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A place for elders

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By Hakeem Baba-Ahmad

I GOT to know the late Alhaji Magaji Dambatta personally only in the last one year of his accomplished life. Of course, it is impossible not to have been aware of a rare titan who from a very young age, began a life that was entirely dedicated to God and his community.

His towering intellect, striking presence and remarkable humility and the fire that burned in him to change the circumstance of northerners and Nigerians until his death should earn him a place in a Northern Hall of Fame.

The Arewa Consultative Forum which he led at a stage in his life put out befitting comments on his life. A newspaper photograph of a blind and elderly Danmasanin Kano, Yusuf Maitama Sule in the front row during the funeral prayers of Alhaji Magaji was profoundly symbolic. The North was losing its precious elders assets at a moment when it desperately needs to rely on them to stand up for it and guide it through its unprecedented challenges.

The brief but intense encounters I had with Alhaji Magaji Dambatta were in fora which involved deep searches for the sources, nature and solutions of many of the problems which afflict the northern part of Nigeria. As someone who had seen it all, and had remained at the heart of all major developments for more than six decades, his insights were profound; his articulation of issues was unpararelled; and his commitment to interests which affect the North was unquestionable.

He was a living encydopedia on the alarming regression of a region that had always had some structural disadvantages, but had found a way to remain the backbone of the nation. He could reel out frightening statistics on how the economy of the North is being destroyed; how its sons and daughters are being squeezed out of key institutions; how its children are not going to school and how its natural assets are being deliberately wasted.

You got the impression of an angry, if controlled and disciplined elder in Alhaji Magaji. A small group of us thrown together by fate and the foresight of some northern leaders agonized over the provocative composition of the National Conference, and came close to suggesting that northerners should not participate in it unless the obvious unfairness in representations were redressed.

When it became obvious that the dominant opinions in many northern circles tilted towards attending the conference and fighting from within, a few of us from the outside went through the list of delegates to see if there was sufficient clout and integrity from the disadvanged North to put up a fight. The name of Alhaji Magaji Dambatta gave us some comfort.

The predominant perception in much of the North today is that it did not lose a war it was forced t0 fight, although it cannot be sure it had won it. The National Conference in which Alhaji Magaji and the cream of Northern establishment (and its permanent trail of fifth columnists) participated is seen in the North as a successful campaign against an anti-Northern (and, some say, anti-Nigerian) agenda.

Many in the North believe that the defeat of a suspected plan to extend President Jonathan’s tenure; to tilt the determinants of economic production and allocation even further away from the North; to restructure the Nigerian federation so that some sections will acquire an unfair advantage; to re-write the constitution without the mandate of the people of Nigeria, and a whole host of other goals, all of them inimical to the interests of the North, is to be celebrated by Northerners.

It is conceivable that elites from other regions are also involved in serious stock-taking, although many of the losses and victories have already been tallied. The North appears content that it went with the sole agenda of shooting down other agendas, and it succeeded. Elites from the South East failed to get additional state(s), or a brand new constitution written by their brightest.

South South elites saw the dream of more of the cake crumble, and the idea of a new constitution shot down on the ground. South West elites were half-hearted about the Conference anyway, but they gave it their best shot. They failed to get the nation restructured along their ideal federation, and have gone back to the drawing board to understand whether the south west is today more or less influential in the manner the nation is run.

The North made new enemies and found a few sources of strength. It discovered the values of working hard to limit the breaches inherent in its cultural and political pluralism, as well as the fact that no part of the North can be taken for granted anymore. It rediscovered a North whose vulnerability to political predators from the South can only be managed successfully by building bridges to, and within all its communities, and constantly reminding its people that Birom, Kanuri, Atyap and Fulani are all Northerners (or Hausa) in Bayelsa, or in Abia.

The North is defined today by its relative and deepening poverty; creeping threats from an insurgency the government appears unable to contain; multiple assaults on villagers who are victims today and villains tomorrow; and a region hamstrung from asserting itself politically out of fear that it will be accused of wanting to rule for ever.

The National Conference has produced a key unintended consequence: it has revealed that no part of this nation can hijack it from others. The fear of being hijacked is real, and it is the most damaging psychological impetus behind all the bitterness which tends to characterise inter-group relations.

It should, however, also provide the biggest motive for elders who know what it took to build this nation; to pull it out of many of its problems and limitations; to submit to new and fresh developments and initiatives in spite of many misgivings; and, above all, to note that their life’s work is now being shot at by the day, and a nation which had all the promise to be great economically, united politically and a peaceful home to all, is today falling apart.

This is the time for those elders and leaders to step forward. Now that we know that no section of Nigeria has a unique and exclusive problem, perhaps those elders and leaders who locked horns in the committees and plenary of the conference can reach out to others in their necks of the wood and define more clearly what it is that represents for their regions and for Nigeria, critical matters which need to be discussed with others. Today, a desperately poor and insecure North is a threat to the entire nation and west and central Africa. Its poverty is not just its problems.

If every kobo derived from the sale of crude oil and gas is spent on people of the Niger Delta, it will not give them the peace and the space to enjoy it. Igbo leaders need to more clearly define their problems with other Nigerians, and get rid of their damaging persecuted mindset. Yoruba elites need to come to terms with a nation with multiple sources of loyalties, influence and motivations, and that the best arrangements are those made through genuine collaboration and cooperation with all groups, from the simplest to the most intellectually-persuasive; from the wealthiest to poorest. Minority ethnic groups need to come to terms with the reality that numbers count, but the biggest groups cannot win any battles without them.

The case being made for an initiative of elders and leaders will be frustrated by partisan political leaders who feed and grow on the very divisions which keep this country weak and floundering. As it stands, the political process will not solve the most desperate of Nigeria’s problems. From all appearances, the escalating terrorist assault on our nation will be a major issue in the elections of 2015. While politicians trade blames, it will dig in and take over more and more of our lives. Politics will drive a wedge between much of the North and most parts of the South and between Muslims and Christians.

It will pitch citizens against each other, unleash unprecedented levels of violence and threaten an end to the democratic system. These will make post-election 2015 even worse of a nightmare than the pre-election period. It is very doubtful if the nation can heal and move beyond the damage it will go through in the next one year.

There is a place for elders in our lives, today more than any other time in the history of our nation. Because they are elders, they do not need to wait for anyone’s invitations to act. And they should, unless they want to be the last real elders the nation had. God forbid.


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