Losing the PR battle in the midst of a war of narratives: Dilemma and tragedy of Muslim northern Nigeria


By Huzaifa Dokaji

A few days ago, a professor here in the United States told me how a certain supposed Nigerian clergy was seeking asylum in the United States on alleged death threats by bandits that have “conquered” his village in Lagos. According to the man, Arabic-speaking bandits attacked his village and vowed to kill him because he adamantly remained the conscience of his people. Since the Lawyer had little knowledge of Africa, he reached out to the Professor for an informed view on how best to argue the case, perhaps since Nigeria is famous for what the man asserted. However, the man failed to provide convincing answers to the following fundamental questions: First, since when did Fulani bandits started speaking Arabic (and surprisingly as an intra-tribal lingua franca)? Second, when did the activities of bandits got so out of hand that someone in Lagos would need international asylum? Although the second point is relative, since at least there were attacks by “bandits” along the Lagos-Ibadan expressway- and we react differently to tragedies- I do find a strong case in the first. Whatever, the biggest takeaway was the man couldn’t provide a convincing narrative for either question. By the end of the discussion, the man confessed that the “bandits” were not speaking Arabic.


This story points to how rather than work towards finding a lasting solution to the insecurity and poor international image bedeviling their country, several Nigerians are trying to exploit it for personal or sectarian gain. The clergy was taking advantage of the scenario Boko Haram and banditry created, presenting the two to outsiders as evidence of an Islamization threat even though Muslims are the biggest victims of the two tragedies. As a Muslim and a sedentary Fulani, I witnessed two Boko Haram attacks on the Kano Central Mosque and nearly lost my life in one. I still have nightmares about the attacks. But I occasionally come across narratives insinuating that I am (as a Muslim and Fulani) part of Boko Haram, even supporting it and gaining from its activities. A Professor here in America once told me that bandits are attacking schools in Northern Nigeria for no other reason than to stop girls from going to schools. But could one blame the Professor for believing a narrative unpatriotic Nigerians are selling abroad in an ambitious attempt to commodify a national tragedy? It’s a simple gimmick. If you want to get funding for an NGO that claims to be fighting for the girl-child, just use the Chibok girls or current attacks on schools as a case, and you are good to go. But who is to blame primarily for all this? Northern Nigeria.


The Northern mindset is as confused as it is humiliating. Notorious Northern Nigerian blogger and fact-checker, Aliyu Dahiru Aliyu, recently lamented how most of the NGOs operating in Borno are Southern Nigerian-based. Consider the scenario this way: Musa’s house is on fire. His family and property were burning. However, instead of saving the family and property, Musa stood in front of the burning house arguing with two neighbors, one a Shi’i and the other a Sufi, on who among them all was the better Muslim. His other neighbor, John, a Christian, decides to save the family for whatever reason. Each time someone reminds Musa that his house and family were burning, Musa argues that proving the heresy of his two neighbors was more important than saving his burning family and property. Then in the middle of the debate, Musa realizes that his family had converted to Christianity in a move to show gratitude to the Christian neighbor that saved them. The confused person he was, Musa took to his local Mosque and the social media to complain of a Christian evangelist’s threat to baptize his family and present him as complicit in their tragedy. Aminu, another Muslim neighbor of Musa, rather than accept the premise that Musa was responsible for his tragedy and that of his family, chose to come up with a narrative that the reason behind the imminent Christianization and other forms of de-Islamization’ of Musa’s family was because of a crisis that occurred a millennium ago between Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), and the best way to save Islam and Muslims is by bringing those issues up and debasing the ‘wrong’ parties. This is the situation of Northern Nigeria today.


Making a case of Southern NGOs dominating the ills of Boko Haram in the North is by no way an attempt to posit that some Nigerians have more rights or privileges than others. My point is since the “North” insists on its Islamicity, there is a need for it to lead the crusade to make things right for its ummah. The dilemma is while we are busy arguing about whether mannequins should be used in showrooms, “others” are shaping the narrative around our problems, and we are losing sympathy and credibility despite being the biggest victims of the ongoing imbroglio. In a case Nigeria goes to war under a Muslim Northerner, international design may not be to our advantage as it was during the Biafran crisis. The recent utterance by Canadian Justice Minister has more implications than we may realize. It reflects Nigeria’s international image, and more so, what the world thinks a Northern Nigerian President with the support of his Muslim brethren is doing to innocent Christians.


It is important to reiterate at this juncture that, I, by no means, intend to argue that Northern Nigeria’s past was perfect, but I dare contend that it had a semblance of sanity. Each stratum of the society knew its limitations and reach. Whenever there was a problem threatening the region, opposing sections come together to find a solution. But today, Northern Nigeria is in crisis, both regional, national and global, and only a few seem to even understand the extent of the abyss we are facing. Rather than come together to find a lasting solution, both clerics and followers seem to be crinkly engulfed in judging who was wrong between Imam Ali (AS) and Mu’awaiyya, in a crisis, not even the Qur’an or prophetic traditions are able to settle because each side clings to its conclusions no matter the evidence before it. 


It is a tragedy that at a time when governments are arbitrarily deploying the means of coercion to deny people their right to conscience and fair governance, an important segment of Muslim Northern Nigeria is investing so much energy in a war that is supposed to be a personal journey (not religion entirely, but many of the issues we are fixated on), to the peril of security, education, healthcare, and food. One will be excused to assume Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Dubai, Qatar, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Malaysia developed both spiritually and materially by finding the right answer to the Siffin or mannequin debacle. Presently, our social media spaces are filled with debates on whether the Hisba could ban mannequins or not, or whether we should fill our unoccupied spaces with children we can neither feed, secure nor educate. This is the Northern Nigeria of today. Neither focused nor determined.


I do not in any way intend to relegate spiritual ideals to secular pretensions, I aim to show that we need to accord both the two serious positions to make either work. The Islamic formula is for Muslims to seek a balance between the spiritual and the secular as codified in the verse (and daily prayer): “oh God! Grant us the best of this world and the best of the hereafter.” Realizing the dangerous impact of sectarian divides in establishing just political and social orders, Nizam al-Mulk, an 11th-century Persian mystic, and cleric, inferred in his Siyasatnama that what was needed for development and functional states and societies was not religion per se, but justice. Centuries later, Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328 C.E) echoed a similar view in his al-Siyāsa al-sharʿiyya. Some 300 years later, Uthman b. Fodio (d.1817) advocated the same view in his Bayan wujub al-hijra ‘a’la ‘l-ibad while seeking the support of Muslims and non-Muslims alike in his “war” against Muslim Hausa rulers. The toxic religiosity of Northern Nigeria is neither advantageous to Islam nor Muslims. It is a determination without a clear purpose, neither stopping us from harming each other nor from damaging the image of the religion we claim to so much revere.


It is no longer news that Northern Nigeria has lost its bearing. It has transformed from an active society to a passive one. We take pride in the past we didn’t make, tragically, only to murder a present we ought to shape. We spend crucial time on trivial issues that good education and sane polity will do away with but ignore critical issues that pose both immediate and long-term dangers on Muslims and Islam. We blame Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Igboho for inciting violence, yet celebrate when the Nigerian state murder fellow Nigerians without recourse to either secular or cultural laws for no reason other than they are different from us. Obversely, we support violence when our political icons wreak havoc on innocent voters and even get paid to disperse protesters asking for better security, health, and education for the region. That someone would support political madness, to his detriment and that of the larger society, means only one thing: that society has lost its conscience- and that is despicable! Worst of it is we are living witnesses of how the abuse of power and popular conscience created the Boko Haram monster.


Despite all these pedestrian approaches to state and nation-building, we painstakingly present Islam and the Northern space to outsiders as peaceful and tolerant. Honestly, we need to go beyond our past to make a case for our society and most importantly for Islam. Islam’s history of tolerance will bear no positive print on contemporary Nigerian society until Northern Muslims become better Muslims, not only practicing the faith with diligence but sincerely accommodating others on the spiritual essence of justice and fair play, the foundations upon which the religion and region were established. The most important place to start is from home, since charity, they say, begins there. This may be a bitter pill that our emotional intelligence may find gross, but isn’t the truth bitter and hard to swallow? Our sentiments must never win. We are losing it inside, we must not lose it outside. We need to control the narratives and there’s no way than watching our actions and utterances.


It is here that the words of the present Governor of Zamfara on the need to belong to the ruling party to end insecurity come into play. It is my opinion that the Governor’s words are the best example of the political and diplomatic crisis Northern Nigeria is currently facing. It is careless for the Governor to make such a claim at a moment Nigerians from other parts of the country are convinced of the complicity of the present Northern-led administration on insecurity. It reminds me of a private encounter between late Professor Dahiru Yahya and late Pa Abraham Adesanya at the 1977 National Constituent Assembly. The Muslim North, confident that it has come of age with brilliant western-educated intellectuals, went to the conference to meet might with might contrary to its usual tact of hardly ever stating its deepest interest. Northern delegates made excellent presentations in defense of the Sharia among other mandates, mistakenly assuming they could bully (Southern) Christian delegates into accepting its designs with supposed superior or at least equal arguments. During a break, in one of the Conference sessions, Adesanya told Dahiru Yahya that while he was impressed with the intellectual caliber and scholarly credentials of the majority of the Northern delegates, he was disappointed in their political sophistication. Adesanya faulted the Northern strategy of charging first with sincere proposals, assuring Dahiru Yahya that since other regions knew what the Muslim North wanted, they would make sure it didn’t get them. Adesanya faulted such a radical departure from the First Republic tactics that always gave Northern Nigeria an upper hand in political negotiations with the South. Perhaps, Matawalle and Northern elites may learn a thing or two from the story.


Huzaifa Dokaji is a Ph.D. Student at Stony Brook University, New York. Dokaji can be reached via huzaifadokaji@gmail.com

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