This provincial triumphalism will degenerate into ethno-regional populism as soon as the other sections of the country cried out as the most marginalised.
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 northern Nigeria when he championed its 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 wrest 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 would 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 geopolitical zone with the highest voting demographic, Buhari managed to garner the majority votes in this politically important part of Nigeria in three of four attempts at being elected President, polling an average of 12 million votes. The only time his hold on northern Nigeria’s 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 seven million votes against Yar’Adua’s 24 million and Atiku’s 2.6 million votes.
Buhari’s consistency and lack of compromise with then ruling party, PDP, in any form of power sharing arrangement, greatly enhanced his integrity quotient, which helped to sustain his political capital in the North. His reputation for abhorring indiscipline and corruption also endeared him to many Nigerians across all divides, who reached a consensus that the twin evils were the problem with Nigeria.
With a poor record in performance and widespread maladministration, in 2015, the PDP would eventually capitulate to a coalition of powerful opposition forces, with Buhari as the arrowhead, after 16 years of unbroken rule at the centre.
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 now adorns the provincial robe of sectionalism. In a clear departure from the campaign promises of equity, fairness and justice within a pan-Nigerian framework that defined the aspirations of the broad coalition of opposition forces upon which he rode to power, Buhari has unleashed unprecedented sectionalism. By elevating sectionalism to a near state policy in his appointments and programmes in favour of his northern section of the country, Buhari appears to have returned to his original agenda of seeking the presidency in 2003; 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 establish- ment appear to relish Buhari’s sectionalism with a high measure of provincial triumphalism. For these people, so long as the levers of power, from the inner recesses of the Presidency to the top echelon of the security establishment and topmost political positions, are dominated by Nigerians of northern origin, all is well.
This provincial triumphalism will degenerate into ethno-regional populism as soon as the other sections of the country, particularly the South-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 percent and 5 percent” of votes obtained as a prerequisite for patronage and inclusion in his government. That 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 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 separatist 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 voters, the North-West can as well do without the South-East, with the least voting strength of less than nine million in any national election in Nigeria, appears to be the thinking among this set of people. Apparently bolstered by this 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 by- election made a campaign promise of working to amend Nigeria’s Constitution to allow Buhari the privilege of a life presidency. Clearly, Buhari’s foray into politics and eventual rise to power has birthed a far-right political culture in northern Nigeria.
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 Nigeria, members have been heeding the clarion by the clergy to get registered in a bid to challenge the political invincibility 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 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 a heterogeneous plurality of ethno-religious groupings. In nearly half a century after the civil war, the Nigerians have witnessed increased integration and assimilation outside their places of origin. Therefore, it will amount to crass arrogance of ignorance to presume the entire 18.5 million voting demographic of the North-West to be ethno-religiously homogeneous. Embedded 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 a particular geographic space. Therefore, it will be rather simplistic to underrate the voting strength of Nigerians of South- East origin by the official figure of less than nine million recorded in their home region, because they actually constitute a significant minority in 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 second largest voting block of 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 region 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 in political isolation of the northern region judging by the emerging trend of hardening of grounds by other sections of the country.
Every section of Nigeria is intricately linked with the others, 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 symbolism of ethno-regional and religious domination for the personal benefit of a few family and friends, must join forces with fellow Nigerians across all divides to foster a nation built on fairness, equity and justice.