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Northernization without agenda (III)

The second Obasanjo years between 1999 and 2007 were those in which the lack of a collective northern vision, and worse, the lack of vehicles…

The second Obasanjo years between 1999 and 2007 were those in which the lack of a collective northern vision, and worse, the lack of vehicles for pursuing the same within Nigeria’s federal setting, became all too evident.

For sure, northernization had been weakening continuously since at least the mid-1970s. But it was during Obasanjo’s two terms that northernization without agenda became most manifest for all to see for the first time, following a series of political spasms that not only tore at the region’s heart but also tugged at its feet. Obasanjo was vilified by all sides either for doing too much or too little to favour each side, but in reality, his fault was more for who he was than what he did or said since the real problem was his perceived handling of the Sharia crises.

Obasanjo’s handling of the Sharia crises was, in hindsight at least, rather even-handed and nationalistic. He insisted that the constitution provided enough room for all faiths to find home, and imposed a state of emerging on states like Plateau, where, then as now, local politics seemed irrevocably stacked against those deemed minority. By contrast, the North under Jonathan, who was much less nationalistic in both ambition and experience, was quite frankly a huge theatre of internecine violence, often stoked straight by a perpetually fumbling government.

The point, therefore, is that the Sharia crises which triggered so much disaffection with Obasanjo during his first term had little to do with him actually. The real culprits were the Nigerian media which fanned the embers of violent discord every minute throughout that turbulent period, and the northern leaders themselves who could deal well with federal politics but not well enough with internal northern affairs.

Bodies like the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), the Northern Governors Forum, Traditional Councils, and so on, simply could not imagine an endurable way of dealing with the tensions and divisions of the moment. There was also scarcely a single northern person who commanded enough confidence from all sides to pivot a way forward, certainly not as successive leaders had done before.

The result was not just political disintegration but the rise of conflicting visions, values and even identities. Where politically there was mostly one North, suddenly people began to see themselves by anything other than northerners as previously understood. Worse, newly formed paper-identities like “far north”, “core north”, “Muslim north” and “Christian north” became even more politically pronounced during and after the Obasanjo years, with serious political consequences for all.

And as ever, where politics leads, culture follows. Whereas it used to be pretty common for Muslim men to marry Christian women in northern Nigeria, what is common today is inter-marriage between southern Christian men and northern Christian women. Perhaps the “matrimonial oppression” some had complained about has now turned full cycle.

Still, the most practical manifestation of northernization without agenda came during the terrible politics of “consensus candidacy”, when following the death of President Yar’Adua, several northern aspirants for president could not agree even among themselves to push one of them forward. Never mind that at that same time, the whole of southern Nigeria had united politically behind Jonathan, without anyone even calling for it. Consensus was later achieved, but Jonathan defeated all the northern candidates, first within his own party, and then across the national political spectrum; of course, with the full support of many northern politicians.

In effect, the politics of consensus candidacy in the 2011 elections worked to unite southern politicians behind then-incumbent President Jonathan regardless of party, and thus helped to give at least temporary form to a southern political agenda at the time. But it also exposed the crudest aspects of northernization without agenda in the second and larger political half of the country, as narrow self-interest effectively replaced any sense of collective northern interests

Quite unexpectedly, Buhari’s did not change much but a single example will illustrate how terrible things were under Jonathan before him. The dredging of the River Niger, a project all agree the region sorely needed then, and even more so now, was the very first major project the late President Yar’Adua signed on when he assumed office in 2007. It was also the very first thing Jonathan chalked off when he, in turn, ascended the throne barely three years later in 2010.

No one in northern Nigeria raised even as much as a whimper against Jonathan for that. No one thought to use this project to negotiate with him in exchange for votes during the following year’s presidential election. No one seized upon Jonathan’s rather cute political marketing gimmick in the name of building almajiri schools, by either ensuring it really worked or by exposing its pretensions. No one, in fact, spoke up for or negotiated anything for northern Nigeria during the 2011 elections, other than the paper “commitment” to do only one term and leave the stage by 2015.

If anything, several of the leading northern politicians were falling over themselves, and back-stabbing one another in the process, for a probable place as Jonathan’s running mate in 2015.  Before then, many of them would be shown the true limits of self-interest against collective interest in politics. Some were driven out of ministerial or governorship offices; others out of the party or the country altogether. Those who remained in post and in the party were rendered powerless as a whole new generation of men, and women, with bowler hats, trooped into the capital, or remained at home and still called the shots.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the North had turned into a huge war zone, with punishing checkpoints within and in-between cities and towns. To date, the real stories of the human rights violations at those checkpoints during the latter Jonathan years have not been told. But together with the separate but concurrent political frustration of many northern politicians within the ruling party, they helped galvanise both the elite and the masses towards one single political goal in the 2015 elections: the sacking of Jonathan back to Otuoke, to borrow the inelegant phrasing of one of the major actors of the era.

You would think that northernization with the agenda of old as argued throughout this trilogy so far would be much revived under Buhari. But President Buhari, and his small company of trusted kith and kin were content with merely arresting further damage for the North and the country from the point they took over but did little else in concrete terms to reimagine or achieve what a northernization agenda would look like under the much-changed circumstances of 2015 to date in Nigeria.

Of course, some key players in that administration and party would try, in vain, to keep hold of power for its own sake and in the most virulently self-interested version of northernization through the failed attempt to smuggle former Senate President Ahmed Lawan to the presidency. The outcome is what we have today, essentially a repeat of Obasanjo and Jonathan years where northern politicians would back a southern candidate to win an election, only to feel disappointed—some would say altogether frightened—both at the loss of power and by the actions of a president they believe they made.

What then is the way out?

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