Nigeria; the Burden of the North

Chidi Amuta writes that While we watch the daily feverish strivings of major world leaders to rescue their people from the worst of the times, all we get from Yar Adua are occasional faint stirrings by an incoherent mob of hirelings more desperate to justify their fat salaries than proffer convincing and serious solutions to clear and present calamities.


A certain delicate balance of power along a bi-polar vertical axis (North-South) has become an imperative of the present stage in our political development. Our collective political mind thinks North and South, a conscious oscillation of power at the national level between a Muslim north and a largely Christian south. This is the dominant burden of our history. Inherent in it is a certain sense of balance and proportion in political matters especially in the period since after the Civil War.

At its most beautiful, Nigeria becomes, easily, one of the world’s best examples of active co-existence between the two dominant world religions with far reaching cultural and value implications. At our most ugly, this place is also the theatre of very nasty periodic undeclared sectarian wars accentuated by grinding poverty and gnawing ignorance. Sensitivity to the challenge of religious tolerance in a culturally diverse society has become the critical building block of our emerging national society. Similarly, attention to the security implications of sectarian bi-polarity has become the critical pillar of our national security doctrine.

Though this “turn by turn” political philosophy has become fashionable and is immediately expedient, genuine democracy would dictate differently of course. Ideal democracy would dictate that the best candidate in a political contest should wield national power and that national acceptability and merit defined in political terms should produce the Nigerian president and other key elected officials. I am prepared to argue, for academic purposes, that Nigeria will not attain real democracy until we jettison silly tribal and religious arithmetic in matters of political contest. But the reality as matters stand today is that our continuation as one nation would, for some time to come, be predicated on accepting the reality that each political party will have to define its nationalist claims by embracing the North-South balance of power. I know that our children will laugh at us much later but this is where we are right now.

In the contest of this balance, it is a credit to our collective sense of justice as a nation that in 1999, we all defined the South as the South-west. We were all looking for an abbreviated way of saying sorry to the Yorubas for June 12 and its aftermath. The political contest was therefore between Messrs Olusegun Obasanjo and Olu Falae. Some others also ran. The system chose Obasanjo just as the ruling party adopted a North-South rotation of the presidency as a party policy. The understanding that Obasanjo would be succeeded by a Northern candidate was tacit and conclusive.

The overwhelming rejection of his third term gambit was a convergence of the Northern interest and those of an increasingly enlightened civil society. We were not going to allow a bad president to desecrate the constitution and upturn the unwritten bi-polar code that sustains our national stability.

The emergence of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was simultaneously natural and strange. Natural because he is Northern. Strange because the critical factors that define the Northern interest both within the PDP and out of it had no hand in his choice. In spite of the dubious essence of his electoral mandate, however, he had his job well cut out. First, he had to be a good Nigerian president by re-humanizing and re-uniting the polity after Obasanjo’s divisive rampage and lawlessness. He had to grapple with critical national problems that his predecessor had amplified: power, security, education, infrastructure, violence as a political weapon and monumental corruption.

In a matter of days, Yar’Adua would have spent two years as president of Nigeria. His rating is sadly weighted on the negative. He has kept a level head, insisted on the rule of law even if the law has become a rather expensive commodity. He has generally abhorred the rough tactics of his predecessor. Those who believe that after the turbulence of the Abacha and Obasanjo years the nation needed a cooling off period may find Yar ‘Adua’s now famous “go slow approach” a refreshing if boring departure.

On the contrary, the President’s nagging health issues and his generally lacklustre disposition have ended up creating the impression that Nigeria can continue to run badly even if there is no occupant in Aso Rock. The very critical matters of national priority that defined his advent are yet to be addressed in any meaningful way. There is, above all a certain debilitating lack of vigour and energy in the conduct of government business that has in turn infected the rest of society. Nigeria, it seems, is at a standstill. When he was first thrust upon us, this writer lamented the yoke that Yar ‘Adua’s relative anonymity posed. We never knew him. We still do not know him even though we know his forwarding address. I doubt that he knows us either.

On critical issues that matter to most Nigerians, the government would seem to be absolutely clueless. Our hours of darkness have elongated. The length of the unemployment queue is farther than the eyes can see. Our frustration has deepened with the global economic bad dream. While we watch the daily feverish strivings of major world leaders to rescue their people from the worst of the times, all we get here are occasional faint stirrings by an incoherent mob of hirelings more desperate to justify their fat salaries than proffer convincing and serious solutions to clear and present calamities.

While the nation bears the burden of this disabled state, there are loud noises in the direction that Yar’Adua might want to exercise his constitutionally guaranteed right to seek a second term in office come 2011? Those who might be tempted to dismiss this as a rude joke need to look back at recent Nigerian history. These fellows, most of whom depend on Yar’Adua for relevance and livelihood may just be dead serious. And here lies the burden of the North.

Far more than any other section of our country, the North has a far more sophisticated mode of striking a consensus on matters of political leadership. If in the legitimate exercise of his constitutional right Yar’Adua actually runs for and secures a second term in office, it will reflect an uncanny sense of consensus among the Northern political leadership. It will be a signal to the rest of the country that perhaps the North may have settled for a more modest standard of performance in public office than we have come to associate with the region.

The track record of Northern leadership of the country, both elected and unelected, suggests differently. The list is as long as the records are illustrious or mixed: Yakubu Gowon who restored national unity after a civil war that would have seen the end of most other African countries. Murtala Mohammed, outstanding patriot and exemplary soldier who stood tall and briefly returned our pride as a nation. Alhaji Shehu Shagari, a man of the system who understood the difference between government and party. Muhammadu Buhari, disciplinarian and principled soldier patriot. Ibrahim Babangida, grand centurion and liberal statesman who opened the door for pro-market reform. Abdulsalami Abubakar, last soldier standing who realized that when military rule has run its course, there is no substitute to democracy.

There are many more who may not have held national power at the centre but whose contributions cannot be dismissed lightly. Balarabe Musa, the governor who was impeached for saying No! Abubakar Dangiwa Umar, patriot and principled soldier who gave up his commission and life long career to stand up for the right cause. Each of these gentlemen may have had his faults but taken together, they embody the collective leadership resource that the North has bequeathed to the nation at critical moments of national history.  

In the context of the North-South balance of power and within the confines of the dominant parties, therefore, the 2011 presidential election may be a national referendum on whatever consensus the North reaches on the role of leadership in advancing our commonwealth. But the rest of Nigerians, I am sure, will not be mere spectators.