ahmadu Bello University Zaria. I read it with keen interest. I am an ethnic and religious minority in Northern Nigeria. My father hails from Karage, in Bade Local Government Area of Yobe State and my mother from Dass, Dass Local Government Area of Bauchi State. I was born into a Christian family, and indeed, my parents were at one point, local evangelists in the denomination called “Evangelical Churches of West Africa” (ECWA).
My parents come from ethnic groups that are considered politically insignificant in the political chessboard of Northern Nigerian politics. I was raised in a small town in Ganjuwa Local Government Area of Bauchi State in a community that has a healthy and enviable peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians to this day. While working as an elementary school teacher in various parts of what used to be Darazo Local Government Area of Bauchi State, I lived in small towns where I was the only Christian, which taught me great lessons about widespread poverty, oppression, the multicultural and multi-religious nature of life in many parts of Northern Nigeria.
Although I have been away from Nigeria since 1993 when I left for the United States to pursue my doctoral studies in Sociology under the auspices of The MacArthur Scholars’ Fellowship Program at the University of Minnesota, in the Midwestern part of the country, I have continued to pursue with keen interest what is happening in my country of birth. Indeed, my passionate desire to understand and explain the relative backwardness of Nigeria’s development, especially the Northern region, made me to conduct my doctoral fieldwork research comparing the role of ruling elite coalitions in development policy formulation and implementation in Malaysia and Nigeria. I deliberately chose Malaysia because it is a predominantly Muslim country that has made phenomenal progress in terms of economic and human development after independence in 1957.
At this point in my life, I have lived more than fifty percent of the life expectancy of a person like myself living in the United States, all other things being equal. For this reason, I have had time to reflect on my life based on the life history method of research,i which has made me to feel terribly disappointed about the state of public affairs in Nigeria as a whole, but Northern Nigeria in particular. When I enrolled in the School of General Studies, Bayero University, Kano in the summer of 1982, I had great hope and expectation that by this time in my life, Nigeria would be a great nation among the comity of nations. I expected also that it would be a nation that inspires hope and confidence among developing nations in their pursuit of a more just and fairer society that upholds the human dignity of all without malicious discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, gender, socioeconomic status, region of birth, etc. I was quite aware that, sociologically, we cannot create a society where everyone is equal, but by the same token, it would be morally, ethically, and socially irresponsible for us to ignore the struggle for a more just and fairer human society for the benefit of all.
It is in this respect that I find the remarks and comments made by the esteemed Professor Ango Abduallahi very disappointing in terms of how it characterizes the vision of the most articulate coalition of Northern Nigerian elites who presumably have the legitimate right and privilege to speak for all Northern Nigerians. My reflection below is in many respects an expression of not only my frustration and lamentation with regard to the situation in Northern Nigeria but also the frustration and lamentation of many other Nigerians.
While I am an ethnic and religious minority in the North, my interest and passion is in the struggle for a more just and fairer Northern Nigeria society as part of a cohesive Nigerian nation and the human race at large. Poverty and underdevelopment are social conditions and anyone who happens to be a victim of such social conditions or situations will suffer the ugly consequences that emanate from them irrespective of his or her ethnicity, religion, gender, region of birth, race, national origin, etc. That is why the social struggle to eradicate or alleviate poverty and underdevelopment has to be built on an understanding of the human condition and human race, broadly speaking.
I will begin by highlighting some themes from Professor Ango Abdullahi’s remarks and comments before providing a critique, and then conclude by sharing some of my thoughts about what I think about the future of Northern Nigeria as part of the Nigerian nation and the human race at large.
Summary and observations on themes in Professor Abdullahi’s interview
First, the article in reference based on the interview with the Professor, asserted that there are “six Northern groups” that claimed to have the legitimate right and responsibility to represent all Northern Nigerians in terms of negotiating how presidential power or office will be rotated between the Northern region and other regions of the country. The groups are: Northern Elders’ Forum (NEF), Arewa Consultative Forum, Northern Union, Arewa Reawakening Forum (ARF), Arewa Research and Development Project (ARDP), and Code Group (CG). These groups claim to have the legitimate right and responsibility to speak for the North. Yet, it is one thing to make such a claim, but another thing to demonstrate concretely and authentically how the groups have earned this legitimate right and privilege, and how they truly represent the interests of the “talakawas” of Northern Nigeria who are the majority of the population in the region. I am not a Hausa-Fulani person by birth, but socially, I grew up as one of the “talakwas” and my family in Bauchi State still live as part of them.
Second, based on the interview, there is an assumption that Northern Nigeria, in spite of the region’s diversity is monolithic and if at all there is diversity, the main criterion for understanding the diversity is the ethnic interests of social groups or regions within the North. There is little or no attempt to concede that social groups or organizations that on the surface claim to represent the interest of a collectivity may just be masking the interest of privileged social classes or elite groups who try to strategically legitimize their private political aspirations by claiming to represent the ordinary masses in the Northern region. Any attempt to understand and represent social and cultural diversity in the North specifically, and in Nigeria, in general, that ignores social class inequality as an important criterion for understanding diversity is dubious in its claimed sincerity.
Third, the Professor’s comments reified the North to the point where there is something like “the North having power.” If the idea of the North having power has some automatic and direct concrete bearing to the lives of the ordinary masses or “talakawas,” then one would observe that, fifty years after independence, it is as if the North has not held power at all, given that the inequality and development gap between the North and south that started during the colonial period has actually significantly widened in many respects. This yawning gap in development is having serious implications for the nation’s political economy of development. What did the North do with the power it held for many years? Did some people use the power in the North to cater for their interest while ignoring the welfare of the “talakwas” and the Nigerian masses in general?
Fourth, the interview highlighted that “in the North, we have certain traditions.” Although politeness is suggested as one of the integral elements of Northern traditional virtues, there is indeed much to be said about that than what was said. Friedrich Nietzsche argues that there are three types of histories: monumental history, which is history written from the perspective of the powerful and privileged in a society; antiquarian history, which is history that is primarily concerned about uncritically glorifying the past and trying to reenact it into the present; and critical history, which is history written from the perspective of people who are socially marginalized and pushed to the periphery of the state and society.ii
Professor Abdullahi’s approach to understanding Northern tradition is in my assessment, one that can be characterized as that of the powerful and privileged elite of the North, while for many of us who are “talakwas,” the masses, religious and ethnic minorities, we will view Northern tradition from the point of view of critical history, i.e., looking at the traditions from the bottom up as socially marginalized people, the nobodies of the North. That is the approach that informs my analysis of his interview and remarks that follows. By implication, justice and fairness is not an important Northern tradition that warrants being mentioned in his interview on rotating the presidency of Nigeria.
Fifth, the Professor made the point that the North has a “style of governance,” which makes the leaders of the region, “behave slightly different from the others.” One might ask, looking at the past fifty years since independence, what does the scorecard indicates about the leadership brand of Northern Nigerian elites at federal, state and local government levels? I want the facts to speak for themselves. Fifty years after independence, the North has the highest degree of poverty, illiteracy, and underdevelopment in the country. It has created social conditions that constitute a fertile ground for the emergence of social unrest, religious suspicion, youth unemployment and lack of clear focus in the pursuit of a just and egalitarian society.
Sixth, from the point of view of methods of historical analysis and understanding, the Professor implies that the best way to get a deep and meaningful understanding of the Nigerian state and society is through the perspective of regions, regional entitlements and regional sacrifices. The North has presumably made a lot of sacrifices by allowing power to go to certain regions, which implicitly suggests the Northern ownership of the country’s presidency merely based on population headcount, and not some profound vision or commitment to some universal human ideals that should define the economic and human development of all the country’s regions and peoples. There is not even a sense of bourgeois nationalism. This assumes that everyone in the North suffers or is rewarded to the same degree in this struggle. But struggle for what if I may ask? Can this assumption that the Northern elites have made sacrifices for the nation to the same degree that the ordinary masses have made be supported by empirical evidence? I doubt so.
Finally, it is implied in the interview that even in the 21st century, the coalition of visionary Northern elites that Professor Abdullahi represents, presumably, believes that the best way to ensure that different regions in Nigeria feel they are an integral part of the country is through the “acceptance of the rotation of power between the North and the South.” Once the regions are represented then every person within the region is assumed to automatically believe and feel that he or she is part of the country. This regional inclusion that as envisioned is very abstract since it does not specify any substantive vision, mechanism, process and the concrete ways in which people within the regions would be made to feel that they are truly an integral part of the state and society of Nigeria.
At least we have seen the Professor and his type speaking and claiming to represent everyone in Northern Nigeria for a very long time now, and especially, when the nation is approaching national elections. The struggle for political power is presented as a shared collective social democratic struggle by all Northerners, but the benefits of such a struggle from experience are always privatized (i.e., a kind of ersatz capitalism). This way of thinking ignores that comparisons that primarily focus on between-groups differences often ignore within-group variation, which means even when regional inequality is reduced, inequality within regions tends to be ignored since the main focus of the elites is the differences between national regions as groups. It serves their interest well to do that.
In lamenting the shortsightedness and selfishness of the behavior of such dominant elites in Northern Nigerian, Professor Mahdi Abdullahi made the following profound and insightful observation:
The very little segment of the society that has been able to get education work very closely with the southerners, in government, in boardrooms of companies, in banking, in virtually all the institutions. Any benefit from the federal government falls to a handful of people in the North. Together with the southerners they reap a lot of benefits. They are the same people, who when they feel they are losing out on sharing the so-called national cake, say “no domination.’ When things are going fine, they don’t care.iii
One can observe this trend in South Africa as well where there are many blacks that have become millionaires which means as a group, they have made some progress in reducing the wide gap between whites and blacks, but the degree of inequality within the black community has widened and worsened. This means there is more focus on group differences than on what is happening to ordinary citizens in their struggle for a better life. With this brief introduction, here is my critical assessment of issues that come up in Professor Ango Abdullahi’s comments and remarks.
i Goodson, Ivor and Pat Sikes. 2008. Life History Research in Educational Settings: Learning From Lives. New York: Open University Press.
ii Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. 1980. On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life.Hackett Publishing Company.
iii Cited in Maier, Karl.2000. This House Has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Westview Press. Pp.155-156.