The late Sir Ahmadu Bello, defunct Northern Nigeria’s first Premier, gets an undeservedly bad rap from the South for being the patron saint of the sort of exclusionary, reactionary regional chauvinism that political leaders of the North have been accused of. But he wasn’t nearly the monster of retrograde ethnic particularism he has been presented to be in the South, and he would definitely be ashamed of Buhari’s insensitive, in-your-face, knee-jerk “northern” sub-nationalism.
Of course, as a leader of the North, which was engaged in a battle of regional supremacy with the South, Ahmadu Bello was naturally protective of his region—as other regional premiers were. But he was the premier of a less homogeneous and infinitely more labyrinthine region than the West or the East. This fact heightened his sensitivity to diversity and to the merit of fair, if symbolic, representation of this diversity in employment and positional hierarchies in the Northern Nigerian regional civil service.
During a June 2000 interview, Chief Joseph Aderibigbe, who was provincial secretary of Sokoto and Kano provinces during the First Republic, told me a story about how he became the Provincial Secretary of Sokoto Province that, I think, strikes at the core of Ahmadu Bello’s foresighted northern Nigerian ecumenicalism.
Aderibigbe was a Yoruba man from what is now Kwara State. His hometown, Erin-Ile, is on the border between Kwara State and Osun State, and he was socialized in the West, having attended the University of Ibadan before being recruited into the Northern Nigerian Civil Service. He said one day the Premier asked for him because he had never paid a personal visit to the Premier’s office as others did.
While at the Premier’s office, he met everyone seated on the carpet. He couldn’t bring himself to do that, so he stood. He said Ahmadu Bello really wanted to earn his trust, so he invited him to come eat with him. He said the premier kept pushing juicy pieces of meat to him until he ate more meat than he had intended to. So the Premier cracked a joke along the lines of, “Look at this Yoruba man who didn’t want to sit on the floor. Now, he has finished all my meat! I am not sure he sees this much meat at his village.”
Everyone laughed at Aderibigbe’s expense, and he was enraged. In anger, he said, he told the Premier that it was because his people didn’t spend their money on meat that they could afford to send him and his kind to school to man the northern Nigerian civil service. There was dead, impenetrable silence everywhere. He thought he would lose his job, and he was fine with it.
A week after he got ready to return to Lagos, Ahmadu Bello invited him again. Instead of a sack letter, the Premier told him he had been posted to Sokoto as the Provincial Secretary, which is the equivalent of a governor now. (Sokoto Province is now present-day Sokoto, Zamfara, Kebbi and Niger states). Ahmadu Bello said to Aderibigbe, “I want you to go teach my people how to spend their money on education, not meat.”
This anecdote is a prototypic instantiation of Ahmadu Bello’s bridge-building efforts across Northern Nigeria’s many fissures. He wasn’t perfect. He was, for instance, accused of wanting to universalize his cultural and religious particularities to the whole region, which ignited forceful resistance among northern Christians. Nevertheless, the one thing no careful student of Ahmadu Bello would deny is that he was evolving and showed profound sensitivity to inclusivity, even if it was only token. He didn’t live long enough to realize the ideals he set out, but he did leave a template that anyone who leads an intricate, multi-ethnic and multi-religious polity can tweak and adopt.
He identified the multiplicity of ethnic groups in northern Nigeria, physically visited most of their places of origin, and sought to give them a sense of belonging in the region. This template can be extended as an instrument for nation building. A real, Ahmadu Bello-type northerner, which Buhari is not, would regard Yoruba people from Kwara and Kogi states as his or her “regional kin.” Well, if you can do that, you might as well extend that “kinship” to other Yoruba people in the Southwest in the interest of nation building.
If you accept Ebira people in Kogi as your regional kin, you might as well extend it to the Igara in Edo State whose language is mutually intelligible with Ebira. If you regard the Idoma of Benue as your regional kin, why not do the same to the Yala in Cross River who are linguistically and culturally similar to the Idoma? If you regard the Igala in Kogi as your regional kin, you might as well like the ethnic kin of the Igala known as the Ebu in Oshimili North LGA of Delta State or the Ilushi in Edo State, who are linguistically and culturally indistinguishable from the Igala.
If your benign northern sub-nationalism causes you to accept Iyiorcha Ayu as your brother because he is Tiv from Benue, why would you not accept his own brothers and sisters in Obanliku in Cross River State who are also, for all practical purposes, linguistically and culturally Tivs?
In fact, we are only now getting to know that there are Igbo people in Ado, Oju, Obi and Okpoku local government areas of Benue State who are native to the state. Had Ahmadu Bello lived long enough to know this, he would definitely have drawn them close to him. In other words, being a genuinely benign northern sub-nationalist draws you close to being a pan-Nigerian nationalist.
That is why the embarrassingly undisguised Arewacentricity of Buhari’s appointments in the last three and a half years—and counting—is such a betrayal of Ahmadu Bello’s template for inter-ethnic relations. Ahmadu Bello was supposed to be Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, but he instead passed the honor to the late Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa because he knew he hadn’t yet evolved to the point where he could regard the whole of Nigeria as his constituency. He was still learning to come to terms with Northern Nigeria’s complexity.
Buhari’s Arewacentricity is not even reflective of the complexity of the North. The only visible appointment he gave to Northern Christians, for instance, is the position of Secretary to the Government of the Federation. Everything else is dominated by Northern Muslims. Going by the precepts Ahmadu Bello idealized, Buhari has neither the temperament nor the moral qualifications to even be a northern Nigerian leader, let alone a Nigerian ruler.
In late 2015 when I started to call out Buhari’s skewed appointments in favor of the Muslim North, many people, mostly southerners, asked why I was bothered since I’m a northern Muslim who is “favored” by such appointments—“favored,” that is, on the emotional and symbolic plane. Well, I did and still do so out of embarrassment. It’s the sort of embarrassment you feel when your best friend visits you in your home and, during a family dinner, your mother gives you a considerably bigger food portion size and choicer pieces of meat than your friend.
Buhari’s self-defense for his provincial appointments is that he needs to appoint only people he can trust. Well, if after working for more than two decades in the Nigerian military, by far Nigeria’s most cosmopolitan institution, he can’t trust anyone outside his cultural, regional, and religious comfort zone, HE IS the problem, not the people he distrusts.