A new report by the World Bank that the Northern states account for 87 per cent of the country’s burgeoning poverty rate is dreadfully familiar. Its findings that, rather than abating, poverty has been rising, conflate with an admission by some of the northern elite that the region has become the epicentre of insecurity, banditry and terrorism and thus pose a threat to the entire country. The fault lies entirely with the region’s leadership and its obsession with power without a corresponding vision or service delivery.
Hardly any cheery news comes out from Northern Nigeria. Defying advertised social protection measures, “poverty in the northern regions has been increasing,” such that while poverty rates in the South average 12 per cent, the North’s 87 per cent share of all poor Nigerians established the country, since 2018, as home to the world’s largest number of “extremely poor.” In Southern Nigeria, misrule, corruption, crime, economic privation and joblessness are also rife. But compared to the northern states, the South looks almost blissful: inequality and poverty, said the global lender, are mostly concentrated in the North, lagging far behind the South in human capital outcomes, wracked by banditry and terrorism and home to about two million internally displaced persons. The report tallies with the United Nations Poverty Index for the decade to 2014, which featured only two North (Central) states among the 18 states of the federation that had poverty rates of 33.1 per cent and below. All other 17 northern states had rates ranging from 51.6 per cent (Plateau) to 91.9 per cent (Zamfara) to be in the bottom 18. In comparison, only one Southern state, Ebonyi, was in the bottom 18.
What is wrong? As a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, said recently, the security crisis in the North is not only unparalleled, it is one foretold, created and sustained by a leadership model “exposed as a lie, an empty ideology used to satiate greed instead of addressing social inequality and injustice.” Besides hosting about 80 per cent of the 13.5 million out-of-school children in the country (the global highest), the region now hosts three of the globe’s most deadly terrorist groups – Boko Haram and its splinters, Fulani militants and bandits/kidnappers – whose combined rapine has rendered most of the 19 Northern states unsafe. Their malevolent presence is spreading to Southern states and neighbouring countries.
Persistently high levels of poverty in the North are not borne out of federal negligence either. Two presidents, both Southerners – Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan – inaugurated the Child Rights Act and 165 almajiri schools respectively, the one to provide free education to children and discourage child marriage and the other to mop up the estimated 8.5 million exploited child-beggars roaming the streets in the name of acquiring Koranic education. Most Northern states have not domesticated the CRA, while the incumbent President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), has ignored the latter. In today’s knowledge-driven economy, illiterates have little prospects of formal or self-employment.
The North is trapped in poverty because its leaders continue to politicise religion and cynically manipulate sentiments to acquire political power instead of investing in education, health, infrastructure and job-creating policies. Since the full introduction of Sharia in Northern Nigeria was launched in Zamfara State, on October 27, 1999, the region has been stuck in abject poverty, criminality and spread of radical Islam. As Chatham House, the British think tank, noted, rather than its promised piety, justice and inclusion, the introduction of penal aspects of Sharia law by 12 northern states “opened up the North’s social space for extreme religious ideologies to be seeded and for older strands of radical Islamism to be revived.” The Chairman of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency Mohammed Abdallah’s disclosure that most of the 6,833 persons arrested for drug abuse in 2018 were from the North, including females, reflects the rising menace of substance abuse and use by bandits, terrorists and youths in a region once known for peace.
The obsession with political power by the northern elite is also to blame. Instead of using political power to deepen education, improve primary healthcare and develop rural infrastructure, Northern governors since 1999 have been deploying their resources to fund religious activities and traditional rulers.
Saving the region, the country and potentially the West African sub-region requires a swift, decisive and sustained action by the Northern leadership. The occasional lamentations and hand-wringing as witnessed at the recent Northern Security Summit will not suffice. The entire Northern elite – political, traditional, religious and bureaucratic – need a radical attitudinal change and a deep appreciation of the mess the region has become. Leaders should act: all northern states should domesticate and enforce the CRA, stop manipulating religion and disband the unconstitutional religious laws and bodies, invest heavily in security and launch an emergency programme of education. The abusive almajiri system is irredeemable; eradicate it, implement policies that will improve the business environment and attract investors. Too much blood has been shed, genuine healing and reconciliation initiatives based on justice and equity should be implemented. Poverty has bred terrorism, banditry and random violence.
The governors have to change their attitude to education and realise that with illiteracy rates of over 70 per cent and 69 per cent of the people lacking access to education, compared to over 80 per cent literacy rate in the South, the region will continue to be a wretched place to live. Despite having an overbearing representation in the federal bureaucracy, control of 19 of the 36 states, taking a large chunk of federally distributed revenue and endowed with arable land and solid minerals; the North is adjudged one of the most miserable places on earth to live, unfriendly to investment, peace and harmonious co-existence. Its size of nearly two-thirds of the landmass, covering 711,828 square kilometres of the country’s total 923,763 sq km has not been put to productive advantage.
Multiculturalism has become a defining feature in many of the world’s fastest growing economies. The North should be brought back to what it used to be; a melting pot. The more people from different backgrounds trust each other, the better off the society. It is obvious that Nigeria’s structural oddity hurts the North more than any other part of the country.
Nigeria’s over 34 commercially viable solid mineral deposits are located mostly in the North. Nasarawa State, for instance, is Nigeria’s home of solid minerals that include mica, barite, clay, columbite, cassiterite, marble, iron ore, lithium, wolframite and gemstones. The region’s leaders should drop their self-serving opposition to restructuring Nigeria into a politically workable, economically productive and socially integrative federation with fiscal autonomy, resource control and state policing. The unjust rentier system the country’s elite has sustained is unravelling and unless they act fast, the contraption may explode with unpredictable consequences.