Judging from the trend of opinion in the media and the tenor of conversations online, it seems that Nigerians have reached a rare consensus on the object of their collective wrath. He is the Northerner, particularly the Muslim “Hausa-Fulani” Northerner with the emphasis of the indictment varying from the generic category of “Muslim” to that of “Northerner” or “Hausa-Fulani” depending on who is doing the indicting and the circumstances. From the barrage of anti-Northern invective online, it is clear that the Northerner is considered the diabolical, greedy and power-hungry embodiment of all that is wrong with Nigeria.
Nigerians have consensually used these same adjectives before about another group – the Igbos. At one point in our history, the Igbos were the national scapegoats. As Chinua Achebe wrote in 1983, “Nigerians of all other ethnic groups will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo.”
In a multiethnic and multi-religious society steeped in poverty, part of the competition for group advantage is the quest to identify a common enemy, to dress it in readily identifiable sectarian garments and crown it with thorns as the national scapegoat. In earlier times, the toga of villainy was draped around the Igbo, stereotyped in the national consciousness as grasping, greedy, arrogant and clannish.
From the mid 1980s onwards, it became fashionable to speak of “northern domination.” The designation of national scapegoat has to do with perceptions of power and group advantage in the public realm. During the pre-Independence period when Igbos were prominent actors in commerce, politics and the civil service, they were vilified for plotting “Igbo domination.” The sequence of northern-led military regimes from the 1970s to the late 1990s made a new narrative of northern domination inevitable.
The demonization of “the north” in the media mirrors the vilification of the Igbo between the 1940s and 1960s. As with the Igbo, the depiction of the north as the arch-villain of the Nigerian tragedy is fallacious. Blaming all of Nigeria’s problems on one region or ethnic group and defining ethnicities as political categories with predictable socio-political habits is an untenable generalization and a prejudicial simplification of the Nigerian situation. This is unfortunately the dominant pattern of social and political analysis. It is one in which public life is interpreted in terms of mutually hostile fractal solidarities perpetually locked in a war for ascendancy.
The practice of identifying national scapegoats is a Machiavellian dark art. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Babangida regime identified “radicals” as the enemy. It was the desire to destroy radical academics that informed the military’s perception of the university as enemy territory and its subsequent subversion of higher education. Academics in the Ahmadu Bello University and the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) in particular faced systematic persecution and harassment. In later years, elements within the Babangida regime would identify the OAU as the hub of a “Yoruba opposition.” Similarly, the University of Nigeria in Nsukka was targeted during the civil war as the “intellectual base” of the Biafran secession.
Following the June 12, 1993 election crisis, the emergence of Sani Abacha, and the incarceration of Moshood Abiola, the Yoruba were cast as the enemies of Nigeria and the chief opponents of the regime. The regime’s propagandists lost no time in dubbing the pro-democracy activists who wanted the June 12 election actualized as Yoruba tribalists even though Abiola’s mandate had been remarkably pan-Nigerian. The June 12 advocates reciprocated, insisting that the “north” was against the emergence of a Yoruba president, even though Abiola had won very handsomely in northern states. Abiola, himself a long time crony of military dictators, never attributed his travails to the machinations of a “north” intent on denying him power because he was a southerner but to what he called “a small clique in the military determined to cling to power at all costs.” But facts pale in the face of mythology.
Eskor Toyo once lamented that ethnic chauvinists in the south would rather refer to Sani Abacha as a northerner rather than as a fascist military dictator. After the near assassination of The Guardian publisher Alex Ibru in 1996, a group calling itself the Revolutionary Movement for Hausa Fulani Interest, (REMHFI), claimed responsibility. Of course, the attempted assassination was the work of the junta’s agents. It had nothing to with Hausa or Fulani interest and everything to do with the prolongation of a fascist dictatorship. But power mongers have long learned how to manipulate popular bigotries to their own advantage.
By 1999, the scales of enemy definition were weighted firmly against “the North.” Guerilla journalists had riveted Nigerians with tales of the intrigues of the “Hausa-Fulani oligarchy” or the “Sokoto Caliphate” – all metaphorical representations of the “northern enemy.” In his book, This House Has Fallen, Karl Maier reports Bola Ige as disclosing that the real controllers of Nigeria consisted of “not more than two hundred Fulani families.”
With the emergence of Boko Haram, the North is being entrenched as an “enemy other” in the national imagination, aided by the ignorance and malice of a biased media, 90 percent of which is based in the southwest (the so-called Lagos-Ibadan axis); and bigotry of pandemic proportions in our public life. Jingoism as journalism is rendering public discourse between Nigerians mutually unintelligible. It should have been fairly easy to mobilize national opinion against Boko Haram, a terrorist group that murders Muslims and Christians alike, and to cast it as a common enemy – but the media’s insistence on the myth of the “northern enemy” and its prejudicial coverage, which has prevented even sufficient acknowledgement of the fact that as many (if not more) Muslims have been killed by the group, – have negated this. This reportorial slant corresponds with the narrative of a Muslim north ranged against a Christian south – a popular fiction, yet possessed of such apocalyptic sensationalism that it sells papers. Put simply, politicians and the press both profit from demonizing groups and promoting prejudice.
However, ethnicity and religion possess limited explanatory capacity. According to Obi Nwakanma, northern domination is one of “the most sustained mythologies of post colonial Nigeria.” He argues that “the idea that the north through the military ran Nigeria and underdeveloped it is false… The closer truth is that a very complex alliance of business interests from the North and the South, with their international banking and security links ran Nigeria, and continues to run Nigeria. The ordinary northerner – Hausa or Fulani or Berom or even Tiv – has not benefited in any significant way from the so-called rule of Northerners. Individual northerners and southerners have benefited in immense ways, from their close associations and links with power, and we must pay heed to this fact.” Tam David-West contends that, “Northern Domination is a myth concocted and popularly peddled and perpetuated by lazy politically emasculated Southern politicians and most unfortunately also some Southern intellectuals; a grand alibi to cover up or divert from their ineffectiveness, ineffectuality and even political harlotry.” “Northern domination” is used in the same way that some northern politicians use the bogey of “southern domination” to mobilize support through fear of the other.
The great radical historian Bala Usman interpreted the Nigerian condition as a consequence of class machinations rather than contending ethnicities. He argued that a comprador elite of impeccably national character and transnational affiliations armed with hegemonic designs, rather than any ethnic constituency, are the true enemies of the Nigerian nation. Yet, their ascendancy lay in their ability to wear ethnic and religious masks, and manipulate ethnic and religious identities for personal gain.
In 1989, while addressing the Oxford-Cambridge Club, President Ibrahim Babangida said, “By accident of birth and more by education and access to opportunity, a few of us numbering only a few thousand, out of a population of more than 100 million, find ourselves in positions of leadership and influence in the professions and academics, the armed forces, the bureaucracy, industry, agriculture and commerce, in the media houses, in the courts and councils of our traditional and political associations. We equate our ends with the ends of the groups and communities to which we belong. We mobilize others to fight for our individual causes, individual beliefs, and interests as if those were their causes, beliefs and interests, etc.” Critics may justifiably see Babangida’s thesis as a self-indictment but it is accurate nonetheless.
The enduring lesson that political elites learned from the catastrophic failure of the First Republic is that no one ethnic group or region can “dominate” Nigeria. The key to political success since then has been to build multi-ethnic coalitions to share the national cake – an equal opportunity kleptocracy. This was the genius of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) during the Second Republic and has been carried on by the Peoples’ Democratic Party. The tiresome “north-south” polemics only serve to obscure the pan-Nigerian character of the reigning elites, by provoking provincial passions and diversionary conflicts at the grassroots – in which the poor are expendable.
Our chances of mitigating such aggressions depend on how mature we become intellectually and politically. The more mature we become, the less need we will have to externalize our failures upon other ethnicities and faiths, and the more discerning we shall be of who the real enemies are. As the great political scientist Claude Ake once said, “There is no north that is anybody’s enemy and there is no south that is anybody’s redemption.”
In the 2011 PDP convention, Atiku Abubakar sought the party’s presidential nomination as the “official northern flag-bearer” and failed to muster a complete following even among northern delegates. His failure was no mystery. Political power obeys dynamics other than accident of birth. Geography is not always destiny. As Chidi Amuta explained, “In a free market Nigeria, the brotherhood of the naira is fast overtaking the bonds of tribe and religion.”
Despite Muhammadu Buhari’s popularity on the northern street, many northern elites, being beneficiaries of the current order did not support his presidential candidacy. Nor did they support the other two northern contenders, Ibrahim Shekarau and Nuhu Ribadu. The media with its tunnel vision fixation on a mythical northern solidarity failed to note that a monolithic north no longer exists (If indeed it ever truly did). The blame for our woes lies squarely with “the brotherhood of the naira” – a national fraternity of politicians far more united by their appetites than divided by ideology – and also with our own lack of discernment. Ethnic and confessional allegiances matter but they are subject to the supervening calculations of class interest and are nowhere as definitive as believed when it comes to the intrigues of “high” politics.
In fifty years, the actual enemies of Nigeria have not changed. As one soldier declared on a fateful day in January 1966, “Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand ten percent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles; those that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds.” The righteous fury of this indictment was to be lost in the series of tragic events that collapsed the First Republic. But the truth of the diagnosis remains unimpeachable.
Thus, while we slander and stereotype each other, our leaders continue in their unregulated feasting, secure in the knowledge that we are too distracted by petty bigotries to surveil their conduct. We must realize that this season of turbulence is also a teachable moment – one in which we should share perpectives, listen to and learn from each other while building a front to salvage our common future. We must not squander it.
All images sourced Google Images.