The Rising Tide of Ethno-Regional Populism In Northern Nigeria, By Majeed Dahiru
To stem this dangerous tide of ethno-regional populism in northern Nigeria, liberal elements within the region must come together to save the zone and its people from a path to self-immolation. To take the rest of Nigeria for granted by presenting its worst as the best to lead the Nigerian state will result into political isolation of the northern region…
The entry of President Muhammadu Buhari into partisan politics in 2003 birthed a new political culture in northern Nigeria. Riding on a wave of intense ethno-geographic and religious sentiments, Buhari would emerge as a sectional hero in Nigeria when he championed the northern conservative elements’ clamour for a return to power barely four years after the military authorities brokered a power shift deal from the North to the South. In addition to his open support for the adoption of Sharia law (a potent political opium) by some northern Nigerian states, his bold but unsuccessful move to wrestle power from former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian, transformed Buhari into a political phenomenon with cult-like following in the Muslim north. Beginning from that time, the north was to make a paradigm shift from politics along political party lines, as seen in the second and third republics, to one motivated by ethno-regional and religious considerations.
Coming from the North-West, a geo-political zone with the highest voting demography, Buhari has managed to garner the majority of votes from this politically important part of Nigeria in his three out of four attempts at being elected as president, polling an average 12 million votes. The only time his hold on the northern Nigeria political landscape was challenged considerably was in his second attempt in 2007, when he had to contend with two fellow northerners, Umar Musa Yar’Adua and Atiku Abubakar. On that occasion, Buhari polled less than 7 million votes against Yar’Adua’s 24 million and Atiku’s 2.6 million votes.
Buhari’s consistency and lack of compromise with the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in any form of power sharing arrangement, greatly enhanced his integrity quotient, which helped sustain his political capital in northern Nigeria. His reputation for the abhorrence of indiscipline and corruption also endeared him to many Nigerians across all divides, who had reached the consensus that those twin evils were the problems with Nigeria. With a poor record in performance and widespread maladministration, the PDP was to eventually capitulate to a coalition of powerful opposition forces in 2015, with Buhari as the arrow head, after sixteen years of unbroken rule at the centre.
This provincial triumphalism was to degenerate into ethno-regional populism as soon as the other sections of the country, particularly the Sout-East region, cried out as the most marginalised in Buhari’s Nigeria. Buhari himself set the convenient narrative for the new message of populism in the north…
Once settled in power, Buhari, who was dressed up in the borrowed robes of nationalism in the run up to the 2015 presidential election, turned coat and has since adorned the provincial robes of sectionalism. In a clear departure from the campaign promises of equity, fairness and justice within a pan-Nigerian frame work that defined the aspiration of the broad coalition of opposition forces upon which he rode to power, Buhari has unleashed an unprecedented wave of sectionalism on the Nigerian state. By elevating this form of bias to a near state policy, as expressed in his appointments and programmes which favour his northern part of the country, Buhari appears to have returned to his original agenda for seeking the presidency in 2003 – a power grab by conservative northern elements for ethno-regional supremacy. The enactment of this nepotistic aspiration by the Buhari administration has polarised the Nigerian state, with some citizens feeling more or less Nigerian than others. Interestingly, conservative elements within the northern political establishment appear to relish Buhari’s sectionalism, with a high measure of provincial triumphalism. For these people, so far as the levers of power, from the inner recesses of the Presidency to the top echelon of the security establishment and topmost political leadership positions, are dominated by Nigerians of northern origin, all is well.
This provincial triumphalism was to degenerate into ethno-regional populism as soon as the other sections of the country, particularly the Sout-East region, cried out as the most marginalised in Buhari’s Nigeria. Buhari himself set the convenient narrative for the new message of populism in the north when he attempted to justify his sectionalism with the infamous “97 per cent and 5 per cent” of votes obtained as a prerequisite for patronage and inclusion in his government. This justification appears to have heightened a sense of higher entitlement over the entire land, resources and government of Buhari’s Nigeria by his legion of supporters in the conservative Muslim north.
Unapologetic about Buhari’s sectionalism, his core northern base of support has often reacted to the accusations of marginalisation from other sections of the country with scornful chastisement. The clamour for restructuring by the South-West is balderdash as far as they are concerned. The Biafra separatists’ agitations from the South-East, arising from the unprecedented marginalisation of the region in Buhari’s Nigeria, were met in the north by an unequivocal quit notice. With the single largest voting demography of about 18.5 million people, that the North-West can as well do without the South-East with the least voting strength of less than 9 million in any national election in Nigeria, appears to be the thinking among this set of northerners. Apparently bolstered by such a massive voting strength, the ethno-regional populism sweeping through the Muslim north of Nigeria took a dangerous turn when a senatorial candidate in the just concluded Bauchi State bye election made a campaign promise of working to amend Nigeria’s Constitution to allow Buhari the privilege of a life presidency. Clearly, Buhari’s fray into politics and eventual rise to power has birthed a far right political culture in northern Nigeria.
The liberal north, which has come to the full realisation that Buhari’s sectionalism has not benefited the region, save for tokenistic symbolisms along ethno-regional and religious lines for the personal benefit of a few family and friends, must join forces with fellow Nigerians across all divides to strive for a nation built on fairness, equity and justice.
The consequence of this ethno-regional populism in the north is the hardening of grounds by Nigerians from the other sections of the country. As the body of Christ in Nigeria has become more interested in the politics of the country, members have been heeding the clarion call of the clergy to get registered, in a bid to challenge the political contrivances of the Muslim North. While still basking in the euphoria of provincial triumphalism, conservative elements in the north have forgotten the fact that no single ethno-regional section of the country can make an individual become president. Despite the massive support for Buhari in the Muslim north, his bids for the presidency of Nigeria were three times unsuccessful. He became successful at the fourth attempt only when considerable votes from the South-West and the Christian north swung the winning votes in his favour.
A close scrutiny of the voting demographics across Nigeria’s geo-political zones will reveal the plurality of ethno-religious groupings. In nearly half a century after the civil war, the Nigerian state has witnessed increased integration and assimilation of people outside their places of origin. Therefore, it will amount to the crass arrogance of ignorance to presume the entire 18.5 million voting demographic of the North-West to be ethno-religiously homogenous. Imbedded in that large voting block are Nigerians from plural ethno-regional and religious groupings. For example Nigerians of South-East origin are known to be the most cosmopolitan group in Nigeria, usually constituting the second largest population only to the indigenous groups in any particular geographic space in the country. Therefore, it will be rather simplistic to underrate the voting strength of Nigerians of South-East origin by the official figure of less than 9 million votes recorded for them in their home region because they actually constitute a significant minority within the 18.5 million registered voters in the North-West. Similarly, Nigerians of South-East origin constitute a large part of the over 14 million, as the second largest voting block within South-West Nigeria – a progressive region that is closely aligned with the conservative north.
To stem this dangerous tide of ethno-regional populism in northern Nigeria, liberal elements within the region must come together to save the zone and its people from a path to self-immolation. To take the rest of Nigeria for granted by presenting its worst as the best to lead the Nigerian state will result into political isolation of the northern region, judging by the emerging trend of the hardening of grounds by other sections of the country. Every section of Nigeria is intricately linked with one another, culturally, economically, socially and politically and none can exist in isolation. Just as there are predominantly southern settlements of “Sabon Gari” in the north, there are equally predominantly northern settlements of “Garki” in the south. The liberal north, which has come to the full realisation that Buhari’s sectionalism has not benefited the region, save for tokenistic symbolisms along ethno-regional and religious lines for the personal benefit of a few family and friends, must join forces with fellow Nigerians across all divides to strive for a nation built on fairness, equity and justice.