Northern Nigerian Elites and National Power Struggle in Nigeria
Reflections of a Northern Ethnic and Religious Minority to Professor Ango Abdullahi. By Professor Samuel Zalanga

Interrogating North of Nigeria
Interrogating North of Nigeria2. Deception as a strategy to obstruct the emergence of national consciousness
When I was young, I remember how during the reelection campaign of Nigeria’s second republic in 1983, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) distributed leaflets scaring people about voting for the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN).  The same thing may have happened in other regions of the country. But my concern in bringing this up is that in theory, NPN was supposed to be a national party, but in practice, it was like a political party committed to protecting Northern interests, which in plain language means, people who are either Hausa-Fulani, Muslim, or have converted to Islam. In some cases, any minority willing to play a subservient role can be allowed to make some progress as an example to others of the rewards of subservience. This happened to many Christian politicians in Northern Nigeria who held high position of responsibility.  Dr. Matthew Hassan Kukah, who is a highly respected statesman and religious leader in Nigeria has documented in his book on politics in Northern Nigeria how such Christian politicians from the North who occupied high ranking positions of responsibility in the NPN were secretly approached on the need for them to convert to Islam.[i] I have no problem if such persons decided to convert on their own volitions, but no Muslim or Christian who is a Nigerian (or a citizen of any country for that matter) should be made to change his or her religion (against his or her volition) simply because he or she is holding a position of responsibility at the federal, state, or local government level.

There was a time when UPN made head roads in the North, during the reelection campaign of PresidentShagari. Many ordinary people in the North did not feel the positive impact of Shagari’s presidency, whichdid not mean good to many of us, who were“the wretched of the earth.”UmaruDikko then talked as if he owned the government of the country (i.e., personal rule). As a young man, I remember seeing many people in BauchiState looking for alternative. But the election was rigged. Everyone knows that even though ObafemiAwolowo, a Yoruba, was not a perfect person, but his party had a better grasp and vision for national development.  The argument then was that the NPN would defend Islam in the North and also defend Northern interests, whatever that was. I never believed that even as a young man. The great majority of the Northern elites defended their interests and the interests of those whose services enhanced the elites’ capacity to continue controlling the lives of the ordinary masses and what was then known as the “national cake.”

To show that the majority of the elites primarily catered for their own interests, there are still places in Northern Nigeria that have been paying taxes since UsmanDanfodio’s jihad of 1804 but nothing has been done to them in terms of public or social service. And where some public or social service was provided, the masses are told to thank the government for being kind to them.  It is just as if the government is the personal property of the elites.

For instance, when I was young, the government of Bauchi State installed a water system for my village.  They installed a huge overhead tank with water pumps for public use. It is no more functioning very well now. When the governor came to launch it, they said when the public relations officer of the governor asks using the microphone: “who gave you water?” the people of my village should reply in Hausa language  saying: “Gwamna” (i.e., the Governor).  But the people insisted on replying, “Allah” instead of “the Governor.”  Sociologically, this is a kind of spontaneous subaltern protest and resistance by ordinary citizens. If governments use public funds to provide social services to citizens but they want the citizens of the country to thank them as if government officials use their own personal money to provide the social services, this is more like personal rule system of clientistic governance.  Many of us were brought up to think this way culturally in Northern Nigeria. So Professor Abdullahi is not honest or thorough in his thinking. The elites he represents in their thinking take Northern Nigerians  for granted in the 21st century.

The idea of the Northern region or regions in general in Nigerian politics, which started because of Lord Lugard’s administrative policies, has been used by many Nigerian elites to obstruct the development of genuine national consciousness.  Without a common national consciousness that cuts across regions, ethnicity and religion, it will be difficult for Nigeria to address her major challenges of nation building and human development.  The great majority of elites, whether in the North or any other region in Nigeria, use it as a strategy to provide a platform for the pursuit of their personal political agendas, which are masked as representing regional or ethnic interests. The great majority of elites do not know the day to day struggles that the ordinary Northern Nigerian citizen is dealing with and if they knew, they never made it a matter of urgent or important concern at all.

Emir of Kano Ado Bayero managed to survived an attack on his person by estremists

3. Religion and the crisis of postcolonial Nigeria: The Northern Conundrum 
I am a Christian but from a social scientific point of view, one can make a strong argument using empirical data that believing in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which is at the foundation of Abrahamic religions (Christianity and Islam in the case of Nigeria) has not made much difference in terms of disciplining the moral and ethical integrity of Nigerian people, if one looks at the records from independence to date. At independence, many Nigerians were still either traditional religious worshipers or “pagans” as some would call them. I remember this was the case in many parts of Bauchi State when I was very young. These traditional religions were considered to be not revealed religions, and not representing the true living God. But Christians and Muslims need to honestly interrogate themselves about the gap between the ideal claims of their religions and the reality or actual practice of the religions.

We can reason about this in the following way. Since Nigeria became independent from Britain:
a) Many people have gone for pilgrimage to Mecca and Jerusalem in order to presumably instill God’s fear in their hearts.
b) Many mosques and churches were built across Nigeria to bring people closer to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
c) Many Imams, Sheiks, Ustazs, Pastors, Prophets, Bishops, Deacons and Deaconess have been ordained or trained.
d) Many religious schools and universities have been built to teach morality and the fear of God.
e) Many people have learned to read Arabic, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, which enhances their ability to understand the core truth of the Holy Books in Islam and Christianity.
f) Many copies of the Holy Quran and the Holy Bible are available in Nigeria per capita and are read every day.
g) The teaching of religion has been made compulsory from elementary to senior secondary school in most states of the Nigerian federation.
h) Thousands of religious conferences and revival meetings have been held in order to instill God’s fear in people’s hearts, and for the sake of moral rearmament.
i) There has been an explosion of student religious organizations such as Scripture Union (SU) and Muslim Students’ Society (MSS) in institutions of higher learning across Nigeria, which became a training ground for the spiritual mentoring of God-fearing future leaders.

But during this very same time period (i.e., the past fifty years), as the Abrahamic religions have expanded and penetrated the Nigerian state, culture, society, and the consciousness of Nigerians, corruption, lack of integrity, dishonesty, exploitation of the weak by the strong, exploitation of the poor by the rich, (etc.) have increased at an alarming speed.  Strictly speaking, based on the past fifty years of experience, Abrahamic religions have not done much to really put Nigeria on a more solid moral and ethical foundation.  Indeed, some of the religious leaders have become part of the corrupt system and the problem. One would not say that there was no any corruption that took place under the leadership of Prime Minister Balewa, the Sardauna of Sokoto, or General Gowon, but it never became a huge issue. People can accuse Prime Minister Balewa, the Sardauna and General Gowon about other things but they cannot say that these people personally enriched themselves while in office. It is emotionally moving to visit Bauchi town and see what is there as belonging to the first Prime Minister of Nigeria. As someone from Bauchi State, this is something that has remained fresh in my mind after visiting the memorial building and library built in his honor several times. Today, corruption has infiltrated into the inner sanctum of religion and corrupted God’s presence in the places of worship.

Unfortunately, because Christianity and Islam generally defer punishment for morally and ethically bad behavior to the period of life after death in most cases, (which is far distant in the future), people tend to discount the gravity of immoral, unethical or criminal behaviors for now, because the consequences are not immediate.  There is more incentive to ignore the potential consequences of immoral, unethical and criminal behavior now if it will bring immediate benefit (i.e. profit), while punishment is in life after death. And in any case, if you pray to God for forgiveness, you will be alright.  For that reason, people go to church and shout “Jesus is Lord” and Muslims go to the mosque and say “God is Great” but both go out into the larger society and public institutions to commit horrendous criminal acts. The corruption and lack of integrity in Nigeria cannot be attributed to “pagan people” coming from out of space. It is understandable that Christians and Muslims would not like to hear this, but the fact is that the religions believers have compromised their beliefs.

In Emile Durkheim’s profound understanding of religion, when religion is effectively functioning, its moral and ethical principles and constraints are internalized and they operate from within a person.[i] If a religious moral order or any moral order for that matter always relies on the use of external coercion for compliance, then the religious or moral order is weak in terms of its efficacy with regard to social control. Unfortunately, in contemporary Nigerian society, even the threat of external coercion is no more an effective mechanism of social control. Today, the magnitude of corruption and their social consequences on the human development of many Nigerians is tantamount to a kind of unrecognized and undocumented crime against humanity as many people have died because of official government corruption and negligence on the part of powerful citizens.

It is fair to say that Nigerians were comparatively more honest and God-fearing persons with higher degree of integrity sixty years ago than today.  I can attest to this based on my lifetime experience even in my village and community. If this is correct, then may be the “pagan” gods and “traditional African religions” have not done as bad as some people think in
later donate some of it to a religious cause, or some philanthropic project. Nigerians have short memory actually and their moral compass has been contaminated. When people are blessed with money or wealth acquired through corruption, they would embrace the giverand talk of how God blessed the giver or used him or her to bless others. So there is no religious incentive to not engage in such acts that have devastating causes on the poverty and underdevelopment of the country, especially, Northern region.
 Jos has raised questions on northern hegemony
4. Northern interests and elite pacts
What Professor AngoAbdullahi refers to as Northern Nigerian interests are the elite pacts arrived at by Northern elites he represents who claim the exclusive right and legitimacy to represent different ethnic groups or social groups in the form of elite consociational democracy. Richard Joseph in his concept of prebendal terms of fostering a more effective social control mechanism and moral system for the people of Nigeria. Accountability in traditional religion is instant. It is not deferred. The only way Christianity and Islam can challenge this proposition is to show empirically that they have the capacity to effectively control the excesses in the behavior of many Nigerians, even when they celebrate God’s signs and wonders.
So the North cannot claim religion as an important source of true legitimacy in the ability of the leaders to serve ordinary citizens honestly and sincerely. You can live a relatively good and honorable life if you embezzle public funds (against Islamic and Christian social ethics), when you politics analyzed Nigeria’s second republic, clearly showing that there was unity that cuts across Nigerian elites from different regions (e.g., National Party of Nigeria).[i]  However, the elite unity is similar to the close collaborative effort of a Mafia group committed to achieving their dubious goals, which in this case is not synonymous with the goals of the ordinary masses or “talakawa.” If you are one of the masses or “talakawas,” you may benefit from the process if you happen to be in a situation where your services will be of good use to the elites in their attempt to achieve their goals. Otherwise, your welfare as “talaka” is never the primary moving force for social action or guiding principle in public policy formulation and implementation to eradicate poverty, hopelessness and underdevelopment.

In terms of the unity of Northern elites to cater for their interests, this cuts across ethnic groups, including religious and ethnic minority groups. Corruption in Nigeria, whether in the North or any region for that matter is an equal opportunity venture among Christians, Muslims, and elites of different ethnic groups. Do not be surprise that the headmaster of a public school, a community’s traditional ruler, the leader of a church denomination, the Imam of a mosque, and local government chairpersons may be involved.  The assumption here in Professor Abdullahi’s thinking is that if the elites he represents agree among themselves, they presumptuously believe that what they agree on represents the interests of all ordinary citizens in the North . Simply because there are some people from the Middle Belt or there are Christians in the group he represents, this does not mean that we cannot see through the consociational strategy of gaming the system. It is not the diverse faces as such that matter but the moral and ethical commitment of the diverse people and their vision for the region and the concrete strategies they have for addressing the problems of the masses or “talakawas” of Northern Nigeria as part of the Nigerian society that is of critical importance.

But this superficial way of thinking that is represented in Professor Adbullahi’s remarks and comments is in contrast to Mamdani’s conclusion.[ii]Mamdani argues that all the democratic reforms in Nigeria (and many other African countries) have not penetrated and transformed people’s way of life at the grassroots level. The situation is so because at the grassroots level, and in many communities, many people are just treated as though they do not have their own interests or vision for their lives as citizens and human beings.  They are treated by elites as clients and subjects.  They are not treated as citizens, but as people who are a means to someone’s end, and not having ends of their own. Their leaders make decisions for them. Why not educate and empower the masses or “talakawas”? While true education in the tradition of Paulo Freire’sconscientization approach can transform people, the elites are afraid that the masses once truly educated will begin to ask challenging questions about the state, society and social / institutional arrangements.[iii] At this point, the masses and “talakawas” become transformed from being objects of other people’s actions, to subjects defining their own lives and history.  This is what I aspire for all the ordinary people of Nigeria. They should not look forward to a political messiah. To be human is to have a voice and have the capacity to shape one’s destiny in collaboration with other like-minded persons.

The fact that Professor AngoAbudullahi felt comfortable to operate within this tradition of elite-pact politics and pretend he is a voice for a united Northern Nigeria just shows the lack of deep thinking among some Northern elites, or at least an attempt to obfuscate the true reality of the situation in Northern Nigeria. At least there are Northern elites even in the second republic that critiqued the core Northern elite establishment. One remembers the courageous position taken by the then Governor Balarabe Musa of Kaduna state who accepted to be impeached instead of cooperating with NPN legislators whose vision was not consistent with the subaltern focus of the People’s Redemption Party (PRP). He remains an inspiration.  There is a persistent sentiment among some Northern elites who are afraid of opening the Northern region and reforming it based on hard work, merit and ability. I do not believe for a minute that if the ordinary “talakawas” are given the conducive atmosphere to thrive, they will not shine. But if they shine, they may upset the traditional social arrangement in the North which has existed for a very long time, and taken for granted by many people as a natural order ordained by God.

The establishment ruling elite in the North is afraid because there is no guarantee that only their sons and daughters will succeed and shine. Under such conditions, they are afraid of what will debunk and demystify their mythical claim of inherent superiority.  Frankly, I feel no emotional attachment to any leader in my state because of his or her stand for justice and fairness for all. I am far closer to my doctoral studies adviser who taught me how to respect people without regard to their religion, nationality or ethnicity, etc.  All the groups Professor AngoAbudullahi mentioned in the interview are in my assessment in an unholy alliance, if what he said represents the depth and scope of their thinking as elites representing Northern Nigeria.

For the avoidance of doubt, I want to clearly state that I am in agreement with many other Nigerians (from the North and other regions) who believe strongly that for the human development of ordinary Nigerians to be catered for, irrespective of their region of origin, we do not necessarily need a Northern Nigerian as a president. To address the issue categorically, the region of the president (Southwest, Southeast, North, etc.) as such should not be our primary focus. We should be more passionate about supporting someone, wherever he or she comes from, who will institute a broad and genuine collective people’s struggle for a more just and fairer Nigerian society, or as Nigeria’s second national development plan says, pursue the following national goals of development sincerely: “a united, strong and self-reliant nation; a great and dynamic economy; a just and egalitarian society; a land of bright and full opportunities for all citizens; and a free and democratic society.”

The ordinary Northerner is far better off with a president and Nigerian government that is dedicated to pursuing the goal of creating a more just and fairer society for all than relying on social entrepreneurs from the North that claim to promote ethnic and regional agendas, when their real goal is self-promotion and aggrandizement. We are tired, but we have also come of age. We know that we are fully human and our human dignity is in our hands, if we decide to struggle for it in unity.  Although many Nigerians make a big deal about religion, the religion of the president is not what matters, but whether or not we have a system in Nigeria that guarantees and protects the rights and human dignity of all as citizens irrespective of their ethnicity, region of birth or religion.

A person from one’s own religious group can be in power and do little or nothing to promote the human dignity of the person who voted for him or her based on religion. Although President Jonathan is a Christian, did that automatically make a difference in the lives of millions of Christians suffering from poverty and underdevelopment across Nigeria?  Did he not pardon one of the former governors who was convicted of embezzlement of public funds meant for improving public welfare? What has Christian social ethics to do that with that? And when late President Yar’Adua was in office, did it automatically mean the Northern “talakawas” got out of poverty?  Surely, Yar’ Adua himself is known for his probity but what about the institutional structures and modus operandi of the government and those who operated them? I will not totally rule out the significance of individuals or personalities in history but I am more interested in creating institutions that work effectively in promoting human development and welfare of our citizens, not depending on the whims and caprices of the civil servants or politician in office.

5. Dubious and duplicitous moral claim
Note that Professor AngoAbduallhi made reference tomoral grounds in making his case about the rotation of the presidency. One can get a clue as to his priority in terms of what morality is and what sphere of life it should be applied to by briefly analyzing the context and text of the interview. For God’s sake, how can someone who is really honestly concerned about morality in the public affairs of Northern Nigeria, see morality as only relevant with regard to the question of rotation of presidency between the regions? When we have Sharia in Northern Nigeria and it is considered to be the superior moral code in many states because it is God’s law, and yet, public money is still being embezzled, and the lives of ordinary people have not changed for the better, in spite of the new moral dispensation, is this not the greatest issue of moral concern in Northern Nigeria today? If the implementation of Sharia law has not solved the problem of underdevelopment, then what next? Do we expect angels to come down and run the system in order to solve the problems miraculously?

The holistic implementation of Sharia, which contrasts with its hitherto restricted application to customary and personal law is a kind of religious moral experiment of creating a city on a hill. Unfortunately, the experiment ended up with people still in the valley after considerable and reasonable time of implementation. It definitely provided great sense of psychological satisfaction  and pride to many people, but there is a saying in Hausa language which states, “KaryanArziki, Gida Ba Danga,” i.e., Lying that you are rich when your house does not even have a fence around it. It is hard to defend Sharia just on grounds of psychological pride and satisfaction when people are unnecessarily dying and unjustly suffering because of chronic poverty, hopelessness, and underdevelopment in Northern Nigeria. In any case, the origin and rationale of Sharia is not to just give people a sense of moral and psychological pride.  If the current situation were to persist, other parts of the Nigerian society and the world will move ahead and leave us in Northern Nigeria to become one of the leading regions in Sub-Saharan Africa that Manuel Castells argues would constitute the 4th world in the 21st century because of their distinctive backwardness.[i] We do not measure progress or development by how many millionaires a region produces but by the level of improvement in the quality of life of the least advantaged people in a society. So the fact that Dangote is the richest African does not mean anything to the life chances of the “talakawas” of Northern Nigeria.

I am not a Muslim but I have learned from the comparative studies of attempts to promote social change that if you were to have a Sharia that concretely creates an environment that enhances everyone’s welfare and creates equal opportunity for the advancement of all human beings, people will rush to such a place. People when given the opportunity, means, and freedom always move from places where there are fewer opportunities for them to thrive and succeed to places where they think there would be better opportunities for their survival and flourishing as human beings. This is at the core of understanding migration. For instance, the United States is not a perfect country but by the same token, millions have decided to move and stay in the country notwithstanding some disagreement they may have with some of the country’s policies. They do so because, overall, the country provides such people better opportunity to thrive and the law will by and large protect their rights. In this case, the real experiences that people have consequences in spite of all criticism against Sharia.  One can go everywhere shouting that Sharia is God’s law and is good for progress but if when it is implement, and the concrete results of the implementation does not bring any discernible transformation in people’s lives in the 21st century, that will contribute in undermining people’s confidence in the religious claim based on empirical experience.

By and large, what the great majority of Nigerians want is a system that works in helping them to achieve human development. If anyone can create such a system, I do not think they will care where he or she comes from or his or her religion. The preceding analysis is true of any puritanical religious movement that gets the opportunity to prove itself in government but then it fails because of poor performance. For instance, the Puritans who came to the United States to build a city on a hill ended up being corrupted by money and slavery and that discredited the idea in American politics that politicians can just rely on the simple application of religious law as panacea to social and development problems.[ii] The comparative study of religion can teach us many lessons. But what have we seen after more than a decade of Sharia in Northern Nigeria? Empirical results matter.

A person who is my junior at BeyeroUniveristy,  Kano, who I know very well, is a devout Muslim, and is working with the Bauchi State civil service owns five houses now, and they are all very huge. How did he buy the houses? Of course he cannot afford that with his legitimate income.  Does this matter?  This is an example of how Sharia means little in terms of controlling elite aggrandizement in Northern Nigeria. I know this is not nice to say, but I want us to be honest with ourselves.

If any member of the elite in Northern Nigeria wants to prove his or her morality at a high level, the elite should voluntarily take a one month vacation and we can arrange to get a non-profit Muslim accounting firm to go and check the state government’s accounts and be sure that as Allah has decreed, justice was done in the use of public resources that the elite person held in trust.  In Hausa language, it is called “AMANA” i.e., holding something in trust for others or someone; it is a high virtue in Islamic teaching on governance.

I teach religion and sometimes I am tired of all these preaching of morality when people select the areas they want to apply it. It is just like the American Christian who might condemned homosexuality, but ignores poverty and injustice which are discussed more in the Bible than homosexuality. People have the right to define their faith, but once they make that declaration in honesty, they do not have the right to be inconsistent in what they claim they are, and expect that observers would stupidly stay quietly ignoring the moral and ethical duplicity in the person’s religious claim and practice.  What someone believes as his or her faith is a personal decision he or she makes, but the question of the relationship between what he or she claims as faith, or beliefs and their empirical referents, impact on culture, social institutions, and social arrangements in society is an empirical question that is can be verified by any person with appropriate training.

Corruption is higher today than it was after more than ten years of introducing Sharia in the North.  Is this not a huge moral and ethical question for those who thought it would be a panacea to the problem of underdevelopment in the North, which at their roots are problems of injustice and the lack of vision and genuine compassion on the part of the members of ruling elite that are self-absorbed in their own affairs, such that they are not aware or deliberately ignore what the true problems of the “talakawas” are?  The moral compass of Professor Abdullahi’s morality as it applies to Northern Nigerian politics and interests is just pertinent when it comes to the rotation of power between the North and other regions of the country. But why is the focus on power important in this respect? The focus on power gives the self-absorbed members of the Northern elites and those close to them (by blood, marriage or alliance) access to lucrative government positions and the federation account.  Being in that position is the fastest and strategic way to enrich or make oneself relevant in a society where the struggle for power has become very ferocious because there are very limited honest alternatives to pursuing a respectful meaningful vocation in the country.

There are many Nigerians within the country and abroad who can contribute in diverse ways to the improvement of the welfare of our people in humility and with enthusiasm, but they are seen as a threat because the main goal in Nigerian politics for many politicians is money, power and sex. SunusiLamidoSunusi, the governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank asserted that 25% of Nigeria’s annual budget is spent on the national assembly.[iii]  A politician can embezzle fund and then dress well in his or her traditional attire and be respected when he or she quotes some verses from the holy books or talks fluently using religious discourses, which makes him or her look very close to God as if they have downloaded the mindset of God on their flash drive.  This notwithstanding, no nation has developed in human history through miracle. Research shows that to even be lucky, you have to position yourself well.

Nigeria will not develop magically if nothing really changes. I say so not because I do not want the country to develop but because I have not seen any nation in human history that has developed by just relying on miracles or just preaching the Bible or Quran while not doing anything consistent with the morality and ethics of the Holy Books, and even more.  We have heard this talk on religion for too long now (i.e., 50 years).  There was a time when the goal of some Northern Nigerian politicians was to baptize the Quran in the Atlantic Ocean.  Many religious people and politicians in Nigeria conceptualize Nigerian citizenship in terms of their narrow criterion of spiritual righteousness, which means if you do not believe in their own God, you are like an antelope in the bush and not entitled to or guaranteed God’s protection, and by implication their care and respect.  In this respect, although they would deny it, but in reality such religious believers define who God is and the kind of world He envisions. Furthermore, in doing so, they constitute themselves into becoming the judge, the jury, and the prosecutor. This is pathetic, and those who partake in perpetuating this vision of Nigeria as part of the human race should feel ashamed of themselves because their vision of Nigeria is not built on the respect for the human dignity of all irrespective of what the constitution of the country says.

6. Decency in leadership and transparency
Hahaha.Here he goes again. Professor AngoAbdullahi is critiquing others for lack of decency in leadership and transparency. Was he transparent when he was at ABU as Vice Chancellor with the various members of the faculty, students, and resources?   Was he decent and fair with even progressive members of the faculty who are of Hausa-Fulani extraction? Some Northern ethnic and religious minority faculty members suffered under his administration. I do not raise these questions out of disrespect to Professor AngoAdullahi, but I think there is honestly much to be said about this subject. Transparency in leadership is not a virtue that was revealed as a new revelation from God recently.  It has been in existence from time immemorial. Can the Northern elites representing all those organizations the Professor mentioned say they are transparent in all what they are doing, including representing the North?

The interesting issue here is that for those of us who are interested in the comparative study of political institutions, transparency is not something that elites anywhere in the world would necessarily want to voluntarily grant as part of state-society relations. Often it is collective social democratic struggle by the masses that forces or compels the elites to do so. Yes, there are few members of the elites who are humble and God-fearing and are willing to lead transparently if given the chance, but if there is transparency among the great majority of Northern leaders as Professor Abdullahi suggests, there would not be this much level of corruption, poverty, backwardness, and underdevelopment as we see in the region today.  Northern Nigeria is today veritable museum of monumental elite failure, recklessness in the use of power and the lack of human compassion for those Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.” This is a huge moral and ethical question.

You wonder how people call themselves leaders and presumably have the appropriate sense of human compassion, but ignore the unjust human suffering they see around them in Northern Nigeria. Actually they may not be really aware of the suffering. Yet many poor Northern Nigerians live like refugees, but the irony is that some United Nations’ refugee camps have more social amenities than what exists in many villages in Northern Nigeria, fifty years after independence and all its promises as commemorated by many Nigerian musicians.  Here is a quick glimpse of how Nigeria has badly fared in the past decades:

In many counts Nigeria is the richest country in Sub-Saharan Africa, yet its showing in poverty indices is deplorable, largely because of alleged misuse of oil wealth by its governments.  Nigeria’s population rose from 71.1 million in 1980 to 123.9million in 1999. In 1997, Nigeria had 90.8 percent of its people living on less than US$2 a day, (70.7 percent on less than US$1 a day). The highest 10 percent in Nigeria get 40.8 percent of the national income or consumption.[i]

One does not have to be a Muslim or Christian before this tragedy of injustice becomes relevant as a moral and ethical issue of concern. It is a question of whether the elites are really having the appropriate human compassion for their fellow citizens and humankind. Any person that claims to be religious but allows power and money to intoxicate him or her to the point where they begin to feel like they are omnipotent and treat fellow human beings as trash because the fellow human beings are poor and lack power, have lost a part of their humanity and they need to be liberated of this moral and ethical distortion and decay.

I will venture to argue that Northern elites that are very honest and transparent will have limited opportunities to access strategic positions of high responsibility because they will constitute a threat to the primitive accumulation tendencies of the other group of elites. In this respect, transparency in leadership as used by Professor Abdullahi in the context of Nigeria as a whole and Northern Nigeria in particular becomes an expedient rhetorical framing strategy to make an argument in order to win the debate, a strategy that was effectively used in the Lincoln-Douglas legendary debate in the 19th century in the United State.[ii] Otherwise, in terms of its practical moral and ethical consequences in the Professor’s arguments, transparency is only relevant when it comes to signing documents on rotation of presidency among PDP elites. It is so embarrassing that some of the leaders in Northern Nigeria are still this shallow in their thinking.

Up to now, no one knows exactly the complete truth about Boko Haram. The Northern elites that Professor Abdullahi represents are there in Kaduna and other major cities in the North. They claim to be elders and know the region thoroughly given that they represent the region’s interests, yet they cannot even explain to us what is happening and at the root of the Boko Haram problem except for clichés and nebulous generalizations that are publicized when they advise the President of the country. If they have all along been transparent and honest in governing the region, Boko Haram would not have been a problem as it has been. It is true that part of the problem was it was an attempt to make the country ungovernable for President Jonathan.

I do not embrace President Jonathan’s style of leadership because he has disappointed the expectations of many of us who believe that what Nigeria needs is a leadership that is unapologetic and passionate in its commitment to the poor and those that are socially marginalized in the Nigerian nation. He is the most educated Nigerian President since independence in terms of academic credentials and so one expects a certain degree of sharpness from him. Yet, by the same token, I see clearly that some people wanted the President to fail by making the federal government of Nigeria under a Southerner to be like a failed state. That will be a good way to discredit any Southern aspirant to the nation’s presidency in the future.  By implication, only Northerners can govern the country effectively because they are “masusarauta” (i.e., competent people entitled to politically govern a political entity).

When my sister was getting married in my hometown in Bauchi State in the recent past, I had to ask whether it would be safe. Is this not a sad commentary on the Northern Nigerian leadership that some of us who are citizens of Nigeria, born and raised in the North, but cannot even feel secure to gather in a church to have a wedding ceremony? It is of course true that as Boko Haram’s violence continued, they spared no one, including important people in the North whose lives were at some point at risk. Who would have thought that the Northern Nigeria that used to be so peaceful will end up with this terrible situation? The lack of justice and fairness can give birth to many social evils.

However, we should not just focus on the evil act but examine the trajectory of events and social processes that led to it. A careful study of human anthropology and sociology would demonstrate how such processes unfold. Northern Nigeria used to be very peaceful when I was growing up. I look back at that period with nostalgia now because at least even though we were poor and neglected, we did not have to worry about insecurity rooted in armed violence committed by people one has done nothing to warrant their violent anger and actions.

With regard to decency in leadership, I truly believe that one of the highest lack of decency is when ruling elites hide behind a religious legal system which helps give them political legitimacy, reduces political competition on religious grounds, and prevent the masses and “talakawas” from developing national or even global consciousness in their struggle for a more just and fairer society, (etc.), while in private or in governance, the elites do not follow the true tenets of the religious legal system in reference. Hardly will any governor in a Sharia state in Northern Nigeria, if thoroughly investigated, escape failing the Sharia code and not being found guilty of stealing government money for private use.  This ought to be a matter of concern whether there is Sharia or no Sharia and whether someone is theistic or not. Is it fair to enforce laws on the poor and socially marginalized in society when the elite do not allow it to be enforced on them, and condemn people who point out the injustice in this kind of social and institutional arrangement as just persons that are haters of Islam or Sharia?  Many educated people thought the failure of the North had to do with the western secular legal system before the Sharia was introduced. We need to think more deeply, honestly and courageously about the existential reality in the North.

For further clarity on what happened in Northern Nigeria with the implementation of Sharia, one can compare the rate of improvement in human development between Sharia states and non-Sharia states in the country and see to what extent the new legal dispensation has brought about holistic and phenomenal transformation in governance, the just management of public resources, and the promotion of the human welfare of all people. Everyone knows how many parts of Lagos city are so disorganized in terms of public and social services. I always called it the rambunctious city because of the energy of the people. But Governor Fashola has accomplished a great deal in terms of reforming the city. Yet he did not have to claim Pentecostal power or Sharia in order for him to do that. This does not mean that he is not religious.

But in the North, some of ruling elites cheaply opted for religion as an automatic solution to their problems, and they got it. Yet, it was accompanied by little or no substantive change in the human development and welfare of millions of ordinary Northerners. I want to clarify to the reader that my point here is not by any means suggesting that Muslims are not entitled to Sharia but to stress that there is much to this discussion than just saying Sharia is God’s law and therefore an automatic panacea to all human problems.  There are many Muslim social scientists that will attest to the fact that framing the whole issue this way was naïve but politically expedient and astute.

Many Christians living in some Northern communities in Nigeria have lost some of their constitutional and civic rights even though on paper in the Nigerian constitution, those rights may be there intact. It is as if the federal government of Nigeria has stripped them of their civil rights in broad day light. That is what “progress” in Professor Abdullahi’s unified Northern Nigeria has given some of the region’s citizens fifty years after independence.  For social scientists like me, at its core, the problem we are dealing with here is just part of the broader problem of how to be strictly religious in a modern world, and in a multicultural and multi-religious society.  It is also the question of the oppression of the “talakawas” even though religion can be used to distract our focus on the real problem.

Can Northern Nigeria be a model for Islamic modernity to other aspiring Muslim countries in the developing world that want to be modern but at the same time authentically maintain their faith?  This not a challenge that only Northern Nigerian Muslims or Muslims only face in the world when one understands the evolution of humankind in the past five hundred years. Northern Nigerian Muslims cannot escape the fact that being a Muslim in today’s world is confronting the challenge of being religious in a modern or in some parts of the world, post-modern world.  To repeat again, this is a challenge that confronts not just Muslims but all other religions as well.  The question is how the different religions in different parts of the world or regions of a country decide to cope with the challenge.

At least in Nigeria, Islam in Southwestern Nigeria is different from Islam in Northern Nigeria and the ability of the two regions to cope with modernity varies. Can Northern Nigerian Muslims maintain a sense of respect in the global community when people in the region are ranked high on religion but having little improvement in their human development index? How did Malaysia, which is a Muslim society too make significant progress but Northern Nigeria is left behind too far? Is this just a problem of Islam religion per se, or are there other issues that we have to take seriously also into consideration? Think deeply. Let us be honest about this and avoid sentimentality.  We are dealing with the lives of human beings and any day that passes in their lives, they cannot retrieve it again.

My sincere assessment is that many Northern leaders come across as superficial in their thinking as Professor AngoAbdullahi has come across in the interview he granted. One expects deeper thinking from a person like him.  We expect wisdom from what is known in Hausa language as “Dattawa” (i.e., elderly people).  Again, this may across as harsh but I do not say this out of arrogance or disrespect to Professor Abdullahi, but just out of sincere frustration in the superficiality of thinking among the so-called elites of Northern Nigeria as represented in the interview.

In this respect, I truly miss the moral and ethical commitment that Professor Yusuf BalaUsman of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria (ABU) brings to his vocation.  Here is what the forthright, deep thinking and social-liberationist late Professor BalaUsman of the Department of History had to say about Sharia before he died:

“Unless Zamfara and the rest of Northern Nigeria worked to promote development, invested in schools, and provided people with the basic necessities of life, such as drinking water and health clinics, Sharia had little practical meaning. ‘People have been imbued with the notion that Sharia is the answer to their frustration with life.  These politicians want to use Sharia as a cover because the upper class in the North has come to the end of the line”.[iii]
Professor BalaUsman is not by any means suggesting that Muslims should not practice their religion or Sharia. This should be clearly understood because we are dealing with a more serious problem here that from my assessment, unless we can find our way through this, Northern Nigeria will continue to lag behind not only in Nigeria but in Africa as a whole. It is important to highlight and emphasize this because among both Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, there is a manner in which any serious interrogation of the role of religion in the social lives of people and the public role of it in society is blocked or resisted because that is considered raising critical questions about what God said. It is dismissed as secular and western.

Yet such simplistic ways of thinking has not helped the poor people in Nigeria at all because religion is being used to divert their attention from the real sources of their misery.  We know this because now we have counted fifty years after independence and we have been told the same story. There are of course cases and situations where religion has been used to champion the voice of the oppressed in both Christianity and Islam but many Nigerian politicians do not want to think globally even while acting locally.[i]

To further demonstrate that there is another group of Northern Nigerians who are forthright in their thinking and willing to articulate the truth bluntly about the situation of the country, here is a reflection from Bashir Kurfi:

The only difference between South Africa and Nigeria is that here you have a group of blacks who don’t make up ten percent of the population but control the economy, while the majority are poor.[ii]

Bashir Kurfi’s assessment may seem to some people as harsh but he is right. In any case, the truthfulness of a statement is not contingent on how we feel about it. We can buttress his observation by referring to the United Nations Human Development Report, which asserted in its 2013 report that: “Nigeria is not improving its human development index.”  According to this report,68.0 per cent of Nigerians are stated to be living below $1.25 daily while adult illiteracy rate for adult (both sexes) is 61.3 per cent. The report comes despite the reported growth in the Nigerian economy, with the country recording a GDP growth rate of 6.99 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2012.”[iii] This is a typical example of growth without development. Can the Northern Nigerian elites claim, fifty years after independence that Northern Nigeria has developed?

To reaffirm the ugliness and deplorable nature of the situation in Northern Nigeria, here is another remarkable and honest assessment of the human condition in the region by Abba Kyari.  He asserts: We have millions of people who have no food, no water, no education, no health care, but there is one thing common to them, religion. A politician does this as a political calculation but to the people it is not politics. People are just fed up, and Sharia fills the vacuum.[iv]

Abba Kyari’s analysis sheds light on the fact that there are diverse voices among Northern elites and there are persons who are Muslims and understand that it is part of a Muslim’s religious experience to have Sharia but they doubt the authenticity and the sincerity of the motivations of the politicians who introduced it. His assessment conforms to what Professor Yusuf BalaUsman once characterized as the manipulation of religion in Nigeria. Generally, all over the world, this tends to happen when ruling elites have run out of ideas for earning legitimacy.

On the question of whether the North is developed or not, many will contest the assertion that the region is not developing. Of course we know that there is great diversity across the region.  Well, the relevant question to ask in this respect is: what is the meaning of development? Professor Dudley Seers had a quick and insightful answer, which was published in 1969 at the end of the United Nations First Development Decade. I am presuming that the Northern Nigerian elites that Professor Abdullahi represents, if they care, should have come across it in some respects. Here is what Professor Seers asserted at a conference in India in1969:

The questions to ask about a country’s development are therefore: What has been happening to poverty?  What has been happening to unemployment?  What has been happening to inequality? If all three of these have declined from high levels, then beyond doubt this has been a period of development for the country concerned. If one or two of these central problems haven growing worse, especially if all three have, it would be strange to call the result ‘development’ even if per capital income doubled.[v]

It is obvious that for the great majority of Nigerians, and especially in Northern Nigeria, the postcolonial state, and fifty years of governance after independence has failed them, in spite of the fact that the North held power (whatever that means) for most of those years. What did the Northern elites do with the power and what lessons can we learned from that, and on the basis of those lessons, how can we be sure that what they will do in the future is going to be different or a new dispensation? Should one focus on creating social institutions, social movements, and social processes that will help in instituting a more just and fairer society or just dedicate himself or herself to supporting anyone from the North to be the president because he or she is from the North?

What unique qualities if any, do Northern leaders have to bring about justice and fairness to ordinary citizens of Nigeria, especially those in the North that people in other parts of the country lack?  These are the questions  that some of us in the younger generation in the North are asking, primarily concerned about, and very interested in , instead of the mundane question of rotation of the presidency and who signed what agreement and where? If Sharia cannot bring the “talakawas” out of the valley of oppression, neglect and underdevelopment, where do we go from here? If things continue like this, what guarantee do we have that fifty years from now, the North would be different, assuming we start calculating from the 1804 jihad period which brought about the caliphate and emirate system in most of what is Northern Nigeria today. We have to be careful in not excusing ourselves by setting the goals and expectations so low for the Northern region to the point where we feel we are an example of great accomplishments. The rate of progress in the region for the masses is too slow and embarrassing even when one compares it with other Muslim societies.  As Richard Sklar and Larry Diamond have articulated: “Metaphorically speaking, most Africans today live under the dictatorship of material poverty.”[vi]  This is true of Northern Nigeria today.

Material needs are not everything in life but they play a very important role in creating the primary conditions for achieving human dignity.[vii] It is hard to be religious when the material conditions for one to be a full human being with dignity are not in existence. One needs to be human and alive before he or she can worship.  Religion in and of itself will not be a panacea to Nigeria’s problems if religious people fail to do other things right (and even more), things that should be done irrespective of one’s religion for that matter. We have had a lot of religion in the past fifty years in Nigeria, but not much progress in human development. Actually, in some cases we have declined. This much can be deduced from comparing the expansion of religion in Nigeria and the human development report produced by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which was cited earlier. Indeed, one can argue with evidence that in some respects, religion, (both Christianity and Islam) have contributed to our development problems.
As I highlighted above, whether religion is used for good or bad is an empirical question that depends on who the believers are and the situations that influence their practice of the religion. It is not enough to say that reading the holy books alone solves all the problems of humanity because the consciousness and the mind of the 21st century reader (or human being) of the holy books is different from the consciousness and mind of those who read the holy books immediately after they came into existence.  Time, context and our existential conditions matter in how we read the holy books and what we appropriate as relevant from the books. And even then, as Carl Jung argues, what we know and how we know it is an intellectual question and process, but what we decide to do with what we know is a moral and ethical question i.e., a different type of question. The two questions should not be conflated. Religious knowledge, or put in another way, knowing the right thing to do, is not a guarantee that people will behave or act the right way. This challenge was extensively analyzed by Aristotle.[i]

[i]Hardie, W. F. R. 1980. Aristotle’s Ethical Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Aristotle (Translated by Terrence Irin). 1990. Nichomachean Ethics. Hackett Publishing Company.

[i] De La Torre, Miguel A. 2008. The Hope of Liberation in World Religions. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press.
[ii]Cited in Maier, Karl. 2000. This House Has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis. Cambridge, Massachussetts: Westview Press. See the beginning pages where there are insightful quotes from Bola Ige, Bashir Kurfi, and Chinua Achebe.
[iv]Cited in Maier, Karl.This House Has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Westview Press. p.148.
[v]Dudley Seers. 1969. “The Meaning of Development,” Eleventh World Conference of the Society for International Development, New Delhi. p.3
[vi]Cited in Assensoh, A.B. and Yvette m. Alex-Assensoh. 2001. African Military History and Politics: Coups and Ideological Incursions, 1900-Present. New York: Palgrave. See page xxv.
[vii] Friedman, Benjamin. 2005. The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. New York: Vintage Books.


[i] Forsyth, Tim. 2005. Encyclopedia of International Development. New York: Routledge. P.353
[ii]Holzer, Harold. 1993. (ed.). The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text. New York: HarperCollins.
[iii]Cited in Maier, Karl. 2000. This House Has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis. Cambridge, Massachussetts: Westview Press. Chapter Six, p.179.

[i] Castells, Manuel. 1996.The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell.
[ii] Martin, William.1996. With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. New York: Broadway Books.
[iii]“Our Economy In Danger – CBN Governor warns Federal Government to Reduce Expenditure on National Assembly” by Imeobong. November 19, 2010. Accessed July 22, 2013.


[i] Joseph, Richard. 1987. Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria. New York: Cambridge University Press.
[ii]Mamdani, Mahmood. 1996. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
[iii] Paulo Freire.  2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (30th Anniversary Edition). New York: Bloomsbury Academic Publishers.

[i] Durkheim, Emile.  1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: The Free Press.


Samuel Zalanga
Samuel Zalanga is a Professor of Sociology at Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota, United States where he currently teaches Sociology of Development among other fields. Before moving to the United States in 1993 to pursue graduate studies, he lived and taught in Bauchi State, Northeastern Nigeria. He completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Sociology at Bayero University, Kano, and University of Jos, respectively in Northern Nigeria.

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