Their disadvantaged position (only 190 of them in a confab of 492 delegates) notwithstanding, the Northern delegates stood their ground. They acquitted themselves. They made the region proud. And, as said earlier, they saved Nigeria.
Imagine what would have happened if the nation had suddenly found itself stuck with a new draft constitution complete with a bill for its enactment, framed in a most fraudulent manner in a conference where constitution-making was never part of the brief, by unelected people with no mandate of any kind and who only yesterday were the most vociferous in dismissing the 1999 Constitution as a fraud.
The Northern delegates’ impressive showing at the confab was the result of the level of unity they were able to forge from the very beginning and sustain till the end of the confab. They moved quickly. The confab was inaugurated on March 17th and by March 18th the delegates had formed the NDF. And the impressive level of unity was maintained throughout largely because the NDF operated in an imaginative and pragmatic manner that took full cognisance of the region’s diversity and made religion a non-issue in its deliberations.
To be sure, the confab itself did not address the really fundamental issues of the unjust socio-economic order we run and the injustices and sufferings it inflicts on the poor. Rather, as in all other confabs before it, the overriding concern in this one too was with power, succession and tenures, the mechanics of how power will pass from one faction or fraction of the ruling class to another and the laws that govern the process.
But within this limited framework of the confab’s operation, the NDF was quick to gauge the size of the challenges facing it and just as quick to define the margins within it could most effectively influence events at the confab. In this, the NDF leaders showed real leadership and imagination, especially in the way they refused to be intimated and resisted all attempts, by both outsiders and insiders, like Jerry Gana, to divide the delegates and undermine NDF’s unity and resolve.
Former I.G. Ibrahim Coomassie, the NDF chairman, General Jerry Useni, Dr. Iyorchia Ayu, Ibrahim Mantu, Dr. Sadiq Mohammed, Prof. AuwaluYadudu, among many others, deserve commendation for this.
The level of unity achieved at the confab has understandably aroused interest and the usual concerns among Northerners about unity in the region. And naturally the questions being asked are: Can this type and level of unity be built upon and sustained? If so, how can it be done? By which ways can unity be achieved in the North?
For long now, but especially since after the 2011 elections, the issue of Northern unity, of forging a united Northern front has been of major concern to all in the region. Countless groups have been and are being formed, some of them working at cross purposes, and some exerting muscles in unpromising directions; meetings have been and are being held almost daily; decisions and resolutions have been and are being taken and passed every now and then; and plans have been and are being fashioned, all geared toward mending fences, building bridges and forging better understanding between peoples in the region.
There clearly is frustration among nearly all segments of the Northern population. The youth feel betrayed by the elders and the region’s leaders. The elderly feel disenchanted and sidelined. The middleclass is almost decimated. The economy is getting destroyed. Opportunities for self actualisation are dwindling. The rich-poor gap is widening. Almost the entire region is being ravaged by insurgency and communal clashes.
I find what I wrote on this issue, on this page in this column on December 13th, 2011 still relevant and worth reproducing here: “The Northern power elites now flounder in frustration, having lost their grip on power and become demystified. To be sure, their demystification started under Obasanjo. But the emergence of Jonathan as president, in spite of their opposition to it, was the final blow, a truly humbling- or is it humiliating –comedown for an elite that once believed it had the clout and capacity for manoeuvre to decide the outcome of power contests in the country.”
With the 2015 elections very close by, concerns are once again climbing and anxiety is heightening among all segments of the Northern population.
Obviously, therefore, the need for some kind and level of unity in the North is a desirable and legitimate aspiration. After all, all the 19 Northern states have a shared geography and history of being under one region, and they have many common problems requiring their concerted action to address.
But a united Northern political front of the kind many of the groups and forces in the region now seem to be working for or toward is not feasible. The divides in the region now run deep, the result largely of years of the divide-and-rule policies and actions of especially the Obasanjo and now the Jonathan administrations, and partly of the lack of commitment and foresight on the part of many of the Northern leaders themselves. Jonathan ran his 2011 campaign largely by exploiting the schisms in the region and inflaming passions and sentiments. His 2015 campaign is being run largely on the same basis.
But more important is the fact that the North is not a monolith. It has never been one. The idea of a onetime politically united North under the Sardauna, to which we should be striving to return, is a polite fiction. It has no real historical basis. It is an idea informed both by nostalgia for the old days and peoples’ wish for a stronger North in the face of the many challenges it faces and the many onslaughts against it.
The North is a region of diverse peoples, cultures, religions and political persuasions and traditions. It is a region with well established traditions of both radical and conservative politics.
In such a region, you cannot get people to, and it’s not even desirable that people move in one political direction, like a herd of cows.
But there are many issues and concerns around which Northerners can and should agree, unite, fashion common strategies for addressing them and, by so doing, present a common front: mass poverty, very high illiteracy level, near collapse of the education system, very high level of unemployment, and a ravaged economy, among others.
These are some of the issues around which Northerners, whatever their politics can come together and unite to find common solutions. And the shared understanding and experience gained in the process will serve as a foundation for forging some form of political unity later.
The economy is particularly important in this regard. It is the foundation of nearly everything, it is what gives the politics of a society its shape and colour. If the Northern states and actors can come together and in an imaginative and intelligent way devise and vigorously pursue strategies for building a strong Northern economy, they will be laying a solid foundation for achieving political understanding and unity. If they get the economy right, they will get the politics right.
Most of the established regional bodies, like the European Union, started as economic unions and only later assumed political status. It is the way the North has to go if it really wants to achieve some form of political unity. Unity in the region can only be built in an incremental way, starting with the economy.
It was the late Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana who said, “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and everything shall be added unto you.” The North has to rephrase Nkrumah by saying, “Seek ye first the economic kingdom, and the political kingdom will be added unto you”.
There is a suggestion by some scholars, which should be fully explored by Northern leaders, that, as a first step, the North should establish a Northern Economic Fund (NEF), which should address critical areas of concern and develop measures and policies to develop Northern economy and enhance its competitiveness. The NEF should, according to the suggestion, be subscribed to by willing state governments, financial institutions, donor and development agencies, and local and foreign private capital. It should initiate and embark on programmes in the critical areas of, agriculture, manufacturing, education and skills acquisition, trade and finance, transport and communications, entrepreneurship, and infrastructure.
Success in such a venture is sure to enhance understanding, promote co-operation, remove the incubus of fear and suspicions between the states and peoples in the region and thus, with time, create the climate for forging unity at the political level.
Obviously, nostalgia and fears and anxieties have made many of us in the region to keep harking and looking back to a golden age that never really existed. And, as a result, our sense of what is possible and what is not has been warped. But what should by now be obvious to all is that incrementalism is the way to go in the effort to build understanding and unity in the North.