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Is the North no more?

It is interesting, isn’t it, that just when we are talking about carving out a whole new political and policy agenda for northern Nigeria, just…

It is interesting, isn’t it, that just when we are talking about carving out a whole new political and policy agenda for northern Nigeria, just when it is all too apparent that such new agendas were needed, one of its elderly sons, one of those northerners who you can say have seen it all, would remind us that “the North is no more” because “selfish people have destroyed our region”.

General Zamani Lekwot whose rare interview with this newspaper last Sunday we are talking about has a valid point, even if you sense a tinge of personal bitterness in the voice when he said it, or even if you wish the point was made by someone else less controversial. General Lekwot’s point, made at length throughout the interview, is that through a series of events, and through a number of actions by some individuals, we have come to lose what we used to have, namely, that sense of One North, One Nigeria that the late Sardauna worked so hard to build.

The idea that we are all in this together, that we are all defined not just by shared values and culture in the broad sense, but of a common political destiny which places the collective well above the self within the wider Nigerian politics is what northernization used to mean. And it is what Lekwot says has now been lost. The political history of the northern region in the past quarter century, of the internal communal conflicts, of the religious wars and the intra-regional polemics that fuel them, of the political and emotional infidelity with outsiders, and above all, of the economic despoilation of the whole region as a result of these, certainly point towards the General Lekwot’s conclusions.

Still, there is a sense in which the General misses the point. First of all, if there is still the possessive “our region”, to use the General’s own words, then somehow the ‘region’ must exist in some form. It certainly does still exist as a geographical or even geopolitical entity within the wider Nigeria. We all still speak of “Northern Nigeria” in reference to something that covers the 19 northernmost states of Nigeria. We still have labels like Northern Governors Forum or the Northern Elders Forum, or the Northern this and the Northern that, all within the wider Nigerian context. In thousands of every conversations with one another, Nigerians from all across the country still talk of “the North”, and of “northerners”.  Therefore, the North must still be there somehow; not no more.

Secondly, and equally important, if not more so, the “North” still exists in the political and cultural imagination of other Nigerians. As sociologists know only too well, identity is not just about how you define yourself but how others define you. You are not just what you say you are but what others think and say you are. That is true for individuals as it is for whole peoples and cultures. Indeed, in some cases, how others identify you might be more significant than how you define yourself.

Politically speaking therefore, the North is still there and it is still one, at least for other Nigerians. Throughout last year, when politicians and their surrogates in both the All Progressive Congress (APC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) talked about power shift to the South, they meant that they would brook no Nigerian of northern extraction as a president following immediately after the President Buhari, a northerner. That simple idea, that there is still a “North” and “South” in Nigerian politics, and that the presidency must shift from the former to the latter in the 2023 elections, is what made some people president or ministers today. Is it is also what denied same to others.

So, it is not only that the North exists politically speaking, it is also that its existence has serious consequences for the realization of personal and collective political ambitions in Nigeria. But perhaps another example might best illustrate the latter point. I was quite bemused about what followed Buhari appointed Engr. Babachir David Lawal as the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) in August 2015. At the time, all the top four elective positions in the country (President, Vice President, Senate President, and Speaker of the House of Representatives) had already been filled, and none of them was from the southeast or even south-south. Therefore, many pundits expected, and some even demanded, that the SGF would at least be from one of these two regions.

But when the SGF turned out to be another northerner, all hell broke loose in the southern news media, particularly in the southeast. Buhari was lambasted for appointing another ‘notana’ to the SGF post. It didn’t matter one bit to the critics that Babachir Lawal is a Christian because the focus of political consideration was region, not religion. It would be painful irony, for sober observers of Nigeria’s politics at least, therefore, that the same Babachir Lawal would be among the first to condemn the so-called “Muslim-Muslim ticket” of the current President and Vice-President of Nigeria. Unlike his detractors in 2015 who focused squarely on regional politics, in his brief but sad political journey in 2023, Babachir Lawal focused only on religion, a less reliable marker of electoral politics in Nigeria.

There is yet another example, which we will not belabour here because we have mentioned it here in passing in the past. One of the major reasons former President Jonathan lost his reelection bid in 2015 is because the North, that is, the political north, closed ranks and voted for Buhari and his party, not just out of love for him but to end the common political and physical misery that many—elite and ordinary northerner alike—were forced to endure under the later Jonathan.

In other words, the North which General Lekwot says is no more still does in fact exist in that very political sense in which he means the term. It is true that individual self-interest has now taken over where collective self-interest should rule, but overall, the baby has still not gone out with the bath water.

Finally, and for me most importantly, whatever is lost can be reclaimed. If the North indeed is no more in the sense of a political death, then it can just as well be brought back to life. The founding fathers of the United States, for example, saw themselves more as reclaimers of a lost tradition, as the torch bearers of Greek and Roman democracy, and by implication, as trustees of western civilization. Nearly all of them, from George Washington to Hamilton, from John Adams to Jefferson, saw themselves more in the role of reclaimers than of founders. The task, for them, was to bring back what was valuable but lost in the past, to how it might be value again in the present.

And that, in a nutshell, is the task ahead for the current generation of northern Nigerians, to re-imagine new ways of being northern in today’s Nigeria. It is tempting to say the north is no more, but many outside have no any other way conceiving the region other than as northern Nigeria in that very political sense as One North, One Nigeria. The question is how to reclaim what has been lost?

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