Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The North-South Delusion

As 2015 draws closer, politicians are ratcheting up their use of polarizing rhetoric in their pursuit of power. The favoured clich├ęd binary of a “North” ranged against a “South” is already being circulated. These wearisome terms, so often promoted by politicians and media elites as a frame for understanding Nigeria, have to be challenged.

The “North” as anything resembling a monolith died with Ahmadu Bello in 1966 and was speedily interred when General Yakubu Gowon’s regime dissolved the regions into states in 1967 to accommodate restive minorities as well as to break the Biafran secession. What remains of that North is merely the ghost of a dream. The term ‘Northerner’ can be justifiably used to bracket people who inhabit the same socio-cultural universe above the Niger but the ‘North’ as a monolithic political entity with uniform political goals and values is a fantasy.

Since 1967, and most recently since the beginning of the Fourth Republic, that simplistic notion of Northern identity has frayed further with the resurgence of ethnic nationalism. Communities hitherto subsumed in the Arewa collective are now culturally reasserting themselves as a result of the lease of political expression created by democracy. Where previously some people might have self-identified as ‘Northerners’, they are now more likely to identify themselves as Kanuri, Bachama, Tangale or Igala, or even more generically as Middle Belters – an identity often used synonymously and inadequately with ‘Northern Christian.’  Even the Hausa-Fulani construct is now frequently clarified by those who rightly point out that this hybrid identity is more of a political simulation than an anthropological fact. Hausa and Fulfulde do not even belong to the same language group. This trend illustrates the difficulty of typecasting what are in reality fluid conceptions of identity that correspond with the shifting dynamics of power.

In truth, the North has never been a monolith. The most intense ideological rivalry of the First Republic was in the old Northern Region between the ruling conservative Northern People’s Congress and the opposition Northern Elements Progressive Union. The Middle Belt was the site of vociferous resistance against the NPC which was seen as a vehicle of Hausa-Fulani Islamic hegemony. To this day, voting patterns in Northern Nigeria reflect the diversity and complexity of political allegiances in the region.

The problem with the continued use of rhetorical redundancies like “North” and “South” is that they automatically seed a polarizing dynamic into public debate. In fact, there has never been a cohesive Southern political consciousness. In the First Republic, Southern Nigeria was made up of three regions – East, West and Midwest. For that reason, the term ‘Southerner’ has never had the same political resonance as the term ‘Northerner.’

Since the demise of the regions almost a half century ago, the terms ‘North’ and ‘South’ merely conjure up a false contest that squanders our mental and emotional energies for the benefit of those who stand to gain materially and politically by claiming to represent these fictitious constituencies. It also freezes public debate at the level of infantile polemics while the material conditions of the majority of Nigerians, both Northerners and Southerners, continue to degenerate. For the poetry of a “North” requires an opposing concept in a “South” to sustain the melodrama.

Two groups benefit from continually projecting the idea of a monolithic “North.” First, a coterie of failed Northern politicians, contractors and ex-public functionaries, who are in many respects, responsible for the region’s impoverishment, uses emotive appeals to a fictitious Arewa solidarity to rally the faithful in order to negotiate more concessions for itself.

Secondly, there is a clique of Southern media and political elites for whom continually scapegoating the Big Bad North sells papers and guarantees relevance. One understated fact is that 90 percent of the Nigerian media is headquartered in Lagos. Thus, the dominant perspective on Nigeria is mostly both one-sided and one-eyed, supplied by a media that is limited by geography, lamentable ignorance, and not inconsiderable prejudice.

While the Arewa champions and the Southern elites are theoretically opposed, in reality, they feed off each other. Failed Northern politicians are played up in the Southern media as speaking for the “North” and they themselves become the hate figures and exemplars of “Northern villainy” that inflame Southern paranoia while gaining national relevance as a result. Having set up a Northern straw man, some Southern elites then make a career of standing up to the "North" or resisting "Northern domination" or "Islamization." 

An ironic symbiotic relationship has evolved between these Northern elites and the Southern media. The latter highlights the elites that validate the popular caricature of Northern politicians as a perpetually scheming cauldron of slothful parasites. The same politicians, having fed this stereotype, then purport to be offended on behalf of the “North” and then proceed to issue even more cretinous quotes to a gleefully appreciative press. It is a farcical pantomime. In truth, elites like Adamu Ciroma and Ango Abdullahi who have made a public career of speaking for the “North” are politically inconsequential and are relevant only to the extent to which their words are broadcast in the Southern media.

The saddest thing about some of the Northern politicians now saber-rattling about 2015 is that they have eschewed cogent critiques of the present administration, of which there are many, and have settled for the basest one – that it is the turn of the North. This plays into the hands of their kindred cads on the opposing side who will simply counter that it is not the turn of the North. And with the media in attendance, what should be a debate over leading this country with distinction in this century will be reduced to a brawl over whose turn it is to share the national cake.

The fiction of the “North” also feeds a faux discourse in Northern Nigeria that is marked by self pity, elegies to a mythical lost golden age of Arewa, and most dangerously, the self-exculpatory rhetoric of blame that portrays Northerners as victims of a Southern conspiracy.

The reality of the “North” today is not of a geopolitical leviathan but of 19 states with varying economic and political priorities. Benue has different needs from Sokoto; Kano from Kogi and Adamawa from the Plateau. Leaders like Ahmadu Bello were shaped by the exigencies of a different time when Nigeria was a federation of regions. There will never be another leader of his stature to rally the ‘North’ because that ‘North’ has long ceased to exist. The same goes for those who futilely dream of reincarnating Obafemi Awolowo in the Southwest. Rather than trying to channel long dead regional avatars and to simulate their charisma, politicians should focus on building credible national platforms for gaining national power or stick to developing their states.       

In today’s Nigeria, a politician can no more speak for the ‘North’ or ‘South’ or any other region, than I could speak for the Eskimos. Nigeria has grown beyond such reductionist tomfoolery. 

(All images sourced online) 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Child not Bride and Allied Matters

While the controversy over child marriage may be simmering down, there is a much broader conversation that we must have about the fate of Nigerian children in the context of Nigeria’s federal architecture. That debate should revolve around the Child Rights Act. Passed in 2003 by the National Assembly, it is yet to be domesticated in ten states of the federation, most of which are in Northern Nigeria.

The unremarked subtext of the child marriage debate is the fact that a number of our national developmental objectives now fall within the brief of states rather than the federal government. The military era’s unitary command and control governance is gone and along with it any possibility of uniform national development. For this reason, much of the ire directed at the Senate recently in the name of the Nigerian child was misdirected. Whether a girl in Zamfara or Yobe goes to school or winds up prematurely as a wife is entirely up to the states involved.

It is significant that even as the debate has raged in recent weeks, five Northern governors whose states possess some of the most atrocious social indices with regard to children were traversing the country parleying with former heads of state and President Goodluck Jonathan in an effort to resolve the strife in the ruling party. Unofficially, the jaunt is part of the maneuvering for the 2015 elections. It is sadly often the case that governance is at the mercy of politics.

This raises the issue of the dereliction of duty by governors who are rarely found within their states attending to the affairs of their people. The media itself abets gubernatorial truancy by disproportionately focusing on the presidency and the federal government and virtually ignoring what goes on in the states where governors rule in absolutist fashion. Indeed, the presidency though constitutionally powerful, is constrained by the legislature, the media’s relentless scrutiny and even the governors themselves; whereas, the selfsame governors administer their states like private estates with the media uninterested in their deeds and misdeeds. If this were not the case, civil society would have taken the errant governors to task for not having domesticated the Child Rights Act but as things stand all attention is obsessively focused on the federal government. This is an important point because by 2015, a number of governors will be vying for the presidency. We should judge them not by their declared intentions for the presidency but by their gubernatorial records.  

The undue focus on the central government is also a vestige of the imprint made by overbearing military dictatorships in the national consciousness. But since 1999, federal democracy has slowly become more tangible and governors have grown more assertive. The fact is that many of the issues that directly affect Nigerians fall under the purview of state and local governments. The media and civil society have been slow to correspondingly adopt a “federal mentality.”

The key to addressing issues like early marriage is education. The pervasiveness of early marriage is consistent with low school enrolment among females. A high incidence of poverty is also consonant with high female illiteracy which prevents women from being able to function as autonomous economic actors. States that wish to lower the incidence of early marriage should consider enacting compulsory primary and secondary education which would equip girls (and boys) with the tools to be productive citizens. Secondary education should be the baseline for educational attainment.

The preponderance of girl-child education in an area is a fairly accurate predictor of the sustainability of early marriage. A number of the polemicists who argued in favour of early marriage defended it as an institution that protects feminine virtue from social immorality. Some of these arguments were rife with male chauvinism, misogyny and the patriarchal objectification of women. These quibbles aside, it is worth noting that the practice of early marriage is itself increasingly linked to rising divorce rates in Northern Nigeria.

In keeping with the general African view of marriage as a class statement, men in Northern Nigeria tend to see a new bride as a status symbol. According to research findings in 2010 by Dr Ismaila Zango, a sociologist at the Bayero University Kano (BUK), one out of two marriages in Kano ends in divorce. Similar patterns of matrimonial and family failure subsist in Sokoto and Katsina states. Vesico-vaginal fistula, a condition that arises from early pregnancy, is rampant. Over two hundred thousand women nationwide, the majority of them Northerners, suffer from the disease. Paradoxically, sufferers of VVF are likely to be divorced by their husbands and thrown out of their homes. Legions of women divorced for the slightest infraction can be found on the streets of Kano. With no means of economic empowerment these women either succumb to destitution or take to prostitution, thus fuelling the onslaught of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted plagues. It is a vicious cycle in every sense. In this instance, far from being a guarantor of feminine morality, early marriage only leaves females as vulnerable as ever while not imposing any regulatory discipline on males.

The point of female education is to empower young women to sustain themselves regardless of their marital status. Educating girls would render them less vulnerable to the depredations of male patriarchy and empower them to survive the desperate economic circumstances of divorce.       

It is important to note too that despite the religious colouration given to the debate over child marriage, this is not a religious matter. Child marriage is not a pillar of Islam. The persistence of this cultural practice has less to do with the resilience of Islam than with the low penetration of the North by modernity. In other parts of Nigeria, it is the march of female education rather than any socio-cultural epiphany that has drastically reduced the incidence of early marriage; after all, the betrothal of girls is not unknown to other cultures.  

The early marriage of girls is a vestige of the agrarian social economy which defined early Islamic societies. Economic activity in agrarian economies being labour-intensive was uniquely suited for brawny males who as the main economic actors were enjoined to spread an umbrella of socio-economic protection over the “weaker” womenfolk. Modernization, industrialization and the knowledge economy which favour brains over brawn have been characterized by the increasing education of women and their emergence as competent economic actors. They no longer need the protective umbrella of the men in the same way as it was during the agrarian age. This dynamic has yet to fully penetrate the largely rural agrarian reality of Northern Nigeria where female literacy remains low.

This trend is also reinforced by socio-cultural institutions. It is often the case that male patriarchy thrives by using its dominance of instruments like organized religion to control and manipulate the vulnerable, among them, women and children, whether through early (and forced) marriages or the institutionalized destitution of children known as almajiri. It is therefore important that we reject the use of faith to mask or justify the perpetration of crimes or the perpetuation of retrogression. It is significant that female literacy is far higher among Muslim communities in Southern Nigeria than in the North. Iran is a conservative Islamic theocracy and yet 70 percent of its science and engineering students are women. Across the Middle East, the taboos against educating women are receding as is the notion that Islam is a divine license for female subjugation. One need not be a “feminist” or a “westernized liberal” to appreciate this point. Both Uthman Dan Fodio who advocated the education of women and his daughter, Nana Asmau, who was an accomplished intellectual stand out as irresistible examples of progressive enlightenment.

The objections to the Child Rights Act in the states yet to domesticate it are also about much more than early marriage. There is the matter of the Act’s intolerance of child labour, for instance. Street hawking is something the Act frowns at and yet it remains a fixture of urban life in much of Nigeria not just in the North. The Child Rights Act is at the mercy of the tension between legislation and custom. Politics rarely leaps ahead of culture. When trying to change practices rooted in tradition and culture, the levers of change have to be localized. This is why ideally, driving education and ending early marriage are ultimately matters for state and local governments. It takes agencies of change embedded in the socio-cultural environment in question to effect transformation from within. There is only so much that can be accomplished by proclamations in Abuja. The fate of a young girl in Dirin Daji or Talata Mafara will be shaped less by remote proclamations in Abuja than by transformative actors in her own community and municipality. The economics and politics of developmental transformation are local.

Primary education, in particular, falls under the ambit of state and local authorities. Yet local governments have been reduced by governors to being mere lifeless appendages of state governments thereby crippling their administrative potential. Ironically, the Senate voted against the proposal for local government autonomy (although it was approved by the House of Representatives) that would have unshackled municipalities from the oppressive grip of states and empowered them to drive development from the bottom up. The Senate’s vote demonstrated a refusal to recognize that only empowered communities can efficiently generate and distribute developmental deliverables. The centralized and dysfunctional bureaucracy headquartered in Abuja simply cannot remotely manage the aspirations of over 160 million people.  

The alternative to this is to give the federal government sweeping powers to enforce the Child Rights Act across the board. Any serious enforcement effort would surely involve the establishment of a federal child welfare bureaucracy that sanctions errant families and takes custodianship of victimized children as wards of the state. This would be a vast and costly undertaking that would meet with socio-cultural and political obstruction and likely require authoritarian measures to force through. To avoid unnecessary conflict and confrontation with federal authorities, this challenge is probably best managed by states and local governments. In any case, this administration certainly lacks the enthusiasm, political will and capacity to embark on such social engineering. It also does not seem likely that we will witness the federalization of primary and secondary education in the North to force the issue.     

Under the current federal arrangements, the question of development will be answered mostly by how competently states are run. Given the lackluster performances of several governors and the disparate social indices of states, it is clear that divergence in developmental outcomes will continue to be a facet of our national life. Already, a child born in Northeastern Nigeria will likely encounter a substantially lower quality of life that a contemporary born in the Southwest. These disparities pose a serious challenge to efforts to construct a common citizenship.

How vibrant states are in this new era of greater responsibility and diminishing oil revenues will be determined by the vigour of civil society in those states and a new willingness by the media to interrogate what actually goes on in those states by way of development.

These developmental divergences will either become the basis for a continuation of the slothful politics of entitlement that focuses on revenue allocation, more oil money from the centre, and lazy populist demagoguery or it could lead to the emergence of visionary politics that focuses on transformative governance, wealth creation, entrepreneurship, social and economic justice and the obliteration of retrogressive institutions that entrench poverty.

(All images sourced online)