For a long time now, the interaction between the North and the South in Nigeria has been one void of empathy and mutual understanding.
In October 2020, Lagos youths took to the streets in protest against police brutality with a simple demand: the dissolution of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). For years, the SARS unit has perpetuated harm against the average Nigerian youth. As a result, the protests quickly gained traction across social media, southern Nigeria, and spread to many parts of the world. In northern Nigeria however, the protests did not seem to gain as much traction with only three northern states—Kano, Kaduna, and Plateau—taking part in the protests.
On 10 October, the Arewa Youth Consultative Council, a group aimed at unifying the people of northern Nigeria (colloquially referred to as Arewa), wrote an open letter to President Buhari affirming their support for SARS. In the letter, the council labelled the demand for the dissolution of SARS as unpatriotic, reckless, and callous. They stated that SARS had been instrumental in tackling insecurity in the North and, instead, called for a structural reform of SARS. Shortly after, in other northern states like Borno, Jigawa, and Zamfara, ProSARS protests began to spring up and northern youths took to the street to express their support for the rogue police unit. On 15 October, 19 northern governors gathered for an emergency meeting and spoke against the #EndSARS protests happening in the South. They expressed that SARS had been an immense help in curbing insecurity in northern Nigeria and dissolving SARS would offer insurgents in the North more leeway to wreak havoc in the region.
This response was met with distrust from the South; many believed that the North sought to protect their collective interest and not the collective interest of the nation. The #EndSARS protests, although they began because of the brutality of the police unit, had morphed into a demand for better governance. While there were factions in the North that expressed their support for the #EndSARS protests, given the contextual factors surrounding the protests and a history of regional differences between the North and the South, many believed that the lack of support for the #EndSARS protests was driven by anti-South sentiments.
A hashtag, #SecureNorth, surfaced on social media days after the inception of the #EndSARS protests and was a call for the incessant plague of insecurity in the northern region to be addressed. For decades, the North has dealt with insecurity caused by the Boko Haram terrorist group, banditry, and ethnoreligious conflicts. While these issues are salient in the North, the timing of the #SecureNorth protest was suspicious as many believed it did not spring from a genuine intention to draw attention to the insecurity in the North but, instead, was a political tool to distract from the ongoing #EndSARS protests. On the other hand, many northerners believed that the #EndSARS protests intended to undercut President Buhari’s leadership and to install southern leadership. In the end, #SecureNorth failed to distract from the #EndSARS protests and, instead, highlighted the increasing divide between the two regions.
HISTORY OF DIFFERENCES AND DISAGREEMENTS
Multiple ethnic and regional identities have been notable in Nigeria’s political landscape since before independence. Nigeria as a country, like most multicultural societies, has experienced divisions and crises triggered by these varying identities. In Identity Transformation and Identity Politics under Structural Adjustment in Nigeria, Attahiru Jega writes:
Identities have historically been significant in the Nigerian political process, under colonial rule as well as in the post-colonial dispensation. Under colonialism, administrative exigencies warranted “the invention of traditions”, and the nurturing and exacerbation of an “us” versus “them” syndrome: Muslim versus Christian; Northerner versus Southerner; Hausa-Fulani versus Yoruba versus Igbo, and so on.
The North and the South were distinct geographical and cultural entities before the amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914. With its reverence for Islamic laws, the North appeared largely conservative, while the South had an array of identities. In Oil, Politics, and Violence, Max Siollun explained that Yorubas were viewed by the British as ‘proud and culturally rich’ while Igbos from the South were described as ‘energetic and vibrant’. The British colonizers restricted the flux of missionaries to the northern part of the country as an attempt at gaining the cooperation of the northern leaders, and with that, they limited the numbers of mission schools erected in the region. Compared to the South, this made the North lag behind in its adoption of Western education and set in place the beginning of a legacy of mistrust and fear between the North and the South.
In 1953, political parties, the Action Group and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC)—both of Southern origins—led a motion for Nigeria to be an independent nation by 1956. Northern leaders, fearful of domination by the more Western-educated South, objected on the grounds of impracticability. A few months later, the southern political parties attempted to hold anti-colonial and pro-independence rallies in Kano state. The rally was forestalled by the Kano Native Authority, who withdrew their consent. This resulted in a riot that lasted for four days and led to the death of 36 people, with over 200 injured. The result of this was the further deepening of the rift between the North and South. The killing of the Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello, and Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa during the 1966 coup as well as the installation of the southern Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi as head of state confirmed the North’s fear of the South’s desire to dominate. Kirk Greene in 1975 wrote, ‘Fear has been constant in every tension and confrontation in political Nigeria. Not the physical fear of violence, not the spiritual fear of retribution, but the psychological fear of discrimination, of domination.’ The EndSARS vs ProSARS divide is reminiscent of the regional tension that occurred during Nigeria’s fight for independence with one side leading the battle for and the other side leading the battle against it.
EACH REGION TO ITS OWN PROBLEMS
During the #EndSARS protests, parties from northern Nigeria justified the North’s isolation from the protests by making reference to the detachment of the South from the problems of the North. According to them, the North had no reason to join the protests because the region had its own problems to deal with. This response opened a conversation about unaffected regions being isolated from the problems of other regions in Nigeria.
In his essay, ‘Perplexed … Perplexed’, Teju Cole wrote about the brutal killing of four students in Port Harcourt in 2012 and the long and loud online outrage that followed it. He juxtaposed this with the killings of no fewer than 26 students in Federal Polytechnic Mubi, which had occurred four days earlier in Adamawa State, and the lesser outrage that followed it. Cole explained, ‘conflict in northern Nigeria frightens many privileged Nigerians in the South but rarely touches them directly.’ According to Cole, this lack of identification creates a form of psychological distance between people in the South and people in the North.
For a long time now, the interaction between the North and the South has been one void of empathy and mutual understanding. To be able to speak up for the other, one needs to be able to identify with the other party and to be able to step outside the borders of one’s self and space, and through the borders of the other. Asides the physical distance between the North and the South, there is also the psychological distance resulting from the large cultural differences between the regions. Stereotypes have coloured the interaction between the North and the South, with the South perceiving the North as largely illiterate and backward and the North perceiving the South as degenerate. And these stereotypes have been feeding into each other and further compounding the tensions between the North and the South.
THE NIGERIAN IDENTITY: DOES IT EXIST?
‘There has indeed been a long epoch of regional histories of the various peoples in the territory now known as Nigeria and a much shorter history of the Nigerian Nation.’ — Jibrin Ibrahim, The Transformation of Ethno-Regional Identities in Nigeria.
This sentiment is echoed in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s character, Odenigbo, from her novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, in which he says he is first an Igbo man before he is a Nigerian man. Regional and ethnic identities may well have existed hundreds of years before the creation of the Nigerian state and the Nigerian identity. For many Nigerians, ethnic and regional identities take pre-eminence over national identity and such people’s actions are mostly geared at preserving these identities. Nigeria as a nation was not founded on unity or the collective interests of its different regions but was, instead, a capitalist experiment by British colonizers.
Despite the nationalist demands that led to our independence from Britain, belief in the Nigerian identity was absent even then, and this absence was reflected in comments made by leaders like Ahmadu Bello who called the amalgamation of Nigeria ‘the mistake of 1914’ and Obafemi Awolowo who said that ‘there are no “Nigerians” in the same sense as there are English or Welsh or French. The word “Nigeria” is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria from those who do not’.
The persistent divide between the North and the South (and amongst sub-regions in the North and South) has revealed our failure to forge a collective Nigerian identity and, more importantly, a failure of leadership. The borders of differences are continually widening, which has resulted in increased regional and ethnic clashes in the past few months. We are experiencing a near erosion of national identity and an intensification of ethnic and regional identity due to the government’s indifference and lack of commitment to the welfare of the average Nigerian.
One of the most revolutionary things about the #EndSARS protests was that the protests were spurred by a singular consciousness, one that was motivated from being a young person in a difficult country. This went beyond the borders of ethnic and religious identities but soon the protests also became corrupted by the sentiments of our differences. What could have been a uniting moment for the nation was soon weighed down by the baggage of the past.
It, thus, needs asking: What then is the way out? Will there ever be a revolution devoid of sentiments of differences or are these differences something we will continue to grapple with for generations to come?⎈
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