The North that southerners don’t know

north_south_nigeriaTHE general belief held by most southerners about the North is that the region is not just mainly Muslim, but wholly Muslim. Whenever I meet someone from the South and introduce myself, I am correctly placed as a Christian. But once I am asked my state and I say Borno State, the next question becomes, ‘Are you a Muslim?’

This is despite my name being a very common Biblical name, Mark, which is the second Gospel. Matter of fact, I have been asked that question while attending a church programme, with a Bible conspicuously held in my hands. You could imagine my surprise at that question. This has also been the experience of a lot of friends with common names such as ‘Emmanuel’, ‘Daniel’, etc.

To start with, out of the 19 Northern states, at least five have a majority Christian population: Plateau, Adamawa, Nassarawa, Taraba and Benue. At least six more have at least 40 per cent Christian population. These states include Niger, Gombe, Kaduna, Kogi, Kwara and either Borno or Bauchi. That then leaves only Kano, Kebbi, Katsina, Jigawa, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara as having Muslim populations above 60 per cent. How then are we all seen as Muslims?This misconception could be excused when the person has an Arabic name, as there are many Northern Christians who bear names such as Jamila, Habiba, Halima, Sadiq, and Yunusa and so on. But when the person has an obvious Christian name and is even attends church services, you really begin to wonder.

Another common perception of the North is that we are all Hausa. My usual response to this is to borrow the logical argument of Simon Kolawole, the Editor-in-Chief of THISDay Newspapers. In an article in which he attempted to educate his largely southern readership base about the North, he went thus:
“If out of the estimated 250 tribes in Nigeria, we can say that the South-West is mainly Yoruba with a few other tribes around Badagry area, the South-East wholly Igbo and the South-South being most diverse in the South with about 40 tribes, that still leaves the remaining 200 tribes in the North.”
How then are we reduced to one single ethnic group, Hausa? It is only the North-West that is close to being homogenous, mainly Hausa and Fulani, but with still some minority tribes in the Zuru area of Kebbi State and the multi-diverse Southern Kaduna. The North-East and North-Central is filled with tribes, many of whom I have never even heard of. For example, Adamawa State is so diverse that the largest ethnic group, the Fulani, is just three per cent of the entire population. In my home state of Borno, there is a local government so diverse that from one village to another, you are likely to meet an entirely different ethnic group. The number of tribes there are so many that we just address the people as ‘Gwoza people’, after the name of the local government.

Even though we all speak Hausa as a lingua franca in order to communicate amongst ourselves as trading partners over the centuries, that doesn’t make us Hausa people as much as communicating English doesn’t make you and I English people. As a matter of fact, in the North-East, Hausa people are a minority and virtually non-existent in the North-Central region.

Now, this is one belief that whenever I am confronted with, it takes me a great deal of self-control not to flip out and lose my temper.

Times without number, when I tell people I am from Borno State, I am asked how come I speak such good English. What the hell? What am I supposed to speak? Arabic? The general expectation is that someone from the North is not supposed to be this learned, this well-spoken and articulate in English, this knowledgeable. I remember when a friend asked me if my mother went to school, and the surprised look on his face when I told him that my mum earned her masters’ degree over 20 years ago. There was also a time when my dad met someone at the Lagos International Airport and they got talking. When my dad told him his profession, the man, in a fit of surprise, exclaimed, ‘I didn’t know that there were professors in the North’.

I admit the fact that the North lags behind the South educationally, especially the North-West and the North-East. But this is not due to our inability to comprehend what we are being taught, but rather due to the incompetence of leadership in the region to give education its premium importance as a form of human development. We, like every other human being on the face of this earth, can excel when given the opportunity. Talent and intellect abounds everywhere. Opportunity, however, does not. I personally know of many northerners who have excelled nationally and internationally. Daily, the story of young men like Ahmed Mukoshy, who is born, bred and schooled in Sokoto, and yet, rose above his environment to become one of the emerging forces in IT in this country in his early 20s inspires me. This is just one example among many that I could cite but for the lack of space.

I find it outright disgusting whenever people claim that if not for federal character and ‘zoning’, no northerner would be able to compete in this country. Last week, I was shocked when a friend said only 10 per cent of northerners in the Federal Civil Service deserved their places on merit, and went on to add that if he had not known me personally and I were to get a job with the Federal Government, he would believe that I did not earn it on merit.

The most ridiculous one I encountered was when earlier this year, former Minister of Finance, Dr Mansur Mukhtar was appointed a World Bank director. Most of the commentators on the 234Next article announcing this achievement for this Nigerian and Nigeria made the ludicrous assertion that the appointment was done to please the North, that Dr Mukhtar did not merit it. Little did they know that Dr Mukhtar had worked at the World Bank and the African Development Bank, prior to his heading Nigeria’s Budget Office on the invitation of the then and present Minister of Finance, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and former World Bank Managing Director, who also recommended him for the post of Finance Minister when she rejected former President Umaru Yar’adua’s invitation to join his government. What is even worse is that they did not care to know: their minds were already made up and could not be confused with the facts.

Another common belief among southerners and most especially spread by southern newspapers is that the entire 19 Northern states act and think as one when it comes to issues of Northern politics. This is one of the biggest untruths about the North. Whenever northern Nigeria is mentioned, the people of Benue, Kogi and Kwara states do not feel it refers to them. Geographically, they are part of the North; politically, however, they and the entire Middle-Belt act independently. This can be clearly in the last elections where President Goodluck Jonathan won in 7 Northern states, even against his strongest opponent, General Muhammadu Buhari, who is a northerner. This was something I am sure a lot of people in the South, save for the political savvy, did not see coming.

One common sight of this perception being entrenched by newspapers is when politicians of Northern extraction speak on national issues. I have innumerably seen a washed-out Northern politician, without any influence or popularity speak regarding an issue, and the next day, newspapers carry bold headlines saying, ‘North rejects this’ or ‘North plans to do that’, quoting the same washed-out politician as speaking for the entire North. I have rarely seen a Bola Tinubu speaking and being quoted as the mouthpiece of the entire Yoru
ba ethnic group, or a Chief Edwin Clark for the Ijaw people. Methinks this is a way of selling newspapers by capitalizing on the image of the North as one single, political force which moves in a particular direction all-together

Admittedly, as people of the same region, we share a lot in common culturally and socially in the general terms: our mannerisms, modes of dressing, traditional titles (apart from paramount rulers with the exception of emirates), etc. Despite that, the Jukun in Taraba and the Kataf in Kaduna are very different in the specifics, as even the Bura and Marghi people of Borno/Adamawa States. To pick the attitude of one ethnic group in the North and attach it to all the others, is to put it mildly, a very short-sighted way of knowing and understanding the people of Northern Nigeria.

Another belief in the South is that the entire North is but an empty landmass with nothing but trees.I remember the controversy of the 2006 census when Kano State was said to have a slightly higher population than Lagos State. Many of my southern friends called it ‘an impossibility’. In the words of one of them, ‘Lagos is so populated that when you throw grains of rice into the air, they wouldn’t land on the ground, but on people’. However, they all forgot to factor in land mass, because Lagos State is a much smaller state than Kano State, and hence has the highest population density in Nigeria, hence making it look as though it was way more populated.

Amaza, a public affairs commentator, lives in Kaduna.

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