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Northern Nigeria and the cruel illusion of shared purpose

In Season 2, Episode 3 of the Web series Rick and Morty, crazy scientist Rick Sanchez and his two grandchildren end up on an alien planet populated by a species of blue-coloured humanoids. On closer inspection it turns out that this planet’s inhabitants have been psychologically imprisoned by an invasionary force and are not acting out of their own free will.

Rick’s grandchildren find the situation unacceptable and they set about trying to free this planet’s inhabitants. Through no significant efforts of their own, the planet’s inhabitants soon wake up and then something unexpected happens. Instead of enjoying the newfound freedom as Summer imagined they would, the inhabitants instead fall into a devastating race war almost immediately.

While to outsiders, the planet’s inhabitants look indistinguishable from each other, it quickly emerges that there is a longstanding racial/ethnic supremacy tussle between those who describe themselves as “cone nipples” and those who describe themselves as “knife nipples.” Gratuitous murder and assorted violence rapidly ensues, even dragging Rick’s two nonplussed grandchildren into it. Their offence? They have neither “cone” nor “knife” nipples, which apparently makes them an inferior race to be exterminated.

“First Race War, Huh?”

The above subheading is Morty’s chuckled response to Summer’s shock at the irrationality of these aliens. It was also my response to a recent interaction I observed between someone who was making a point about the cruelty of Northern Nigeria’s ‘almajiri’ system, and someone else who was more concerned about the ethnicity of the complainer. The conversation went something like this.

Read Also: Destroying the Great Northern Nigerian population myth

Person A: “How can some people bomb an $800 million rail project meant to help them?”

Person B: “Because when they are left on the streets like this as children, they become prime targets for terror recruiters.” (Attached was a video showing a long, snaking queue of destitute children in Kano lining up for a plate of food.)

Person C (from Northern Nigeria): “Thank God they did not come from a baby factory!” (This was a derogatory reference meant as an ethnic slur against the Igbo ethnic group.)

The age-old practise of using external enemies and out-groups as red herrings and scapegoats in lieu of actual solutions and progress inside a group is as human as war and sex

Person A: “So your region is on fire like this and all you are concerned about is fighting Igbo people?!”

Me (chuckling to myself): First race war, huh?

The age-old practise of using external enemies and out-groups as red herrings and scapegoats in lieu of actual solutions and progress inside a group is as human as war and sex. We all do this, albeit to differing extents. People with unhealthy marriages often consume gossip about other people’s worse marriages and use that as a crutch for themselves. People with unsatisfying careers often look at those with careers they consider worse and go “At least my case is not that bad.”

It’s what humans do. I get it. I really do. The problem is that this phenomenon becomes a sure route to disaster when the problems it is used to mask are as huge and fundamental as the problems facing the region of Nigeria, which now sits at the bottom of practically all global economic and human development rankings. It is only a useful crutch when the out-group is actually worse off. When as in this case, the out-group would be a middle income country if it were independent, and the in-group has terrorists blowing up railway infrastructure in search of hostages, then not so much.

“One North is a hilarious joke” – but who will tell them?

When I was at university a decade ago, there was a member of the Nigerian contingent there who was a first cousin of Umar Abdulmutallab, the so-called underpants bomber. This fellow was generally indistinguishable from the rest of us in all our delightfully debauched University student glory. I later came to understand that his cousin was such an anomaly in the family that even his father had taken note of his radicalisation and reported him to the US authorities.

During the period when Northern teenagers were being allegedly recruited by the likes of Sheikh Yakubu Musa Katsina and sent to Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and even Afghanistan to learn the ways of the Islamic Terrorist, the children of the rich were not in fact, expected to follow the same path. When they did, such as in Abdulmutallab’s case, it was sufficiently unusual as to lead to their own family raising the alarm.

“Extremism for thee – certainly not for me,” it would seem. To the poor and so-called “northern intellectual elite” (i.e middle class peons of the actual northern elite), the “Arewa” identity is the most important thing in the world. It is a brand that must be protected against outsiders and critical observers at all cost. At any cost. Hence not even a factual observation about the objective cruelty of ‘almajiri’ and numerous other aspects of this regional culture are enough to get through to Person C in the exchange above. It is identity über alles.

To the actual Northern elite meanwhile, everyone else is expendable. Southern, Middle Belt, Northern, it doesn’t matter. You could even argue that they regularly sacrifice fellow northerners more so than anyone else. A glance at the death figures coming out of the region should tell that story. To the Aliyu, Abubakar and Miriam downloading VPNs to tweet defences of their Jabba-the-Hutt-esque Arewa oligarchs, they are performing some kind of important patriotic duty to their group and identity – they truly believe they are doing something that matters.

Personally, I find it hilarious. It’s a cruel joke, but my word it is funny.

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