A response to NEF’s Hakeem Baba-Ahmed

I read the rejoinder of Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed to an article written by Dr Lasisi Olagunju, titled: 2023: For Hakeem Baba-Ahmed. Given how viral the article went, I suspected, as I assume many readers did, that it would elicit a response. But while Baba-Ahmed’s  displeasure with the piece by Olagunju is so obvious, from the tone of the response, the immediate impression I have is  that it was not a very successful engagement with the most important point in the article. But that impression could suggest erroneously that any effort was made to engage with the central message of the piece. There was none.

The rejoinder began with an apology, and a promise not to talk about the father of the author, but then quickly went further to query whether Olagunju knew his own father, because Baba-Ahmed believes if he did he would not have written about his own father.  He made it look like Olagunju insulted his father, which he clearly didn’t do, in my opinion. What he did was to  merely retell the story of Baba-Ahmed’s father as a migrant from Mauritania, who finally settled in Northern Nigeria, where he became successful. That fact, which Baba-Ahmed didn’t contest, was however enough to get him sore. It would seem though, that Baba-Ahmed likes to selectively assert his Mauritanian identity only when he finds it convenient and useful. In a public correspondence a couple of years ago, with Professor Farooq Kperogi, in which he sought to correct the impression that he was a Touareg descendant from Mali, Baba-Ahmed had described himself as a Nigerian by nationality, and an Arab from Mauritania, with further roots down to Saudi Arabia, by ancestry.

Facts are facts. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed is a first generation descendant of a migrant here in Nigeria. In an ideal world, perhaps his identity wouldn’t have mattered in matters of public discourse. In an ideal world though, Southern Governors would not have needed to make a demand for a return of the Presidency in 2023, and Baba-Ahmed would not have had reasons to respond on behalf of the North,   particularly in the insulting way and manner he did.  While he might in this instance had wished that his migrant status ought not to have been a part of the conversation, the condescension in the tone of the response to the South was bound to generate a backlash from those who perceive such a take as the partisan meddling of a child adopted from another family, in a squabble between half siblings.

I do not wish to suggest that it is right to discriminate against anyone based on the fact of being a migrant, especially one who has served the country in one capacity or another. Migrants, first and foremost are human beings who are entitled to all the rights, dignity and privileges befitting of  their status as humans. What is the bone of contention though, even in western societies today, is the extent of the non-fundamental rights to which migrants are entitled, and when they are sufficiently integrated enough to enjoy all the rights available to natural citizens. Even many globalists who defend a cosmopolitan approach to migrant issues concede that the duties and obligations we owe to strangers are not as extended as those we owe those with whom we share a similar identity. Having inserted himself into the polluted terrain of Nigeria’s identity politics, it is difficult for the identity of Baba-Ahmed himself to escape scrutiny. The identity of the Nigerian State itself, since formation, has been under intense interrogation.

The question of who is a Nigerian has never been more important than at this point, when terrorist herdsmen have rendered many southern settlements desolate with incessant attacks. This is even more so as there is a strong perception that those in power, including the President, are sympathetic to these criminals who are mostly Fulani. This perception was borne out of the fact that these criminals hardly ever get apprehended, much less prosecuted for their criminal activities. In speech and conduct, the Presidency has also pandered to them unabashedly. In a recent interview with Arise TV, President Buhari claimed that most of these criminals are herders who enter Nigeria from other countries, and that their domestic counterparts are more settled and less prone to violence. But he offered no hope that he is willing to protect fellow Nigerians who are not Fulani against invading herdsmen. His idea of a solution is to find a fictional grazing route. The Governor of Bauchi State, Bala Mohamed, some years back, had provided an insight that made the President’s position clear, even if not acceptable. He told Channels TV in an interview that the political borders of Nigeria are not strong enough a barrier to distinguish between a Nigerian Fulani and his Non-Nigerian kin. They see themselves as one, irrespective of the arbitrary delineations made by colonial powers.

Beyond the issue of the murderous, nomadic herdsmen scattered across West Africa and beyond, are other issues among which is who has the right to vote. I have moved to this because the rejoinder also dwelt so much, like the original comment, on the huge population of the North. There are those in the South who believe that northern elites who consider Nigerian borders on their own side as meaningless decorations do import their kinsmen at regular intervals to vote in our elections. In a nation that has no reliable registration and identification mechanisms for citizens, and where the possibility of an acceptable census continues to dim by the day, the assertion of the supremacy of cross-cultural affinity over citizenship within the Nigerian State puts a question mark on the North’s claim to numerical superiority. The dispute over accurate population claims however goes beyond election periods. They have  implications for resource allocation and proportional representation.

Dr Baba-Ahmed also made so much of what he described as “ sacrifices” and “the  profound commitment  of  northerners  to  the  survival  of  a  country  which  has  them  near  the bottom  of  most  of  the  important  national  socioeconomic  indices.” I suspect there are those who remember differently, beginning from the time southern nationalists began to agitate for independence. The North opposed the motion of Enahoro, because it placed what it considered to be its own interest ahead of the collective freedom of the cobbled state. Of course, sectional preservation was not exclusive to the North before independence, and not much has changed since then. In a federation of diverse entities, self-preservation and interest aggregation are crucial to the survival of the parts, and the sustenance of the whole.

Baba-Ahmed would want us to believe that the northern elites are so altruistic and patriotic to the point that they have committed themselves to the unity of Nigeria as it is, even if it leaves their people worse off. It is hard to comprehend the logic behind that, and the reason is because there is none. The resistance to the restructuring of Nigeria has no altruistic motive whatsoever. Rather, it is aimed at preserving the status quo in a way that benefits northern elites and their collaborators in the South. There is no part of the country that is faring better today. The northern elite however, at the risk of the future of the teeming young ones whose population it likes to boast of, clings desperately to a crumbling contradiction, which it has wedded and welded itself to, for sustenance. This unfortunately renders the region prostrate and dependent. It makes it feed on resources from other parts of the country, and smothers its own children.

Baba-Ahmed’s claims about the sacrifices of the North may sound good to some undiscerning ears up there, but it is dangerous and seductive. He is seeking to recruit young northerners under the yoke of a heartless elite to rise up and defend the status quo, to their further impoverishment and the preservation of the brutish class to which he belongs. Over the last six years, northern elites have done so well for themselves under a president who wears nepotism as a badge of honor, even as their poor compatriots have fled schools, farms, towns and villages in search of security. Displacement in northern Nigeria is at an unprecedented level. If Baba Ahmed and members of his class truly cared about the North, and indeed about Nigeria, he would be working to stop that ‘sacrifice’ of young Nigerians, most of whom are on northern streets roaming in millions, to this dysfunctional structure.

Baba-Ahmed, the northern Governors and their southern counterparts are in a game of elite brinkmanship that is acutely short of what Nigeria requires at this critical point. The political elites, from North to South represent a clear and present danger to Nigeria on account of their shortsightedness. The bickerings over power routinely papers over  stresses and strains that continue to weaken the core of the Nigerian State. If the South is different from the North in any way though, it is because there is a significant mass that understands the imperative of genuine change, if Nigeria is to survive. Nigeria needs to be restructured in a way that guarantees justice, fairness, equity, autonomy and progress across ethnic, cultural,religious and class divides. That was the kernel of Olagunju’s post, which unfortunately seems lost on Baba-Ahmed. Northern children, starved of the “empathy of northern elders”, like their peers in the South, need a country that works more than they need one in which heartless elites grab power in their name, but not to their benefit. What Olagunju did was to invite Ahmed to get out of the recurring, familiar pattern of power contestations for its sake (or more correctly, for the benefit of a few) and imagine a different possibility. Power is no power if all it breeds are banditry, displacement, terrorism and starvation

Rather than double down on his attacks, and normalizing the unfortunate situation in the North by finding equivalences in the number of young people fleeing the South because of insecurity and a crushing economy, Baba-Ahmed can begin to demonstrate genuine love for Nigeria by galvanizing northern elites around the project of remaking Nigeria, beyond the seasonal tussles for power. He needs to remember that many of the northern youth fleeing southwards because of hunger and insecurity, unlike him, do not have the luxury of an ancestral home that is separate from their nationality.

Dr. Adeolu Oyekan writes from Lagos.


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