ENGAGEMENTS BY Chidi Amuta
Politicians on a nationwide campaign for the top job in the land are condemned to a life of compulsive nomadism. They are perpetually on the go, sometimes armed with a compass they alone can read or no compass at all. Mapping their itinerary can be quite an arduous task. Worse still, matching the marketing routes of key political candidates in a large and diverse country like Nigeria can be a disarming and troublesome undertaking.
Perhaps the best way to mediate between a key politician and his choice of where to go hunting for votes is to match the route of his wandering with whatever his core message is. A serious politician is mostly an itinerant salesman who must go first to the places where his essential message resonates and can also garner the most votes. In a fatally injured polity such as today’s Nigeria, the imperative is for leading politicians to go to those places where most voters reside and where the nation bleeds the most. Therefore, political campaign travels tend to be transactional road shows: politicians go promising to fix everybody’s leaking roof in return for votes.
Of the major contestants for the presidential podium in this campaign season, Mr. Peter Obi has shown an unusual depth of independent knowledge of “the trouble with Nigeria.” Like the rest of his colleagues, he has made speeches on the insecurity, poverty, criminal corruption, and recklessness in public finance management as well as the disunity and factionalism in the land. Over and above the rest, however, he has analytically dissected and linked these problems while demonstrating an impatient desire to go at Nigeria’s problems head-on from day one in office. His difference from the rest is in the articulation of a clear social democratic vision. Going for him is his background of impeccable discipline, service delivery and moral astuteness.
This implies a concerted subversion of the present endangered social order, wobbly state and alienated politics. His is a vision of a new Nigeria that neither fellow politicians nor the enlightened public has yet faulted. Of course, the other top contenders have their own vision of Nigeria under them. We cannot call it a name yet nor has any of them had the courage of calling their destination a ‘new’ Nigeria! Only Mr. Obi has had the temerity to name his destination. It is a political risk because it threatens the existing behemoth and its supporting infrastructure of special interests and hegemonic warlords.
But curiously, Mr. Obi’s campaign itinerary has not quite featured so much of the core north. He has concentrated instead on the south with occasional forays into the north-central zone. Yet the avalanche of depressing statistics that Mr. Obi constantly uses to enliven his campaign presentations are abundantly domiciled in the north. From all estimates, the north has become an embodiment of the Nigeria challenge at the present moment.
Irrespective of our political leanings and preferences, no matter where else in Nigeria we live and call home and no matter what deities we worship and which direction we face when we pray, a common reality stares us all in the face. The development challenges and virtual carnage in the northern half of Nigeria concern us all. It is in fact the most pressing urgency of our national existence today. And I doubt that we can anticipate any sensible political outcome in next month’s election without thinking deeply about where the outcome will place the north. In a certain curious sense, therefore, we are all northerners now on the basis of the national consequences of the many troubles we face in the north.
Nowhere else is the new order of Obi’s message crying so loudly for its urgent realization than in what I choose to call the nation’s “Northern Hemisphere”. Obi wants to change Nigeria fundamentally by tackling the challenges that bedevil us. But he has not quite paid sufficient attention to the core north in his campaign road show so far.
In the last eight years of Nigeria under Mr. Buhari’s APC government, the situation in the north has degenerated to a desperate level. Of the nation’s population of 130 million multidimensionally poor people, 65% are in the north. Of the 20 million out-of-school kids in Nigeria, nearly 18 million are in the northern states. Since the abduction of the 175 Chibok schoolgirls, another 1,500 schoolkids in the north have been abducted and trucked away from their schools into slavery in all forms. A total of 11,336 primary and secondary schools all in the north have been closed because of the menace of terrorist abductors and kidnappers. Over 40,000 lives have been lost to terrorist insurgency mostly in the north in the last decade. Of the estimated N680 million that has been paid as ransom to kidnappers, more than 60% was spent in the north, a region whose economic situation continues to tank by the day. Unemployment of youth prevails while foreign contractors and miners are perennial targets of kidnapping and senseless murder.
A proliferation of small to medium military-grade weapons ranging from AK- 47s, assorted machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and their launchers has rendered the region and the rest of the country a virtual playground for nonstate violent actors. Instead of learning plumbing, auto mechanics and other artisanal trades, healthy youth have been taught the rudiments of the fabrication of IEDs. Some of the northern states have graduated into net ‘exporters’ of armed dangerous herdsmen and other unknown gunmen to other states of the nation.
Of the 19 states in the region, about half are virtual diarchies in which armed bandit warlords have been blackmailed into power-sharing arrangements with democratically elected governors, sharing authority and sovereign control in murky exchanges of troves of cash.
These challenges coincide with the objects of Mr. Obi’s national retrieval message. But he has not quite yet articulated a comprehensive vision for the recovery of the north. Yet, this is where the bulk of our national wealth is trapped. All that vast arable land, the numerous solid mineral fields, the vast human resources waiting to be empowered with skills and knowledge etc. Mr. Obi has admittedly spoken briefly about combining Koranic education with skills and entrepreneurship training. He has also expressed a commitment to better security all over the country, better education, an agrarian revolution, and general improvements in health care. None of these indicates deep enough reflection or a comprehensive project of modernization on the scale of what has taken place in parts of the new Middle East. The Obi campaign workgroup needs to school itself on the instruments of the raging contemporary modernization in the Islamic and Arab world.
Measured against its demographic size and its share of our current national problems, the north has not received the level of attention it deserves from the Labour Party in terms of campaign visits. Regrettably, therefore, in spite of his growing national and international presence and gravitas, Mr. Obi remains a distant and vague presence in the imagination of the average core northerner. This should not be so.
The Obi message of economic and socio-political emancipation in a new Nigerian order where the people become the custodians of state power is a message our people in the core north need to hear. It is not an ethnic message nor a religious one. It is not a geo-political message either. People in the north do not want to hear the message of Nigeria’s recovery from the Buhari holocaust through hearsay or through surrogate messengers.
The tumultuous crowds of Sokoto, Katsina, Kano, Maiduguri are waiting to get a first-hand feel of Peter Obi’s personal magnetism. The noise of his political difference needs to be relayed firsthand. When he embarks on this long-awaited campaign tour, his pop star charisma should be complemented by a clear message delivered to local audiences preferably through Datti-Ahmed, his very brilliant and cosmopolitan deputy. When that hour comes, people who attend those rallies will go home not with empty promises, paltry cash, branded little bags of rice, and boxes of Indonesian noodles. There will be a hope that perhaps after these elections, their lives will return to normal in the place of peace and calm they used to know.
On the contrary, both Mr. Bola Tinubu of the APC and Atiku Abubakar of the PDP have made copious visits to the north. Arguably, these other candidates are on home ground campaigning in the north because they find it a convenient catchment area on account of their faith. There is nothing in that landscape that Mr. Peter Obi should be afraid of. Wherever he goes, he is on Nigerian soil with a patriotic message and mission. The prevalent mood of the region or even the entire nation is not one dictated by faith alone. It is a time of intense collective self-assessment of their experience in the hands of leaders who spoke this familiar language of politics as usual in the past.
In response to the politics of ‘turn by turn,’ the people of the north are now openly questioning the last eight years under the Buhari presidency. After all, it has been eight years under a fellow northerner; eight years under a Muslim leader and eight years under a former army general. The people of the north are asking why their lot should be the litany of woes that now characterize their daily lives.
In this nightmare, they have lost their farms to bandits, their livestock to sundry rustlers, their wives and daughters to armed rapists and bandits. They have lost the freedom to live their simple lives in peace because fear has become their most common daily experience. The kids they sent to school cannot come back except with knowledge of captivity as hostages in the hands of armed strangers sometimes speaking in strange tongues. A whole generation of young innocent Nigerians will grow up with lifelong trauma and psychological stress disorder. Even traditional rulers have been kidnapped for ransom. There is now a consensus throughout the region that their lives need to either be restored to the normalcy they knew before Buhari or improved in a new order.
Irrespective of the outcome of next month’s presidential election, Mr. Peter Obi has earned the singular right to be taken seriously in the current campaign season. To that extent, his message and stated mission have become national assets which need to be shared by all Nigerians. He must not however run the risk of allowing his message to be quarantined away from any part of the nation. We all are entitled to the dividends of Peter Obi disruptive politics. In order to change our reality for the better, we must look the Nigerian monster in the face wrestle it to the ground and surmount it for a better future. The north is an auspicious battleground for our collective national salvation and renewal.