Special to USAfricaonline.com • USAfrica magazine, since 1992 • USAfrica multimedia networks, Houston
The violence and insecurity that is raging through Nigeria’s north resembles every bad place in today’s world. The unknown gangs that strike at night, torching villages and whole settlements only to disappear in the day bear the footprints of the Janjaweed militia that laid the foundations for the dismemberment of Sudan. The squads of suicide bombers that strike atmarkets, churches and public buildings bear the imprints of the Al Shabab terror gangs in Somalia and parts of Kenya. The Boko Haram factions that raid towns, cart away school girls in lorry loads and take territory while imposing their reign of terror on whole local governments sound like a script from the worst of ISIS and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Shiite factions that are ready to carry their grudges to engage security forces in gun duels in the center of Abuja sound like an attempt to convert a bit of Abuja into something like war time Kabul. The various militias and bandit squads threatening the various states and extorting their governors bear the semblance of the casual militias that seized control of parts of Libya after the demise of Muamar Gaddafi. But the unfolding tragedy in northern Nigeria is entirely home made — even if it mimics bad behavior elsewhere.
Nigeria’s north is suddenly in bold relief. Intelligence estimates among most influential agencies in the world are unanimous on one thing: the northern half of Nigeria has emerged as an area of grave strategic instability. The region is fast degenerating into an internal security nightmare and an imminent danger to regional security. It poses a danger to itself, to the Nigerian state and indeed the whole of West Africa and the larger Gulf of Guinea stretch.
A combination of widespread violent criminality, sectarian insurgency, economic desperation and social dislocations has created a vast terrain of trouble. This should concern every Nigerian. While the immediate manifestations are located in the north, the wider implications are national in scope and import. We may not all live in the north. But the trends that are now haunting the region constitute an existential threat to Nigeria’s long-term stability and continuation as a united democratic state.
Political correctness may dictate that we desist from discussing Nigeria’s problems along a North –South axis. But it is such persistent self -delusion and self-denial that have brought us face to face with the frightening urgency of the present moment.
The specter of a meltdown in the north has happily of late aroused some voices of concern and enlightenment in the region itself. A few significant leaders have correctly identified the seeds of the present danger. The Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi, has been persistent in this regard. Similarly, current Kaduna state Governor, Nasir El-Rufai, has not only identified the causes but taken executive steps to address some of them head on.
The specific manifestatons include abject poverty, educational backwardness, destitution, unemployment, nutrition deficiency and the demographic time bomb of uncontrolled population growth. An estimated 90% of Nigeria’s 87 million abjectly poor people live in the north. Its population of out of school kids (over 8 million) is far higher than the national average. The incidence of general nutritional deficiency in the region is uncomfortably high. Education standards remain dismal as an affirmative action called quota system that has been in place for over 50 years has not managed to raise standards but only turned out a quantum of high school and university graduates that are generally uncompetitive.
A demographic time bomb ticks away uncontrolled as family sizes have increased geometrically in the absence of sensible social policy and taming of cultural profligacy. Droves of excess children roam the streets as vagrants, beggars or plain destitutes. Access to cheap opioids and counterfeit narcotics has produced hordes of mindlessly violent criminals or dazed youth with no moral or economic anchors. Enter the bandits, cattle rustlers, kidnappers and random killers now roaming the region. Add to this the relative free flow of arms throughout the Sahel from ungoverned stretches from Sudan, Libya, Mali and through the weak borders between Nigeria and Chad, Niger and parts of Cameroun.
We cannot afford to localize the implications of the situation in the north to the region. They are national problems that should challenge every Nigerian because the troubles in the north are a clear and present threat to the security of Nigeria. Our country has always been one continuum of geography, culture, free movements and exchanges. The roving Fulani herdsmen of yore have become the weaponized killers and kidnappers of today. The millions of Almajirin children that have virtually no parental ties have invaded the streets of Lagos and other southern towns as beggars and miscreants. The burden of a seemingly intractable insurgency engagement with Boko Haram and its affiliates has thrust us into a war that no one planned for. Our defence and security budgets have jumped over the last decade and still increasing.
There is no room for equivocation. The trouble with the sad situation in the north is squarely that of regional political leadership. We must confront it for what it is. In the 50 years since the end of the Nigerian civil war, both apex federal political leadership and the leadership of all the northern states have collectively and variously failed the people. An affirmative action programme otherwise called quota system has been in force in education and employment in federal establishments for that long. Taken together, these massive appropriations of privilege have only yielded the crisis currently on hand.
But we are in a national emergency and there is no time for the luxury of shifting blames. So much time has passed. So much resource has been wasted. So many opportunities have been squandered and there is no sweetness anywhere in the region. This is of course not to say that other parts of the country are paradise. But no other region of Nigeria faces the lethal existential threats that loom over the north today.
Yet, we must return to the leadership question in confronting the northern question.
We must quit treating the north as a monolithic political spectrum with a leadership that has a uniform agenda, uniform perspective and undifferentiated orientation. It is time to differentiate among the competing political elites in the north and their various tendencies to determine what can move the region forward.
From the evidence of those who have so far served in public life at the state or federal levels, we can discriminate among northern leaders in terms of their ideological tendencies.
The Buhari administration is an inchoate throwback to an ultra conservative north. This is the north of the fabled Kaduna mafia syndrome. This is the north of Adamu Ciroma, Mamman Daura, Ango Abdullahi, Abba Kyari, Ismaila Funtua and their predecessors. Its perspective of Nigeria is essentially a hegemonic feudal one, informed by a jihadist conquest mentality. Even under severe constitutional constraints, this formation sees the nation as something of a Medieval fiefdom, an occupied territory, not a national patrimony. It insists on dominating the strategic heights of national power to an extent that frightens other parts of the country and tacitly divides the country along a north-south line, which also unfortunately conforms to a religious divide. Fear of this decadent conservatism has united the rest of the country in opposition against the government of the day. In this formation lies the crux of Mr. Buhari’s lingering headache.
There is a nationalist liberal democratic formation of leadership from the north. This is roughly the formation that produced the late Murtala Mohammed and is best illustrated by Ibrahim Babangida, Aliyu Gusau, Atiku Abubakar, Abubakar Dangiwa Umar, and Buba Marwa etc. These leaders believe in a united, diverse and all-inclusive Nigeria, a Nigeria that works well for all its citizens to thrive. They reach out across the vast stretch of the nation to cultivate a national sense of unity based on respect for the rights of every group to the Nigerian patrimony. This brand of leadership of northern extraction does not frighten other groups but is instead inclusive, liberal and enlightened.
In recent times, there has emerged a social democratic arm of this liberal leadership. These are people like Emir Sanusi, Nasir El Rufai, a bit of Shehu Sani and their many modern minded young followers. This younger generation of leaders are not content with the entitlement state of the past. They insist on accountability, enlightenment, modernization and a rejection of the old order. Their development models seem to be rooted in the Islamic enlightenment exemplified by the rising Gulf States of the Middle East. They are calling out the profligate governors of the northern states, the traditional rulers and fellow political office holders. They are raising inconvenient questions about the state of the north. In this process, they command a wide admiration of the younger generation of Nigerians across all divides.
Whether or not we admit it, the political leadership of the north will become the key national security question of the next decade. Looming confrontations between the conservative order and the new social democrats uprising will define the politics of the region. If the old conservative order succeeds Buhari, the current insecurity and hopelessness in the north is likely to endure.
If, however, the new social democratic forces manage to prevail, the north will be at the beginning of a springtime of a long and painful modernization. But this ascension will be fiercely resisted and mercilessly resisted by custodians of the old order and the multitudes of illiterate and unenlightened mobs that their reign of insensitivity has created.
But the spillover of that looming confrontation will have implications for the rest of the country. The quality of governance and leadership that emerges in the entire geo strategic space of the north is going to determine whether Nigeria remains stable or even survives as one nation under democratic governance. The nascent forces of social democracy and modernization in the north can only hope to succeed if they engage with like-minded elements in the rest of the country to inaugurate a national rule by change agents.
As things stand, getting the north right has become an urgent national imperative. It also means getting the rest of Nigeria right. If we fail to rescue the north, an imploding north will either drag the country down or the rest of the country will jettison the north as an unbearable financial, social and security burden. The prospects are too frightening and ugly to contemplate. •Dr. Amuta, Executive Editor of USAfrica since 1992, is a member of Nigeria’s Thisday Editorial Board.