As 2015 draws closer, politicians are ratcheting up their use of polarizing rhetoric in their pursuit of power. The favoured clichéd 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.