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The North: Many trees, no forest

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Fifteen Minutes with Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed

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Ordinarily, elders like us would take comfort in the belief that God Almighty has rewarded our past endeavours with successors who should worry over matters of national security, the state of the economy and governance generally. It would have been their lot to find solutions to problems that confront our people today; and ours would have been to pray for them, and where necessary, offer some general advice... But these are not ordinary times… — General Abdussalami Abubakar declaring opened a peace seminar at Minna, 15th March, 2012.

It is arguable if there had ever been ordinary times for the North and Nigeria, but the frenzy of activities around the politics, economy and security of the North in the context of its relations with the rest of the nation will certainly qualify for its being treated as a development worth some attention. Suddenly, this frenzy of meetings and consultations, many involving the same interests or persons is gripping the nation’s attention. Many northerners are even daring to believe that the sleeping giant in the sun is about to wake up, but many more are worried that it will wake up to find that there is very little room for giants who slept badly, and for too long.

It is tempting to interpret this flurry of political activities as a reaction to the contempt and insults daily being thrown at a region and its people who are being blamed for wasting an opportunity to be great, and is now irritating the rest of the nation with its bombs, bullets and begging bowls. These insults and derision, and the seeming resolve in some parts of the country to keep the North permanently where it is today, or expunge it from the nation altogether, do hurt. But they hurt even more when they come from its youngest generation who hear of the huge opportunities leaders from the North had, but failed to steal the resources of other people and bring them to the North for development; or leaders who did steal, but kept it to themselves; or leaders who governed without vision, patriotism or honesty, and frittered away opportunities to develop the huge potential of the North in its land and people.

But there are more basic reasons behind these activities than the contempt with which the North is held today. Most of the key players in convening these meetings recognize that a loud statement was made by many parts of the North following the general elections in April 2011. No one yet has bothered to understand the nature of that statement, or is taking steps to address its roots, or ensure that the political and electoral process is fixed before 2015. Certainly, there are hints that ordinary folks have lost faith in a democratic process where offices are allocated; mandates bought or stolen, and the population is only useful in election times. The Nigerian electoral process has never been removed from a pronounced influence of violence; but 2011 marked a new high in the linkages between elections and widespread violence.

Then, of course, in the past one year, the escalation of violence under the generic cover of Boko Haram has assumed centre stage in setting a political agenda of its own, and since the North has none of its own, this agenda written in blood has become the only game in town. It raises issues about injustice, corruption and impunity, but the solutions it provides are impractical, non-negotiable and do not seek a political process to be actualized.

The Boko Haram insurgency has up-staged the old northern establishment by repudiating it altogether. Its methods and goals are taking many casualties. Political careers are at risk, to the extent that elected persons, influence peddlers and fixers have all retreated in the face of its contempt for the political process. It is destroying what little there is left of the economy of the North, engineering massive capital flight and scaring away any prospects for investment. It is damaging inter-faith and inter-community relations, and re-introducing violence as the only method in resolving disputes.

The collateral damage of the post-election violence and the Boko Haram insurgency is just as disastrous. Most of the North is under virtual siege by military and police personnel, and the basic right of citizens to decent treatment has been jettisoned. Northern highways are a study in inept security management, and the vast majority of citizens believe that the countless military and police checkpoints are intended only to humiliate and inconvenience northerners. Night time economies in many cities have been destroyed because of the banning or restrictions on two-wheel transport or imposition of curfews. More people are, therefore, joining the ranks of the desperately poor and bitter. Religious, community and other leaders have shrunk in size because they cannot influence how the Nigerian state responds to the threat of the insurgency, or how genuine grievances of innocent citizens against security personnel can be processed. The rest of the nation has defined this insurgency as a northern problem, which, at worst, is a self-defeating position and, at best, an additional weapon to use against the North in this historic battle to permanently reverse its political fortunes. A nation which spends one quarter of its annual budget on security, much of it targeted at an insurgency, cannot be indifferent to it, or treat it as someone else’s. It is also a bad mistake to assume that Boko Haram will cripple the North permanently, unless this thinking is informed by a plan to keep the insurgency alive for the foreseeable future.

Will all these activities which seek to limit the political and economic damage to the North produce the results they seek? To answer this question, the real interests behind them need to be understood. The Dr. Junaidu group has a clear idea that the North will have to fight itself out of its corner by trading punches and adopting new techniques for avoiding being pinned against the ropes again. It has many people vastly experienced in the nuances and volatility of Northern and Nigerians politics, and they are not shy to look the rest of Nigeria in the eye and say we want more resources because we are entitled

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