As its dictionary meaning suggests, conundrum can either be a “confusing and difficult problem or question”. Yet, in its other connotation, it implies something akin to “riddle” – a word that in children’s game ultimately requires unraveling, if at all we are to make meaningful headway in our attempt to resolve its puzzle.
The topic for our discussion is of course northern Nigeria’s unending economic woes currently making the headlines. We can sensibly describe our woes as a riddle that is full of attendant negative consequences. As you and I know very well, this riddle is everywhere threatening to destroy our modest gains in building our society, call it social development if you will. So far, no matter how we want to view social scales in northern Nigeria, we must be brave enough to admit the fact that somehow significant gains were recorded in the first and second decades of Nigeria’s independence. Afterwards, we went to sleep through our miscalculation in the geostrategic game of our regional rivalry. I must admit that the strings of tragedy trailing Nigeria as a whole since the discovery of crude oil under its soil are one too many to recount in a constrained space of a newspaper column. Indubitably, however, from whichever angle we may wish to look at it, there are casualties in the ensuing quandary.
The major collective loss in Nigeria as a whole, in my estimation, could be deciphered from the erasure of our collective sense, will and determination. And this is sudden, complete and flagrantly devastating. Slowly but surely, things began to get murkier ever since the departure of not just our sense of vision and mission, but rational planning and prudent management of our God-given resources. The other loss is in abandoning the idea of becoming a viable postcolonial African nation based on honesty, justice, hard work, diligence and industry. Never mind the multifarious tales of the bumper harvest of first generation of leaders that gradually ebbed out of our peculiar horizon. In relative terms, each section of Nigeria had its own fair share of the economic downturn. But in the geopolitical struggle of Nigeria’s unique species, some organisms are more prone to survival than others. Thus, of the three quisling enclaves – the South West, the South East and the North – the latter fief that once upon a time used to enjoy some modicum of economic respectability before the discovery of oil, especially during the era of regional contests for economic growth and development as well as for the soul of Nigeria, now seems to be very uncertain of its future.
However, in the ongoing media discourse on the reversal of northern Nigeria’s economic fortunes, views articulated by those who are considered knowledgeable in economic sciences smacked of hot air, half-truths and, to say the least, a deliberate attempt to mislead unsuspecting and uncritical mass of ordinary folks that are always at the receiving end of our inanities. We are either chasing shadows or looking for someone to blame for a problem that is entirely of our own making.
First, let us cross-examine that self-styled and exquisitely flamboyant Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II who, as usual, enjoyed firing the first salvo on issues that he knew for sure would effectively transform into acrimonious verbal punches in both mainstream media and social media cyber spaces. This man really seems to be cut out in the mold of egregious superstars afflicted by controversy syndrome. Without doubt, Sanusi is one of those silver-spooned elements in society that do things for the sheer fun of attracting media glitz. To me, the most fascinating dimension of this deliberately engineered debate on the economic misfortunes of northern Nigeria is the tenacity with which uncompromising supporters and opponents of Sanusi’s culture talk (a la Mahmood Mamdani) doggedly depended their views.
It all started in the sweltering heat of April in Kaduna on the occasion of the State’s Investment and Economic Summit (KADINVEST 2.0). One would have expected Emir Sanusi to restrict himself to the economic turf he is best equipped to analyze by his training and experience. But that won’t be the case based mainly on his controversial royal mien. As one who never shies away from verbal altercation, he decided to take the bull of northern Nigeria’s malaise by the horn. He mercilessly went on flinging spree with his verbal sorties on our culture and religion. These, in his reckoning, are responsible for our existential angst. Average northern Nigerian Muslims are more and more turning into hermits in the harem of our postcolonial history. In this line of reasoning, we have become what we are now because of our total misconception of Islamic faith, according to Emir Sanusi.
To neatly drive his point home, he compared our seeming misunderstanding of Islam with, for instance, how the Muslim community of Malaysia practices the religion. Sanusi had also traced the roots of our unbearable living conditions to our disdain for and fight against culture and civilization, all in the name of our own brand of Islam. On the economic side of his argument, he incontrovertibly reeled out deplorable development indices in which it was shown that the North was criminally lagging behind other geopolitical zones in the South. Never mind Sanusi’s relationship with the global structures that have partly accentuated our economic predicament. All the same, his submission is difficult for anyone to dismiss considering how he used bipolar logic of culture and economics to effectively address our social predicament. While Sanusi’s culture argument resonated with southern Nigeria’s intelligentsia, so many elites up North have found his posturing hard to digest.
Of the voices that picked faults with Emir Sanusi’s culture talk, Yakubu Aliyu, a veteran media commentator and an economist par excellence, was eloquently critical of Sanusi’s submission. In his refutation, Aliyu decided to deploy his vast knowledge in development economics to prove that it was not culture, religion or feudal structures in the North that are perennially militating against the development of the region, but skewed development patterns and trajectories that have been deliberately instituted to undermine the social progress of the North since the colonial period. Aliyu summoned the authority of the late Professor Sam Aluko, one of the leading Nigerian economists of his time, where he submitted that our economic model so putatively slanted to the “effect that for every one Naira created in the Nigerian economy, 70 kobo is spent on consumption or investment in the Lagos area alone. Now what does this mean? It implies that only 30 kobo is spent on the rest of the country.” According to Yakubu Aliyu, this is how the North becomes socially marginalized, dispossessed, disempowered and disoriented. Furthermore, he dazzlingly showcased how this form of systemic marginalization evinces itself in different sectors of the Nigerian economy. Although, he recognizes that as the marginalization of the North was happening, the political control of the country was for most of those times in the hands of Northerners.
Conversely, I will, with the caution of a ropewalker, attempt to tiptoe around the conflicting perspectives in the dialogue, because I have never been trained to make authoritative comments on Nigerian economy outside educated guesses on the realism of our brutal conditions. Therefore, as far as I am concerned, the complexity of the situation in northern Nigeria requires a more nuanced assessment. Indeed, one cannot afford to glibly dismiss either the cultural prognosis of Emir Sanusi or the development narrative of Yakubu Aliyu. Betwixt and between these seemingly oppositional camps, methinks there should be a middle road space that would be comforting enough for one to perch himself like a confused bird. Let us start by revisiting Sanusi’s culture talk. In its broadest definition, culture includes such things as religious practice, attitude, taste, choice and preferences. Of course, experts have always argued that the most significant distinction of what we called humanity is culture. Wherever they are concentrated in the world, human clusters always tend to make sense of their existence and place in the world as well through culture. Similarly, we become what we choose to be in the world through the mediation of culture. Thus, any society that prioritizes cultural mobility stands a better chance of making headway in its existential choices, and in its development and progress. The question then arises; what is the state of culture in northern Nigeria?
With hindsight, Nigeria under regional political structures of the 1960s had better prospects of social development. Coincidentally, the economic feats achieved by the regions before the allurement and tantalization of oil economy were recorded when the regional enclaves were strongly immured in our traditional cultural identities. The North, for instance, despite its diversity and plurality, used to be a hub of peaceful coexistence, stability, honesty and respect for one another within all the teeming identities. Individuals used to recognize their essential humanity first before their floating identities. Religion used to be a path to perfection, a means of turning us into better human beings through exemplary conduct, but no more. These days, manipulation and politicization of religion has completely eroded the gains of nation-building, modestly recorded years before the unhealthy postmodern revivalism of the Abrahamic faiths. Both resurgent puritanical Islam and Christianity have turned our cultures and traditions into punching bags, especially by all sorts of hermits who are by all standards of education lack the qualification to speak on issues the nature of which they have little or no understanding whatsoever.
In northern Nigeria today, it is our ethno-religious identities rather than our common humanity that is invoked before anything else in dealings and relationships between our diverse communities. This is a clear recipe for disaster more so in a context where our visionless political establishment is hand in glove with the perpetrators and agendas of religious potentates. Consequently, with the inevitable collapse of our civic institutions, values, education and enlightenment projects, the society becomes totally gripped by instability, violence and pogrom. How can we have development in this type of atmosphere? In this regard, I would like to view the economic failures identified by Yakubu Aliyu as completely of our own making. I would rather engage in self-criticism rather than look for someone or something else to blame for a problem that we have consciously and collectively created in the North. Even if the region is shortchanged by the South in the geostrategic contests for control of power and resources, who is to blame? Is it the South that forces us to criminally neglect the education of our children and youths, or even to abandon our God-given resources, especially agriculture and agro-allied industry as we get soaked in the allures of oil economy? We should blame ourselves for whatever is happening to us. The day the North decides to wake up from its slumber, I cannot see anybody stopping it. And the earlier we realistically take stock of our problems in northern Nigeria the better for us, and Nigeria.
Mr Liman is a professor of Comparative Literature and Popular Culture at Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, Nigeria