When the Asiwaju Bola Tinubu Administration is inaugurated on May 29, most national and international eyes will be on the new President. In Northern Nigeria however, many local and regional eyes will be stealing glances in the direction of Kashim Shettima, who will be inaugurated at the same date and time as Vice President of the Federal Republic.
Northerners are used to having a leader, since the days of the overwhelming Sardauna Sir Ahmadu Bello. The great historian Professor Afigbo wrote that “the evolution of the North into one political entity was entirely due to the personality and activities of Ahmadu Bello between 1954 and 1966.” Despite dissolution of the old regions and five state creation exercises since 1967, much of this feeling of one North still endures in the political arena, as does the search for a “Northern leader.” As many Northerners see it, other regions and movements were luckier because their great First Republic leaders survived for decades after the tumultuous events of 1966. Chief Joseph Tarka lived until 1980; Malam Aminu Kano lived until 1983; Chief Obafemi Awolowo lived until 1987; Chief Denis Osadebay lived until 1994; Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe lived until 1996; and Chief Harold Dappa-Biriye lived until 2005.
But who could fill Sardauna’s shoes? Not only Sardauna, President of the Northern Peoples’ Congress [NPC] was killed on January 15, 1966; NPC’s First Deputy President Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was also killed on the same day. The next top ranking NPC leader, Defence Minister Alhaji Muhammadu Ribadu, had died in 1965. However, the Second Deputy President of NPC, former Northern Regional Finance Minister Alhaji Aliyu Makaman Bidda, survived until 1980 and played a pivotal role in seeing to Alhaji Shehu Shagari’s rise to the Presidency in 1979, as Shagari himself testified.
With their passing, Northerners began to look up to a collection of old First Republic ministers, politicians and top civil servants as “Sardauna’s successors.” They did not always like the role, especially when young folks began to blame them for the region’s problems of low educational attainment, low industrial capacity, millions of out of school children and frequent eruption of violent inter-communal conflicts. Malam Liman Ciroma told me in the 1990s that unlike those said to be his successors, Sardauna had governmental power, so he could follow up on his vision with quick and vigorous implementation. The more appropriate people to be called Sardauna’s successors, he said, are the Northern state governors, now 19 in number. I agree that two heads are better than one, but I am not sure about 19 heads being better than one, with all the differing visions and motivations, disparate personal characters and often conflicting motives.
In 2000AD, the Northern governors themselves found a solution to this dilemma. The Northern leader, they declared, should not be a collective of governors but the highest political office holder from the region. That happened to be the Vice President of the Federal Republic, Atiku Abubakar, Turakin Adamawa [since elevated to the higher traditional title of Wazirin Adamawa].
That year, there was a lavish ceremony at Ahmadu Bello Stadium in Kaduna where Vice President Atiku Abubakar was declared by governors of the 19 Northern states to be the political leader of the North by virtue of being the region’s highest elected official. It was not a partisan effort because ten of the Northern governors were PDP members while the other nine were ANPP members. Some of them, such as Sokoto State Governor Attahiru Bafarawa, were fiercely critical of the Obasanjo federal administration but they still agreed that Atiku should be anointed the leader.
This time around, the 19 Northern governors are scattered in three political parties, not two. After May 29, thirteen of them will. be APC, five of them will be PDP and one of them will be an NNPP member. During the 2023 election cycle, APC lost Kano, Plateau and Zamfara States but it recaptured Sokoto and Benue States, for a net loss of one state. PDP lost Sokoto and Benue states and recaptured Plateau, for a net loss of one state, while NNPP captured Kano, its first ever state. Will the 19 of them re-enact the tradition of 2000AD and anoint a “Leader of the North” in succession din to Atiku? Interestingly, there was no such ceremony to anoint Architect Namadi Sambo as Northern leader when he was Vice President in the Jonathan Administration. We do not yet know why.
Southern Nigerians do not appear to think in the same way. During the Second Republic when Dr. Alex Ekwueme was Vice President of the Federal Republic, there was no event or even a newspaper article that I remember, where he was declared to be the leader of Southern Nigeria. The political environment at the time had something to do with it, because with overwhelming political leaders such as Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe still on the scene, no one could easily lay claim to being the leader. Professor Yemi Osinbajo has also been Vice President for the last eight years but no one declared him to be the leader of the South either, or even of the Southwest.
Even though Northern Region ceased to be a single political entity 56 years ago, the relative political unity it generated during its life span has proved difficult to erase, despite five state creation exercises, excision of FCT, many socio-religious fissures and many political frictions. More tangibly, the Northern states inherited institutions that they sought to run together. Many of these institutions have been lost over the years. Some, such as Ahmadu Bello University, New Nigerian Newspapers, Kaduna Polytechnic, Broadcasting Corporation of Northern Nigeria [BCNN, since split into Radio Nigeria and Nigeria Television Authority, NTA], Ahmadu Bello Stadium and ABU Teaching Hospital, were all taken over by the Federal Government at different times, and one was later returned. Others, such as Bank of the North, were privatized along the way while still others, such NNDC, NNIL and Arewa Hotels are still owned by them, however in a comatose state.
One of General Murtala Mohammed’s first acts when he came to power in 1975 was to dissolve ICSA, the Interim Common Services Agency that was maintaining joint Northern assets. He also dissolved ESIALA, the Eastern States Interim Assets and Liabilities Agency that was its old Eastern Region counterpart. The pull of Northern unity was so strong however that military governors of the Murtala/Obasanjo era soon reenacted ICSA as Northern Governors Forum meetings. The military governors of the Buhari, Babangida, Abacha and Abdulsalami eras as well as the civilian governors of the Second, Third and Fourth Republics inherited the Forum and carried on with it. It is however noticeable in recent years that the forum’s meetings have become less frequent, perhaps because they have fewer joint assets to manage. They however still have many common problems that they ought to tackle together.
If and when his formal anointment as Northern Leader takes place, incoming Vice President Kashim Shettima looks very fit for the task. If, as in 2000AD, the ceremony takes place in Kaduna, it is a terrain he knows very well, having worked there as a young banker in the 1990s. More than that, for four years between 2015 and 2019 when his tenure as Governor of Borno State ended, he was Chairman of the Northern States Governors Forum, NSGF [the name was changed because its earlier acronym, NGF, conflicted with that of the Nigeria Governors Forum, which only came into being in 2000 AD].
Not only that. The newly anointed Leader of the North has good knowledge of most of the region’s intractable problems. He knows the region’s top economic activity, agriculture, with his two degrees in the field. He knows education, having started his career as a university lecturer and who, as Governor of Borno State, built the best model schools and brought a lot of innovation into them from India. He knows about insecurity, having governed Borno, the Ground Zero of Boko Haram insurgency at the peak of the crisis. He knows about IDPs, having housed, fed and tried to resettle millions of them. He knows about reconstruction, having rebuilt many destroyed communities [with current Borno Governor, Prof Zulum, as his Commissioner for Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Resettlement]. He knows administration, having been Commissioner of Finance, Health, Education and Local Government. Kashim Shettima also knows politics, as an opposition party governor in 2011 to 2015 and as a ruling party governor in 2015 to 2019. We now begin to see why President-elect Tinubu picked him as running mate.
The position of Leader of the North in this dispensation is symbolic, but it is not a walk in the park. Unless President Tinubu himself is present, no social gathering anywhere in the North will be complete without the Vice President’s presence, including the turbaning of traditional rulers, major wedding ceremonies, major disaster events, condolences on the passing of important figures and major religious events. His presence at political gatherings however will be restricted to those of his own party; PDP, NNP and other parties will not invite him to their events and he will not attend even if they do.
Then there are the more concrete issues. If the incoming Tinubu Administration makes much headway in ending Boko Haram, kidnapping and banditry, minimizes inter-communal conflicts, greatly reduces the number of out-of-school children, ends the phenomenon of Almajirai, revives the dormant industrial estates of Kano, Kaduna, Gusau and Gombe, completes the Great Green Wall to stop the Sahara’s southward march, undertakes key infrastructural projects and refills Lake Chad, the National Leader and the symbolic Northern Leader will reap endless accolades in the North.
VIEW FROM THE GALLERY Monday, April 24th, 2023. Published in Thisday and 21st Century Chronicle.