Are there any connections with the fact that the more feudal a system, the poorer and less educated the majority of people within those systems usually are? Consider this – two of the most feudal institutions in Nigeria – the Sokoto Sultanate and the Borno Emirate have significantly lower western literacy levels than is common. But these examples apart, President Goodluck Jonathan, in his attempt to win the April 2011 elections has inadvertently waddled into a decades old social and political struggle for the soul of the North.
Before the British conquest in the early 20th century, the major Emirates in the north had developed highly efficient social and political systems. Numerous European explorers who visited those places commented on orderliness of the societies they saw. Literacy was widespread. The justice system, based on the Sharia, worked and there was seeming harmony in the social and mostly class based system. And then it all fell apart.
The British took over political control of the region, but largely left the day to day administration to emirs – there weren’t as many unemployed Brits then as there are today. In northern Nigeria as in other places in Africa, when the colonial masters introduced western education, the emirs and chiefs sent only the children of commoners. It wasn’t long before they realized that the western educated ‘commoners’ were soon giving them orders – as colonial clerks and messengers. So they also began to send their children out for western education as well - and without a stated policy, started to deny ‘commoners’ access to western education.
It was the beginning of a largely undeclared class struggle in the north that a hundred years later, still persists. Most good schools in the region that survive to this day were built on the foundations of the colonial heritage and its immediate aftermath, courtesy of Sir Ahmadu Bello who devoted 47% of the region’s entire budget to education. But the products of these schools threw their weights behind the feudal system – as born members or wannabes of a structure that sought to restrict opportunities - in government and business to a privileged few. The thought of expanding the playing ground to accommodate more people was simply beyond them.
And when a few ambitious ones from the north, against all odds, went ahead to excel in various fields, the feudal system felt threatened and, again, through an unspoken policy began to systematically underfund education for the majority, emasculate the few functional institutions, while at the same time, they began to send their own wards to the best schools in the world. This explains why the north has the lowest literacy levels in Nigeria, but at the same time, some of the best educated people in the world. It was reported that two princes of Sokoto – Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji and Shehu Malami regularly holidayed in Buckingham Palace as students in the United Kingdom in the 1960s.
The struggle has been relentless. From the 1950s up to his death in 1983, Mallam Aminu Kano led the fight against the feudal establishment. The two states his Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) controlled in the Second Republic introduced policies that tried to level the playing field. Late Kano State governor, Abubakar Rimi clashed constantly with the Kano emirate council, and Balarabe Musa knew no peace in Kaduna. In the end, Musa was impeached in Kaduna while Rimi lost re-election in Kano: indeed, not many people know that the aristocrat Shehu Shagari was the feudalists’ choice against ‘commoner’ Maitama Sule in the NPN primaries in 1979.
After the coup of 1983, former Head of State Muhammadu Buhari took a stand against the feudal system – and actually suspended the powerful Emir of Kano. The elite connived to ensure his removal and replacement with Ibrahim Babangida who did their bidding and has remained at their beck and call ever since. This underscores why traditional institutions and the so-called power brokers in the north have consistently opposed Buhari’s presidential ambition; they know he will serve the common man. And this is the reason why the poor, uneducated masses in the region see Buhari as the only beacon of hope in a system that is corrupt, uncaring and largely self-serving.
But the struggle is getting to a head. Even from within the elite, a few people are hitting out again, whatever their motivations may be. Governor Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso – again of Kano - this last Sallah banned the traditional Durbar where all District Heads and Royalty traditionally pledged allegiance to the Emir. It is a small part of an ongoing struggle and is just one manifest example of a largely latent and undeclared conflict between the traditional and the modern.
The most far reaching movement – and ultimate death knell for feudalism in the north has started. The die was cast when the palaces of some previously revered emirs were attacked and destroyed in the aftermath of April’s elections; an important psychological barrier had been breached.
But the feudal systems and their clients are fighting back. And their most important weapon today is the hapless President Goodluck Jonathan. There is widespread belief that the president expended huge resources to secure the support of the northern oligarchy; he didn’t have to. For them, the fear of Buhari is the beginning of wisdom. They would have supported anyone against Buhari.
So when Nigerians criticise President Jonathan’s ineffectual approach to decision making and governance, they miss the point. The man is so beholden to the feudal class and other vested interests that brought him to power that cannot take any decisions inimical to their interests, real or imagined. The fact is, Nigerians who voted ‘Jonathan, not the PDP’ have become unwitting pawns in this long struggle.
Incidentally, most of the problems associated with the North’s long domination of government were not caused by the itinerant cobbler or the illiterate sugarcane hawker and other northerners we have learnt to hate. By electing Jonathan, Nigerians have strengthened the same people that plundered our resources and pauperized the nation. The ‘Jonathanians’ may be in a frenzy today, dancing to the possessed rhythms of power. It is sweet.
But do they know who is beating the drums?