The 'Core North' and 2011 Race

THISDAY Newspaper-Simon Kolawole live

My article today, I must admit upfront, was inspired by a report I read in The Guardian last Wednesday entitled: “Presidency: Search begins for best from the North”. It read in part: “Some of the arrow-heads in the search for a credible northern candidate to succeed [President Umaru Musa] Yar'Adua, in their proposal, which is receiving attention within the political class, northern intelligentsia, business leadership, civil society and others… said the irreducible minimums [criteria] are: a sound mind and a track record. This time around, being a Jukun, Bachama, Tiv, Berom… is not a barrier. The North wants to present… somebody with leadership skills for the nation's presidency.” The group behind this campaign, I understand, is trying to discourage the idea of dividing the North into the “core” and the “periphery” for the purpose of politics. They seem to be saying: let’s put forward our best, no matter their lineage.

I usually tease my Southern friends by saying “Southern Nigeria” only exists in their imagination. “There is nothing like Southern Nigeria,” I would say. “You can talk about Igbo, Yoruba and Southern minorities, but the South is not a political entity.” Pressed for evidence, I always cite the simplest example: there is a very regular Northern governors’ meeting in Kaduna, but where is the Southern governors’ meeting? There is Northern senators’ forum, but where is the Southern equivalent? These are the avenues where Northerners articulate their interests and pursue them. They treat their positions as “marching orders” and never relent until they achieve their aim. They know what their common interests are. They will always set out to protect or project these interests. Then the rest of the country will begin to fret and fume over “these Northerners”. Is there anyone stopping the South from articulating its own positions?

What makes the North tick then? There are the myths and then the realities. There is a myth that the North is one. The myth has become a reality. But a careful study will show that there is more ethnic diversity up North than down South. Nigeria is credited with having 250 ethnic groups. The South-west is virtually Yoruba, although the Badagry people have their own identity. That makes two. The South-east is Igbo. Then the South-south has about 45 ethnic groups (they could be far less, but for the purpose of this argument, let’s work with that figure). I have so far referred to roughly 50 ethnic groups in the South. The remaining 200 ethnic groups are to be found in the North! A journey through Adamawa, Taraba, Plateau, Nasawara, Kaduna and Yobe will reveal a lot about the ethnic diversity in the North.

Politically, the North has always been diverse too. The idea of a “monolithic North” is exaggerated. People easily forget that in the First Republic, though the North was the stronghold of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), the region was also where United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC), Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) and Borno Youth Movement made a considerable impact in the political space. In 1979, out of the 10 states in the North, the Great Nigeria Peoples Party (GNPP) produced governors in two (Gongola and Borno), the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) had two (Kaduna and Kano) and Nigeria Peoples Party (NPP) one (Plateau). The so-called Northern party, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), had five out of 10 states. NPN only ruled Nigeria on the strength of the extra votes it received from Cross River and Rivers. In 1999, out of the 19 states in the North, the All Peoples Party (APP, now ANPP) won nine and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had 10. So much for “monolithic North”!

Like I have noted, the North is as diverse as the South. So what makes the North behave as “one”? I suggest that the region is “politically diverse but cohesive” because it enjoys two advantages – the predominance of Islam, which is a major uniting factor (Christianity separates the church from the state, unlike Islam), and the Hausa language, which is the lingua franca, in spite of the huge ethnic and linguistic differences. Save for the Yoruba-speaking parts of Kwara and Kogi States, Hausa is spoken in virtually every nook and cranny of the North. There is no doubt that when you talk about the Northern political elite, what readily comes to the mind is the Hausa/Fulani Muslim, but that is certainly not the whole picture.

Ironically, there is a concept in the North that is divisive. It is called “core North”. It’s a concept whose origin is not easy to trace, but has been very noticeable over the years. For instance, in 1999, when President Olusegun Obasanjo appointed service chiefs, there was anger in the so-called “core North”. Gen. Victor Malu, a Tiv from Benue, was appointed Chief of Army Staff; Isaac Alfa (Igala, Kogi); and Admiral Ibrahim Ogohi (Igala, Kogi) Chief of Defence Staff. All hell was let loose. The less politically correct critics like the late Wada Nas openly criticised the appointments as marginalising the “core North”. The more mature “core Northerners” who were bitter at the appointments did not say so openly, but it formed the basis of their opposition to Obasanjo from 1999-2007. “One North” was again at the danger of being fractured as the Middle Belt (or Northern minority) spirit was being re-awakened.

This would have sorely displeased the late Sardauna of Sokoto and former Premier of Northern Region, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, who laboured so hard to unite the different tendencies in the North. He appointed a Yoruba Christian, Sunday Awoniyi, as his private secretary – and this was no mean gesture, especially as Awoniyi did not have to convert to Islam. Bello resisted every move by Chief Obafemi Awolowo for the adjustment of the West-North boundary which sought to bring the Yoruba in present-day Kwara and Kogi States to the West. Nigeria’s former Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, was a Northern minority. Ahmadu Bello impressively accommodated the various tendencies. Bello’s concept of one North was a region built on diversity. The motto of the NPC was “One North, One People”.

However, the concept of “core North” is often unspoken but it is there till this day. Therefore, the campaign that the “core North” should open its doors to all ethnic groups in the North in the event that power returns to the region is an idea that needs to be seriously considered. The North has received its fair share of criticism over the leadership crisis in the country. Yet, it is only an unfair critic that will not see that the problem is deeper than blaming the North. Bad leaders abound everywhere, in every local government, in every village. Good leaders are not limited to any part of the country. The message that must be spread around – North and South – is that only the best will do. Every part of Nigeria has the responsibility of putting forward its best – irrespective of ethnicity or religion.

My hypothesis, which is the hypothesis of many Nigerians, is that the day Nigeria gets ruled by the competent and patriotic leaders, we would never have to worry about the religion or ethnicity of the leaders. If the roads are in good shape, if we have constant power supply, if the schools are in excellent conditions, it would not matter what language the president speaks. It is because we are still overwhelmed with the challenges of underdevelopment that we are still so, so bothered about tribal marks and accents.
However, if the ruling party insists that it would maintain the power rotation formula, which means its next presidential candidate must come from the North (assuming PDP will form the next government, anyway), the concept of “core North” must be jettisoned. The North must give Nigeria its best – it wouldn’t matter if the person were Fulani or Kofyar, Hausa or Goemai, Kanuri or Pyem, Muslim or Christian. Only the best will do.

And Four Other Things...

Wrong Steps at a Time
If I were to advise President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s family, I think they should just put a stop to their pranks and continue to nurse him at this critical hour. Every stunt they have pulled so far has backfired.

In February, they rushed him home from Saudi Arabia apparently to curtail the actions of Acting President Goodluck Jonathan. It failed. They organised Muslim clerics to visit him at the Presidential Villa in order to send a message that the man was recovering very well. It backfired.

Then they organised Christian clerics just to pacify some agitators. It backfired again. I think the time has come to put a stop to all these pranks. Enough said.

Voting Curfew
There was a council election in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) yesterday and, as usual, there was a restriction of movement. That is what happens every time we hold elections in Nigeria.

Economic activities are completely paralysed. People who feed themselves and their families by the day are denied their daily bread. Life is disrupted. Why is this so? One excuse is that the government wants voters to turn out en masse. Can you force people to vote? Another excuse is that curfew is meant to prevent ballot-snatching.

But we all know ballot boxes have been getting snatched over the years in spite of movement restriction. We would one day discover that the idea of imposing curfew during elections is a carryover from the military era.

Atiku and the Generals
Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar is on his way back to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). This has been long expected. As one of the founding leaders of the party, Atiku had the world at his feet, virtually guaranteed to succeed President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2007 until the two of them fell out.

Atiku left for the Action Congress and unsuccessfully made a bid for the No. 1 position. After holding a meeting with Obasanjo sometime last year, Atiku’s return to the PDP looked like a formality in waiting.

THISDAY reported yesterday that 20 governors were planning to welcome him back to the PDP as a counterbalance to the generals in the party. Haven’t we heard this before? After all, in 1999, Dr. Alex Ekwueme was supposed to counterbalance the generals in the PDP? Did it work?

After Iwu, What Next?
The days of Professor Maurice Iwu as the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) are coming to an end. I have followed closely all the arguments on whether he should be given another term of five years or not.

The pro- and anti-Iwu groups have taken to the streets to back up their positions. There is, however, a general feeling that Iwu cannot preside over free and fair elections because of his past.

The 2007 elections, for all intents and purposes, were a sham, even if they did produce a few good governors. My position on Iwu has been very clear for a long time: even though he is not the problem with our warped electoral system, his past performance does not recommend him for another term.

But we would be deceiving ourselves to think we will get free and fair elections simply by getting rid of Iwu. We need to reform our win-at-all-cost mentality too. We must reform our mentality, in addition to electoral reform.


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