Northern Nigeria: The Political Economy of Backwardness (1)


Samuel Zalanga


In this piece of reflection, I want to identify some issues and social processes that are central in explaining the social and economic backwardness of Northern Nigeria.  The insights that will inform the reflection is based on a comparative study I made of Malaysia and Nigeria under the broad theme: “The Postcolonial State and the Development Agenda: A Comparative Study of the Role of Ruling Elites’ Coalitions in Development Policy Formulation and Implementation in Malaysia and Nigeria.”  I chose to compare Nigeria with Malaysia for several reasons, but because of my desire to not make this reflection excessively long, I will not get into that.  But anyone familiar with Malaysia will know that it is a predominantly Muslim country, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic.  It was also colonized by the British like Nigeria. Indeed, some British colonial officials served in both Nigeria and Malaysia.  Furthermore, the Malay Muslims represented by United Malays National Organization (UMNO) are the dominant political force in the affairs of the country just as the legacy of British colonial rule left Northern Nigeria dominated by Hausa-Fulani as the preponderant political force in Northern Nigerian, or some would say Nigerian politics at large.  Malaysia, however, is significantly far ahead of Nigeria in terms of human development indicators.  On the basis of my comparative study, I would like to highlight what one scholar in the development literature characterizes as “the political economy of backwardness.”


The first issue one has to reflect on is the ambivalent legacy of 1804 Sokoto jihad.  The jihad can be studied from so many perspectives.  But my interest in it here is related to its legacy in terms of Northern Nigerian development and social change.  Religious ideas have social, cultural and institutional consequences, apart from any claim they make for eternity.  I am not qualified to speak about eternity.  My interest in the jihad is in its social, cultural, and institutional consequences.


Although Islam had the upper hand in terms of getting converts in West Africa vis-a-vis Christianity, it lost its momentum as a reformist and liberating religion under colonial rule.  The main explanation for this was the policy of indirect rule in Northern Nigeria, which sought to shield native authorities from agents of social change during the colonial period.  Michael Crowder's critical reflections on the decline of Islamic influence in the 20th century in West Africa as a whole, including Nigeria, are contained in the following quotation:


"Islam under colonial rule became a force of conservatism rather than change, as it had been in the 19th century... Administrators supported established Islam in the form of emirs and marabouts of whose loyalty, they were sure, and saw in them a dam harnessing Western ideas to African society whilst holding back what they considered its disruptive influences.  Christianity, which gained only a tenth of the converts Islam did, nevertheless made a much greater impact on African society, far from trying to control the flow of ideas from the West, the missionaries positively pumped them into West Africa" (Crowder, Michael. 1968. West Africa Under Colonial Rule.  London: Huchinson University Library).


We all know that there were two other jihads in West Africa  in the 19th century after that of Sokoto but Sekou Ahmadu’s was more progressive and egalitarian than that of Sokoto and Alhaji Umar’s.  The profound lesson of the Sokoto jihad from the point of view of development and social change is the fact that a group of scholars inspired by reading the Holy Scriptures from the perspective of the oppressed in Hausaland appropriated liberatory discourses and used it to mobilize the “Talakawas” to revolt against injustice and oppression.  In the 20th century much about Islam in West Africa according Michael Crowder was domesticating rather than liberating.  Although our context in the 21st century is different, I wish we can be inspired the idea of reading Scriptures from the perspective of the oppressed rather than the perspective of the elites and the powerful.  I say reading Scriptures from the perspective of the elites because the Hausa Habe rulers who were Muslims did not necessarily agree with the interpretation by Shehu Othman Dan Fodio because it threatened their legitimacy.  This was what led to the hijra from Degel to Gudu, which preceded the jihad.  From this we can draw the lesson that Scriptures can either be read from an establishmentarian position or from the point of view of those at the social margins of society.  The Shehu chose to read it from the point of view of those at the social margins of the then Hausaland and to me this is an important historical lesson that we can learn and adapt to our own context, which is now different.   



The other side of the jihad that is problematic is that even though it happened in the 19th century, a period when modernity was taking roots after the scientific revolution, the orientation and vision of the jihadists was not to usher Northern Nigeria into the modern world.  They were inspired by the past as an ideal and model for the future.  This is a major issue with Northern Nigerian social structure and orientation that exists to this day.  The failure of the Northern Nigerian modern elite was the inability to critically and constructively appreciate the achievements and limitations of the caliphate which is part of the region’s past, and on that basis reconfigure the region and launch it fully into the modern world.  As Fanon articulated, each generation needs to discover the task that has been assigned it by history and once they have done that, they have to decide whether to carry it out or not.  The leaders of the jihad did what they thought they could do to change the social order that they believed was oppressive and decadent. 


Being part of the modern world does not mean embracing everything in it hook, line, and sinker, but creatively finding a way to fit in it and be a player in it.  As Manuel Castells argue, Sub-Saharan African countries run the risk of becoming Fourth World nations in the 21st century because their lackluster performance.  They are increasingly irrelevant as players with regard to the major issues of our time.  He thought that it would be better for a country to be dependent than to be irrelevant in the contemporary world.  Whether we like it or not, by the 19th century the dominant influence in the world was modernity.  For some reasons, which I indicate below, Islamic civilization lost its predominant influence.  For instance, at one point, Baghdad was the center of world civilization, and the city to go if you are a sophisticated intellectual.  So what happened?

Here is one answer, which you may or may not agree with:


The faithful must look for guidance from the teachings of the Quran and 'Hadith' in the present context.  Islam is not meant only for 7th Century Arabs.  Islam is for all times and for every part of the world.  If we Muslims understand this, then there will be less misunderstandings among us.  If the non-Muslims appreciate the problems that the Muslims have in trying to adjust to modern changes, then they will not misunderstand Islam and the Muslims as much as they do now.  And the world will be a better place if all these misunderstandings are removed (Mahathir Mohamad, April 16th 1996,  Being a speech delivered at the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies Oxford, United Kingdom).


Northern Nigeria decided that the safest thing to do was to resist change or allow as much social change as would not disrupt the traditional social structure which is built on the legacies of the caliphate.  But as we know from many analyses by historians and public commentators such as Bayero University’s Shehu Umar Abdullahi, the reformist ideals of the caliphate limited as they were, given that it was not inclusive of non-believers as free citizens, (actually some were enslaved), were abused.  Many ordinary peasants did not experience the kind of ideals that they originally anticipated from the reformist jihad.


On the other hand, Malaysian Muslims, who were overwhelmed by the Indians, Chinese, the Dutch, and later the British and Japanese realized that conserving their traditional social structure will result in Islamic civilization being wiped out by powerful forces in the region.  They thought that the Malay social structure and worldview could not withstand the forces of change, and if it can, it would not excel on a global scale.  Their approach to their situation was to modernize Islam and make it dynamic and not a subservient force in the modern world.  Their vision informs the different trajectory of Islam and development vis-à-vis Nigeria or many countries of West Africa where for the past fifty years, the majority of peasants and ordinary people have remained in the same condition and in some cases retrogressed when other people are improving. 


Below, I first present some quotes from Malay Muslim intellectuals writing in Islamic Journals in early 20th century.  From the quotes, we can deduce important elements in the Malaysia Muslim worldview. 


They were a people who felt overwhelmed by the forces of modernization that they had experienced from different directions and their experiences of historical and existential trauma gave birth to a modernizing elite and vision, with a global mindset, and that want to be important players or actors in the modern world as challenging as that is.  They would do it by not embracing modernity in totality but creating their niche in it.  I believe anyone who has studied Malaysian history in the past one hundred years would have to give credit to the Malay elites in spite of their shortcomings, for being thoughtful of how they can remain relevant and excel in a society that is going through change in a fast pace.  They realized that achieving this will require a deep introspection and interrogation of their culture and society in order to find a way forward.  Indeed, what happened among both the conservative and progressive wings of the Malay Muslim elite and intelligentsia could be considered as the functional equivalent of a Malay enlightenment movement and revolution.


Next, I will reproduce some poems by renowned Northern Nigerian persons who obviously were eminent voices for the North and because of their close identification with the ruling class, and as leading intellectuals, we could draw some lessons about how Northern Nigeria under the influence and continued legacy of the caliphate was reacting and coping with modernity. 

First, the quotes from Malay Islamic Journals in early 20th century and some analysis of the quotes are presented.  Islam, like any other religion, is critical in shaping development because by and large, it shapes people's worldview.  In any religious society, religious tenets are critical in shaping morality -- what is to be desired, what is to be avoided, etc.  Given this influence of religion, Islam has significantly shaped social change and development in Malaysia as in other societies.


In Malaysia, Islam contributed positively to development because many influential Islamic "Ulamas" (experts) in their teachings emphasized the need to modernize, modernity, reform status quo Islam,  and the need for Muslims to embrace science, and the critique of the nobility (Milner, Anthony. 1995. The Invention of Politics in Colonial Malaya. Hong Kong: Cambridge University Press).  The impact Islam had in Malaysia during the colonial period can indeed be deduced from an examination of the editorial comments of Malay Islamic journals.  The journals addressed many issues connected to development and social change in Malaya (i.e., Malaysia) as they particularly affect the Malay people who are Muslims.  I intend here to focus on two of the numerous issues that they addressed.  The two issues are the critique of the Kerajaan (i.e., Malay traditional political elite) and the stress on the importance of knowledge acquisition.  For instance, in January of 1908, a popular Malay Islamic newspaper journal wrote the following as a critique of the Malay traditional political elite.  The criticism reads:

If the Raja (i.e., traditional political ruler) happens to be ignorant, of bad character, low ambition, greedy, narrow minded and so forth, then his action will lead to the downfall of the community (umat).... It will fall under the government of another race because of the evil policy of the Raja and because the ministers feared opposing him.  In such a situation the people too are foolish.... if there existed some spirit in the umat, and if they had the slightest reason ("akal") in their heads-- even the size of an ant-- they would root out the poisonous tree" (Al Imam January 5, 1907 cited in Milner 1995, p.140).


This is not only a criticism of the Malay ruling elite but virtually a call to the Malay people to revolt against an unjust regime, much like the call by social philosophers of the Enlightenment tradition in Europe in the early modern period.  The interesting thing is that this is an internal movement among the Malay Muslim intelligentsia.


In another issue, Al Imam (i.e., the Islamic journal) identified and criticized people in society who ought not to be honored or respected.  Of course the particular group the journal identified was the Malay traditional political elite.  The journal asserted that:

Some of our rajas in this region gained their medals and ranks in states inherited from their ancestors, states which they later surrendered to other races. [These rajas] surrendered the law of their community ("umat") and group ("kaum") to foreign religions and allowed the cream of the revenue of their states to flow to foreigners.  In such countries all the Muslims must endure the difficulties and burdens loaded upon them, one after another, by foreign races" (Al Imam cited in Milner 1995, p.143).


Although operating within the realm of Islam, the Malay Muslim intelligentsia expressed their broad nationalist feelings in ways that could be accommodated within secular movements.  In the preceding quotation, they were asserting their deep concern about the way the Malay people had been subordinated to other races and civilizations in their own land.  They blamed this situation on their traditional political elite.  The quotation brings to light the fact that the Malay Muslim intelligentsia causally associates progressive development in a society with the kind of political leadership existing in the society. 


There is also evidence that Al Imam consciously elevated history to the level of epistemology for understanding the world and using that understanding to plan for the future.  This position is asserted in the quotation below:

There is one matter which will not escape the notice of all those who observe the movement of this universe by examining the history ("tarikh") of people in the past, and who use these observations as their guide ("murshid"), as a flare which throws light on all events.  It is known by these people that the community ("umat") is divided into two parts.  First, there are those who are active, performing good works for the advantage of their groups in the future.  People of this part of the community do not limit their perspectives to their own affairs.  People of the second part of the community possess concerns, which are limited to themselves and their own homes.  There is no doubt that it is the first part of the "umat" which follows the injunction of God and thus obtains whatever is promised by Him (Al Imam, cited in Milner 1995, p.169).


Undoubtedly the Malay Muslim intelligentsia indirectly called not only for broad mindedness, but also for the need to put the interest of the community before one's own or the interest of one's relatives.  This strongly suggests they were against nepotism.  Yet we should observe that even with this kind of call, the scholars were not agitating for the restoration of a kind of situation where the individual’s consciousness was submerged by collective consciousness.  They expected leaders to put the interest of the community first, out of an individual rational understanding that was based on what God expected of people.


Regarding knowledge ("ilmu"), the Islamic journal asserted that it is "the foundation on which every pillar of victory stands."   It is "the sun which obliterates the utter darkness of night."  All the good things that characterize human existence, according to the paper, have at their heart the application of knowledge.  Examples of some of the good things are "tranquility, fertility, profit and high rank".  Al Imam also maintained that knowledge is the "channel of perfection and the light of reason".  Knowledge according to the journal is not restricted to knowing what is legitimate and illegitimate in Islamic religion.  While that is important, the newspaper asserted that knowledge entails understanding all "matters which are brought into being by God in ourselves, on the earth and in the sky" (Milner 1995, p.177).  The journal identified the different branches of knowledge they conceptualized, which are psychology, biology, sociology, economics, and commerce. 

Al Imam was blunt in asserting that the advantage Europeans and Japanese had over Malay people, and which made their (European and Japanese) countries successful, was their superior knowledge.   Thus the journal attributed the success of Europeans and Japanese to their possession of superior knowledge (see Milner 1995, p.177).  In another issue, the journal attempted to establish a relationship between failure to acquire education and the continued persistence of human degradation and failure to realize self-actualization in human society.  The quotation reads:

History has already shown us that every community ("umat") which has been unable to rise from degradation, unable to escape a position of humiliation, unable to achieve its desired level of honor and its portion of greatness, has failed in these respects because it has failed to obtain education (Al Imam cited in Milner 1995, p.169).



The foregoing analysis of the role of Islam in development in Malaysia raises several issues about the Malaysian development experience.  First, by criticizing the traditional elite, the Malay Muslim intelligentsia constituted an indigenous reform movement in Malaya.  Their critique of the Kerajaan (i.e., the traditional political elite) clearly demonstrated their desire to hold leaders accountable for their leadership responsibilities in society.  As Wilbert Moore (Moore, Wilbert E. 1963. Social Change. Englewood Cliff, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc) asserted, a modernization project is more likely to succeed if there is an indigenous group that has committed itself to seeing it accomplished, in contrast to a situation where the push is from outside the country.


Second, the quotations above strongly articulate the intellectual orientation of Malaysian Muslims as believers who saw the possibility of social, political, economic and cultural reforms based on Islamic inspirations.  As far as they were concerned, it was not Islam that was the problem.  Rather, the problem was the way people were practicing it, along with their incomplete understanding of what Islam really was.  They did not see themselves as committing heresy by using Islam to legitimize the desire to reform Malay society, given that they believed refusing to reform could result in the wiping out of the Malay race (i.e., by implication Muslims) by people with superior civilization.


Third, the Malaysian Muslim intelligentsia, in contrast to the Nigerian case, or traditional Malay society, adopted the use of history as an epistemology for positive reasoning and elevated it to the center of human discourse.  They stressed the need for people to observe the past and compare it with the present in order to see the necessity for planning to change for a better future.  This position contrasts with the situation in Northern Nigeria.  By and large, for many political elites in Northern Nigeria (not all though), they validated the future by using the sanctity of their past heritage as a legitimizing discourse.  The parts of the North that are an exception to this situation are places that have been gifted by political elites who are more strategic, inclusive, and progressive in their thinking and actions.


Fourth, the Malay Muslim intelligentsia was quick to admit the relative superiority of other cultures as compared to theirs.  This was done in a positive and empowering manner, given that it was aimed at making people understand the need to work hard and change the old ways of doing things in order to be a part of human progress represented by the achievements of Europe and Japan that overwhelmed the region.  The readiness to concede their national deficiencies as a people was an important step in legitimizing and rationalizing a program for social change and modernization.  Note that I am not using modernization in the narrow and often hegemonic ways that Westerners use it.  Of course in doing this, the Malay Muslim intelligentsia believed that their society too could change and excel.  They just insisted that the preconditions for them to excel were social, cultural, political and economic reforms.  Malay Muslim intellectuals also emphasized the need for their people to use reason ("akal") in whatever they do in their society.  The emphasis on reason was an important innovation in Malay society because it was a call for individuation, whereas in traditional Malay society the emphasis was on the collectivity, which often submerged the individual's ability and capacity to reason, have initiative and reflective consciousness (see Munshi Abdullah, cited in Milner 1995, chapter one).


Compared to Malaysia, by and large many Northern Nigerian elites were at best ambivalent about development and modernization for the most part in the first half of the 20th century and indeed I would argue in many parts of the North, even today.  Because of the heritage from the past, often the great majority were more concerned about maintaining the status quo, which was considered an ideal that was fought for. This implies in many respects, attempting to uncritically conserve traditional institutions, opposing Western education without creating a profound and viable alternative, and by attempting to exonerate political elites from serious scrutiny and accountability to the general public.  The political elites of Northern Nigeria by and large collaborated with conservative colonial officers to resist Western education, primarily because they believed it would produce many people with critical minds who would question the legitimacy of the traditional social structure.  I must clarify here that pointing this issue out does not mean any disrespect to our traditional institutions in the North.  Rather it is saying that as the leaders they could have done better to spearhead development in the region especially given that for anyone with foresight, the 20th century was one where modernity was spreading and one could not remain dynamic and relevant without finding a way to creatively excel in it. 


Northern Nigeria has a social structure that is very hierarchical, such that if change did not come from above, the typical conservatism of peasants reigns supreme.  Although the general situation in the emirates of Northern Nigeria was one of conservatism and resistance to change, there were a few emirs such as those of Kano, and Muhammadu Dikko of Katsina who were open to Western education.  If the colonial residents exploited such opportunities, they could have used the influence and authority of the emirs to introduce Western education and in that way prepare Northern Nigeria for the future.  The following is an extract from a letter written in 1930 by the emir of Kano to the Lieutenant Governor of the Northern provinces of Nigeria.  The main theme of the letter was to explain why people in the North had a carefree attitude to Western education.  Yet the letter also expressed the emir's openness to the idea of Western education: Part of the letter reads:



“The reason that pupils do not of their own accord enter the schools under discussion and the reason that parents will not send their children to these schools to the same extent as their own, which they are accustomed, is simply that they are not used to them.  Their fathers and grandfathers did not know them nor did they inherit them from their fathers and grandfathers.  In this respect man is a creature of habit....



...There is yet another reason.  The Hausas do not care for any type of literature other than religious or educational works--or what is closely connected with religion: such as the Unity of God, Sufism, jurisprudence and the law as Almighty God Himself said in His Book.



...Also the Hausa do not look ahead.  They do not think of the future, of what will benefit their children and grandchildren.  And this is especially true of those in the Sudan: for it is commonly said of him of the Sudan: he cares for nought but his belly and his wife. 


...Furthermore let it be said that the best policy of all is for a man to learn as much as God wills of our knowledge and also to learn in the English schools what cannot be learnt save therein: her writing, her script, her methods of calculation and the like....”  (see White, Jeremy. 1981. Central Administration in Nigeria, 1914-1948: The Problem of Polarity. London: Frank Cass & Company). 


From this letter we can draw some conclusions about the situation in Hausaland regarding social change.  It is evident that tradition and Islamic religion (as perceived then by many people of Northern Nigeria) stood as obstacles to the process of change.  As highlighted in the case of Malaysia, the Muslims there established Muslim schools that taught English and Science and made it a strong part of their curriculum to teach the students that Islam was not opposed to science and one could be a Muslim and at the same time be modern.  Here we find one of the greatest variations in the relationship between Islam and development in the two countries.

An example of what elites can do is as follows.  After completing my Teachers Grade III and II certificate exams, I got admission into Bayero University, Kano.  I remember how the son of the chief of my village, who was preparing to go for Hajj was so excited that he came to our house congratulate me even though I was a Christian.  I had some initial difficulty raising money but he and others were kind to assist me with some.  Today, the person who assisted me is the chief of my village and I have utmost respect for him.  I see no reason why I should disrespect him.  Thus as in Malaysia where the critique of their traditional political elite does not suggest they were trying to discard the institution but reform it, similarly this is what the challenge is for Northern Nigeria.  I will argue that areas of the North that have had progressive political elites are more likely to be developed on a comparative scale compare to other areas where the political elites did not make progressive development and social change their major governing agenda.


I want to provide some evidence here to demonstrate how the practice of Islam in Northern Nigeria under colonial rule promoted conservatism-- a conservatism that cannot be justified strictly on a thorough understanding of Islamic theology.  For instance, when cultural changes started taking place among the Northern region because of contact with people from Southern Nigeria and British officials, a poem composed by a member of the Northern intelligentsia close to the ruling class demonstrates the in-built desire of the elite to resist change.  The poem reads:


            Today unbelief is established, and so also innovation

                Well, as for us, we have no use for this in our time

                This that I am about to say, there is no jesting in it,

                Now I am going to warn you, O people,

                Whoever heeds it, he will be happy,

                Whatever article of their clothing, if you wear it,

                I tell you that you may understand,


                If you pray a thousand times you will not be vindicated

                And the same applies to the maker of hurricane lamp globes

                Your short trousers together with your tight-fitting trousers,

                Whoever puts them on, his unbelief is wide


                Whoever wears suits with buttons, he has apostatized,

                He has no religion at all, only pride,

                His state is the state of the makers of silver dollars,

                They are beyond our power to imitate.

                One who wears shirts with collars,

                Whoever wears them, his unbelief is wide,


Khaki and pyjamas, whoever it is

                Who wears them and prays in them, he has committed a crime

                Here they are, three things, do not use them

                All of them, avoid them, without arguing,

                For to use them is not right, you have seen them,

                Towel and washing-blue, and powder, whoever uses them

                Certainly on the Last Day the Fire is his dwelling (cited in Hiskett, Mervyn. 1973. The Sword of Truth: The Life and Times of Shehu Usman Dan Fodio. New York: Oxford University Press).


While the cultural sensibility about dressing is well taken, if one travels across the Islamic world, there is a wide range of dressing attire that is tolerated in so far as it covers one’s body properly.  The danger here is the boundary between culture and Islamic ethics.  Sometimes the two are conflated causing unnecessary difficulty or confusion.  Overall, the tone of the poem suggests not the kind of oh ye my people rise up to face the challenge modernity by reforming yourself and your society.  Instead, the emphasis is on resistance and conservation of the past.  But given this period in the history of the world and even Nigeria, there was an urgent need for action to pursue progressive change in the region, which was lagging behind other regions.  This is at the foundation of the relative backwardness of Northern Nigeria compared to other regions of the country.  No one is suggesting that people should embrace modernity in hook, line, and sinker but they should sit down, go to the drawing board and come up with a creative alternative as Japan did.  Japan is a modern nation but there is still Japanese identity within Japanese modernity.  Why not Africans or Northern Nigerians be similarly creative instead of always shouting about Western imperialism but doing nothing on the ground to really change the extremely dependency of the nation?  There is not scientific evidence that one group of people are biologically inferior to others in terms of creativity and innovation.  It is a question of the kind of social environment you create for your people.

Another poem composed by Mallam Sa'adu Zungur, a highly respected Northern Islamic scholar not only demonstrates xenophobia, but the desire to keep away members of other “pagan” ethnic groups that had then become more educated than the Hausa-Fulani.  Zungur was also concerned about the danger of the spread of ideas of republicanism.  For the reader who is unfamiliar with Northern Nigerian history, Abdullahi, who features in the poem, was a brother to Othman Dan Fodio, the leader of the Sokoto jihad. The poem reads:

O chief Abdullahi, help us


                You have the Chiroma Sanusi to spread knowledge

                Protect your whole community,

                In order that our country shall remain for ever a monarchy,

                Kano City and Fage and Tudun Wada

                Villages, wattle and daub huts,

                Do not let the pagan enter into them


To spread the poison of republicanism (Sa'adu Zungur 1960, 1964, cited in Hiskett 1973, p.167)


As for why in the first half of 20th century Northern Nigeria, by and large many people did not scrutinize the people in authority with the aim of making them accountable, one can identify two reasons.  First, many of the leaders of the jihad and emirates in Northern Nigeria premised their authority to divine authority and therefore justified whatever they did on that basis.  Thus the sacred and emotional attachment Muslim believers have towards everything Islamic was projected onto the leaders.  Such a situation would make it difficult for any people in any religion to try to hold their leaders accountable because it would amount to confronting God’s divine authority.  Few people would want to find themselves in this kind of situation.  This is one of the quagmires that the North experienced.  Reform is most likely to succeed from above because of the nature of the social structure.  But when the people at the top of the hierarchy fail, it is either permanent underdevelopment and poverty or a revolution from below, as Alhaji Abdulkadir Balarabe Musa was quoted some days ago.  Often revolutions come or are called for because the people at the top who should initiate progressive change that would benefit all are afraid of sweeping themselves away from their privileged positions in the process of reform. 

One problem with the Northern Nigerian social structure and context is trying to institute a liberal democratic system of governance on a system that is deeply rooted in sacred or divine source of power and authority for governance. The poem below affirms this assertion:

The Shehu, the Renewer of the Faith, to the country of the Sudan

God gave him, that he should perform good works


By his blessedness we obtain dominion,

The Shehu, the Renewer, here is his line,

He came, he obtained his genealogy,

Both he and “Abdal-Qadir al-Jilani,

Both are Sharifs, hold to this clear explanation,


Descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

He who would argue, let him look at the book of genealogy,

Only see it there, you will set aside doubt (Abubakar Atiku, a Sokoto poet and scion of the ruling house cited in Hiskett 1973, p.163).


Again, for the reader that is unfamiliar with Northern Nigerian history the Shehu referred to in the poem was Shehu Othman Dan Fodio, the leader of the Sokoto jihad that started in 1804 in Northern Nigeria.  Sokoto was the capital of the Sokoto caliphate in Northern Nigeria.  All these is not intended as an attack or disrespect, but I am reflecting on the what I think is a monumental tasks for Northern Nigerian elites if they want to transform the region to really become a modern society that is based on popular democracy, accountability, multi-religious, multi-cultural, and socially inclusive.  Changing the system will require the best minds and strategic thinkers from the North.   While they exist, why have they not been given the opportunity to spearhead this reform process in collaboration with the population?  It is not impossible.  I think Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, in spite of his shortcomings really impresses me as a Muslim leader who thought that in spite of past history, Malaysia would be at her best, when peaceful coexistence is achieved among the Malays, Chinese, Indians and other minority groups in the country. 

What all this means is that even constructively critiquing some public policies of the Northern Nigerian political elite and authorities during this period was perceived as tantamount to going against the legacy of the jihad leaders and the Islamic religion as a whole.  The leaders believed they had divine right to rule and expected people to recognize them as such.  The idea of democratic mandate to govern is totally out of the question.  This situation left little room for reform within the system unless it came from above.  Otherwise any reform from below was interpreted by the leaders as ideas of the infidel, and those who want to revolt against Islamic tenets and tradition.  Few Muslims in Northern Nigeria would risk being described in this way and so religion was used for social control in a way that did not promote desirable social change.  Any progressive reform would definitely either reconfigure or undermine the power equation, influence and prestige of the ruling class, who were also the religious leaders.  The peasant was generally seen as undeserving of the highest possible life possible.  He or she exists not as a citizen with ontological status but as a subject living at the mercy of the powers that be.    


Second, Northern Nigerian leaders who succeeded the leaders of the jihad as we know later formed a political party to represent their interests in the federal republic (i.e., Northern Peoples Congress), as Nigeria approached independence from Britain in 1960.  But they carried their social values and expectations (rooted in the heritage of the jihad) into the presumably secular political landscape of the new nation state which was multicultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic.  Prior to the formation of the nation state, the jihadists and rulers of Northern Nigeria believed not only that their source of power was divine,  which of course then qualified them to rule as indicated in the quotation above, but also to continue ruling until the time when another reformer by the name MAHDI appears to rejuvenate their theocracy.  This belief ruled out the question of receiving consent from the population or renewing their mandate to rule regularly.  This line of reasoning was vehemently objected to by the legendary leader who saw Northern Nigerian history from the point of view of those at the social margins of society i.e., the “talakawas.”  I mean Mallam Aminu Kano.  The two points made above are supported by the following quotation:


            Sardauna, Ahmadu Bello, praise to Allah,

                Descendant of the saint, Usman, who does not sleep,

                The high-ranking one, Sir Ahmadu Bello, is the light,

                The Alhaji [pilgrim returned from Mecca] who removes the darkness of hypocrisy.


                We pray the Glorious God, the King in truth,

                NPC (i.e., Northern Peoples' Congress) may it have mastery over Nigeria

                For the sake of Sidi 'Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani,[1]

                Your rule will last until the appearance of Mahdi (cited in Hiskett 1973, p.163).


It can be seen that the situation in Northern Nigeria was one in which the combination of political and religious power and authority made cult and personality worship an integral part of the political landscape.  The leaders were conceptualized as never making any mistake, and their public policy decisions were not allowed for public scrutiny out of utmost respect.  To question the validity or legitimacy of the actions of the leaders or to dispute their position on anything was the same as revolting against one’s religion or the will of Go.  There is even a saying in Hausa that we were taught when we were young: “Bin Na Gaba, Bin Allah” i.e., obeying your superior is synonymous to obeying God.   This kind of reasoning is similar to that espoused by St. Thomas Aquinas in the medieval period to provide religious legitimacy to the oppressive feudal social structure in Europe.  Though there have been some changes, this situation by and large remains the same for most ordinary people in Northern Nigeria even today.  In this respect, the Islamic religion becomes central to any program aimed at promoting social change and development in Northern Nigeria because it has a strong influence over the methods used to legitimize the existing social structure and resist any desirable program of social change.  Islam is not unique in this case as a force retarding or facilitating social change, for Christianity in medieval Europe was used in the same way (Bloch, Marc. 1961. Feudal Society. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul).


The difference in the nature of Islam in Northern Nigeria and Malaysia demonstrates how, even though the spread of Islam from the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia became a world historical process, the manifestation of this one historical process has varied from one region of the world to another.  The variation can be explained by many factors, which are unfortunately beyond the scope of this reflection, but one point is clear.  The pre-existing situation intersects with new ideas, institutions etc. to give birth to something unique.  Islam did not spread in the same way all over the world and did not encounter the same conditions everywhere in the world.  Furthermore, Islamic religion, like many other religions, in its long historical trajectory of evolution has had many phases of variation even in the same country.  Thus, apart from its within time variation across different regions of the world it has had across time variation in the same country.  Its spread was a global historical process punctuated by many other intervening factors and processes.  Indeed Ibn Khaldun discusses much of this in his “The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History.”


Closely related to the local variation in the global spread and manifestation of Islam is an important methodological issue about the meaning of time.  This reflection clearly brings into limelight the analytical distinction between the objective meaning of time and its subjective meaning.  If we broaden our analytical scope here to view the issue from a global perspective, we find that while the beginning of the 20th century was the era of consolidation and plunder of colonial empires, in colonial territories, that same time period subjectively meant different things.  For Muslims in Malaysia, it was a time for Islam to internally evaluate itself with a future-oriented perspective and the hope of modernizing society and culture in such a way as to strengthen Islam vis-à-vis the process of modernization writ large, which colonialism represented dubiously. 


However, in Nigeria, the same time was one of trying to appeal to the past, to the heritage of the leaders of the jihad who traced their power to divine source, in order to solidly legitimize their position of authority and to protect and guarantee the survival of Islam. Sheik Abubakar Gumi’s autobiography authored by Tsiga demonstrates that not all Muslim elites in Northern Nigeria agree with this simplistic process of legitimation, which does not necessarily preclude oppression of the masses.  After reading his biography, I thought that if someone like Gumi wanted to contribute to creating an inclusive, multi-cultural and multi-religious Nigeria, he could have done that given his influence.  But I am afraid he did not and part of the consequence of that is that here we are in the 21st century killing each other in the name of religion.  This is sad.  But while Gumi is a great scholar, compared to what we know about Islam and modernity, his approach to Islam is anachronistic to the challenges of the modern world and Nigeria as a liberal democratic society where people have equal rights and citizenship. 


In effect, early 20th century when Malaysian Muslims were confronting the challenge of modernity head on, Northern Nigerian Muslims felt it was time for Islam to at least shield itself from external influences or at least resist that.  Malaysian Muslims were quick to see through the future and they were willing to methodically and strategically integrate what was helpful to them from foreign sources so as to make themselves dynamic and players in the modern world.  I think they have significantly succeeded in that and I give them credit for that.  Malaysia is not a perfect country, but I lived there for six months and I must say that even though it is a Muslim country, I was treated with more respect and accepted for who I was more than in many places in Northern Nigeria.  They recognized that I was not a Muslim and interacted with me in a very respectful way. I still continue to communicate with some friends I made there. One of the Malay friends I made when I was there who is now an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Malaya teaching hospital sent me an e-mail recently, saying, he was going to address a group of international people in Kuala Lumpur and reflected about the time we had together when I was there and decided to contact me.  They are a peace-loving country and people and this cultural or national trademark is one factor among others that explains the progress of that country within a short period of time and with less natural resources compared to Nigeria.  Unfortunately, if I would show up in some parts of Northern Nigeria, I will be treated as a foreigner.  I think Malaysia happened to be situated in a geographical location that you cannot be there and not be cosmopolitan because of the diversity and forces of change that country went through.


The varied conception of time and the construction of social reality in the two countries were shaped by other happenings in their geographical and social environments.  In Malaya, European capital had invested heavily in the Straits Settlement, transforming the society beyond anything that the Malay people and their leaders imagined or anticipated.  Furthermore, other ethnic groups i.e., Chinese and Indians had migrated to Malaya en masse, creating a niche for themselves in the Malayan economy which was superior to that of the Malays, especially in the case of Chinese.  So beyond any doubt, the Malay people were convinced that the way forward was to meaningfully change and not to conserve the status quo for the sake of security of the political elite.  The new social order convinced them that much in their traditional society could not compete with foreign ideas, innovations, and institutions that were becoming globalized.  The colonial government introduced better administrative organizations, which undermined the power of Malay rulers.


On the other hand, developments in the broader Nigerian society during the colonial period tended to give security to the ruling elites of Northern Nigeria.  Not only were they protected by the British, but the British also convinced them that they were a superior race, with a more advanced civilization than that of Southern Nigeria.  This view was clearly expressed by Flora Lugard (Lugard, Flora.  1929. Quoted in "Great Britain and France in Northern Africa", The Round Table Volume 19, No.76).  Some of the ruling elites became as powerful as the British residents, such that the British resident could not accomplish anything without their cooperation.  The native authority system was considered most successful in Northern Nigeria, and its success was due to the pre-existing structure of government established after the Islamic jihad of 1804.  Furthermore, even the colonial office in London was protective of Northern Nigerian emirates.  Thus the leaders of Northern Nigeria felt very secure and saw no need to creatively and constructively pursue an agenda of progressive change, in spite of how the North was lagging behind other regions by the middle of the 20th century.  Indeed, they expected other Nigerian people to continuously accommodate to their ways.  Consequently, they did not see any reason or need to critically re-examine their social structure and religious theology in terms of its relevance for existing historical challenges.  By shielding themselves from the agents, processes and forces of social change, they naively thought things would remain the same forever, or at least indefinitely.


Northern Nigerian elites did not begin to seriously realize their “relative lag” in modern development until the 1950s, when because of social and political developments after the Second World War, the liquidation of colonial empires became inevitable.  But while Southern Nigeria was relatively prepared for this due to the social changes they had accepted (or that were forced on them) much earlier under colonial rule, Northern Nigeria had to start almost afresh in the 1950s in order to institutionally prepare herself for a modern democratic government and to grasp the processes of the emerging new social order.  In this respect, even though there was an attempt at quasi-forced islamization, which continued even in the 2nd Republic, at some point, the Sardauna was willing to either allow some Southerners to work for the Northern region or recruit “even Northern Christians” to be trained on behalf of the North. 


But what remains in my view as very ambivalent among the great majority of Northern elites is whether their fundamental vision is to Islamize the region or create a modern democratic society where Muslims, Christians and all other kinds of people would live peacefully and respectful of each other.  I am in my forties now and I am very disappointed with what is happening in Northern Nigeria now.  I have started having some grey hair and yet, there seems to be no respite for the “Northern talaka,” whether the “talaka” is Hausa-Fulani or minority.  Even the introduction of Sharia for many years now has not fundamental change the essence of life for the ordinary “talaka.”  I wonder whether our elites have sleepless nights at all worrying about the welfare of the ordinary “talaka” whether Muslim or Christian, Hausa-Fulani, or minority.  If the fundamental commitment of the elites is to transform the region, they would measure the progress of the region not by the number of houses built by the rich, the number of millionaires the region has produced, etc.  The measure of our progress should be how the least amongst us are doing.  I will conclude with two quotes for your reflection:

Underdevelopment is shocking; the squalor, disease, unnecessary deaths, and hopelessness of it al!  No man understands if underdevelopment remains for him a mere statistic reflecting low income, poor housing, permanent mortality or underemployment.  The most empathetic observer can speak objectively about underdevelopment only after undergoing, personally or vicariously, the ‘shock of underdevelopment.”  This unique culture shock comes to one as he is initiated to the emotions which prevail in the ‘culture of poverty.’  The reverse shock is felt by those living in destitution when a new self-understanding reveals to them that their life is neither human nor inevitable ... The prevalent emotion of underdevelopment is a sense of personal and societal impotence in the face of disease and death, of confusion and ignorance as one gropes to understand change, of servility toward men of whose decisions govern the course of events, of hopelessness before hunger and natural catastrophe.  Chronic poverty is a cruel kind of hell; and one cannot understand how cruel that hell is merely gazing upon poverty as an object (Denis Goulet. 1971. The Cruel Choice: A New Concept in the Theory of Development. Atheneum, New York. p.23).


If you are one of the Northern elites, I hope you will try to understand how our people are suffering and hurting.  Do not mistake the lack of revolt or revolution to mean everything is alright or that God is not seeing what elites do in secret behind closed doors in the officers, often lining their pockets even with Sharia laws. Poverty is no respecter of a person’s ethnicity or religion. It is a social condition and once people find themselves in it, they will suffer the consequences.  Please do not tell the people suffering that they are predestined by God to be poor, as a way of deflecting their attention from how a different form of social arrangement and governance can either eradicate or alleviate absolute poverty and underdevelopment. Using that religious argument, which is often used shut people up in the North, will not be completely honest. I am not saying so because I do not believe in God, but because I am convinced that often people are oppressed and told that God predestined that.

Finally, Professor Dudley Seers reminds us that:


The questions to ask about a country’s development are therefore: What has been happening to poverty?  What has been happening to unemployment?  What has been happening to inequality?  If all three of these have declined from high levels, then beyond doubt this has been a period of development for the country concerned. If one or two of these central problems haven growing worse, especially if all three have, it would be strange to call the result ‘development’ even if per capita income doubled” (Professor Dudley Seers. “The Meaning of Development,” Eleventh World Conference of the society for International Development, New Delhi, 1969. p.3).


Let us be honest and ask ourselves how our region has measured up to Seers simple yardstick for measuring development.  Have you not got tired with people well dressed speaking behind camera or microphone promising the “talaka” one thing or another but the people are sinking deeper and deeper into a state of hopelessness?  I hope that we will all feel bad about what is happening and get ourselves together, transcend petty provincialism and work towards bettering the lives of the people. Doing so is not inconsistent with Islamic or Christian social ethics.  In the future I will examine the ambivalent role of Christianity in complicating our problems in Nigeria and Africa at large.