When a needle falls into a deep well, many people will look into the well, but few will be ready to go down after it – African proverb
A survey of the causes and consequences of the systemic collapse of northern communities is a most depressing endeavour. There must be tons of high quality research in many libraries on a whole range of subjects dealing with the past, the decline and the collapse of communities that make up the territory that was colonised as Northern Region of Nigeria, and is now fragmented into nineteen geo-political units that together generate positive or negative sentiments under the political term, North. This is the region with arguably about 60% of the nation’s population, 70% of its land mass, 80% of its solid minerals, 70% of its food production,75% of its desperately poor and 95% of its Internally Displaced Persons.
It houses most of the escalating conflicts that have taken thousands of lives, a huge, young population that includes about 13 million children attending severely underdeveloped Islamic-type schools, millions of other young people attending western-type schools that do not adequately prepare them for a productive future, a large percentage of a female population which exists entirely outside any type of a productive economic activity, and a predominantly peasant, agrarian economy without even a rudimentary agricultural industrial base. Its class structure has undergone massive change. Its previous political and economic elite has been supplanted and pauperized; its class formation processes weaken the growth of a strong middle class, and its lower classes are made up of a peasantry and urban poor with tenuous relationships to the state and the economy. Its plural ethnic and religious nature makes it vulnerable to divisive influences and conflicts from political and economic competition involving elites. This region currently faces multiple threats to its security, the most pronounced of which could fatally cripple the capacity of the state to survive and provide even the most minimal of service to citizens.
This is the region that is a liability to itself and the rest of the nation. It cannot survive all its weaknesses and liabilities in a incremental manner within a democratic process that increasingly weakens, rather than strengthens it. There are a number of fundamental prerequisites if it must be salvaged, secured and placed on a path to sustained recovery. Of these, the most significant is what happens to the Nigerian state in the next decade. There are serious threats to the continuous existence of the nation as one entity from a combination of pervasive poor governance, widening regional differences in economic fortunes, absence of a strong political elite with a shared view on the future, rising sentiments in support of balkanization and the sheer weight of bearing challenges that outweigh capacities to resolve. If Nigeria survives as one, it will be largely because its political system succeeds in creating major spaces for growth and development of parts of the nation at radically different paces and manageable but different directions. The nation will need to deepen economic interdependence and political inclusiveness, while it allows component parts to design systems and processes that reflect their basic interests as Nigerians and people who have particular needs that are important to them.
There is a case to be made for the continued existence of Nigeria as a single united entity, but it should not, and cannot be at the expense of any part. Balkanization will be messy and will not solve any of the major problems of any parts of the country. Therefore, major structural issues which represent threats to unity and progress of all component parts need to be addressed. The North has the most to gain from a holistic review in the manner the nation is structured, and its elite and thinkers should begin to design options for a future that may involve negotiations with other elites and leaders and an outcome that will give the region a number of advantages. First, it may have an opportunity to re-design its political and social structures to address the quality of governance, manage pluralism better and give space to its core values in the manner citizens live. Second, it will enjoy greater leverage in developing its human and economic resources for the benefit of its own people. Third, it will relate better with other parts of the nation, as a valuable partner that contributes to the development of the nation, and a region that is vital to the development of other parts of the country. Fourth, it will be better-placed to address its own security by designing more appropriate structures and processes for detection, management and resolution of conflicts.
The North needs to discover a means of engaging its multiple interests and groups in major and productive discussions first. The region is losing its cohesiveness and identity at an alarming rate, and the manner the political process operates does not help the vital goals of enhancing constructive pluralism and peaceful co-existence. The places of religion and ethnicity in particular have to be placed on the table and addressed openly and responsibly. No Muslim or Christian feels that current laws and local environments allows them full expression of their rights to live in accordance with their faith. Conflicts involving ethnic groups are basically about resources, and this will only be dealt with by a combination of real economic progress that benefits all groups, and governance that rests on pillars of justice and equity. Secular systems and the democratic process are creating huge pockets of frustration and conflicts, both because they are substantially isolated from basic values of a large section of the North, and because they create conditions that deepen religious and ethnic conflicts as elites compete by exploiting them. If the North cannot speak to itself, it cannot engage the rest of Nigeria from a position of strength, or at least a respected equal. As things stand, the rest of Nigeria thinks the North is weak, divided and poor enough to be exploited to serve their interests. This is not entirely incorrect, although the rest of Nigeria itself is not a shining example of unity and virtue.
The North is a fascinating paradox. Even on its own, it has the potential to be one of the most developed countries in Africa, but it has to address the roots of its decaying social values and structures, crippling and widespread poverty and widespread insecurity. It is poor in many critical areas, the most damaging being its poverty of leadership. Its elected officials have all the power to make a difference, but they lack capacity, respect of the people and the integrity to lead genuine quality change. The rest of its shrinking elite has retreated into indifference and lamentation in the face of bitter political competition that take no prisoners. The North needs a new brand of leaders that will lead with competence and an understanding of the fundamentals of integrating deeply-rooted traditional values and structures that have been weakened with processes, and systems that are needed to create a modern economy and society in the North. It needs the space to allow governance that thrives on the values of justice and respect for leadership. It must expand the political space if democracy is to have any future in the region. It needs leaders who will plan for a future, and will not be tied to four- year circles spent on pillaging resources and fighting off opposition desperate to do the same.
For the North, time means everything. Even if the Buhari administration will break the back of the Boko Haram insurgency and bring an end to multiple threats that exploit the absence of effective governance (and this is unlikely given the current disposition of the President and the tendency to punish criminals and security forces with slaps on the wrist), rebuilding social and economic structures and undertaking difficult and comprehensive political engineering that will give the region a new lease of life will need the involvement of people currently outside the power loop. Northerners who are pained at the predictable decline of the North need to get involved in the political process, not to replace current leaders, but as catalysts for genuine and long-term change.