First, a caveat: I am not in the business of endorsing or demarketing any presidential candidate. But what Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, the PDP flagbearer, said in Kaduna last weekend generated so much heat that I felt compelled to throw in my perspective.
Speaking to a group of northerners at the interactive session of the Arewa Townhall Policy Dialogue, Atiku said that as a northerner, he was in the best position to understand and address northern problems compared to an Igbo or a Yoruba candidate and northerners should, thus, vote for him.
In a country with explosive ethno-religious sentiments, Atiku’s misguided statement instantly provided a good raw material for politicking.
Atiku may be guilty of promoting a sectional agenda on camera, but he is not alone. Others are also “codedly” using region and religion to campaign. It is all politics. My real interest is the actual definition, or meaning, of this “northern interest” that we have been hearing for decades.
A former secondary schoolmate, whom I had not heard from in probably 35 years, got in touch with me four months ago. After the “long time no see” pleasantries, he tasked me: “Please I need you to enlighten me on this thing called the northern interest. Many northern politicians always claim to be fighting for the northern interest. Yet northern Nigeria offers the worst data when it comes to poverty.”
He was preaching to the choir. As readers would find out from several articles in my book, ‘Fellow Nigerians, It’s All Politics!’ — which is now on sale in leading Nigerian bookstores as well as on Amazon — I am always sceptical when politicians say they are doing things in the interest of “my people”.
Watching proceedings from my balcony, I have observed over time that the priority of most Nigerian politicians, northerners and southerners alike, is neither the people nor the society. It is usually about grabbing power and its perks to lord it over us, using siren and SUVs to chase the rest of us off the road. Some surprisingly build roads and schools here and there, but that is an extra.
Between 1960 and 2022, northerners have ruled Nigeria for about 47 of the 62 years. Policies have been formulated, states, councils, agencies and departments created, strategic appointments allocated, and contracts awarded — all purported to promote “the northern interest”. If indeed northern interest was the purpose, I should think that the best roads, the best hospitals, the best schools, and the biggest factories would be in the region today.
The region should be top in development indices such as literacy rate, access to water, access to healthcare, and general infrastructure.
There should be security, peace, progress and unity across the entire region.
But what do we have? The north is tops when it comes to insecurity and poverty. According to a 2020 report of the World Bank, 87 percent of poor Nigerians are northerners. Out of the 10 states most affected by cholera cases between January and July this year, there are eight northern states sitting on the chart provided by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). Lest we forget, cholera is a water-borne disease. With clean water, cholera is history. Providing clean water does not require nuclear technology. What else?
Boko Haram and bandits have been ruining the lives of hapless northerners in the last 13 years, turning millions into refugees in their own country.
What then is this “northern interest” that we always hear? I want to borrow a leaf from the late Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the premier of the Northern Region from October 1, 1954 to January 15, 1966. As premier, he had a vision: to position the north as a political and socio-economic force in the Nigerian federation. At the centre of his vision was unity in diversity. He said: “Here in Northern Nigeria we have people of many different races, tribes, and religions who are knit together to common history, common interest and common ideas. The things that unite us are stronger than the things that divide us. I always remind people of our firmly rooted policy of religious tolerance.”
His actions matched his words. He made critical appointments that accommodated all and sundry. You did not have to be Hausa, Fulani or Muslim to be in his inner circle. The man Bello made prime minister (as he preferred to remain a premier) was Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a minority Gere man from today’s Bauchi state. Years ago, a retired general told me that in the first set of foreign scholarships awarded by Bello, nobody from his home Sokoto caliphate benefited. When he created the School of Agriculture, which was prestigious given the nature of the northern economy, he did not site it in his village. He located it in Kabba.
He promoted unity in diversity in word and in deed. To make the north compete in a changing world, Bello encouraged Western education. Before colonialism, northerners had their own civilisation rooted in Islamic and Arabic education. They were already writing in Hausa, using the Ajami script, a form of Arabic. The colonial masters incorporated Ajami into national symbols to preserve their culture and history.
But the other ethnic groups, such as Yoruba (who also used Ajami at some point) and Igbo, were using the Latin script and the north was inevitably misaligned because of the clash of cultures.
Bello embraced Western education all the same. He set up the University of Northern Nigeria, later renamed Ahmadu Bello University (ABU).
Bello wanted the north to be an economic power in the Nigerian federation. In 1962, two years after establishing the Bank of the North (now part of Unity Bank), the Sardauna engaged a British consulting firm, Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners, to do an economic and industrial survey of the north.
Abubakar Liman, a professor of comparative literature and popular culture at the ABU, in a newspaper article, noted that the report focused on the Nigerian economy: industries based on local raw materials; industries based on imported raw materials; general administrative factors; and public services. They identified agriculture as the cornerstone of northern Nigeria’s economy.
The broad classification of industries and services was disaggregated into textiles, milling, tanning, leather footwear, sugar, fisheries, tobacco, cement, asbestos, building materials, starch, glucose, bags, timber, sawmills, boat building, fruit canning, etc.
Same year, Bello rejuvenated the Northern Nigerian Development Company (NNDC) with the mandate of stimulating economic growth in the north. At a point in history, NNDC’s wholly-owned subsidiaries included Kaduna Hotels, Arewa Hotels, Arewa Suites Limited, Aso Motel, and Sokoto Hotel, etc. NNDC had substantial shareholding in Arewa Textiles, Chellco Industries, Critall-Hope, Funtua Textiles, Gaskiya Corporation, etc.
If I may extrapolate, therefore, I would say one “northern interest” the Sardauna pursued with his might was the unity of the region irrespective of religion and ethnicity.
There are roughly 200 ethnic groups in the north, with Hausa, Fulani, Kanuri, Nupe and Tiv in the majority, but Bello behaved as the leader of all. Another northern interest that the Sardauna pursued with determination was quality education for his people, girls and women inclusive.
He built schools and awarded scholarships. Yet another northern interest was robust economic development, so his people could work and compete with dignity and industry. Clearly, the people were at the centre of his vision.
It would appear that “northern interest” today is about the sharing of “juicy” appointments and contracts that, all said and done, will only favour a tiny class of people and keep the others as servants, beggars and street urchins.
Many northerners today are very comfortable with the almajiri system which keeps young people down and out, with no skills and no future to look forward to. They are only useful for elections.
The politicians keep telling them to “vote for a northerner”. The elite would rather discourage them from receiving Western education (“they want to convert you to Christianity”) while their own children are schooling in UK, US and UAE. Northern interest indeed!
Sadly, the ordinary northerners that Bello toiled for have become the biggest victims of poor governance. Zamfara state that used to be home to Zamfara Textiles, John Holt Tannery, Gusau Oil Mills and cotton ginnery plants is now a den of bandits who have made life miserable for farmers and traders.
Religious intolerance, which the Sardauna preached against, has come to define the north. I never read of any religious killings under his watch. It would appear the more northerners got political power, the poorer and more insecure the ordinary northerners became. The neglected people became easy recruits for terrorists, insurgents and bandits. Bello would cry in his grave.
The northerner is today a subject of scorn. The northern farmer who treks miles to till his land with bare hands and produce the yams and tomatoes that feed the nation is classified as a “parasite on our oil” while the “productive and hardworking” Niger Delta states get 13 percent derivation thanks to the multinationals who use sophisticated equipment to drill the oil.
Yet, a northern voter has been pre-programmed to think the solution to his or her problem is to elect a northerner as president to protect the “northern interest”.
Ordinary northerners would see their poverty as a divine design as the predatory elite continue to stockpile obscene wealth in the “northern interest”.
I know I risk being accused of exaggeration and overgeneralisation. Indeed, I testify that there are many northern leaders who are working relentlessly to revive and emulate Sardauna’s ideals.
There are still governors and other politicians with vision and passion for development. But they are in the minority.
However, should we still be talking about “northern interest” and “southern interest” after 70 years of self-rule, including 62 years of independence from colonialism?
Shouldn’t we be more engrossed in the national interest at this stage?
When are we going to rise above region and religion and focus on the matter that really matters: lifting millions of Nigerians out of poverty and misery?
*First published in Thisday.