For Those Who Care To Hear (I)

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The following is the speech by Dr Hakeem Baba Ahmed entitled “The North: A Past in the Present” during the Kano Assembly meeting of some northern leaders. It is so incisive and thought-provoking that I have decided to reproduce it in full below for dear readers. Happy reading:

A little over 60 years ago, Northern leaders were faced with a very difficult choice. They were challenged by the need to take a decision over whether to go along with demands from compatriots from Southern Nigeria for immediate self-government for the Nigerian colony or oppose it in the interests of Northerners. The stakes were very high indeed. To oppose immediate self-government in an atmosphere in which the nationalist fervour was most intense was to risk condemnation from patriotic Nigerians, many of them Northerners who wanted to see an immediate end to colonial rule. On the other hand, to submit to the demand for self-government then would have exposed the Northern Region to all the disadvantages of relative backwardness and the possibility of being overrun by the more developed Southern Region, economically and politically. Northern leaders, aware of their powers to resist being stampeded or blackmailed, chose to demand a delayed and staggered decolonization process, in the belief that the Northern Region needed additional time to prepare for self-government.

History has recorded how Northern Region representatives were derided and harassed out of Lagos and all the way to the North for the decisions they took. It has also recorded the consequence: the first riots in the North with political undertones. The Southern regions got their self-government two years before the Northern Region, and the spectre of protectionism which informed many Northern policies right up until 1966 has since been the subject of much debate.

Sixty years after that historic ‘No’ by the North, the region is facing a different challenge under circumstances that are entirely different. In 1953, the North had a strong and visionary leadership and a hefty hand of support from the colonial administration. That leadership had the confidence to stand up to being bullied, and was comfortable with the certainty that its decisions were consistent with the interests of the people of the region. Today, the people of the old Northern Nigeria are without leaders who will take a stand on the National Conference and get the nation to respect that position. It has no leaders who will move against the crippling assaults on lives and property of its poor and defenceless citizens because power is in hands of people who appear too far removed from Northern interests. In the 60 years since that historic nay by Northern leaders, the fortunes of the North have flowed and ebbed, largely determined by the consistent decline in the quality of its leadership. Sixty years after one North took one position, today we witness a most undignified stampede for crumbs from leaders and elite who should draw the line and offer leadership and guidance for Northerners. Simple Northern folks are confused and bewildered by the conflicting signals those who should know are sending. Some say we are drowning, so we should swim further into the ocean. Some say we should swim towards land, but are unsure about the distance we have to cover. Some say we have lost the battle to survive, and should submit as a conquered people do.

Not long after the 1953 dissent by the North, all Nigerian leaders closed ranks and commenced the serious business of planning and negotiating for an orderly disengagement. Dates were set without apologies or recriminations until full independence was achieved in 1960. Northern leaders had respect, and in turn respected leaders from other parts of Nigeria. It took a statesmanly posture and a five-minute speech from Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa to resolve the bitter disputes over the 1956 census figures. The 1959 elections disputes were resolved because the North realized the need for compromise, and because the two regions in the South realized that alienating the North entirely in a political gang-up was likely to end the Nigerian union. A confident North was able and willing to enter into alliances with powerful interests in the South; carve out a region in the former Western Region and maintain a level head in the wake of the constitutional crisis which followed the 1964 elections.

The tragic consequences of the 1996 coup have shaped virtually all major developments in Nigeria since then. Even in times of extreme adversity, Northern leaders were consistent in standing up for Northern and national interests. The North sacrificed its cohesive unity when Northern officers created states to cripple the potency of the threat of secession from the East. Its plural nature was given politico-legal expression by the creation of states on the basis of some elements of Northern minority interests. Northern military officers led the war against a rebellion, and northern limbs and lives reclaimed the territorial integrity of the Nigerian state, while Northern blood nourished its full re-integration.

The North paid its dues in terms of the damage of prolonged military rule. Northern officers overthrew Northern officers as well as elected leaders in the scramble for power and its spoils. Northern military officers made thousands of Southern businessmen millionaires through state patronage, while destitution and underdevelopment became more pronounced in their region. Still operating under the illusion that they had powers to decide who ruled Nigeria, they bungled the 1992 elections, reinstated full military rule with Abacha, and, after him, embarked on an ill-fated attempt to re-engineer a new national leadership after their own image, under President Obasanjo.

Northern hegemony came unstuck after 1999. Obasanjo’s eight years showed Northern politicians that they had grossly exaggerated their capacity to control and determine the direction of political developments in Nigeria. Within the first four years of his two terms, Obasanjo had completely dismantled the Northern political establishment that created his, and the Northern political elite has been on the defensive since then.

The hunter became the hunted, when Obasanjo made a mockery of PDP’s zoning formula and showed up the impotence of the Northern political leadership in the manner he engineered the emergence of the presidency of Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan. The ill-fated Northern consensus enterprise against President Jonathan showed up the abject powerlessness of the Northern political elite. A Northern PDP gang-up played into the hands of Jonathan, who exploited all the fault-lines of faith and fear in the North to weaken the region. Other Northern politicians joined in the scramble for the heart and soul of the North, and thousands of people went on a killing and burning spree in much of the North to protest the 2011 election results.

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