By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo
The Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, is now leading the long awaited quest to find the soul of the North. He is willing to risk the throne to get there. But will he succeed? Will the factors that stopped reformers before him stop him?
For so long, Northern Nigeria has been an opaque territory, impenetrable by the predominantly Lagos-based Nigerian mass media. When the region features in the media, it is more of a superficial glance with practitioners merely repeating platitudes and stereotypes. But northern Nigeria is deeper and more complex. The conversations that go on in other regions also go on in Northern Nigeria. What ails Northern Nigeria, like what ails other parts of Nigeria, is deeper and more complex than outsiders often imagine.
For outsiders who live or have lived in Northern Nigeria and have made efforts to understand the North, they dream for the day the North that they know would rise from the caricature of itself. The only reason it has not happen, and may never happened, is because of the Nigerian contraption. Nigeria is holding everyone in it down, including those who think they are holding Nigeria down.
For many reasons, Northern Nigeria is very important to Nigeria. That has not been acknowledged and recognized since the beginning of the nation. The opposite is often the conventional wisdom. No large chunk of a country, any country, can be dismissed or ignored without serious detrimental effect to the whole nation. The same truth stands even when those dismissing it and ignoring it are the people of that section of the country. As long as Nigeria exists in its current structure, if northern Nigeria sinks, so does the rest of Nigeria.
So it should be of interest to everyone in Nigeria that the North finds its soul – just as it is important that the South-South and the West and the East find their souls. The common problem is that each region often resists external intervention in that search. In fact, in the case of the North, what has happened is that the mere perception of an external involvement in the affairs of the North is turned into a rallying cry used by the elite to distract the masses from identifying their real problems and doing something about it. The same tactic is deployed in other regions, but it is more effective in the North. This leaves the only room for reform to one championed by a member of the region in good standing.
There are numerous stereotypes about every region in Nigeria. Even a sub-region of a region endures caricature of one form or the other. But that is not the focus of this piece. The more important concerns are human development indexes. It is a more objective measure of how a people utilize their human capabilities in attaining reasonable standard of living. And in Nigeria, all the indexes of human development are lower in the North than in the South.
Statistics like life expectancy, education and per capital income all show the North behind. In 2015, Nigeria’s human development index was 0.527 and Nigeria ranked 152 out of 188 countries in the world. It was an increase of 13.1% from what it was in 2005 (0.466). It was an improvement but far from what it should be considering the human and material resources in Nigeria. When adjusted for inequality, Nigeria’s human development index falls to 0.328, a loss of 37.8 %. Those inequalities are more pronounced in the North. For example, while the mean years of schooling in the South South is 10.66, it is 3.81 in the North West. North West and North East geo-political zones all have lower than national average.
Some efforts have been made in the past to bridge the gap. For example, in the issue of education, programs like “catchment areas,” “quota system,” and “disadvantaged states” are used to create room for students from the North to gain admission into unity schools and federal universities. While they are well intentioned, after almost 30 years of implementation of such programs there is the need to evaluate their performance. Has the North caught up educationally? Are there any gains? One way to assess the situation is to look at the performance of students from Northern states over a twenty year period in JAMB, WAEC and entrance examinations into unity schools. Are these programs encouraging any competition in the North?
The same thing should be done to the federal character provisions in federal jobs and appointments. They should be weighed against the increasing backlash of such programs. For candidates and parents who see more qualified people jettisoned for a less qualified person from the North, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Over 50 years after independence, it is becoming harder to make a case that these policies were in place to correct the errors of colonial masters who were alleged to have emphasized education in the South but not in the North. It is especially harder to make the case when 50 years after, a candidate from Anambra State would not get into one of Nigeria’s unity schools with a 138 score in the entrance examination, while another candidate from Zamfara State will get in with a score of 5.
Nigeria is poorly governed across the board, from Sokoto to Yenagoa, from Maiduguri to Lafia. Most people getting ahead in some parts of the country are just pulling themselves by the shoe straps. That people from the East are visible today in Nigeria after a devastating civil war that almost wiped them out is not as a result of government assistance of any kind. Most of them survive by individual efforts and by the efforts of families and communities that are determined to pull up one another. The government in the East is just as bad as the government in the North. In fact, the North has the advantage that the federal government has historically done a better job in the North than in the East in terms of being present and implementing projects. In most parts of the East, it is the community and individuals who build roads, tax themselves to pay for electricity poles and wires needed to join the national grid; build schools and contribute to send their children abroad on scholarship.
In the search for the soul of the different components of the peoples who make up Nigeria, there is little interest in going back to the past – to the time before the Europeans came, before the Arabs came. This was when most of the people who constituted Nigeria today lived life according to the lifestyle of their forefathers. It was not perfect by today’s standard, but it had in it elements that sustained them as distinct human groups for generations. These elements were dumped when external invaders influenced their lifestyle.
Even though very few are romantizing the past as a more perfect structure, most prefer to look forward from where we are. But in looking forward without tapping into things that were good about the past, we often look hollow and superficial in a complex world that demands that each brings something original to the mix. Aspiring to be pathetic caricature of other people strips us of any authenticity. Similar effort failed woefully with Africans who tried to be like Europeans.
If the North will not look back, will it look forward towards Malaysia or Singapore? Or is it looking towards Indonesia or Turkey? Is the soul of the North in Sudan or in Yemen?
In this era of social media, the internal conversations going on in the North are leaking out. Those outside are getting the opportunity to listen in. They are hearing things that say that northerners, like their counterparts in other parts of the southern Nigeria want to live long, go to school, have children without the mother dying during childbirth. They want to live in decent houses without being exposed to harsh elements of nature. They want jobs that will pay them enough to take care of their families. They want good hospitals where they could be cared for when they are sick. These things they want are the same things that the ordinary southerners want. They are the same things that the elite in the North already have or are working hard to acquire for themselves and for their children.
The South has not fared much better. The elite are still the same selfish lot. Their only luck is that some of the masses of the South have managed to find ways to survive in spite of the neglect by their government and their elite.
The only difference between the North and the South is that, for some reason, the elite in the North have been able to convince more of their people that they do not need those important factors that improve their human development indexes. The elite in the North have been able to point at others and tell the masses that those are the people to be blamed for their miseries. The elite in the North have been successful in distracting the masses else they see for the first time that their real enemies are them- the elite.
Before Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II rose to become the voice of reform in the North, there have been reformers there. Those reformers failed because of the weight of the alibi that point at others as the reason the North is specially faring worse than other regions of Nigeria. Reversing the alibi is a place to begin in finding the soul of the North. And the Emir has got that one right.
Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo is the author of “This American Life Sef”.