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The North, this week By Lasisi Olagunju

Monday, 20 February, 2023

(I am calm. I am calm. It is the calm before something awful – Sylvia Plath, American poet and short story writer).

Convener of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), Professor Ango Abdullahi, was asked by the Sunday Tribune in an interview last week if he didn’t think the North retaining power immediately after Muhammadu Buhari could escalate agitations for secession. He said the North was ready: “As long as there is an election won by a northerner, the northerner will become president. No matter what happens to the country. We should be ready for it. Once there is an election that Nigerians participate in and candidates participate and one candidate wins from any region; as long as the election is free and fair, the winner will take over as president. If somebody says something other than that should happen and that Nigeria will go to pieces, then Nigeria will be ready to go to pieces.”

A friend, a colleague from the North-Central, asked me why we gave such people attention. He said “Ango does not speak for the North.” Really? Who is the North? Or, what is the North? I have interacted enough with the Nigerian jungle to know the difference between butterflies and birds. I know the northern North constantly breeds butterflies to pollinate its flowers. Prof. Ango Abdullahi is no butterfly; he has always been a privileged eagle in northern Nigeria. The old man has been very busy lately doing Mark Anthony to the northern Roman. And, he has continued to get rounds of applause at all the northern events where visceral things that always go viral are said. So, the professor is a bird, a top-flight, high-altitude eagle. I have chosen to listen to him as we go for Saturday’s election.

I know butterflies. Northern Nigeria has them. You see their wings flap; they fly tentatively about while ‘the North’ makes them think they are birds. They are mostly seen in the minority areas. In October 2017, I wrote about such insects who thought that because they flew like birds, they should enjoy the privilege of birds. It was a reaction to Chief Paul Unongo who was then the leader of the NEF. Unongo had declared that the North would not drop the advantage it enjoyed over the South in the name of restructuring of the country. His words: “Today, we understand the advantage of being a big region. So, if today you don’t offer us anything and you say give us your advantage so that we can have a restructured Nigeria…I don’t think you will get many responses from the North. It will not be easy for the North to say ‘take away our advantages and give us nothing….’” Chief Unongo is late now, God bless his soul. But his area of the North, the Middle Belt, is defined by devastation, plunder and ruin wreaked by terrible human monsoons from the North-West and the North-East. The advantage Unongo spoke about has not helped his people to escape the snares of the fowler. This is because in the jungle of the north, birds know birds but butterflies do not know what they are.

The North has votes and it flaunts them. It does not matter who says it: Whether the North is president or vice president, the goal is the same: to lead Nigeria the way it has led Nigeria before. And they are very good at planning. They plan and execute their plans clinically. But the problem with what they plan is that its nobility is restricted to power grab and power abduction. Months ago, Professor Abdullahi told a journalist close to me that it wasn’t time yet for him to speak. He said he would talk when the North was ready. Then we started seeing a spate of speaking engagements. They are ready. At a NEF event last week in Kaduna, Ango Abdullahi doubled down. Apparently referring to Saturday’s election and its possible outcomes, he said: “There will be no issue of reserving anything for anybody; if you win in an election, we accept; but if we win, there is no way you will deny us victory. No way. We will not accept that at all and we will be ready.” Then he did his arithmetic from 1999 and said the North has been shortchanged; it has four more years credit to burn in the Villa. The video of what he said, and how he said it, is online, viral.

You and I battle the headache of cash to buy what to eat because our president wants to fight vote buying. In December last year (2022), Ango Abdullahi in an interview with the Nigerian Tribune spoke about vote selling and vote buying. He described “vote buying as a very serious problem” which we “should be prepared for” in the 2023 elections. He said it was unfortunate that Nigeria’s “democracy would be bought at polling stations” and the highest bidder could “eventually win (the) elections.” He called for decisive actions against our transactional cash-and-carry democrats; he charged security agencies to search and arrest culprits. Today, the dominant theme in public discourse in Nigeria is currency scarcity because some mafia dons in Lagos and in some other state capitals are suspected to have built mountains of cash in old N1,000 and N500 notes to buy the presidency on Saturday.

The privilege which Unongo referred to in 2017 is the North’s population. It is the buga in Ango Abdullahi’s ego. It is the reason every southern politician with national ambition is always afraid to say the truth and do well. In 2015, a total of 15.4million Nigerians, from the North and the South, elected Muhammadu Buhari as our president. On Saturday, the North-West alone will unleash 22,255,562 voters on Nigeria. Southern zones also have multiples of millions but many of them will ‘vote’ in their living rooms – they will wait to see how the turnout in the North will be. Ango said in December 2022 that votes from the North would make a huge impact in 2023. He told us: “Absolutely, that is what is going to happen. We have huge votes in the North waiting to be deployed where we think the votes will be useful to us.” Having a large population on its own may not necessarily be negative to everyone’s wellbeing. It becomes a problem when it is a population of the herded, the uneducated and, even, the uneducable. It is a problem in the election coming up this Saturday. A huge mass of uncritical electors is an affliction; it devalues democracy. Northern Nigeria has them, and with them, it determines who rules and who does not rule Nigeria. What kind of democracy is this? The worst choosing the worst to rule the best has always been of concern all through Nigeria’s electoral history. At a point before independence, colonial authorities in the North opted for an electoral college system in a particular election. A former colonial Lieutenant Governor of the Northern Region explained in his memoirs that “it would have been a travesty of democracy to have required this uninformed and uninterested peasantry to elect an unknown candidate with an unknown policy” (See Sir Bryan Sharwood-Smith’s ‘But Always as Friends‘; 1969, page 222). Very little has changed since Sharwood-Smith wrote those words. The uninformed have remained uninformed; deliberately kept so. It is the reason the North is forever a land of the sarakuna (the ruling class) and the talakawa – the class of the strugglers. The latter is routinely weaponised; the poor are a tool in the hands of the slave owners in all their engagements with outsiders.

I listened to the APC vice presidential candidate, Kashim Shettima, on Saturday at a rally in Maiduguri, his home state capital. He told the desert of worn-out brooms hailing him and his ticket: “We will provide food; our government will give you food if you elect us.” I didn’t hear about education. Education is for the elite of the North; for the poor, books and their contents are sin. The campaigns will end on Thursday. I have not heard from the campaigners what they will do about things that will humanise the North and protect our farms from the swarm of locusts who daily fly the skies of the South from the North, in search of hope. I have a story to tell.

On February 12, 2022, the newspaper I edit published the story of a street beggar-girl in Ibadan who said her ambition was to become a medical doctor. “I want to become a medical doctor so that I can help people. I like the profession,” the girl, Nafisa Shehu, told Saturday Tribune in an interview conducted on the Ojoo bridge in Ibadan. She was a student in the North before she was loaded to Ibadan to join her mother in her street-begging business. Her story went viral and there was a gust of proposals to make her dream come true. A couple that runs a first-grade group of schools in Ibadan made a firm offer to sponsor her education up to the university level. Meetings were held between the school and a coterie of Hausa interlopers who did not allow the girl’s mother to decide for her daughter. The intermediaries asked for time to decide whether the girl would be allowed to go to school or not. Then the girl and her mother were stopped from being seen on the street. The next thing we were told was that she, with her mum, had gone back home – to Katsina State! Two weeks ago, the mother surfaced again with another girl, a child, as her alms-bait. And where is Nafisa? She has been moved somewhere else, begging, and about to be married off, her dream aborted forever. The girl is just 15 years old.

I was at a media event hosted by a northern governor in or about the year 2002. The man accused the media of not being fair to him on his bid for a second term. He particularly accused Thisday newspaper of writing negative analysis on his chances. He said he remembered that in 1998/99, the same newspaper described him as “a candidate of the future.” Then, he threw a jab: “That ‘candidate of the future’ is the governor today, talking to you.” A grin and a sly wink followed; then he dropped what I always remember anytime I hear his name: “You can continue to do your analysis again. I don’t care, because, fortunately or unfortunately, my people that will vote in this election don’t know how to read.” My mind sank. The governor was happy, in the 21st century, that his people were not educated enough to be influenced by what newspapers wrote. That man who was happy that his people “don’t know how to read” is a presidential candidate in Saturday’s election. I have listened to campaign speeches of presidential candidates in the North. I have read what governorship candidates of the far North say in their campaigns. Fates such as Nafisa’s have not attracted the attention of the angels of power. They speak with glow about inanities and I ask why I should vote for, or even be in the same country with, persons who whimsically abort dreams. Why should generations of people be lost forever because of their accident of birth? Why is it that the only time the North gets sufficiently aroused is when the privilege of its power class is threatened?

Our presidential election holds Saturday this week. The country loves to be calm but it is not exactly calm. Everyone in the South is eager to know what the North will do. It is clear that northern Nigeria thinks it holds the yam and the knife. With its elite-controlled population, it thinks it can do and undo anything with our lives and forever. And it is flaunting it. Whatever it does with this election, what is clear is that from the ashes of what will happen on Saturday (or before and after Saturday), the spirit of a new nation will rise.

So, please, do whatever you like with your vote on Saturday: sell it; don’t sell it. Be guided by reason and your conscience; don’t be guided at all by anything noble. There are consequences for every choice made. American author and priest, Todd Wagner, in a 2014 piece, warned that we have the right to choose what we want, but we have no right to dictate the consequences. Wagner asked us to imagine the story of a rebel “individual who has jumped off the top of the hundredth floor of a building while he mocks those of us who fear gravity, respect it, and choose to take the stairs and the elevator. If there is a glass wall, as he jumps out, he might watch us walking menially down the steps; and while he passes by us on the ninetieth floor, say, ‘You guys are crazy! I am free. I am filled with life. My heart is racing. Adrenaline is pumping through my body. I am not limited by the oppressive walls that you’re underneath.’ He might have that same attitude on the eightieth floor, the seventieth floor, the sixtieth floor, the fiftieth floor, or the fortieth floor, but sooner or later, the reality of his choice is going to catch up with him. Folks, we are in that free fall…”

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