Who is Dividing the North?
By Lasisi Olagunju
(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 5 September, 2022)
Speaking at a book launch in Kaduna Thursday last week, Prof Ango Abdullahi, leader of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), accused some unnamed persons of engaging in destructive campaigns to destroy the north. “I have to state here that we are witnessing some of the crudest and most unproductive campaigns to create divisions between Hausa and Fulani people, and create distances between Christians and Muslims in the north,” he said, and promised that “these contemptible attempts will fail.” He hinged his optimism of victory on what he called the campaigns’ lack of “support in history going back centuries, or in the recent past.” The north, he said, may differ in faith and ethnicity, but “history, geography and our experiences in living as Nigerians have created roots and bonds that cannot be destroyed by desperate political gambits.”
Do not dismiss Ango Abdullahi’s cries; he has his reasons. For many in the north, W.H. Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’ is their day’s opening and closing glee: There, clocks have stopped ticking; pianos are silenced, drums muffled; there is at least a mourner in every home. The public doves of the north are in black; rural terror and urban bandits have put out the stars; they have poured away the ocean, packed up the moon and dismantled the sun. Whether Muslim or Christian, farmer or herder, Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy’ tolls the knell of their toil. It is their song of dispraise. The owl has been long out unchallenged; birds of death fade the glitter of their landscape; they brown the greenery. It is ghastly, the people are tired but the end is not yet.
A silent debate is going on in Hausa/Fulani northern Nigeria. It is challenging a status quo that has dominated lives and living in that corridor for almost 220 years. Ango Abdullahi’s screech flowed from this reality; it was timely and his fears real but the etiology he ticked and the prognosis he chose are very wrong. He did not mention names but his choice of words suggests his oracle sees southern politicians holding long knives and seeking to divide the north to win the coming presidential election. The oracle is wrong. The death of the kola nut is right inside its lobes, not anywhere else. The Fulani north fed the tiger’s tail to their dog, should they now wonder why the big cat is on the prowl? The Hausa are seen in television documentaries accusing the Fulani of ruining their farming lives; the Fulani are seen boasting and accusing the Hausa of destroying their nomadic existence; the federal government of the north wines away in ethnic insouciance.
Ango Abdullahi thinks “desperate political gambits” from outside the north are behind the ethnic and religious rumblings in the north. If you are close to him, tell him to ask the marabouts of Maradi why the scales are falling from the eyes of the oppressed and why the ancestral falcon no longer listens to the call of the feudal falconer. If things are falling apart and the centre no longer holds, the discerning will lower his eyes to see the nose. William Butler Yeats’ lyrical poem, ‘The Second Coming’ may be a 1919 masterpiece, but it speaks to the 2022 realities of the poor north, the larceny of the elite and the crocodile tears of the elders. Yeats’ muse tells him that history stammers and, with every stutter, every repetition, the gyre, the spiral and the vortex widen. The northern privilege gapes at anarchy as it unfurls, stark naked; the poet sees the monster as it is “loosed upon the world.” But what is the antidote? None. The only message the prophet is given is that “some revelation is at hand.”
That ‘revelation’ is now. When the children of slaves start dancing ‘Buga’ and the feudal vassal is asking questions and demanding answers from the liege lord, then there is every reason for the men at the top to be afraid. That is what is happening between ethnic and religious groups in the north. It is the reason Ango Abdullahi spoke in Kaduna last Thursday. The central question that rankles there is: The Uthman dan Fodio Jihad of 1804 which overthrew the Hausa kings, was it driven truly by religious piety or by politics of ethnic supremacy and hegemony? There is a frantic effort to kill the question and defuse the bomb. Descendants of the displaced are talking about their paradise lost and it is not funny. They stalk the thrones; palace spies and guards also stalk them. Mallams and more Mallams are daily speaking out against rupturing the peace of their graveyard.
The discourses are in Hausa language and it is a back-and-forth thing which ends up uploaded on Facebook. Fortunately, Facebook’s translation tool works near-wonders and I use it to follow comments and the trends. Could those asking the subversive question be truly from the Muslim north or they are heathen ghosts wearing the fur skin of the faithful? Are they politicians outside the north seeking to profit from the autumn of a region at sea? From Ango Abdullahi’s charge and the videos of the Mallams that I watched, it appears that many in the conclave still live in denial of who the enemy is. The enemy is the victim – the north itself, not anyone else.
Who is dividing the north along ethnic and religious lines? The down people may lack eloquence, but they are not necessarily dumb. They nurse their peppered children and see children of the rich being pampered with pepper soup. A certain Bello Turji, Zamfara’s decorated bandit warlord, looked into a reporter’s camera and triumphantly announced that he had lost count of the number of people he had killed. The people he killed belonged to the other ethnic side and he said so with cavalier calmness. The state did not go for him; it went for the channel that made it possible for us to hear him. Then we heard that the confessed killer would be given a chieftaincy title. Everyone, including his victims said, no, it was not possible. But he was, indeed, so turbaned in broad daylight; and nothing happened except that the state government announced that he had become their partner in fighting killers.
There was a lady called Deborah Samuel who was murdered and her corpse burnt at noon in her Sokoto school compound. She was a northerner; her killers were northerners too. The murderers were not seen wearing masks; they video-recorded themselves celebrating their chilling feat. They showed no fear because they were goats of the king; they could eat any yam in any barn. And it is logical; you do not have the king and have fears. Where are the killers of that lady? They are not in jail; they are not in court; they are in freedom. Their victim is buried deep somewhere in an unmarked grave; her parents and siblings are displaced to the south. The police announced last week that they were still looking for her killers. What would the victims say other than that the north’s official flies are taking sides with their ethnic sore?
So, who is dividing the north? Those dividing the north are the religious scholars who approve murders and teach terror to the young. A 37-year-old Jigawa singer, Mukaila Ahmadu, last week used a pestle to kill his father, then his mother, because of religion. He had no regrets and he told the world so with defiance that was out of this world. The enemy is the ideology that inspired that man to run mad. The enemy is the religious school that is inspiring a million others to kill and maim.
Ango Abdullahi also spoke about history. The history I read does not support his optimism. He should go back and read the history of his north: war, subjugation, poverty. Those are the key words and they appear in every chapter.
We should be involved in preventing a bigger explosion in the Muslim north – bigger than what we’ve seen so far. The first time there was a convulsion there (1804-1808), everywhere else in most of Africa lost their peace. The Uthman dan Fodio jihad ruptured clan and family ties across swaths of land beyond what history could ever record. Historians say the ripples of the jihad “stretched 1,500 kilometers from Dori in modern Burkina Faso to southern Adamawa in Cameroon and included Nupe land, Ilorin in northern Yorubaland, and much of the Benue River valley.” They add that from the savannah to the Red Sea, the Fulani war of faith altered the course of history while “providing inspiration for a series of related holy wars in today’s Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Chad, Central African Republic and Sudan.” Yorubaland, where I come from, owes its first era of political convulsions and bitter divisions and recriminations, directly and indirectly, to that epoch. It created enemies at home and foes abroad. It constructed the alleys of slavery and slave trade for those described by Ghanaian writer, Ayi Kwei Armah, as Arab predators and European destroyers.
It produced an era when it was pure suicide for an Ijesa to be seen in front of Bashorun Ogunmola’s compound in Ibadan; it was also self-murder, that time, for an Ibadan person to be caught passing by the homestead of Sodeeke in Abeokuta. But that era is long gone in Yorubaland. It would not have gone if the leaders had done what today’s northern ostriches do, burying their heads in the sand while injustice reigns across their land.
The bandits of the north filed out mainly from one ethnic hole. They have reportedly been joined by ISWAP terrorists. Their victims are of other ethnicities. Yet, both sides have been around each other like two friendly rivers, herding and farming, for hundreds of years. And both poles are mainly Muslim and you ask why the war? This is not the first time that that question has been asked. The question came up in 1805 when dan Fodio’s jihad attacked Kanem-Bornu (present Lake Chad area) and was decisively repelled. The Muslim inhabitants of the attacked area were shocked that their supposed brothers-in-faith were killing them and destroying their lives. In series of letters written by Islamic scholar, Muhammad al-Amin ibn Muhammad al-Kanami (El-Kanemi) “to the Fulani ulama and their chiefs,” the jihadists’ religious mission and credentials were thoroughly questioned.
He accused dan Fodio of killing fellow Muslims in pursuit of land, gold and glory. The other side also replied giving reasons for their campaigns. Some historians are certain of nine of such letters: One from El-Kanemi to dan Fodio; two from dan Fodio to El-Kanemi; one from El-Kanemi to dan Fodio’s son and successor, Mohammed Bello, and five from Bello to El-Kanemi. The central issue in all the letters is why the dan Fodio people believed they were more qualified than others to define who a Muslim was, who deserved to die and who should be enslaved. I quote from El-Kanemi’s first letter to dan Fodio:
“The reason for writing this letter is that when fate brought me to this country, I found the fire which was blazing between you and the people of the land. I asked the reason, and it was given as injustice by some and religion by others. So, according to our decision in the matter, I wrote to those of your brothers who live near to us asking them the reason and instigation of their aggression, and they returned me a weak answer, not such as comes from an intelligent man, much less from a learned person, let alone a reformer. They listed the names of books, and we examined some of them, but we did not understand from them the things which they apparently understood. Then, while we were still perplexed, some of them attacked our capital, and the neighbouring Fulani came and camped near us.
So, we wrote to them a second time beseeching them in the name of God and Islam to desist from their evil doing. But they refused and attacked us. So, when our land was thus confined and we found no place even to dwell in, we rose in defence of ourselves, praying God to deliver us from the evil of their deeds, and we did what we did. Then when we found some respite, we desisted, and for the future, God is all-knowing….Tell us, therefore, why you are fighting us and enslaving our free people. If you say that you have done this to us because of our paganism, and it is far from our compound. If praying and the giving of arms, knowledge of God, fasting in Ramadan and the building of mosques is paganism, (then) what is Islam?….”