I personally hate to use these designations that frame Nigeria into a ‘North-South’ dichotomy, but that seems for the moment to be the ways Nigerians comprehend the political cartography of this rather complex country.
In many ways, when folks talk today about ‘the North’ – they generally mean the ‘upper North,’ comprising the areas up to the Sahara and the Lake Chad, and short of Southern Zaria. That is, the regions of what are today the ‘North East and the ‘North West.’ The central plains, the ‘North Central’, or what we know as Nigeria’s ‘Middle Belt,’ is largely geographically, and ideologically uncoupled from these areas.
In any case, like ‘Eastern Nigeria’ or ‘Western Nigeria’ or even the ‘Midwest of Nigeria,’ ‘Northern Nigeria’ came to an end with the Gowon edict of 1967 that broke Nigeria into twelve states, the final straw, some say, that threw Nigeria into civil war. Of course, over the years, some semblance of common interest did compel many from the Middle Belt to continue to attend and participate in what was often called ‘the Northern Governors Meetings.’ In that meeting, all the states of the ‘old North’ are represented.
Their issues, particularly as they affect the political and cultural agenda of the Northern union are fleshed out, and positions are established. Kaduna continued to retain its very status as the bastion of power. There even emerged, from the Gowon years, a clique of powerful Northerners called the ‘Kaduna Mafia.’ They were mythologized by the Southern Press as astute power brokers who had access to areas of policy far beyond what their Southern counterparts could imagine. Especially through the period of the military regimes, the ‘Northern Governors Forum’ was a powerful instrument that demonstrated ‘Northern power’ and its sense of the “conquest” or control of the levers of federal power over the rest of the nation. For many years, the Southern areas of Nigeria could not find a common ground. The political and cultural elite of the South were a quarrelsome lot. They disagreed about everything.
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They had in fact consciously dismantled every endeavour that linked them to a common political and economic interest. They stabbed each other in the back just to secure what they often imagined was the vote or support of ‘the North.’ They constantly misread the temperature of politics up in the North and failed to build on the alliances waiting to be built or make forays that would align progressive Northern interests with progressive Southern interests. While the ‘North’ often had what seemed like a common front; a basis for negotiating their interests in power, the leaders of the so-called ‘South,’ consumed by deep-seethed rivalry, seemed incapable of defining a common idea or make a common argument to secure the economic and political rights of their constituents. Nigeria thus seemed to be in the perpetual hold of the Northern part of the country. At every point on the question of national interest, the South just simply conceded.
But suffice it to say that the Northern political leadership was not even interested in Independence, and even threatened secession in 1953, 1956 and 1959. Here is what the nationalist leader, Dr Azikiwe, said in 1953, at the suggestion of a Northern secession: “(1953) Nnamdi Azikiwe, ‘Speech on Secession’ • (blackpast.org). But in 1958, to the chagrin of Lennox-Boyd and the British authorities, Azikiwe managed to convince the leaders of the North to join the South to accept independence and decolonization. Certain concessions were made aimed largely at allowing the North to close some of the political and intellectual gaps with the South, and accommodate their fears, which was largely the fear of Southern domination.
Those concessions were supposed to be temporary or stop-gap measures”. Today, however, the leaders and peoples of the areas we call the ‘North’ have taken those concessions as political rights. The South’s greatest fear was the fear of using its strength to squelch the North or awaken its savagery. The fear of a Northern Islamic rising kept the overfed South as wary in the post-independence era, as the fear of a Northern secession.
The concessions were made to the Fulani oligarchy, always embodying the Northern will. Thus these oligarchs of the North have taken for granted that federal power must serve their purpose – irrespective of whether that purpose allies with a nation or not. The myth of Fulani power held on until Sani Abacha first deposed and exiled Sultan Dasuki. No leaves rustled. But Buhari, a radical Islamist, learnt that a Fulani-Kanuri detente, built on an Islamic partnership, was a new way to maintaining power and circulating the values of an Islamic social order. Clearly, something happened to Buhari psychologically in 1985 when he was deposed as a military dictator by his colleagues. While he was in detention, his first marriage collapsed, and bitterness set in that broke the man himself, and perhaps caused his pivot.
But this is an aside. The focus here is that a ground shifting moment in the alchemy of Nigeria’s national politics is happening. Buhari’s overreach has exhausted the Fulani myth. His style of governance; the nepotism; the unleashing and support of the so-called ‘Fulani herdsmen’ on the Middle Belt and the South; the bandits, has led to a political blowback against the idea of North and the power conceded to the North. Two weeks ago, the governors of the Southern states finally rose, threw off the yoke of the years, and the fear of political incorrectness, and spoke with one voice about what they called ‘open grazing laws.’
In other words, they would now enforce the laws against the so-called herdsmen occupying, in many instances forcefully, private and publicly owned lands. As political statements go, the release by the governors was very mild and unprepossessing. However, it drew the clear umbrage of key figures of the Buhari ‘Presidency.’ One, the Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr Malami, accused the governors of endorsing an illegal order, comparing their position to stopping spare parts traders from trading in the North.
The second was the recent response by the President’s Senior Special Assistant, Mr Garba Shehu, who equally took umbrage with the governors of the South. The President, Shehu said, questioned the “legality” of the Southern governor’s stance. It was clear that both Shehu and Malami were circling their wagons. AG Malami was making an obvious partisan, and unfortunate reference to the “spare parts” trader – a derogatory word now for the Igbo. Well, it is true that the Igbo make and trade spare parts. They do not only sell in the so-called North of Nigeria but across the West African sub-region.
You might even find them in East and South Africa. Heck, Igbo own spare parts operations in Alaska! But the Igbo are not only spare parts traders, they are carpenters, masons, electricians, mechanics, machinists, farmers, world-class scientists, doctors, engineers, university professors, nuclear physicists, drug peddlers, hired killers; mercenaries; industrialists, bankers, teachers, etc. – they have everything and in very good numbers. Malami’s subtle threat to the Igbo is inconsequential, for two reasons: unlike the so-called Fulani herdsmen, there is nowhere the ubiquitous Igbo live where they take or occupy peoples land by force.
They buy their lots fair and square and develop them. They are builders. They come to arid land and they make it green. Those lands thrive and prosper. So, go ahead, Malami, kick the Igbo out of the North! What is the value of the Northern market without the Igbo of the South? Pretty little. To whom do these Igbo sell their spare parts? Indeed, if the Igbo abandoned their property in the North, they will rebuild it elsewhere in under three years. If Igbo houses are seized and redistributed to folks in Kano or Kaduna or Bauchi or Maiduguri, and so on, within one year, those houses will grow mould; the property values in those cities will collapse. Kano will be a ghost town without the Igbo. So, Mr Malami goes ahead and throw the Igbo and other Southerners out of your North, or shush a little on this foolish threat. The Igbo have no fear of these threats and will defend themselves if anybody makes any foolish moves against them today in the North.
And in today’s world, the Igbo do not even need to be in Kano to sell spare parts in Kano. They can sell it online from their villages if it comes to that. Also, the Southern governors have made it very clear: the Fulani, or any other Nigerians have the right to live peacefully and productively in any part of Nigeria they choose. But not by use of force; or by armed occupation. People have the rights to movement.
Not cattle. For the first time, these Southern politicians have dispensed with political correctness and called it as it is. It is nice to see Southern governors grow some balls and speak with a clear, unified voice. And yes, the President of Nigeria is not a monarch who can issue laws and orders from the throne to the rest of Nigeria. There is something called a parliament, and there is something called the rule of law. It is binding on all. These governors are not the minions of the President. The President is only primus inter pares.
It is about time that the governors of the South held this President accountable. They have the numbers. They must force him to lead the nation by doing justice in equal parts to all Nigerians. They must resist the skewering of the nation in appointments; in the distribution of economic benefits, and in the policy. The Southern Governors meeting in Asaba is officially the opening gambit by the South. And it is a fine movie. Southerners must make it clear that they have nothing really to lose because it begins to feel like the oligarchs of the North seem to think that Southern Nigerians have no options but to keep making concessions to the upper North. No, in thunder!