New ways of seeing Nigeria By Tolu Ogunlesi
The first time I travelled to northern Nigeria – apart from Abuja, that is – was in 2013, when I visited Yola. Since then, I’ve been to Kano and Oturkpo and Zaria and Kaduna. (For some reason the National Youth Service Corps scheme threw me only as far as Asaba, on the banks of the River Niger, a time regarding which I’ve still got many fond memories). Each visit to the north has been fascinating, and profoundly illuminating, providing multiple opportunities to puncture stereotypes and misconceptions, and generally roll back my ignorance.
A year ago, I joined a bus of journalists on a trip from Abuja to Rukubi Village in Nasarawa State for the inauguration of Olam’s new Integrated Rice Mill, by President Goodluck Jonathan. It was my first long road trip anywhere in the northern part of Nigeria. What struck me was the vastness and relative emptiness of the land; for someone who has spent all my life in the densely populated southern urban centres of Abeokuta, Ibadan and Lagos, it was an intriguing experience. If you drive four hours from Lagos you’re going to end up in Ondo or Ekiti – at least three states away. Were the roads in the South-East better than they are now I’m sure you could easily travel across the entire zone in four hours. In the north however, you can easily drive four hours within the same state, as I realised on our journey across Nasarawa, to Rukubi Village. You only need to look at a map to realise the vast distances; the fact, for example, that you can fit one-and-half of the entire South-East into Borno State alone.
And then there are the ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious angles to the diversity. How many of us sit down to think of the fact that there are dozens of different ethnic groups in Borno State, all of whom speak different languages, and that the “Hausa-Fulani” ethnic class that many southerners like to classify the entire north as, is actually a minority in that state? Until the kidnap of the Chibok girls, did it occur to many of us that there are Christian communities in Borno State? Do we realise that Islam in Borno actually predates Islam in the Sokoto Caliphate; that Borno’s Kanuri people have always considered themselves immune from the rulership of the Caliphate, and, two centuries ago successfully resisted the Usman Dan Fodio Jihad that conquered everywhere else in the region? In 2011, I listened to Muhammadu Buhari speak at Chatham House, London, of growing up feeling like an ethnic minority – because he was a Fulani boy in Daura, an ancient Hausa Emirate.
Why then do southerners like to hold on to the idea of a monolithic north, where everyone is Hausa-Fulani and Muslim, sharing the same views and speaking the same language, wielding a sense of entitlement to federal power (“born to rule”), and perpetually seeking to plot the domination of everyone else in Nigeria? Why do we persistently ignore the fact that the Islamic faith in the north consists of several distinct theological tendencies, some of which are actually violently opposed to one another? (There are those who argue that the explanation for Boko Haram is rooted, in part at least, in some of these theological differences)
Where do those false views of the north come from, and why have they persisted for so long, in defiance of what reality shows and tells us? I agree that in the course of history, some powerful people and groups in the north have sought to create and sustain the myth of a unified and dominant “Islamic” north, but my point is that that is not the entire story, and that if we paid careful attention, we’d come up with plenty of evidence to suggest that the north is anything but a religious and cultural monolith. (Think for example of radicals like Mallam Aminu Kano – a Muslim Fulani – who spent their lives and made their names fighting, from the inside, what they considered a conservative and feudal establishment).
Let’s move down south. Think of the many ethnic groups to be found in the delta, for whom the majority Ijaw (who are themselves a “minority” from a national perspective) are as much a hegemony as the Hausa-Fulani? It’s easy to dismiss them all as “Jonathan’s people”, until you pay a bit more attention and realise that there were several of the minority delta groups who felt as “left out” under the Jonathan Presidency as anyone else not from the delta. Everywhere you turn, there’s a complexity that our stereotypes always fail to account for.
I’m in the middle of my own history lesson about this place called Nigeria. I realise you have to come with an open mind, one as untainted as possible by easy assumptions and hand-me-down prejudice. I look at the standard narratives of Nigeria – and I realise that we’ve got many things wrong, or incompletely pictured. We have traded on half-truths and myths and stereotypes for so long that there is no longer any opportunity to apprehend any reality. I think Nigeria deserves a little bit more outside-the-box thinking. If you listened to many people – Nigerians and otherwise – you’d think of a country where Muslim northerners are perpetually at war with Christian southerners
The more I think about it, the more it occurs to me that saying Nigeria’s strength lies – or should lie – in its diversity should not be seen as an empty platitude. Our differences can and should lead us into a greater appreciation of the space that every group occupies, and should inspire us to create a country where everyone feels a sense of belonging. You don’t need to dig deep to realise that Nigerians have always had a history of leaving home and migrating in search of opportunities elsewhere in the country; there are multitudes for whom commerce trumps religion or ethnicity in their day to day lives.
Southerners who like to complain about how oil money is being used to develop the “backward” north do not seem to think about just how much of the food produce they consume comes from the north. When we think of the North-East, we sadly think mainly of Boko Haram, and not of Potiskum, the largest cattle market in West Africa, or Lake Chad, source of much of the fish consumed around the country.
Part of the saddening disconnect can be explained by the security situation across Nigeria, and by the absence of good roads and railway lines. At the moment, the most sensible way to connect northern and southern Nigeria is by air – everything else, whether rail or road, is a nightmare. That has got to change.
What I have laid out above convinces me that the issues President Buhari should pay the most attention to are security (not just from Boko Haram, but also highway bandits and kidnappers) and infrastructure (roads and high-speed rail). Apart from the direct economic impact, think of the nation-building effect a revolution in these areas would have? Great nations, as I now see it, are built on the roads and rail-tracks and rivers that allow their people to move quickly and easily across the land, putting forth root and creating ethnic and cultural bonds, and economic value.