The American South As Warning To The Nigerian North

I have elected to play on the title of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's little-known political pamphlet, Warning to the West in this treatise for good reason. Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet novelist and 1970 Nobel Prize winner for Literature made famous by his gulag experience under Josef Stalin, frequently had reasons to warn the Western world in much the same way as it has now become imperative to constantly warn the Nigerian North. As religious fanatics in the North commenced their by now familiar annual yam festival of wanton bloodletting in the name of Islam, Moloch Yaddie announced that he had held meetings with his Service Chiefs who were also in contact with the governors of the affected Boko Haram states, notably Bauchi, Borno, and Kano. No one suspected that he was hinting at an orgy of indiscriminate wasting operations and purposed extra-judicial executions as alibi for a possible holocaust to be visited on the Niger Delta in the foreseeable future. Security meetings and harebrained harassment of the government and people of Lagos state over, the President fiddled away to Brazil on one of the most tragically ill-timed state visits in history.

He should have gone on a private visit to the United States instead. He should have travelled with a large retinue of northern stakeholders. He should have travelled with just about anybody from the North with the ability to study history, read things between the lines, and make the connection between things. For if there is anything the northern elite in Nigeria need more desperately than the oil of the Niger Delta at the moment, it is knowledge of the history of the American South. I am talking about the Deep South: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina. The leadership of northern Nigeria needs this knowledge for their own good and for the sake of Nigeria.

One could of course advise Mr. President to stay behind in Nigeria and read the novels of William Faulkner. After all, being one of the most famous writers of 20th century and having won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, Faulkner single-handedly placed the Deep South on the pedestal of global imagination by setting virtually all his blockbuster novels there. But not even the maximalist luxuriance of Faulkner's prose can replace the direct feel and touch of history, hence the necessity of a visit. You see, the Deep South is not also called the Cotton States for nothing. Cotton! The first hint of the dark historical underbelly of the Deep South. For who says cotton says plantation. And who says plantation says slavery. And who says slavery says it is at the base of an entire culture and political economy that developed on it – and around it.

I am not interested in the political economy of slavery. Eric Williams has adequately taken care of that in his classic book, Capitalism and Slavery. That leaves culture. What kind of cultural imagery does the Deep South immediately evoke? There is art as in jazz and the southern cuisine of Louisiana – with its Cajun/Acadian inflections. There is the musicality of the southern drawl when white southerners speak their dialect. And the beauty of raw, fast-paced ebonics when southern blacks speak their own dialect. That's the good news. But the good news is not relevant to us here. Then there is a culture of poverty and pervading sense of backwardness and underdevelopment in relation to other parts of the United States, especially the northern states. Here is what I had to say about poverty and backwardness after touring the Deep South of the United States by road in the summer of 2005:

"Back in Pennsylvania, I phoned a cousin who was a student in Alabama. I told him I needed a road trip in rural Alabama and Mississippi in the summer of 2005 to continue my education. He laughed and told me that what I mistook for Black poverty in the state of New York was in fact black luxury! "I will show you Black poverty when you come to the south." He was right. We spent a whole month traveling in America's black poverty belt in the south. In certain places, it felt like the plantation was still alive and healthy. Only Massa was gone. Here were Americans poorer than anybody I have ever met in Africa. American towns and neighborhoods more indigent than anything I'd seen in Africa. I traveled in those spaces where the anger that white America doesn't understand smolders."

What I have painted here is the culture of southern Black poverty. Add that to the comparative material backwardness of southern whites in relation to their cousins in the American North and a picture of the Deep South emerges: it is less prosperous than the northern part of the country. For much of the contemporary history of the United States, the Deep South has been a less-developed part playing catch-up with the rest of the country. How did this happen? The American North was far less dependent on slave labor and even came to acquire a false reputation in history textbooks as the real land of the free, never mind that they also had low-scale slavery. Once the black slave escaped the tyranny of slave life in the Deep South, the inclination was to run to the land of freedom up North. The flight up North is so brilliantly captured by Edward P. Jones in his 2003 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Known World. The lack of exclusive dependence on illegal slave labor and plantations by the North created a pluralistic conceptualization of the material base of society in that part of the United States. This in turn led to a diversification of the sources of wealth creation and a boundless spirit constantly seeking more diverse ways of societal progress and advancement that would later eventuate in manufacturing and industrialization. Theirs was a philosophy of building society yourself.

The white elite (the Tuckahoes) of the Deep South, on the contrary, fought a war to prevent the pluralization and diversification of the sources of wealth creation and the material base of society. Theirs was an insipid society that could not and did not want to think beyond slaves and slavery. They also couldn't think beyond cotton. One of the least talked about consequences of slavery in the Deep South is the emergence of a thoroughly lazy, indolent, and unimaginative southern white plantocratic elite that had grown so used to slaves doing everything for them they couldn't even wipe their own behinds after shitting. Theirs was a philosophy of using unwilling slaves to build society. This laziness of the Tuckahoes, induced by over-reliance on slaves and cotton, is the beginning of the wealth and development gap between the Deep South and the more industrious and diversified North. This was bound to happen. The march of history caught the white elite of the Deep South pants down. Slavery ended and Massa was suddenly naked. Emancipation of blacks meant that those who had never learnt to do anything on their own had to suddenly begin to imagine other ways of progress and societal advancement. They have been playing catch up ever since.

By now, the elite in northern Nigeria should be in familiar territory if they are reading this. Replace slaves with oil and southern white elite with Hausa-Fulani elite and our plot shifts seamlessly from the American Deep South to northern Nigeria. Without oil, the elite of northern Nigeria cannot wipe its own behind. In essence, the kind of white elite that slavery created in the Deep South is precisely what oil has created in northern Nigeria: indolent, lazy, unimaginative, and irredeemably greedy. The white elite of the Deep South even had some redeeming values: they took care of their own. Not so our friends in northern Nigeria. In more than thirty years of deranged looting of national wealth (with regular equal-opportunity windows of massive looting by southern quislings such as Olusegun Obasanjo, Andy Uba, and James Ibori), these crazy elite have turned their own people in the North into one of Africa's most poverty-beaten people. Northern Nigeria is that country's synonym for backwardness, underdevelopment, and poverty. I should know: I lived in Sokoto and Kaduna, the hearts of the Caliphate.

If the white elite in the American Deep South went to war to be able to cling to slavery as the only source of wealth generation, their copycats in northern Nigeria have clung to that plot since oil was struck in the Niger Delta. They have been at war to remain unimaginatively addicted to oil and have even ordered air raids in the Niger Delta to maintain their iron grip on things. Worse, they even destroyed the pre-existing diversified base of wealth generation (from cloth dyeing to agriculture: the groundnut pyramids!) in that part of Nigeria just to concentrate on oil loot. This addiction to an unimaginative monocultural philosophy of wealth generation accounts for their maniacal determination to maintain the Stone Age federalism Nigeria operates, which over-concentrates the power to loot and mismanage oil wealth at the centre. In the process, they have created a thoroughly underdeveloped and backward northern Nigeria that is perpetually playing catch-up with the rest of the country, never mind the numerous official measures (quota) they have foolishly adopted over the years to retard the progress of the South and close the gap.

The culture of poverty and ignorance they groom among their own people in order to sustain this scenario accounts for tragedies like Boko Haram: the northern elite must be held squarely responsible. Like the more talented white oppressors who wrote their script in the American Deep South, history is bound to catch up with the Oligarchy in northern Nigeria. The history of the Deep South teaches us that the addiction gets worse as things hustle towards an inevitable end. As slavery was winding down, the vocabulary of Massa was tied even more to slaves. Take a look at the diction of Nigeria's northern elite even as the world marches inexorably towards the end of the era of oil. Although I have long lost the capacity to be shocked or scandalized by Abuja, I can't help wincing at the thought that all you hear from them now is talk of oil blocks, petroleum industry bill, petroleum training institute, petroleum university, petroleum this and petroleum that, all signals from an elite that is totally tone deaf to the message from the rest of the civilized world that the end of oil is nigh. As I write, the leadership of northern Nigeria is still desperately prospecting for oil in the North.

Nigeria's northern elite are clinging to a vocabulary of oil at a time when the national budgets of the oil states in the Arabian Gulf are evolving towards oil independence; at a time when Moloch Yaddie is in Brazil, a country that has left oil behind and now runs on ethanol; at a time when President Obama's main agenda in office is to secure America's independence from oil; at a time when China and India have also joined the race to a future without oil. Definitely, these elite are entombed in the prison-house of oil. Things wouldn't be this frustrating if the northern elite had shown themselves capable even of stealing intelligently. Intelligent stealing happens when, after looting over 200 billion US dollars in thirty years, we see a Dubai-like northern Nigeria with massive high-tech agricultural infrastructure that could make it the food basket of Africa. Northern Nigeria could conveniently feed the African continent. With its tomatoes, onions, potatoes, maize, guinea corn, beans and so many other products, this part of Nigeria has the capacity to make Canadian agriculture look like boy scouts agriculture had the loot of the Northern elite been massively invested in it in the last three decades. And they had cotton too before they got drunk on oil. Yes, cotton! Like their teachers in the American Deep South!

Here then is the warning: unless a brand new generation of sufficiently dissatisfied Northerners forty-years-old and below rises up to take radical stock of things; unless they categorically reject a dependency mentality that ties the fate of the North to the Niger Delta's oil at the expense of developing the vast agricultural and mineral potentials of Arewa land; unless they understand that our envisioned Nigeria of the future will not tolerate the retrogressive born-to-rule mentality of their elders; unless they understand that northern leadership, as currently constituted, is too moribund to think beyond oil and too wicked to think beyond narrow class interests; unless they study how scrupulously the old and current guard of the northern elite have applied the strategies of the white slavers in the Deep South of the United States to make a total mess of the North and Nigeria; and, most importantly, unless they understand why the Deep South has had to play catch up with the rest of America for so long, the North will continue to lag behind and play catch up for another foreseeable century even with its stranglehold on the centre, quota, federal character, and other foolish strategies designed to slow down the pace of development in the rest of Nigeria. Let's hope that the odious rulers of Nigeria will let her have another century.