The trouble with northern Nigeria, by Prof. Abubakar Liman

Professor Abubakar Aliyu Liman
Professor Abubakar Aliyu Liman

I will borrow one of Chinua Achebe’s apt and memorable titles to serve as a convenient guide in my attempt to unravel the sorry state of northern Nigeria. In his polemic The Trouble with Nigeria, Achebe has identified the problem of Nigeria as “simply and squarely a failure of leadership”, which its publication coincided with political problems that sealed the fate of second republic.

In 1983 when the democratically elected government of late President Shehu Shagari was toppled by the military junta headed by General Muhammadu Buhari, one could afford to reach such a conclusion that the most fundamental problem of Nigeria was leadership.

Nobody could contest the cogency of Achebe’s voluble argument through his convincing analysis of things ailing Nigeria. He has identified tribalism, religious bigotry, corruption and avarice as social problems that good leadership would have combated in the country. Of course, leadership is still a lingering problem if not the most endemic problem in Nigeria, but in northern Nigeria there are more pressing problems than just the leadership deficit afflicting the entire country. On all counts, the establishment in the region has completely failed its diverse communities. As a result, northern Nigeria has in geopolitical terms become the cancerous sore on the conscience of Nigeria.

To begin with, I will like to hurriedly revisit history in order to attempt to unravel the cause of our existential angst. In the march of history, the processes of state formation in different parts of Africa, as indeed in other parts of the world, have been characterized by violent upheavals and wars, which periodically change the cartography of nations, territories and political enclaves to the extent of deconstructing or even delegitimizing our autochthonous communities as we see in the processes of the rise of modern nations. Nigeria cannot therefore be an exception to that golden rule of the evolution from ancient stateless entities to complex kingdoms, empires and modern nation-states. It is true that homogeneity rather than the type of heterogeneity we see in more recent postcolonial African nation-states has been the main characteristic of pre-colonial communities of our remote past. And now that we are together here to slug it out as Nigerians in a modern postcolonial state, created by the combination of pre-colonial and colonial historical forces, the idea of recoiling into our autochthonous cocoons is not an option. Despite our uninformed claims of belonging to some pure and unadulterated homelands of pristine identities, ethnicities and imagined cultural essences. While other sections of Nigeria are gradually coming to terms with the idea of a modern nation, one that is agreed upon on the basis of carefully crafted national values; northern Nigeria is however living in denial from the vantage of its complexities, diversities and differences. This denial of mutual co-existence has blatantly pushed its own social milieu to the precipice of anarchy.

But how did we arrive at this dead zone? Despite our landmass, our resources, our teeming population and our economic potentials, why is our region lagging behind the South in measurable indices of development? Even before the failure of leadership, there is the failure of culture and education as the main pillars in the tasks of humanizing our people. The realities of postcolonial northern Nigeria are characterized more by identity crises and pervasive communal conflicts rather than peaceful co-existence and determination to improve the lots of the people. These maladies are of course rooted in our history. The structural imbalances, the violence, the exploitative and oppressive legacies of our pre-colonial kingdoms and empires, which were even aggressively sustained under the colonial state, have all conspired to bring us to present unviable social conditions. Inability of our social system to operate on the principles of justice and equity in running the affairs of the people has continued to plague the region and the manner in which its future is shaped and determined. Illustratively, after the moral collapse of the Sokoto Caliphate barely two decades after its establishment, the exploitative and oppressive hierarchical structures of the Emirates were solely responsible for sowing the seeds of future conflicts and dehumanization of non-Muslim communities throughout the era of slave raiding and other forms of indignities meted out to them.

These were the historical conditions that the colonial forces gladly exploited.  The colonialists did understand the excesses of our Emirate system established by Muslims consequent upon the triumph of Sokoto Jihad even before they arrived the region. In their wars of attrition, the British had in their colonial encounters in the territories under the control of Ottoman Caliphate in the Middle East and India learnt the art of checking the territorial ambitions of medieval Muslim states through the mechanism of divide and conquer. This experience they have taken advantage of in their colonial enterprise in northern Nigeria. The intelligence gatherers of the British Empire masquerading as Christian missionaries did not therefore tarry even for a moment to present Christianity to northern Nigerian animists as not just an alternative to traditional practices, but also a welcome relief to the threats of Islamic faith. In this regard, Christianity was presented as the ideological means of liberation from the shackles of the Emirate slave raiders as well as the agency of human progress and social development. This is the sense in which Christianity was received as a counter identity to Islamic order of the Sokoto Caliphate attempting to make inroads into the non-Muslim territories of the region. In short, both Islam and Christianity were presented to the people in the form of what Fredric Nietzsche described elsewhere as the “will to power”, which were more or less clothed in the salvation schema of rivaling Abrahamic faiths. Based on this Machiavellian orientation, northern Nigerians will never forge ahead through any form of manipulation of religion for political and economic ends.

Animists, Muslims and Christians of northern Nigerian extraction must of necessity out of their complex historical experiences aspire to appreciate the essence of Ali Mazru’i’s concept of triple heritage, and the promise of unity in diversity, understanding, tolerance and mutual co-existence it offers.  We cannot deny the fact that African triple heritage is everywhere shaping our psyche and indeed the contemporary realities bequeathed to us by our conflicting historical loyalties. This conflicting history is recently coming under fire from the extremist impulses of postmodern puritanical religious revivalism of some strange Islamic and Christian denominations that only brook widespread intolerance, bigotry, fanaticism, irrationality, zealotry and blind pursuit of religious forms and values. Northern Nigerian society must address this conundrum before it spells its collective doom. As things are, our society is gradually freezing in time, and is also becoming culturally ossified, all due to our pervasive ignorance of the essence of religion to humanize us individually and collectively. We have left the tasks of interpreting our faith-systems completely in the hands of charlatans, bigoted clergy of all hues, rootless hermits and spiritual merchants that neither understand the essence of God nor know the way to reach Him. The more we sheepishly submit ourselves to the antics of our ill-informed and hypocritical religious elite the deeper the slide of our own society into the morass of spiritual confusion, compound ignorance, cultural collapse and social withdrawal.

In case we don’t know, our misunderstanding of the essence of religion is partly responsible for the state of mental and spiritual siege we mindlessly plunged ourselves. Thus, no aspiring nation will prosper under chaotic misapplication of religious exegesis for the guidance its simplistic existence. It is also absolutely counterproductive to view our brutal realities from the myopic prism of our dogmatic interpretations of the universal faith-systems, we either do not know or understand, rather than the effect of a global system of economic exploitation. Our religious reading of our inhuman conditions has brought us to the stage where we are made to heap our woes and failures on the doors of the equally oppressed other. In this sense, religion has become our social albatross rather than a means of spiritual salvation. We have failed to understand the actual source of our misery. As we deepen our faith in ignorance, we have lost the meaning and purpose of life itself. Consequently, we have now shelved any notion of struggle to make our tomorrow better than our today. In the process, we resign ourselves to fatalism as we unleash wanton violence to other human beings that we see as the source of our predicament. What we also don’t understand is that the masters of the universe together with their local collaborators are happy with the state of our angst. Otherwise, if we are purposeful, peaceful and solidly united, despite our differences, our traducers would not have had the chance to run the Nigerian state and, by extension, northern region through a carefully crafted social system that only privileges few self-serving powerful proxies.

What is the way out? First, we must realize that the “accident of geography” has brought us together. God did not consult the current generations of northern Nigerians in His decision to bring us together as different people, different ethnicities and different faith communities through land contiguity and common patrimony. In the same breath, our history has causally made it so, and so, we have to live with it for good. We therefore have no option other than to confront our realities practically only through the medium of the achievements we have so far recorded from our postcolonial political order and self-rule arrangements. We must uncompromisingly submit ourselves to the arbitration of our laws, statutes and constitutional governance through honest and sincere collective negotiations. Do we have any other option?