Arewa-skeptics were silently put to shame between the 5th and 6th December when the Centre for Historical Documentation and Research of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria conducted a conference on "The North and Strategies for Sustainable Development" in Kaduna. It was a proverbial gathering of who-is-who from past presidents, vice presidents, governors, senators, ministers, seasoned bureaucrats, renowned academics, journalists, top clerics to business moguls. Former Head of State General Yakubu Gowon (ret) who was to chair the conference delegated the chairman of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), Alhaji Aliko Muhammed.
Former Head of State, General Abdul-Salam Abubakar chaired the panel on "Security, Politics and Economy of the North" which featured General Martin Luther Agwai, Alhaji Ibrahim Coomasie, Professor Kyari Muhammad and Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmad as speakers. Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar chaired the panel on "The North, the Nigerian Federation and Ongoing Constitutional Amendment Project" where Dr Junaid Muhammad and Dr. Abubakar Saddiq Muhammad made presentations. Similarly, Senator George Akume, former Governor of Benue State chaired the panel on "Values and Leadership" at which Bishop Idowu Fearon and Dr. Usman Bugaje were speakers. Professor Munzali Jibril chaired the panel on "The North and Socioeconomic Strategies for Sustainable Development" that discussed papers by Professors J. Yayok, Gidado Tahir and Dr. Nasir Sani-Gwarzo.
Senator Alex Kadiri represented Senate President David Mark who was to chair the first plenary session on the way forward in which Professors Ango Abdullahi, Nuhu Yaqub and Nuhu Obaje as well as General John Shagaya, Senator Dahiru Umaru, Dr. Mairo Mandara and Hajiya Rabi Eshak were lead discussants. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal in turn chaired the second plenary session on the way forward where Professor Mike Kwanashie, Senator George Akume, Senator Alex Kadiri, Hon. Adams Jagaba, AVM Mukhtar Muhammed (ret) and Alhaji Ahmed Dalhatu were the lead discussants.
In his address as chief host, Kaduna State Governor Patrick Ibrahim Yakowa described it as "a timely meeting of eminent sons of the North who held positions at all strata of government in Nigeria."
Thereafter, speaker after speaker started on the note that the era of lamentations must be over and conference must chart a course of action complete with targets and timelines. In the words of Senator Alex Kadiri, "We must not repeat lamentations here please. We must stand firm and be proud of where we come from. We must use our strength and vast human and natural endowments to get our due. Nigeria must take note that this meeting held."
However, the devastation done to the North is such that no simple exhortation could stop the wailing. The biggest expression of grief was perhaps when General Abdul-Salam lamented that "It will take 20 years to revive the North. A lot of damage has been done to the region and we have to work together for us to overcome the challenges." The former Head of State then thanked Arewa House "for bringing various groups together in this conference so that we can chart a new course. If we are able to harness this, we will know the problems and we will know the solution. It is only when we are working together that that we can address our challenges."
Data contained in presentations on agriculture, economy, education, energy, health, mining, science, technology and skills acquisition in the North were even less cheering. When insecurity and political marginalization are added into the mix, the North of Nigeria is one of the poorest and most devastated regions on earth today. Of course, the rest of the country could never be immune from the misery in this region which constitutes at least 60 per cent of the national population and over 70 per cent of the country's landmass. Nigeria could never do well in the comity of nations until the distress in the North is assuaged.
Fortunately, the conference pinpointed leadership as the key to the speedy resolution of most of the issues at stake. The dismal statistics of increasing illiteracy, ignorance, deepening poverty, infectious diseases, unacceptably high child and maternal mortality, unemployment and social unrest are clearly no match for the vast amounts of arable land, livestock, water and natural mineral resources, clement climate and vibrant population with the average age of 17. The missing link is appropriate application of human and natural resources towards achieving the shared goals of the society.
The conference identified democracy as the only acceptable form of government today and resolved to publicize the five essential qualities of good leaders to enable the people empower the proper persons for positions at all levels of governance. These were identified as discipline, integrity, courage, justice and patriotism. For the citizens to be able to make choices based on these criteria, they in turn need discipline, integrity, dignity of labour and sense of self-reliance. In this way, it is expected that only worthy personalities would be put in authority and people would be able to tell the truth to power.
This resolve was practicalised right there on the floor of the conference when Bishop Idowu Fearon began his presentation by saying, "There are a few hard truths to share with the Speaker of the House of Representatives. I am sorry he is here this afternoon!" While lamenting the fact that all the North can point to are the achievements of Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, Fearon charged that "Everybody should stop calling on the Sardauna because he has gone to his Lord more than 40 years ago. Here is Tambuwal. What did he do?" He also warned that democracy itself is at risk since corruption has taken over our values and leadership and called for the institution of a proper leadership recruitment system. Fearon did not even spare the religions where he lamented that even though "the business is good and some of us are flying around in private jets" but the result in our lives remains abysmal.
Of course, it is virtually impossible to reflect all the sentiments shared at the two-day conference. Lucid interventions by the likes of Dr. Kabiru Chafe, the Director of Arewa House Kaduna and convener of the conference, Engineer Bello Sulaiman, Dr. Ibraheem Sulaiman, Barrister Simon Dalong, Professor Buba Bajoga, Adamu Maina Waziri, Alhaji Kabiru Yusuf, Abu Sada and Dare Awoniyi could never be fully appreciated without being heard. The latter, for example, spoke solely to reaffirm his identity and passionately urged unified action to tackle the region's plethora of problems because "I am a Northerner to the core."
Some key personalities were absent: Retired General T. Y. Danjuma; Vice President Namadi Sambo; Governor Babangida Aliyu of Niger State and chairman of the Northern Governors' Forum. A
From the vista of this conference and the fact that all past and present efforts to set Christians and Muslims in the region against each other have woefully failed, the North has never been more united or better resolved to change its fortunes for the better.
All said, participants at this conference to end all consultations went away with a sense that things would never be the same again, at least in the long run. Incumbent political, religious and traditional leaders would be under unprecedented pressure to perform better while future political office holders beginning from the 2015 general elections would more likely be enlightened servant-leaders rather than the despots serially despoiling the land since the nation's first military coup in January 1966. The feeling is that once the North gets it right as it is determined to, Nigeria as a whole would be out of the woods.
Hassan-Tom writes from Abuja.