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The myth of a northern hegemony

By Obi Nwakanma

Among the most sustained mythologies of postcolonial Nigeria is the myth of a “northern domination” or the hegemony of the north. Many of us buy into this quite unreflectively, and it has become the rallying cry in Southern Nigeria, whenever the issue of political bargaining arises.

It may well be that by the frequent use of the term, we may also have given northern political leadership, particularly the conservative faction of that leadership, a false sense of importance or possibility in their perceptions of their place, power and role within the polity of Nigeria. But of even greater significance is that this mythology has been circulated principally to throw off the scent of dubiousness that may attach itself to Southerners who have themselves played a great role in the political and economic destruction of Nigeria.

But because the North has often proved to be the straw man in the argument, the cause of Nigerian underdevelopment has largely been placed at the doors of a “northern domination.” The argument has often been that the north dominates political power in Nigeria because their British masters ensured this. As a result, the South has found it impossible to act.

This argument may have been true, under colonialism and in the immediate postcolonial years, but it has become quite specious in the current era. We must all take full responsibility for the failures of Nigeria’s postcolonial political development.

I am drawn to this subject, in response to the nationalist politician, Mr. Mbazulike Amechi’s interview last Sunday in this paper on how the Brits empowered the north. Without question, and as the archives continue to reveal, the British colonial authorities and their international allies empowered their local allies everywhere. In Nigeria, the alliance was not only with the North but with certain elements in the South too.

By 1947, the British authorities had recruited and activated their local satraps, North and South, to undermine the nationalist anti-colonial movement. Mr. Anthony Enahoro is still alive today and could tell a bit more of the wherefores of British penetration of the anticolonial movement, its recruitments and its alliances with key figures that later emerged to play important political roles in Nigeria’s postcolonial politics. These individuals were not only in the North.

A principal of Kings College, Lagos in the late 1940s and early 1950s was the Head of the British Intelligence Services in West Africa, and part of his work also included the recruitment and training of young men into the services of Great Britain. This was true of the key Government Colleges, north and south. Many of these young men became the Generals in the Nigerian Armed Forces, and the bureaucratic elite of postcolonial Nigeria. They were central in the formulations of policies and in the direction of Nigeria after the British left. The point is that many of these were Southerners. I am therefore saying that the factors have not been fruitfully examined, and the continued lament about a Northern hegemony has to be placed in its proper context.

The British were allies of the Northern politicians, who were frightened of “Southern domination” after independence. The British helped to lay the foundations of Nigeria’s postcolonial crisis. They fought the nationalists and prevented them from assuming power at independence. All these came to a head in 1964 and culminated in the military coup and counter coup of 1966, and led eventually to the civil war, in which the Eastern region sought to secede from Nigeria.

The East was defeated, fragmented, and returned to the nation. The defeat of the Eastern secession was not accomplished by the North; it was accomplished by an alliance of the North and South, with key figures from the Middle Belt and the Yoruba, in fact, as the arrow-heads of that war. The Gowon administration was mostly an architecture fashioned from this alliance. It was not “northern hegemony.” It was hegemony of local interests, fully allied with key international interests, which had control of Nigeria’s new oil fields as its goal. These interests found a convergence in Nigeria’s client elite with their international partner.

Nigeria’s client elite is transnational; it is not just northern. The north of Nigeria is vast and complex. Just as the South scares and intimidates most northerners, the North for most southerners is still a haunting mystery – a sort of terra nullius with the encroaching desert and full of violence. According to another popular mythology, it is overwhelmingly Islamic.

But the North is a hybrid of Muslim, Christian and Animist, all in equal and potentially recondite numbers.  The north is impoverished, with the widest possible income gap in Africa. The rich, accounting for less than 1% of the population in the north is blindly wealthy, while the poor labors under the most vicious kind of poverty, disease, and ignorance. Truth be told, the north is not in a position to dominate Nigeria, or create hegemony. Less than 27% of its school age children are enrolled in formal school. It accounts for less than 30% of the national trained work force.

The north lacks the scientific, bureaucratic and technical capacity to create hegemony. It is true that the face of political leadership, particularly during the years of military dictatorship, frequently presented a northern face, but it often required the technical and bureaucratic will of the South to prod the government. The so-called domination of Nigeria by the North has always been aided by the complicity of the Southern leadership for pragmatic, as well as self-interested reasons.

It is ironic that the South that led the fight against a mighty colonial empire feels itself dominated by the North. The fact is a bit drearier. What governs Nigeria is not the hegemony of the North.

It is an alliance of the rent-collecting classes from the north and the south. Its character is ambivalent, and so its filiations slippery: many of them, or their children, have double-citizenship.  Here are the questions: in whose interest is it that Nigeria remains underdeveloped? In whose interest is it that Nigeria does not deploy its massive energy deposits to massive domestic production and consumption?

In whose interest is it that Nigeria does not develop an indigenous civil and military industrial technology? In whose interest is it that Nigeria remains in a state of permanent crisis and paralysis? In whose interest is it that Nigeria’s research and production infrastructure remains permanently primitive? When we have discerned these, we will see the true face of hegemony and domination. Northern privileging by the British was anchored on the size of the old north. That north was broken up in 1967 by the minority Angas head of state Yakubu Gowon. Nigerians should wake up and smell the coffee. There is little doubt though, that things are certain to come to a head soon, for this nation is increasingly like Balaam’s beast, and may soon enough talk.


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