Lessons of the historical process

May 11, 2011
5 mins read

IF a word captures the central content of the responses I got to my first piece last week, it would be “vitriol”. Not that I was surprised; but the depth of anger against me, for daring to deconstruct the prevalent perspective about Northern Nigeria, within media, intellectual and even popular levels, in Southern Nigeria, was simply amazing!

The space of knowledge has narrowed dangerously. Most of those who read my piece seemed unable to accept that there cannot be one view of our society, anymore than there can be one way of being human. Dissent is at the heart of democratic life, but the cultured person disagrees with decency.

That was not my experience last week. But more than ever before, we need to dialogue in our country, to know ourselves better, or at least understand why each one of us thinks or behaves as we do, given the historical currents that molded us.

Ethno-religious issues
Nigeria’s problems are often reduced to ethno-religious and regional divide between North and South and even between generations. But the central thesis for me has always been injustice: socio-economic injustice within and between our regions and between social groups and classes or even between generations. For example, 70 per cent of our population is under thirty.

They have never experienced a country which worked, even minimally, for the people. Born during military dictatorship, in a Hobbesian jungle of rampaging globalised neo-liberal capitalism, where life is nasty, brutish and short; these young people have come into adulthood, when civic culture and a sense of community have collapsed.

There are few positive heroes that our young people can emulate; the social milieu is one of mind-bending religious fanaticism or delusional consumerism; unemployment; clandestine and open prostitution; escapist social networking world of Facebook and Twitter, if they are not doing drugs!

It is very difficult to be young in Nigeria, because ideals have evaporated as neo-liberalism enhanced individualism but gave the youth no social net; and anger seems to have become the central motif of existence. But in moments of despair, a stroll on the shores of history can assist our understanding of contemporary reality. Unfortunately, even the teaching of history has all but collapsed in our school system.

Let me offer some examples from the history of Northern Nigeria. The jihad of Sheikh Usmanu Dan Fodiyo, was arguably, the most important event in our history. The jihadist scholars (my own forefathers were jihadist scholars), used the platform of Islam to fight the injustice in the society of their times.

The writings of Sheikh Usmanu, his brother, Abdullahi and son Muhammadu Bello, were very clear about the central place of justice in the building of society. In fact, to underline that the jihad was primarily a movement for social justice, Sheikh Dan Fodiyo taught that a society can endure with unbelief, but it will collapse, if it is unjust.

There was a contemporary movement for reformation to the East, in Borno, with the work and leadership of Muhammad El-Kanemi. When Sokoto jihadists tried to enter Borno, there came an incredible exchange of letters between Bello and El-Kanemi, which entered history as the “Sokoto-Borno letters”.

Eventually, colonialism overthrew the jihadist/justice state while the post-colonial/neo-colonial successor state through injustice, avarice and greed gradually sucked dry, whatever remained of the lofty principles which were the foundations of the society which became known as Northern Nigeria.

A memory of culture
What I am trying to draw out of this narrative, is that even when degeneracy entered Northern Nigerian society, there has remained memory of a culture of struggle for justice led by committed intellectuals who preached and fought to institute just societies.

Today, Northern Nigeria is going through its lowest phase. An alliance of a succession of military dictators and rapacious political, economic and traditional elite eventually brought us to the despair that we all now lament. According to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics, the poverty rate in Northern Nigeria is alarming: 1980, 35.1percent; 1981, 52.60percent; 1982, 45.50percent; 1983, 70.67percent and 2004, 70. 13percent.

The 1999 transition to civil rule did not improve the situation. The indices remain appalling in the realms of poverty, infant mortality or enrolment in schools for example, despite the huge sums that accrued to our states in the period.

The majority of our population is under 30. These hopeless youth are at the forefront of agitation for justice, often appealing to or inspired by the old history of Islam that I have described earlier. The mass of people here that is in the North are completely alienated from the Nigerian state; they do not see the benefits of modernity, and have lost hope in the leadership of the elite.

They had hoped to use the last elections as a platform for change and that longing was denied them in the massive rigging which took place, especially in the North. That was why the uprising which followed the presidential election targeted the Northern elite in the main. Unfortunately, the anger against injustice became trailed by an alienating violence. But again, this should not surprise anybody with an understanding of history.

20th century politics
The twentieth century was the century of great political ideas: communist, socialist, social democracy, fascist and national liberation movements. The fin-de-siecle, saw the end of ideological politics and the emergence of identity politics. Contemporary neo-liberal globalization changed the character of politics, just as it re-modeled citizens into consumers.

In our setting, the dominant mantra from the mid-1980s of rolling back the state, gave rise to its privatization and a vicious struggle for power between elite groups willing to manipulate identity, especially religion and ethnicity.

When ideological politics retreated, old contradictions resurfaced in new forms to condition the new politics of identity in the North: like the ecological contradiction which pits nomadic groups against settled agricultural communities with serious consequences for shared citizenship, as the desert encroaches and population increases; the collapse of the rural economy as well as de-industrialization.

There are no jobs for millions of desperately poor just as the ruling class is lost in a regime of brazen theft and a frightening incompetence, about how to even secure their class project. These are the political, economic, cultural, ecological and demographic factors, causing the seismic movements in Northern Nigeria. They explain the heated nature of the politics and they also underline my thesis: in the North and all over Nigeria, we have to address all forms of injustice that dog our country!

PDP’s sickening zoning hypocrisy

In the weeks since Jonathan Goodluck and other mandarins of the PDP were returned by INEC, the taboo word of “zoning” suddenly re-emerged with vengeance, as the reference point of political discourse.

The presidential retreat at Obudu; nocturnal conclaves at the Otta residence of the old despot, Obasanjo; sponsored stories in the media about David Mark’s near-unanimous endorsement; even a recent meeting called by Namadi Sambo asking incoming members of the House of Representatives to avoid primordial considerations in choosing the next House leadership, have reinforced zoning as preferred booty-sharing mechanism.

The “progressives” of the ACN are said to be in cahoots, so that zoning can benefit their “race”, in the Southwest! Actually, zoning was on induced coma (rather like the Israeli PM Ariel Sharon), only because Jonathan Goodluck wanted to be president. Now that the prize is in the bag, good old zoning got a kiss of life and resurrected.

It is time for a prebendalist sharing of the loot! Have you heard any whimpers about ‘good governance’ these past few weeks? Nigeria’s interest is not on the cards just yet!

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