For the nation’s sake, and its own, the north should do well by making education free and compulsory, writes Ike Okonta

Last week, students of the Shehu Shagari College of Education, Sokoto, laid their hands on one of their own, Deborah Samuel, and mobbed her to death. They alleged that Deborah had blasphemed against Islam, and instantly became prosecutor, judge and jury all at the same time. The next day, following the arrest and detention of two of the perpetrators of this heinous crime, the students took to the streets of Sokoto, assaulting Christians and vandalizing churches. The governor of the state had to impose a 24-hour curfew to prevent further breakdown of law and order.

As usual, condemnation of the students’ act came thick and fast. True, the Sokoto students richly deserve blame. After all they are being trained to become teachers and discerning citizens who will be charged with the critical task of educating our children. However, these students did not just wake up one morning and turn into a mob, baying for blood. There is an enabling environment that nurtured them. There are enablers that aided and abetted their action. And the enablers, I argue, is the ruling elite that has been in charge of the northern part of Nigeria since 1960.

This northern elite played their first role on the Nigeria-wide political canvass in July 1966. Young army majors had struck earlier in January, putting an end to the feckless government of Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Balewa, northern Premier Ahmadu Bello and several senior northern army officers had been killed. As it turned out, the majority of the perpetrators of the January 1966 coup were Igbo. Igbo politicians like Nnamdi Azikiwe and Michael Okpara had been spared. Even though the intention of the coup makers was to hand power over to Obafemi Awolowo, a Yoruba, northern politicians and army officers read an ethnic motive into the January 1966 coup and launched a revenge coup six months later, killing many Igbo military officers along the way.

It was during this period that the strategy of using the poor and uneducated northern masses as a battering ram against ‘southern’ interests was stitched together. The Northern Peoples Congress, led by Ahmadu Bello, had ignored this impoverished mass. Ahmadu Bello’s undeclared policy was to educate only the children of emirs and district heads and leave the ordinary people to wallow in poverty and ignorance. It was only Malam Aminu Kano, leader of the Northern Elements Progressive Union, who railed against Ahmadu Bello’s policies and insisted that the northern poor deserved a good and dignified life just as the privileged. The combination of the British colonialists and Ahmadu Bello’s Northern Peoples Congress hounded Aminu Kano’s followers in the 1950s and 1960s and ensured that they were kept out of power.

Nigeria has had several military heads of state and civilian Presidents of northern origin since Ahmadu Bello. It is an obvious fact that there is a wide gap in educational attainment between the northern and southern parts of the country. You would have thought that the major preoccupation of northern leaders, once they assumed office, would be to narrow the gap by making education free and compulsory in the north. By taking this step, the northern poor in their millions would have been freed from endemic poverty and ignorance. But no northern leader, including President Muhammadu Buhari, has seen fit to take this step, even as they take care to send their children and other dependents abroad for education.

The reason for this inaction is that the north’s ruling elite wants to continue to maintain the economic and social hierarchy in the north, wherein the emirs and their relatives, senior civil servants, military officers, politicians and businessmen continue to enjoy a life of ease and splendor while the northern poor are trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty, disease and ignorance. The poor are held in mental captivity by the elites’ repeated nostrums of a ‘southern’ threat and that they should do what their political leaders tell them or else their way of life would be overwhelmed by Christians ‘down there in the south.’ This poor mass is only activated during elections when their elites tell them who to vote for.

But the cozy arrangement between the northern elite and the impoverished masses is now breaking down. The real reason for the spate of banditry, kidnapping, and Islamic insurgency that have overwhelmed the northwest and northeast is that the northern poor are now revolting against their socioeconomic condition. They are tired of being told that their elite are protecting them against the ‘south’ while in reality their objective condition is misery and want. The northern elite has responded with the combined strategy of silence and inaction. This is so because deep down in their hearts they know the real causes of the present northern malaise, but the obvious solution – compulsory and free education for the northern masses and economic and social programmes that will pull the latter out of poverty – is one they do not intend to implement.

The northern crisis is deep and long-running. Mathew Hassan Kukah, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese has been following in the footstep of Aminu Kano and calling out the north’s ruling elite. Kukah is a northerner and knows, as the saying goes, where all the bodies are buried. The northern elite has responded to Kukah by orchestrating attacks on him in the media. But Kukah Is unrelenting. And he deserves praise for this steadfastness. He should also be supported. Voices all over the country should further amplify what Bishop Kukah is saying and demand that the north educate its teeming poor and stop the practice of using them as inert cannon fodder.

The northern crisis is a Nigerian crisis. The billions of Naira currently being poured into containing Boko Haram in the northeast and combating bandits in the northwest could have been used in launching massive health and education programmes nationwide. What harms the north invariably harms the rest of the country. It is therefore imperative that all Nigerians speak out against the present failed politics of the northern elite.

Dr Okonta was until recently Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Politics, University of Oxford. He presently lives in Abuja.

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