“In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.” – Confucius, Chinese Philosopher 551 – 479bc
Recent attempts to draw attention to the linkages between poverty, politics and insecurity in the North of Nigeria make it necessary to try to understand the basic elements of the political economy of the region, and its relationship with the rest of Nigeria. It is vital to that this understanding is informed by facts and analyses that do not mislead either northerners or other Nigerians, because wrong assumptions or conclusion could compound the political and security situation in the country. It is particularly important to appreciate that the North represents an asset and a liability for Nigeria; and it could be more of either, depending on how its current situation is handled.it is vital to realize that unless the problems of the North are fixed, Nigeria’s problems cannot be fixed.
Three (3) important comments have recently been made with reference to the linkages between poverty, politics and insecurity, all of which provide basic insights into the current state of the North.
First, a few weeks ago the Governor of Borno State said that poverty and poor governance in the last few years are responsible for fuelling the Boko Haram insurgency in his region. He said there are linkages between PDP politicians and Boko Haram insurgents. In making a case for massive state spending to fight poverty, he alluded to the secret behind the successful control by the murdered leader of the Boko Haram insurgency, Yusuf Muhammad over his followers, which was his painstaking attention and investment in their stomachs, employment and personal dignity.
The second insight into the North’s economy came from the Governor of Niger State, Dr. Muazu Babangida Aliyu when he said that Northern Governors will soon demand for a review of the revenue allocation formula to address the absence of fairness in the manner national revenues from petroleum and gas are distributed. He said current allocations are not informed by equity or the law, and are responsible for extreme imbalance in the manner the north and some southern states are developing. He complained that the North is gravely poor, and its levels of illiteracy, poverty, ignorance and general backwardness are rising. The chairman of the Northern Governors’ Forum said that his State receives, on the average, N4.2b monthly, from which it pays out half as salaries, while some other States with much smaller populations receive 20 times more.
The third comment on the state of the North came from the U.S Ambassador to Nigeria, who said his country will encourage the Nigerian government to reach out to people in the desperately poor north in its fight against the Boko Haram insurgency, in addition to better use of technology and intelligence. He said the insurgency would not be solved by treating it exclusively as a security issue, and advised the adoption of a holistic approach to dealing with the problem.
Now, all three of these comments and insights provide a glimpse into how the North is defined today. The region is currently defined principally by poverty and an escalating insurgency. These defining characteristics are challenged by some basic facts about the North. Its taxes and agricultural economy for decades, supported the development of the early colonian Nigerian state, including much of the most developed sections of Nigeria today. It was a vital part of a federation where populations meant much, and where resources were derived directly from productive activities of the people, long before virtually all of Nigeria came to adopt a parasitic existence around revenue from petroleum and gas. It was and is the region with the potential to provide enough food for much of Africa; to support a vibrant agro-allied industrial base, and which has more solid minerals under it than almost any part of the world. The North is the region that frittered away its achievements, and failed to tap into, and develop its potential. It was sucked into the dangerous dependence on revenues from products located in far-away places, where politics is played in a manner that makes it appear that they belong to the who live on top of them. It failed to develop its two largest assets: its considerable population and vast, rich agricultural potential. It is de-industrializing and regressing economically at a rate which threatens every facet of its existence, and the Nigerian nation.
The North has far more voters than the rest of Nigeria, so in free and fair election, it does not need to beg the rest of the nation to allow northerners to become President. It does not need zoning, which is the product of elite scheming, that severely short-changes the north, and deprives all Nigerians of the right to vote for the best candidates available. Yet the north also has the largest number of poorest people in Nigeria among its population. It has the largest number of children beggars, and young people who do not go to school, or go to schools without learning anything of value; and pass out of schools without qualifications, skills or any hope of leading productive, responsible adult lives.
The North has an aging political leadership which has lost control of the political process in the region. Its political machinery is firmly under control of Governors, who show no evidence that they have the capacity, or vision or commitment to address its fundamental problems. It is being politically weakened by the increasing incursion of faith-based politics, ethno-religious conflicts and the declining influence of traditional values. Its pluralism is dragging it down in terms of competing as a region. Huge chasms have developed between its mulsim population which has a long list of grievances against its christian population; and a christian population which is developing a split personality: now telling it that if is free of decades or centuries of Hausa-Fulani domination; and next being warned about engaging the south entirely as northern minorities.
The North is being presented now as a victim of endemic poverty, and that its current security and political problems will be addressed once there is massive public spending in its human capital and basic infrastructure. In a nation where fortunes of entire populations increasingly depend on the ethno-religious origins of leaders who determine the allocation of scarce resources, the loss of political power engineered by northern Governors appears to be hurting the north much more than all its old problems.
The Boko Haram insurgency is still being labelled as a northern rebellion against the loss of political power by the north to President Jonathan. Little attention is paid to the fact that Boko Haram is pre-eminently an insurgency against the northern Muslim establishment, in both its doctrinal and political forms; and that it is the insurgency that now appears to be setting the agenda for northern Muslims, whether they agree with it or not.
The poverty of the north, manifested in its poor leadership, its declining economy and the absence to a visible and purposeful challenge to the damaging dominance of Governors and their party in its politics will be compounded by the image of the beggar region that will be made more pronounced when Governor Babangida and his colleagues go abegging cup-in-hand, for a few more crumbs from the South South. They will cause northerners to be insulted even more, and will get nothing because they have nothing to leverage in their demands. They will not convince the rest of Nigeria to yield more of the resources the north deserves as a matter of right, because they cannot answer questions over what the north did with its own resources. They will get little support from northerners who will ask what value additional allocated revenue will be to the north when Governors and their army of sycophants and parasitic Local Governments will absorb all of it. They have no capacity to show in terms of their own efforts to develop the huge potential of the north, which additional revenues from oil and gas will boost.
Northern leaders will behave like loyal party men and hope that their party will help. It will not. The PDP has no influence over what the President does. They cannot therefore push through genuine reviews of the manner resources are allocated. They cannot organize an informed response to the rest of Nigeria which believes that it is better-off without the North, a region and people full of poverty and violence. It cannot assure its people that the north fought times without number for the unity of Nigeria, and will do so again, if necessary. They cannot articulate a range of options for the north, including the possibility that parts of the nation may go their separate ways; and that this could actually be a good thing for the North.
The danger of linking the current threats of the Boko Haram insurgency with poverty is that it gives a wrong picture.
Poverty has always been a feature of the northern political economy, and it will require trillions in real investment over many years to address those unacceptable and dangerous levels of poverty in the region. Nigeria has no choice over whether if should undertake this massive expenditure. It should, and it must.
A desperately poor North is a danger to itself, and a danger to the rest of Nigeria. Restructuring the country or threatening poverty and insecurity with radical reviews of the nature of the union will achieve little. This nation may have to fight another war to settle the question of its future, its structure and its values. It does not need to; but if or when it becomes necessary, the North will fight as it had done in the past.
Not necessarily to preserve a union when many others do not want it; but to preserve a national or regional arrangement which allows all sections to live in peace and develop on the basis of the resources which God gave each or all of us. A vital element in understanding the North today is to appreciate that its fundamental weakness is at the political level, and poverty and insecurity cannot be decisively talked unless its quality of leadership radically improves.