By Azu Ishiekwene
Sarkin Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, is in the eye of the storm and it seems the only way he can overcome it is to remain controversial.
I was at an event in Lagos in October where he was also present as special guest. In an extempore speech, he said he had decided to stay out of the headlines, especially after government officials responded with a sledgehammer to his criticism of the Central Bank’s monetary policy.
Since then, however, he has made even more controversial headlines.
It’s obvious that the only way he can keep his promise of silence is to break it, which is a good thing.
It would have been a pity if he had been silent on some matters over which his adversaries, led by Zamfara State Governor, Abdulaziz Yari, seem prepared to incite public opinion against him.
In what was obviously a moment of insanity, Governor Yari had said that the outbreak of Type ‘C’ meningitis in Zamfara, which was spreading to other parts of the North and the country, was God’s punishment for our sins.
Yari, the high priest of the god of meningitis, offered no succour to the families of the over 246 dead in his state nor did he acknowledge that the association of medical doctors warned him much earlier that insufficient vaccines would lead to needless loss of lives.
I don’t know which was worse: Yari’s irresponsible comment or the deafening silence among the Northern elite that should know better.
Sanusi’s response at the Kaduna State Investment Summit was a relief. In a season when the EFCC was recovering billions of “orphan” cash in private homes, it was doubly embarrassing and heartbreaking to hear Yari speaking like a clown.
He should have been grateful for Sanusi’s advice that rather than blaming the victims – or dragging God into it – he should provide vaccines for them and hide his face in shame.
But in what appears to be a bizarre twist of Galileo, Yari was suggesting that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect intended us to forgo their use.
His response to Sanusi was a savage attack, which completely ignored the issue and his own shameful role in the tragedy.
Unfortunately for Sanusi, Yari’s response also came a week after his speech at the three-year anniversary of the missing Chibok girls poured more petrol on the fire lit by his views about the state of affairs in the North.
The essential points in his speech were:
That the North East and North West of Nigeria are the poorest in the country
That even though 46 percent of Nigerians are living below the poverty line, the figure, though bad in itself, masks the larger inequalities within the country
For example, the South West of Nigeria has less than 20 percent of its population living below poverty as against 80 percent in the North West or 76.8 percent in the North East
Over 90 percent of the people in Yobe and Zamfara States are living below poverty, compared with 8.5 percent in Lagos and around 11 percent in Osun and Anambra States
The statistics of gender inequality within the regions, according to figures cited by Sanusi, are even starker, with much lower levels of school enrolment figures among girls, higher records of early/forced marriages and maternal mortality in the North.
Instead of facing these demons, Yari and co have accused Sanusi of hypocrisy. They accused him, among other things, of squandering N3billion on a Rolls Royce and an extravagant lifestyle, when he could have used the same resources to improve the welfare of the people whose plight he is now complaining about.
They could have Sanusi’s head on a platter, if they want. God knows there have been times I absolutely disagreed with him – like when as Governor of the Central Bank he criticised petrol subsidy yet the government paid out billions of naira in dubious claims to marketers. Or the shabby way the sale of Afribank, Spring Bank and Bank PHB was handled on his watch, not to mention the sexing up of bad loan accounts, which many commercial banks later dumped on AMCON.
But calling Sanusi names will not change the facts. And those who made him Emir cannot say his eccentricity is a surprise.
So, let’s deal with the issues. It’s a fact that poverty is widespread in the North, especially in the parts cited by Sanusi. But it was not always the case.
Under the first Development Plan between 1962 and 1968, for example, the North outperformed the South in a number of important areas. According to a World Bank report, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/903921468098980098/Nigeria-development-plan-1962-1968, while the North budgeted £3.4m for Education out of a total expenses of £6.2m for other Social Overheads, such as Health, Town Planning, Co-operatives and Information, the Eastern region came second with £2.1m, while the West and Mid-West planned to spend £2.8m and £771,000 respectively.
It’s also remarkable that in contrast to the current trend of governors going cap-in-hand for monthly allocation in Abuja, the North had the highest savings of £4.7million (in 1966/67) from the sales of commodities by the Marketing Board to finance its budget. It even had the largest “external reserve” of £3.4million as against the West’s £1.6million.
From FAO records, between 1962 and 1968 the North produced five of the top ten export crops that sustained the country, with groundnut rivaling the West’s cocoa for the number one spot.
Someone should have told Yari, too, that before the handouts in Abuja, there was a place called Gusau, an important 16th century city and a trading post, which in spite of decades of mineral-stripping, remains the richest in gold deposits in the country even today.
The North was not always like this: apart from its cultural genius, warmth and hospitality, it remained country’s food basket for years. Of course, there was healthy competition among the regions until the military abrogated the regional system and, to make matters worse, oil happened.
The mismanagement of an estimated $600billion realised from the sale of oil since 1960 has affected the country root and branch, every part of it.
For the North, it led to the rise of a mercenary elite. This elite abandoned the principles of the founding fathers, robbed the poor of their land and pride and exchanged them for strange franchises in Islam.
Rapidly increasing population and pseudo-religious practices have only made matters worse. After years of decay – in sharp contrast to the prosperity of the mercenary elite – the chicken is coming home to roost.
The few industries – the ginneries, the nuts, textiles and leather companies – weakened by years of neglect, could not withstand economic liberalisation and the influx of cheap Chinese products.
The mercenary political elite didn’t care, as long as handouts from Abuja were lining their pockets. Yet, the fallout has been the rise of large armies of restive youths who, mostly without education and a future, have become easy recruits as political thugs and fodder for religious extremism.
We must thank Sanusi for coming out and calling a spade by its name. But behind the statistics the state of poverty is just as dire in the North as it is in any other part of the country today.
Forget the few in the cities hiding billions of stolen cash in posh houses. Life, for millions of ordinary Nigerians at the edge of the city, is very, very miserable. And it’s the same from Kaura Namoda to Makoko and from Oloibiri to Ikeduru.
Politicians, across board and parties lines, used to years of easy money from oil rent, have installed a system that hardly encourages accountability or rewards performance. Accountability is not a given; citizens must demand it, and if necessary, take it by force.
Like the herdsman anxious to save the flock from danger, Sanusi’s comment was a wake-up call. If, however, like Frederik Willem de Klerk, he becomes the battering ram that deals the fatal blow on his privileged class, he will always find a place in our weary hearts, a much better place than his troubled throne.
*Ishiekwene is the MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview magazine and board member of the Global Editors Network