Malam Dauda Birma, a former minister of education, a technocrat and a thoroughbred politician needs no introduction in Nigeria’s political and bureaucratic spaces. In this first part of the interview with Mohammed Ismail, the elder-stateman bares his mind about some nagging issues afflicting the north and the way forward.


The north known for its peaceful enterprise is currently at a tipping point as differences in religion and ethnicity became manifest. The region is also grappling with debilitating social insecurity and other myriads of challenges. What do you think is responsible for this drift?

There are several things about northern Nigeria which we don’t want to talk about. If we are noisy about our stands and about our views, we should be scattering all our views all over the place and people will claim to know us more than they ought to know us.

Today, I am proud to say a lot of people who think they know the North, don’t know it. People who think the north is divided, yes, we are ethnically divided, we are religiously divided, but we still remain the North because being North is a geographical feature, there is nothing you can do about it.

You can think of your ethnicity, but it is situated within the North which you do not control or cannot control, and circumstances will bring you together.

Religion have been used to emphasize differences in the North. Yes, there is differences, there is Islam, there is Christianity there is the traditional religion. But still, the people are northern with a common origin or origin that overlap each other.

I will tell you one thing, somebody from Plateau joined a team that was touring Nigeria and they went to Borno, and they went on a courtesy call on the Shehu of Borno about 20 – 25 years ago. He was introduced as Angas but with the name Fidelis, the Shehu of Borno said, Fidelis come and sit here, why are you sitting there, are you not my brother? You Angas passed through Borno here before you went into Plateau and stay, then you went to Plateau and said that you are different; come and sit near me. Now tell me, how would you say that they are different if the Shehu of Borno will talk to an Angas man like that. Which is to say, the Angas man will feel at home in Borno and he will not feel that he is a stranger.

Therefore, I would say, in the context of our relationship with the rest of Nigeria, there is misunderstanding but we in the North, exercise a great deal of tolerance. We are abused but kept quiet, we absorb the abuse. We are denigrated but we have to accept that somebody who does not know you can always underrate you.

But we do not come out and start negatively arguing because the North, no matter what you think of it, is that, it is an amalgam of very ancient people, very ancient empires that have risen and fallen but which intend to rise again.

As you rightly said, the north used to be one of the most cohesive regions despite its diversity but suddenly things went awry and the center can no more hold. What do you think is responsible for the new trend of discordance that is now the hallmark of the north?

If you talk of the Sokoto Empire, you talk of the Borno Empire, then you will also talk of the Nok Empire even if it has disappeared, it existed at one time. And if you look at it now, China is what it is today because it is a successor to a very ancient civilization, and these civilizations will arise. So, I am speaking about this because we are in a situation now people are denigrating us, people are insulting us but we remain the North as a geographical region.

There are people who now said they are middle belters. Right, this middle belt was not coined by us, it was coined by outsiders who wanted to divide the North. The Action group of 1940s and 1950s wanted to penetrate the North and therefore, they persuaded certain parts of the North to be the Middle Belt and they created the United Middle Belt Congress. And people said Middle Belt, now, is it a religious Middle Belt?, a geographical Middle Belt?, a linguistic Middle Belt?, a cultural Middle Belt or what is it?

Today, I come from Garkida in Adamawa State, in Gombi local government but I am a Muslim. There are my cousins, my first cousins who call themselves Middle Belters, they attend the Middle Belt meetings and nobody talks to me about the Middle Belt. Then, is it a religious Middle Belt or is it Geographical? Because if it is geographical, I should be consulted. And today, the leader of the Middle Belt movement comes from Chibok. Chibok is to the Northeast of my hometown and he is the leader of the Middle Belt movement. Therefore, if we are worried about what people imposed on us, we are probably even wasting our time. For instance, now, as you have come, if there is food, I will bring out the food and none of you will hesitate to eat this food. But this food is not a Birom food, is not a Bura food, is a northern food. And the person coming from Sokoto will eat it, the person coming from Borno will eat it. The only reason person from Benue may not eat it, he may say that he wants bush meat in it, otherwise, he will eat.

So, what separates us really? It is a question we meet together, we talk together, if we are denigrated together, we exercise some patience and then we move. Because our potentiality lies ahead of us, not now. Now, I am speaking in random, when we talk about the North’s backwardness, we don’t even have to apologize, we don’t have to deny.

But talking about backwardness, we must agree that the north is backward as all the pointers show. Are you disputing such statistics?

You have to understand that the first northerner to ever become a lawyer called to the Barr, died only some four months ago. He was called to the Barr in the 1950s. the first Yoruba man who was called to the Barr was in 1870s, about 100 years before us. So if they claimed to be more educated, can we dispute it? If they say we are backward educationally, can we dispute it? Today, in northern Nigeria there are people who still say western education is haram. Today as we are talking, which is to say they have turned their back away from western education. Whereas people are going to university in the West and in Calabar area in the 1700s and 1800s. The first secondary school established in Adamawa was in 1956. The same with Borno. The first one in Bauchi was in 1954. So, let us admit that the western education came late, our forefathers rejected it, the socio-cultural attitude rejected it but now we are endeavoring to embrace it and we are endeavoring to be part of the 21st century.

But people who regard America, Britain Canada and so on as their model would have contempt for us. But all we need to do is to be patient. Schools have been set up, we are attending these schools, we are sending our children and we are moving forward.