Nigeria’s north-south political divide could soon be overshadowed by an emerging ‘old North’ versus ‘new North’ divide. The old North comprises a small elite whose relatives, in conjunction with a few gatecrashers, have ruled most parts of northern Nigeria since 1804, as well as Nigeria since 1960. For a long time, the two groups forged a remarkable narrative of a ‘united North.’
That unity, however, masked tremendous cultural, religious, historical, generational, gender and spatial differences. Today, a new North with more than 80 million people, many of whom are well educated and are as fissiparous as other parts of Nigeria is emerging. Occasionally, the ‘old North’ still barks, as they did recently in Abuja under the aegis of ‘the Northern Political Elders Forum’ (NPEF). The NPEF drew a line in the sand and demanded that the presidency must be handed back to them in 2011 or else they will use their ‘numerical majority’ to stop President Goodluck Jonathan from running for, or becoming, president in 2011.
The now familiar line is that the ‘old North’ had magnanimously allowed the Yoruba to hold the position in 1999 to assuage their feelings about what happened to their brother, the late Moshood Abiola from 1993 to 1998. Olusegun Obasanjo was the trusted beneficiary of this benevolence, and he duly returned the patrimony back to the north in 2007, only for death to pull the rug from under their feet in March this year.
Whether or not this ‘gentleman’s agreement’ was a national or ‘family affair’ of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) does not matter; they both belong to the NPEF. A southern minority presidency, such as President Goodluck Jonathan’s rumoured plans to run for president in 2011, was not contemplated. Hence, the NPEF threatened that ‘any plan to jettison the existing zoning arrangement in the current political circumstances would boomerang and then leave the North with no option but to fight its cause outside the zoning principle.’
Jonathan has the right to seek the presidency; I hope he does. But, the NPEF’s threats raise a number of questions. Does the NPEF truly believe that a ‘united North’ still exists, or that such geographical unity is possible in Nigeria of 2010? The ink on their communiqué was yet to dry when several other northern groups and individuals—from Generals T. Y. Danjuma and Muhammadu Buhari to Jigawa State Governor Sule Lamido, Plateau’s Jonah Jang, former Kaduna state governor, Senator Ahmed Makarfi, and the National Movement for Equality and Change led by former Senate President, Senator Ameh Ebute—‘betrayed’ the north’ and denounced the NPEF and/or declared support for the president.
President Jonathan knows that, like the rest of the country, the northern political elite are incurably divided, and are their own worst enemies. He must therefore be bemused by the NPEF’s delusory plans to reconcile the likes of Generals Ibrahim Babangida, Buhari and Aliyu Gusau; and Atiku Abubakar and Ibrahim Shekarau who have indicated interest in running for president in 2011.
Secondly, even if a ‘united north’ exists or is feasible, would that be good for the north, let alone Nigeria? The NPEF comprises the most influential beneficiaries of Ahmadu Bello’s modernization programs most of who, sadly, have failed to give back to their society. Few of them have ever queried the continued backwardness and underdevelopment of most of the north under their watch. Otherwise, they would have wondered why ‘the North’ asked for true federalism, but their military wing institutionalized unitary politics after spilling the blood of two million Nigerians and over 200 of their officer-colleagues fighting against unitary government. The ‘old North’ asked for state-sponsored banks for ‘the North’ but the elite robbed them blind so that northerners today control only two of Nigeria’s 24 banks.
Blind unity forecloses questions such as why ‘the North’ ran Nigeria’s power and oil sectors only to enable an ‘oil mafia’ to ensure that our refineries never work; or why less than three hours of electricity per day elicits applause from consumers for the power company. Similarly, a ‘fertilizer mafia’ threatens the sustainability of Nigeria’s northern-based ‘bread basket’ regions, while the NPEF stalwarts cheer and share in the loot. The ‘old North’ ran the country for over 35 years, yet nine of ten beggars on any street in Nigeria are their kit and kin.
Lead poisoning decimates thousand of cattle in the north while the zoning warriors were meeting, but no communiqué. Yet, they power to fight for ‘the north.’
Rather than gang up against Jonathan, the ‘old North’ should consider forging a new future with Nigeria as the core interest of the ‘North’, instead of Nigeria for the ‘North.’ We should not underestimate the place of the South-South in the unity of Nigeria. The interests of the Niger Delta elite is no longer tied to that of the ‘old North’; instead, many, especially the ‘youth’, see ethnic jingoism of the NPEF type as the reason for their political marginalisation and economic exploitation.