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Restarting the North, again

By Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed | Publish Date: Feb 1 2017 3:32AM


Northern governors last week attempted a feat the region had long jettisoned: bringing together its assets under one roof to count its strengths and weaknesses. The governors and senior officials went beyond the routine and ritual of periodically assembling for a few days in Kaduna, mostly to run away from begging and complaining citizens. This time, they set for themselves the challenging task of putting the region's security challenges on the table and reaching out to traditional rulers and groups of elders to help examine just where to begin to deal with its multiple manifestations. When you remember that a few years ago, Northern governors were literally forced to stop meetings in Kaduna, or attend any event in the symbolically-important Arewa House by local youth who harassed them with such abandon, this particular meeting which had an impressive attendance will be recorded as an achievement for holding at all. It was even more remarkable that governors accepted to tap into the perspectives and experiences of traditional rulers, that layer that hovers between uncomfortable submission to elected politicians the age of their offspring or younger brothers, and leveraging on the considerable opportunities that exist outside their narrow formal environments to be heard. They even tacitly accepted that associations of elderly Northerners who had played their parts many times over in the affairs of the region and the nation had something of value to say in the search for solutions.


The Governor of Borno State who is the Chairman of the Northern Governors Forum spoke with such passion, anger and lamentation over the state of the North, it was obvious that the governors had decided to do something different this time. The anger was substantially directed at the North, the region with the size, the people and the potential to be the richest in the nation, and to feed the entire West Africa. It is not any such thing today. It is, instead, the wretched region, derided and despised for begging for its existence and contributing nothing but trouble by the rest of Nigeria. Its people are angry and terrified by its numerous security challenges. Ten million of its young are beggars, and millions more will not receive any type of education or skills to prepare them for productive adult lives. Thousands of its people have died and are dying from preventable security threats, and millions will be victims of the Boko Haram insurgency for many years to come, or for entire lives. The North is virtually de-industrialized, its basic infrastructure decaying beyond rehabilitation.


Desperately poor communities fight each other for every reason except those that improve their economic well-being. The solid show of  political unity demonstrated with the election of President Buhari in 2015 is threatening to unravel, as shadowy attackers under the generic identity of Fulani herders threaten ethno-religious harmony in many parts of the North, providing huge opportunities to exploit and regenerate dormant hostilities. The North that protected its turf as one unit with such confidence and competence in the first republic is a pathetic shadow, with nineteen governments, bureaucracies and rulers, spending resources it does not produce  on governments, not the people.

This was the North whose political leaders, all nineteen of them, decided to look critically at a region that is regressing at such a rapid rate that it has become a major threat to itself and the rest of the nation, and even Africa. Well, they got an earful from the distinguished assemblage in turbans and robes and grey hairs on heads in their 80s and 90s.The Sultan of Sokoto advised on the values of justice and honesty as foundations of good governance and security. The Shehu of Borno painted a most distressing picture of the devastation being wrecked by the retreating Boko Haram insurgency. Emir of Kano made a strong case for far-reaching social reforms as solutions to the deep-seated problems of the North which feed insecurity. Other traditional rulers offered advise on dealing with cultural pluralism, threats and strengthening governance structures. Elders took governors on a journey to a past which held together because leaders put premium on justice, inclusiveness and sacrifices. They reminded governors of imperatives of lowering boundaries, adopting pan-Northern policies and programs and regenerating the dilapidated assets of the North. They held governors responsible for exerting pressure on the Federal Government to accord priority to adequate investments in agriculture, solid mineral development and basic infrastructure in the North as rights and not as a favour to Northerners. They drew attention to energetic efforts of governors from the Southwest to build foundations for regional development and political unity. They pointed to multiple security threats and challenges from many parts of the nation fed by the desire to corner more resources, while the North fights itself and fritters away its bountiful opportunities. They lamented the alarming and widening gaps between the North and the rest of Nigeria in education, wealth creation, security and quality of life.


Remarkably, there was also substantial yielding of grounds around boundaries and turfs. Governor Nasir el-Rufai submitted to a meeting that had hinted that insecurity in any part of the North is a northern problem through a detailed briefing on challenges and responses of his government on the Shia, cattle rustling and Southern Kaduna. Reactions to his briefing supported the view that northern leaders recognize that developments involving the Shia (or as he insisted, the IMN), and Southern Kaduna represented major threats to the whole North and the nation. Not one voice failed to support the enforcement of the law against people and groups who defy it, whatever religious garb they wear, or their status. A few, however advised on the values of exploring additional avenues and opportunities to manage conflicts. Dealing with overlapping responsibilities on security, law and order between federal and state governments is a major problem, and in both the Shia and Southern Kaduna issues, the need for greater synergy and collaboration was identified as a major issue that northern governors should take up with the federal government.


The outcome of the meeting, the next day when the governors met alone, suggested that they may have decided on a number of steps that were best left unannounced. Some of the observations and decisions they made public must have raised a few eyebrows, including the categorical statement that the Fulani suspected of involvement in fights with farming communities are from other countries in West Africa. Even making allowances for the possibility that the governors have the evidence to support this, it is a cause of concern that the conclusion could absolve from suspicion, the huge Fulani population which is entirely Nigerian in fights with communities. Fulani herders, Nigerian and foreign, will now be subjected to much closer scrutiny and potential abuse to show evidence of nationality. The onus to secure borders and prevent illegal entry for foreign Fulani has now been shifted to the Federal Government, a move that will neither improve border security nor the security of communities in the near future. Conflict resolution efforts and peace building will have to meander through a position which suggests that Fulani who should be involved are foreigners. Communities which still fear Fulani attacks will not find much comfort in the position that their adversaries are from other countries, and they may suspect that attempts are being made to push responsibilities further away.


In any case, Northern governors have made the commendable efforts to assume primary responsibility for the security of citizens. They have raised hopes that must be met, because the future of the North is severely threatened by unacceptable levels of poverty and crippling insecurity that compounds poverty. The North has never been as politically unified in partisan terms as it is today, with only two states in the hand of the PDP. If APC, with control of the executive and legislature at the federal level as well as 17 of 19 northern states cannot make a radical difference in the lives of northerners in the next one year, it is very likely that it will find it difficult to sell itself in 2019.If northern governors cannot find common grounds and the will to fight religious extremism, ethno-religious conflicts, youth unemployment, banditry, kidnappings, drugs and violence among youth, they would go down in history as the set who lost the North irretrievably. Last week, they showed that they do not want this place in history. They need help to restart the North.



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