The past three weeks have been some of the most difficult for the frames of perception and analysis of Northern Nigeria, in the Southern Nigerian press. Not since the crisis generated by the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election, has Northern Nigeria received the negative, in some cases, crudely racist profiling, as has been visited upon it, in the wake of Nigeria’s last presidential election. From top clergy men, like the President of CAN, through to newspaper columnists, and individuals who don’t have a real day’s job, but are called “militants”, the North was exhumed as the enemy and has been so treated.

Even the Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka weighed in, with a dollop of arrogance and ignorance, couched appropriately in good English: Violence was pre-meditated, he said, without telling us by whom! When it is to profile the Northern “enemy”, no negative is spared; afterall, in this frame of perception, the only segment of Nigeria disallowed ambitions is the North!

The issues

But what are the issues? Why was the enemy profiling of the North given a renewed currency and stridency? At the heart of this, was the uprising in the North in the wake of the declaration of Goodluck Jonathan as winner of the last presidential election. The narrative of legitimacy was mainly that international observers had certified the election ‘free and fair’, there was no excuse, therefore, for the angst in Northern Nigeria.

The President of CAN, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, not known for tact (compared to the decency of his predecessor, Archbishop John Onaiyekan), angrily called for Muhammadu Buhari’s arrest as a response to the violence. When news broke that nine youth corps members were unfortunately killed by a mob, the enemy profiling was revved up.

It became a veritable political point-scoring item, as governors in the South West organised elaborate media coverage of evacuation of “their” corps members from the North. And as has become popular in recent years, some of the more ethnically-chauvinistic even wanted the NYSC to be scrapped or re-organised to stop postings of corps members from the South to the “violence-prone” North.

This line of argument first surfaced when Sharia was declared in some of the Northern states after the 1999 transition to civilian administration. Sharia was interpreted as having been introduced to fight Obasanjo; it led to the whipping up of tension against a declaration which was even a point of contestation within Northern Nigeria, but was framed by the Southern media to deepen distrust along the fault lines of Nigeria. The latest tragedy has seen simulated mourning, with government officials shedding crocodile tears and trying to outdo the bereaved families.

Killings tragic, unacceptable

Let us be clear about this: Those killings were tragic and unacceptable. And as the poet John Donne said, every death diminishes us, because we are involved in humanity. Those young people were killed in their prime, and all of us should feel very sad about that. Unfortunately, hundreds of other people were also killed in the cycles of killings and revenge, especially in Kaduna, where the curfew was not extended to Southern Kaduna, thus allowing for a systematic massacre.

Those killings have not interested the media, compared to the saturated coverage of the fate of the nine youth corps members. But that is a sign of the times in Nigeria today! The Presidency of Goodluck Jonathan is, arguably, the most divisive in Nigeria’s recent history, despite the spin about his endorsement around Nigeria. The controversy around zoning deepened the divide in Nigeria. The mass of people in Northern Nigeria were angry about the injustice of being rail-roaded into acceptance of zoning in the first place by the political and intellectual elite of Southern Nigeria. But when it suited them, they launched a deafening propaganda against the concept of zoning.

But far more frightening for me is the way that the space of knowledge about the “other”: The other region, the other religion, or the other people, has narrowed in our country. Knowledge has been trounced by very emotional responses and often very ignorant assumptions, about our compatriots.

It was Duro Onabule who pointed out the hypocrisy of responses to what has been happening in Northern Nigeria in recent weeks, and in my view, he got it spot on. In Western Nigeria, there was systematic violence against rigged elections in 1964 and 1983 just as they responded with violence in 1993 to the annulment of the June 12 election.

Those at the forefront of condemnation of the Northern rejection of the massive rigging perpetrated by the PDP in the last election, saw the response in the West as an expression of the “sophistication” of the Yoruba, but in the North, in 2011, the rejection of rigged election, is an expression of the “backwardness” of Northerners! Head or tail, the North is the loser. The inability to stand up against injustice because it is visited upon those they frame almost as less than human, has largely vitiated the premise of analysis of leading commentators, in recent weeks.

For the sake of country

But for our country’s sake, it is important to pay attention to what is happening in Northern Nigeria, even if your deep-seated prejudice does not accept the humanity of the Northerner or his right to aspirations like you. From the mid-1980s, there has been a gradual shift in the sub-soil of Northern life. The introduction of UPE in the late 1970s opened access to education for many children of peasant origin, at a time that import-substitution industrialisation was also pulling a lot of rural folks into the urban centres of the North.

They went to work in the textile companies of Kaduna and the industrial estates of Kano, to mention a few. Our traditional societies were unraveling with the onslaught of modernity, including the itinerant Qur’anic education system, whose pupils became the mass of urban lumpen, surviving precariously on the margins of modernity, without education or skills. They share the social space of deprivation and angst with the half-baked school leaver unable to return to a peasant existence in the village. Our ruling class expression of modernity was unsustainable, corrupt and consumption-oriented; repulsive and attractive both, to those without access. The introduction of SAP in the mid-1980s hastened the unraveling of the Northern rural economy leading to an unsustainable growth of our urban cities.

The American sociologist,
Paul Lubeck, who has studied patterns of industrialisation and class formation in Kano since the 1970s, reminded me last year that Kano’s population has quadrupled since 1980. Consequently, it is a city “of a huge mass of hopeless youth.” Furthermore, one out of every 14 children in Kano is abandoned and lives on the streets. In the meantime, the process of de-industrialisation has wiped out the industrial estates in the North.

For reasons of history, the emergence of non-state/anti-state consciousness in the North has largely been framed in religious forms; just as these are done in Yorubaland in ethnic frames or as militancy in the Niger Delta. It is reflective of the combination of ignorance and prejudice, that leading members of the Nigerian “Commentariat” will romanticize OPC and Niger Delta militants, but refuse to understand why religious consciousness is the frame of rejection of the Nigerian state by people in Northern Nigeria.

When young people rose against the massive rigging perpetrated in the last election, it was because they also rejected a status quo which deepens the despair of the young, who form the majority of our population. It is projected that by 2025, Nigeria will have 204.9million people and that will reach 281.6million by 2050. Note that 45 per cent of that population is under the age of 15; and most of these reside in Northern Nigeria!

North in enemy frames

The negative profiling of Northerners or presenting us in enemy frames will not change these frightening realities. Neither is the over-hyped, simplistic mantra of Sovereign National Conference, a solution, because after 50 years of interdependent development, Nigeria is not only just about ethnicity and ethnic problems. We cannot afford to ignore the fundamental contradictions of class formations and movement in the political economy. Neither should we fail to interrogate the failure of our unproductive form of capitalism.

The Northern uprising was a rejection of a class project which unites the corruption of different segments of the ruling class: political, business and traditional! Muhammadu Buhari was merely a symbol of the longing for a more humane and less-corrupt country, as far as the mass of our people was concerned. When he was rigged out so blatantly, especially in the North, they saw the evaporation of hope and, therefore, the neo-Luddite resort to violence.

That violence is counterproductive, but the triggering despair must be recognised for what it is. Thinkers should go beyond emotions to help us understand our country better, but the North is such an object of hatred, they often refuse to wear thinking caps to understand it! We cannot productively share the space of citizenship when we profile the “other” in enemy terms.

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