We have met only once — via Zoom in August 2020 during a high-level roundtable organized by our mutual friend, Brigadier General Saleh Bala (Rtd), president of Whiteink Institute for Strategy Education and Research (WISER). It was interesting to listen to your perspective and those of former defence minister, Alhaji Yayale Ahmed, military generals and a few others. I was pleased to share my thoughts on the theme (“The Bureaucracy in Security Sector Governance) of the roundtable as a co-panelist. You had begun to make major headlines for your sober assessment of the Buhari presidency, the devastation of the North, and insecurity all over Nigeria. Many in the south placed you on the same pedestal as former Sarkin Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the barometer of northern Nigeria. The willingness to tell uncomfortable truths to Nigeria, particularly Northern Nigeria and its elites distinguished both of you. Your presentation did not disappoint.
I was intrigued to learn from Sahara Reporters your comments at the Maitama Sule Leadership Lecture Series. You were reported to have argued ‘We will surprise them in 2023 because we will vote for who we want, including the northerners, and nothing will happen. If we choose to vote for a northerner, the heavens will not fall. We will choose who we want in this country… A northerner is a respectable Nigerian. We can live with our poverty, but we cannot live with a sense of disrespect and anybody who toys with our respect. We will fight them to the end’. You also noted ‘We inherited the North that determined where Nigeria went.’
This is the same mindset that has brought Nigeria to its knees. Individuals who should not have risen beyond the rank of Staff Sergeant became Generals and utterly mismanaged the country by bringing it to their level. There was of course method in their chaos as they skewed what was intended as a federal system of government. I totally agree that the heavens will not fall if a northerner emerges president in 2023. The heavens have been around for a while. Nigeria has not. We do not know if Nigeria will survive it. The heavens are naturally (some would say preternaturally) occurring phenomena; Nigeria is a human invention. It is no longer serving its purpose—security of lives and property and promotion of the public good.
You also noted during your speech that the North had ‘the numerical strength to decide who becomes the next president’. This was a welcome part of your speech. Perhaps you can speak with the commissioner of finance in Gombe state who asked the governments of Rivers and Lagos to be “our brothers’ keepers” regarding VAT collection. Any part of Nigeria that can unilaterally determine who emerges president should be able to contribute to the national purse. That is not disrespect; it is called federalism.
I was alarmed by one part of your speech — “We can live with our poverty”. No, you cannot. We all assumed there was happy poverty in the North until the chickens began to come home to roost. Maitatsine and other millenarian movements troubled Nigeria for decades but were sporadic. Suddenly, the al-majiri phenomenon mingled with other social problems to produce fresh candidates for what would become Boko Haram, ISWAP, herdsmen, bandits and miscellaneous criminals. We respectfully ask you to not live with your poverty (to the extent anyone can lay claims to poverty) because you are our fellow citizens. We believe in human dignity and do not wish to continue to suffer the consequences of spillover social problems. We no longer want rural livelihood destruction, rape, kidnappings, killings and brigandage that have made life unbearable for many Nigerians from Benue to Abia and Ekiti. Anyone who goes to bed when a neighbour’s house is on fire is probably foolish. The North’s problem is Nigeria’s problem. Do not allow pride get in the way of solving our collective failure as a country.
I have always taken enormous pride in being detribalized. I have enjoyed the friendship and kindness of Nigerians of all backgrounds. For example, a Muslim Fulani university official came to my rescue many years ago during my national youth service when a fellow Christian played bureaucratic football with my posting. An Igbo woman played a bigger role than most members of my family when I left Nigeria on a scholarship nearly two decades ago. My point is that I see value in people. That is what my life’s journey has taught me. Ethno-religious affiliation or any other social divide does not define people’s worth.
I do not think your current approach solves the problem. I cringe at the rhetoric emerging from you. Dialogue is the way out. But that means we need to tell ourselves some home truths. The Nigerian system had been systematically rendered weak and ineffective long before the current administration. People with incredibly low scores in JAMB and other performance metrics were selected. That’s not a problem if properly managed. Affirmative action can be a force for good. However, somehow the same persons were the super majority (sometimes over 90%) of “competent” and trusted people found for serious positions. They dumbed down the system clinically and methodically. They hired only their kind and frustrated anyone who seemed bright, including fellow northerners. The nepotism of the core North—taken to its extreme by its current high priest—has destroyed the country in which we should all have joint ownership.
We do not understand why core Northern elites (with few exceptions, such as Kaduna’s Nasir el-Rufai) have refused to educate the children of the masses. We are flabbergasted that some core Northern elite, including sadly some of my colleagues in academia, think roaming around West Africa with cattle is reasonable in the 21st century. Attorney General Abubakar Malami debased the discourse by comparing Igbo spare part trading to open grazing. Some northern elites like Colonel Abubakar Umar have been unequivocal about Nigeria becoming“ dangerously polarized”. However, many simply consider this business as usual and another opportunity to “chop”. How does that help build or secure a multiethnic society?
Perhaps one thing that may come out of the Buhari administration (besides the recent elaborate Shariah non-compliant wedding thanks to Kano Hisbah’s annual vacation) is the realization that Nigeria cannot continue in its current structure. It is a criminal structure. You are probably aware of this but it is worth reiterating. The feeling that people are being held back from development is fueling secessionist agitations. The core North is politically astute. You know the oil of unearned privilege is about to dry up. The core North’s elite has had a good run. It is time for equity.
Many people believe the core North’s’ “one Nigeria” mantra is just an attempt to hang on to the federal feeding bottle as long as possible. Real belief in the unity of the country means making selfless sacrifices. You cannot take a stunning majority of valuable resources and available positions in practically all influential government agencies, run them to the ground and wonder why some groups want to secede. Sanusi said it best when he argued “If the North does not change, the North will destroy itself. The country is moving on. Quota system that everybody talks about must have a sunset clause.” That sunset has arrived.
There is nothing those agitating for Nigeria’s breakup want more than the core North clinging to power in 2023. That northerner would likely govern Arewa Republic. Those of us demanding restructuring are your best friends. Of course, there are those who think we are foolish to assume Nigeria can still be fixed.
Finally, the Yoruba people have a proverb suggesting that when siblings leave a room laughing they have lied to themselves but when they exit with frowns, they have told themselves some truths. I hope you consider this open letter in the spirit with which it was written — a quest for an objective, frank but respectful dialogue to save Nigeria, if we all agree it is worth saving for the good of all.