Over the weekend, it was reported that some rioters torched a police station in Kusada, Katsina State, leading to the death of one person, because of the arrest of an Islamic cleric who held public prayers on Friday in breach of the Federal Government’s ban on gathering of crowds as a measure to stem the spread of COVID-19 pandemic.
Putting what happened in Katsina in context, it was not strange. Nigeria has three key problems that have bogged it down for decades: religion, ethnicity, and politics. The absence of a structure that puts these issues into cognisance and finds a solution to accommodate them in a positive way has ensured that Nigeria has stagnated or even regressed.
In summary, one can say that religion drives the North; politics drives the West, while ethnicity drives the East. By the East, one means the Old Eastern Region and the old Mid-Western Region.
The only part of Nigeria where the arrest of a religious leader for disobeying a Federal Government directive can lead to the burning of a police station is the North. And in the North, it will mainly be in the North-East, North-West and a small part of the North-Central. In Northern Nigeria, you dare not toy with Islam in whatever form. The passion for Islam is even higher than what obtains in Saudi Arabia where Islam has its headquarters.
In the North, political differences may hardly cause any quarrels. That is why in the Second Republic, Mallam Aminu Kano, with his People’s Redemption Party, controlled Kano State, the biggest state in the region (which then had Katsina as part of it), at a time Alhaji Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria was the President of Nigeria. At the same time, the Great Nigeria People’s Party, led by Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim, was in control of the old Borno State (which includes the current Yobe State). That did not create any problem or riot in the North.
Last month, the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, was deposed and banished by the Government of Kano State. Some feared that it could cause a riot in the Kano and other Northern states, but nothing happened. The reality is that such a thing does not have the capacity to ignite a riot in the North.
If the Oba of Benin or the Obi of Onitsha had been deposed and banished for speaking against poverty, street children, low illiteracy rate and inequality in their domains or because of perceived political differences with the governor, it would have created an uproar in Edo and Anambra states respectively, with other neighbouring states speaking fiercely condemning the governor. In fact, the governor would not even contemplate deposing such a traditional ruler over such seemingly petty issues for fear of the consequences. An extreme action like that could only arise if the traditional leader is accused of a serious criminal offence like robbery, fraud, kidnapping, or any action that is deemed as bringing his office to disrepute.
Similarly, it will be hard to see the North riot over poverty, harsh economy or lack of employment. But it will be easy for the North to riot if there is any action taken against Islam in any part of the world, be it Denmark, Britain, France or the United States.
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In addition, the Boko Haram insurgency, which has its roots in religion, cannot happen in any part of the South. There can be an uprising in the South over ethnic or political issues, but never over religion.
The Middle Belt, which is also part of the North, draws its strength of unity from religion: Christianity. The people of this zone see themselves as united by Christianity in a region dominated by Muslims.
Conversely, when it comes to the Western part of Nigeria, religion can never make it to resort to violence. As I wrote in an August 2012 article entitled, “Religious tolerance: Are the Yoruba Number 1 in the world?”, there may not be any ethnic group or race that is more tolerant than the Yoruba on the issue of religion. Man and wife or twins can be Muslim and Christian and live in peace. A family may have a Muslim father, a Christian mother, a Christian first daughter of a different denomination, an animist first son, an atheist second son, and yet live in peace, with everyone celebrating each religious feast as one family. People can be voted offices irrespective of their religious inclinations. That is why the religious division being created by the Muslim Rights Concern, led by Prof Ishaq Akintola, is dangerous to what the South-West is known for.
However, when it comes to politics, the South-West is least tolerant of dissenting views in Nigeria. That is why the political violence that happened in the First Republic tagged Operation Wetie could not have happened in any other part of Nigeria except the South-West. A Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe from the East can be the presidential candidate of the Nigerian People’s Party while his kinsman Dr Alex Ekwueme is the vice presidential candidate of the NPN under Shagari. Such cannot cause any conflict. It is the same in the North.
In the South-West, there is usually one mainstream party to which every “true Yoruba” or omoluabi is expected to belong. Any other party is seen as the party of saboteurs, and anybody who belongs to it is viewed harshly and is hardly ever forgiven. Anytime a South-West state is not controlled by that mainstream party, all is not seen as being well until that state is brought back to the fold. The unwritten law is that when it comes to politics, all South-West states must be controlled by the mainstream party of the South-West. Anything to the contrary is seen as an aberration.
In the South-East and the South-South, a different scenario plays out. Religion and politics do not make the people draw the lines. What fires them up is more of ethnic loyalty. Within the zones, you can belong to any political party or religion without much crisis. However, when the people feel that their well-being is threatened, they mobilise and resist such. That was what led to the Biafran War in 1967. The people of the Eastern Region, especially the Igbo, felt that their existence was threatened in Nigeria and resisted it. Before it, the uprising for the creation of the Niger Delta Republic, which was started by Isaac Adaka Boro on February 23, 1966 was for the same reason. Boro believed that the Igbo and the Federal Government were dominating the people of Niger Delta.
Similarly, Ken Saro-Wiwa led the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People because of his belief that the Federal Government was tapping the crude oil in Ogoniland and devastating the land without doing much for the people. That movement ended in the hanging of Saro-Wiwa in 1995. But shortly after Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999, sons of the Niger Delta took up arms against Nigeria, blowing up pipelines and kidnapping oil workers as their way of protesting the neglect of their land. It later ended in 2009 with an amnesty.
These are clear signs that show that what beats the drum to which each part of Nigeria dances is different. The tastes, values, desires and worldviews of the different parts of Nigeria are different. What one part sees as immaterial or insignificant means the world to the other zone and vice versa. That is why it has been disastrous trying to run Nigeria like “one nation bound in freedom, peace and unity.”
The only option open to Nigeria to have a modicum of progress is if it is run like a true federation with each zone given the free hand to pursue its dreams. It is a reality that has been difficult for some Nigerians to come to terms with. Yet, it is a reality that continues to thwart every attempt made to circumvent it.