The North Shall Be Free – By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo

“The North must step down from behind the plate-glass windows through which it surveys disdainfully the antics of its plebeian neighbor, tuck up its long sleeves and join in the melee.” Sir Bernard Bourdillon, British Governor of Nigeria, 1935-1943.

The North has been carrying an unbearable urge since the amalgamation of the British Northern and Southern protectorates in 1914. The North needs to relief itself of that century old urge.

Any ardent observer of Nigeria who has been watching the truckload of Kama-filled events unfold in Northern Nigeria and is still waiting for an epiphany is clinically and metaphorically blind. And if care is not taken, such observer will be swept away by the boiling storm.

Having said that, one way or the other, the North shall be free.

I make the above statement knowing fully well that Alexander Dumas warned that all generalizations are wrong. I am quite aware that the North is an ambiguous term representing an arbitrary region in Nigeria that is far from being homogenous.

(Delving into a commentary on a region that one has little knowledge of comes with numerous landmines. When not exposing the writer’s ignorance, the writer runs the risk of generalizing, condescending and confusing issues. But that has never stopped a commentator. The primary purpose of commentary is to keep the discussion going.)

For so long, the North had thrown others to the crocodile. It had been a fine and dandy policy. But those who throw others to the crocodile ultimately get eaten by the beast. It can happen when the beast gets mad and goes after anyone for food, including its caretakers. It can also happen when there are not enough of the ‘other’ people to be thrown at the beast.

Looking at the socio-political situation in the North, it may look as if the North needs to be saved from itself. The opposite is the case. I believe that external intervention in the North has done more harm than good. The North should be allowed to take care of itself and to deal with its own demons.

I will try to explain. The greatest obstacle to the North examining itself is the feeling that it is under attack by the South. It gives the failed leaders of the North something to blame for their failure. And those in the North who are inclined to take care of retrogressive forces in the North are fearful of being counted amongst the enemies of the North.

Of course, it must be pointed out that, in real terms, the South is no better than the North. It is not freer. It is not managed better. But unlike the North, the people of the South have for many years blamed the Federal Government for using its concentrated power to groom and pump the monsters that consume the South. In their response, the people of the South have been involved in a melee over this.

The North, at least until recently, is the Federal Government. When politicians in the North say the North can survive without the South or that the North is not afraid of leaving the country, they know what they are talking about. The North is the only region of Nigeria that can declare itself an independent nation and no army will rise up in opposition. That says a lot about the country Nigeria and the place of the North in it.

Nobody can dehumanize you without your blessing. I wish there is a way to stop the South from demeaning the North. I wish there is a way to make the North feel it is not under attack from the South. If that could happen, the North will reform itself. But as long as the North feels under attack, opinion leaders in the North will default to that defensive mode which confuses the populace on where their real anger should be aimed at.

I must pause to say that every distinct group in Nigeria is stereotyped. But no group is stereotyped as much as the North. “Stereotypes are not necessarily malicious,” Chinua Achebe wrote. “They may be well meaning and even friendly. But in every case, they show a carelessness or laziness or indifference of attitude that implies that the object of your categorization is not worth the trouble of individual assessment.”

There are people in the North who do not believe any word of the Northern stereotypes. They do not believe that the region where they were born is destined to accelerate back into the stone ages. These people do not think the North is down and out. They are itching to find a space to stand and pursue their dreams of a life that is better, richer and rounder than those of their fathers. These people have the brains and the determination to go as high as their talents will take them despite the material impediments on their way. The imagination of these people does not perish because the arena is occupied by irrational warriors.

Maybe left on its own, the North will fight a civil war. Maybe the civil war has already started. But nothing is as clear to me as the fact that Northern revolt against its own brand of failed leaders has started. The panic in the voices of these leaders tells me that they are totally aware of fire coming to their doorways. The inordinate manner in which the so-called leaders obfuscate issues exposes their desperation.

Like it happened during the fight for independence, the North delayed Nigeria’s independence because the North was not ready. The North will be ready when the North will be ready. The question is what will the rest of the country be doing while the North transforms itself? As we noticed during the pre-independence negotiation, nobody goes anywhere until the North is ready.

It must be noted that the crisis in the North is not contained just to the North. It has impact on the livelihood of hundreds of thousands who are not from the North. And each day that it continues, there is a real danger that it will spread to the South.

The fate of the North is in the hands of the North. It is imperative for the change agents in the North to avoid the temptation of buying into the self-fulfilling prophesy of doom being marketed everywhere in Nigeria. There are great human possibilities in the North. But those possibilities will never make it to the surface if the monsters in the arena are not destroyed by the people of the North.

The North must stop believing its own propaganda of Northern exceptionalism. It cannot swallow the current hiccup even if it wants. And it must not resort to taking the easiest path out of today’s crisis. Like Sir Bernard Bourdillon said many decades ago, the North “must tuck up its long sleeves and join in the melee.”

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