As generally perceived and shown by research, Northern Nigeria remains the poorest region in the country. In more ways than one, it lags behind the South, as though inherent in the Nigerian constitution; a sort of twisted symbiosis in Nigeria’s functionality. As a nation, we have exhibited an unconscious permissiveness of poverty, and have found solace in attributing the blame and responsibility to someone- or something- else.
‘It is well’ we say, as we turn a blind eye to the socio-economic imbalances, for which we ought to furiously and intently ask whys and hows. For those who have, the answers they have found range from unequal revenue allocation and insecurity to educational deprivation during the colonial rule, to poor governance. Also prevalent is the relationship found between culture and religion, particularly in the North: one in which religion and culture merge, and are exploited.
IMPASSÉ, OR PASSED ON?
When thinking of the North, the first thing that comes to mind is Islam. Perhaps as a result of the summers I spent in Kaduna as a child, mesmerised by the vocal range of the call to prayer bellowing from minarets; or, the fact that Muslims make up over 90 percent of Northern Nigeria. Islam - which was introduced to the North through the Bornu Empire as early as the 11th century and then used as a uniting tool in the 19th century after a jihad launched by Usman Dan Fodio - has been both instrumental and transformative to the North.
Unofficially, this jihad established the Sharia law in 1812, and a presence of a “Northern block” - similar socio-cultural ties in religion. These ties were further “re-established” by the British colonial rule when creating a Northern Protectorate that mirrored Dan Fodio’s Sokoto Caliphate. Though the official power was transferred to the High Commissioner, the existing structures remained in place, allowing the British to implement an indirect rule through traditional Muslim leaders, under which an extremely powerful Muslim elite was created.
This elite would then rule the region with an iron fist and see that though culture was evolving, it remained conservative. This resistance would transcend to the 21st century, and involve the former Kano state Governor, Shekarau’s Nazi-esque task of book burning of littattafan soyayya, - romance novels primarily written by women - the strict rules in Kannywood and anything considered against the “Islamic and Hausa culture.”
This resistance to culture change is also evident in the gender relations and dynamics in the region - one in which women are put at a disadvantage. In the North, and widely, culture and religion are puppeted by men in power; with pleas for the enforcement of women’s rights, the abolition of child marriages and a Gender Equality Bill referred to as “an attack on religious and cultural beliefs.” Rather than strengthening ties and creating a common (equal) ground, ‘culture’ has instead been abused, and become systematic subjugation.
CONSPIRACY THEORIES: FOR THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE
The historical undermining of culture and religion spans beyond the arts, education and women, and continues to extend to areas such as health. In the case of the latter, most notable is the (lack of) response to the 2004 polio crises and 2005 measles epidemic that occurred predominantly in Northern Nigeria — which left only 5.3 percent of children in Kano immunised. As opposed to adopting effective measures to eradicate polio, Islamic clerics in Kano instead advised the people against the vaccines on the grounds of the drugs as tools to render Muslim women infertile.
As with the 2005 measles epidemic, this saw an increased morbidity and mortality rate in Northern Nigeria, and widened the poverty gap. A decade later would prove no different, if not worse, with the reaction to a new strain of cerebral meningitis in 2016. Meningitis, which had accounted for up to 500 deaths as of April 2017, was seen as an offspring of impunity within the most affected states - Zamfara, Sokoto, Katsina and Kebbi. That is, in the words of Zamfara state Governor, Yari, “God’s punishment for sin.”
This statement not only reeks of manipulation but also reflects one of two things. First: a person entrusted with the highest political power in state government believes that the spread of the viral disease, in a meningitis belt country, devolves the government of its responsibilities. Alternatively, that this high level official alludes to a widespread belief in God’s wrath, therefore baiting his government's inefficiencies on the conservatism of the masses.
Either scenario is a different side of the same coin: the first posing an interplay of a systemic ignorance veiled as religion, and parcelled to relevant state office(s). In addition, there is an obvious exploitation of this same ignorance in the people — perhaps, owing to literacy rates as low as 49 and 14.5 percent in Kano and Borno, respectively, stemming from its colonial roots. Whatever the case, this response, vis-à-vis the proactive response of Lagos state in the wake of the 2015 Ebola crisis, remains at a tangent.
Such archaism and practice of 13th century Islam, as the Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi calls it, cannot continue to coexist in this 21st century world. “We can’t fix the North until we face our [cultural and religious] taboos” and bridge the ignorance gap. This, of course, neither suggests an enforcement or acceptance of western values, nor does it say that cultures in Northern Nigeria are inferior.
The problem is neither with Islam itself, as many thriving Gulf countries, as well as Malaysia, have upheld their cultural and Islamic values, yet embraced advancement. The problem, however, is the use of culture and religion as a political tool to impose socio-intellectual obscurity on its followers, as opposed to a people preserving mechanism. The ignorance of the masses is the strength of the elite.
Perhaps a form of hybridity may be the answer. The North, however, needs more leaders and citizens like Amina J Mohammed and Sanusi Lamido Sanusi who speak against the normalisation of oppressive cultural elements that suppress development. It requires its populace to break free from such confinements and the idea which its leaders hide behind — the idea that Northerners are content with the little they have.