The rising tide of ethno-regional populism in Northern Nigeria, by Majeed Dahiru

The entry of President Muhammadu Buhari into partisan politics in 2003 birthed a new political culture in northern Nigeria.
Riding on a wave of intense ethno-geographic and religious sentiments, Buhari would emerge as a sectional hero in northern Nigeria when he championed its conservative elements’ clamour for a return to power barely four years after the military authorities brokered a power shift deal from the North to the South.
In addition to his open support for the adoption of Sharia law potent political opium] by some northern Nigerian states, his bold but unsuccessful move to wrestle power from former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian, transformed Buhari into a political phenomenon with cult like following in the Muslim North.
The North will make a paradigm shift from politics along political party lines as seen in the second and third republics to one motivated by ethno-regional and religious considerations.
Coming from the Northwest, a geo-political zone with the highest voting demography, Buhari has managed to garner the majority votes in this politically important part of Nigeria in his three out of four attempts at being elected president polling average 12 million votes.
The only time his hold on Northern Nigeria political landscape was challenged considerably was in his second attempt in 2007, when he had to contend with two fellow Northerners; Umar Musa Yar’Adua and Atiku Abubakar.
On this occasion, Buhari polled less than 7 million votes against Yar’Adua’s 24 million and Atiku’s 2.6 million votes.
Buhari’s consistency and lack of compromise with then ruling party, PDP, in any form of power sharing arrangement greatly enhanced his integrity quotient, which helped sustain his political capital in Northern Nigeria.
His reputation for abhorrence of indiscipline and corruption also endeared him to many Nigerians across all divides who have reached a consensus that these twin evils were the problem with Nigeria.
With a poor record in performance and widespread maladministration, the PDP will eventually capitulate to a coalition of powerful opposition forces with Buhari as the arrow head after sixteen years of unbroken rule at the centre in 2015.
Once settled in power, Buhari who was dressed up in a borrowed robe of nationalism in the run up to the 2015 presidential election turned coat and now adorns the provincial robe of sectionalism.
In clear departure from the campaign promises of equity, fairness and justice within a pan-Nigerian frame work that defined the aspiration of the broad coalition of opposition forces upon which he rode to power, Buhari has unleashed unprecedented wave of sectionalism in the history of the Nigerian state.
By elevating sectionalism to a near state policy in his appointments and programmes in favour of his northern section of the country, Buhari appears to have returned to his original agenda of seeking the presidency in 2003; power grab by conservative northern elements for ethno-regional supremacy.
The enactment of this nepotistic aspiration by the Buhari administration has polarised the Nigerian state with some citizens feeling more or less Nigerian than others.
Interestingly, conservative elements within Northern political establishment appear to relish Buhari’s sectionalism with a high measure of provincial triumphalism.
For these people, so far the levers of power from the inner recess of the presidency, to the top echelon of the security establishment and topmost political leadership positions are dominated by Nigerians of Northern origin, all is well.
This provincial triumphalism will degenerate into ethno-regional populism as soon as the other sections of the country particularly the South-east region cried out as the most marginalized in Buhari’s Nigeria.
Buhari himself set the convenient narrative for the new message of populism in the North when he attempted to justify his sectionalism with the infamous ‘’97 per cent and 5 per cent’’ of votes obtained as a prerequisite for patronage and inclusion in his government.
This justification appears to have heightened a sense of higher entitlement over the entire land, resources and government of Buhari’s Nigeria by his legion of supporters in the conservative Muslim North.
Unapologetic about Buhari’s sectionalism, his core northern base of support has often reacted to accusation of marginalization from other sections of the country with scornful chastisement.
The clamour for restructuring by the South-west is balderdash as far as they are concerned.
The Biafra separatists’ agitations from the South-east arising from the unprecedented marginalization of the region in Buhari’s Nigeria were met in the North by an unequivocal quit notice.
With the single largest voting demography of about 18.5 million voters, the North-west can as well do without the South-east with the least voting strength of less than 9 million in any national election in Nigeria.
Apparently bolstered by this massive voting strength, the ethno-regional populism sweeping through the Muslim North of Nigeria got to the peak when a senatorial candidate in the just concluded Bauchi state bye election made a campaign promise of working to amend Nigeria’s constitution to allow Buhari the privilege of a life presidency.
Clearly, Buhari’s fray into politics and eventual rise to power has birthed a far right political culture in Northern Nigeria.
The consequence of this ethnoregional populism in the North is the hardening of grounds by Nigerians from the other sections of the country.
As the body of Christ in Nigeria has become more interested in the politics of Nigeria, members have been heeding the clarion call by the clergy to get registered in a bid to challenge the political invincibility of the Muslim North.
While still basking in the euphoria of provincial triumphalism, conservative elements in the North have forgotten the fact that no single ethno-regional section of the country can make an individual president.
Despite the massive support for Buhari in the Muslim North, his bids for the presidency of Nigeria were three times unsuccessful.
He became successful at the fourth attempt only when considerable votes from the South-west and the Christian North swung the winning votes in his favour.
A close scrutiny of the voting demographics across Nigeria’s geo-political zones will reveal a heterogeneous plurality of ethno-religious groupings.
In nearly half a century after the civil war, the Nigerian state has witnessed increased integration and assimilation outside their places of origin.
Therefore, it will amount to crass arrogance of ignorance to presume the entire 18.5 million voting demography of the Northwest to be ethno-religiously homogenous.
Imbedded in that large voting block are Nigerians from plural ethno-regional and religious groupings.
For example, Nigerians of South-east origin are known to be the most cosmopolitan group in Nigeria, usually constituting the second largest population only to the indigenous groups in a particular geographic space.
Therefore, it will be simplistic to underrate the voting strength of Nigerians of Southeast origin by the official figure of less than 9 million recorded in their home region because they constitute a significant minority in the 18.5 million registered voters in the North-west.
Similarly, Nigerians of South-east origin constitute a large part of the over 14 million second largest voting block of South-west Nigeria, a progressive region that is closely aligned with the conservative North.
To stem this dangerous tide of ethno-regional populism in Northern Nigeria, liberal elements within the region must come together to save the region and its people from a path to selfimmolation.
To take the rest of Nigerians for granted will result into political isolation of the region judging by the emerging trend of hardening of grounds by other sections of the country

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