In his autobiography, My Life, published in 1962, the late Premier of the Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardaunan Sokoto, wrote: “They say that I am proud and impatient. I am certainly proud, for I have much to be proud of, and not the least the trust that God has given me to lift up our people from their primitive conditions into the light of life and the happiness of contentment.” (Emphasis added).
He had big dreams for the region. He was still in the process of lifting up the people when the sun tragically and suddenly set on his life in the 15 January 1966 coup. I am willing to hazard the guess that the great man dreamed of a region that would be the bastion of peace and religious harmony – walking slowly but purposefully and steadily along the path of economic and social development.
Fifty-six years after his death as of this writing, some serious developments have turned his beloved region into a land of nightmares. His slogan was one north, one people. That slogan would ring jarringly hollow today should anyone mouth it. We do not have one north anymore; we have 19 successor states and 19 state governors. We are not one people anymore; we are a multiplicity different people pulling in different directions. We do not have religious harmony anymore; we have heart-wrenching religious disharmony with the blood of the innocent flowing in churches and mosques. We do not have peace any more; we have AK-47 killers on the loose.
The region where, in the premier’s own words, “Buba sleeps outside his hut with 5,000 head(s) of cattle … without being afraid of being attacked” has ceased to exist as such. It can no longer protect Buba from being attacked and his cattle stolen. The law of the jungle is in full flower in the former region. We do not have one voice any more on national issues; we have a multiplicity of discordant voices.
Were Sir Ahmadu Bello to see these, he would surely weep for the region and its people. This was not the region he devoted himself to building when he became the first, and as it turned out, the only premier of Northern Region in October 1954. Pretenders to his throne lack his appreciation of the place of the north in the Nigerian nation. Their vision spells myopia.
The richest region in terms of natural and human resources is today the poorest region in the country and rubs shoulders with some of the worst places on earth where life is brutal and expendable.
I have just picked my way through the latest global report on Nigeria with particular reference to northern Nigeria. It is called Global Multidimensional Poverty Index issued by Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative for 2017. The report covered more than 100 countries. According to its authors, the report identified “deprivations across health, education and living standards, and show the number of people who are multidimensionally poor and the deprivations that they face at the household level.”
It is a dense read for those of us untutored in the rather arcane science of statistics and statistical analyses. Still, the facts about the North-East and the North-West geo-political zones stand out in all their disturbingly ugly glory. The report ranks the 13 states in the two geo-political zones among the “most miserable places on earth to live.”
So, here are the grim and unsettling facts. Poverty in the north averages 85.36 per cent. The national average is 53 per cent. Six of the 19 states in the region wallow in abject and mind-blowing poverty. They are, in descending order of their multidimensional rate of poverty: Zamfara, 91.9 per cent; Jigawa, 88 per cent; Bauchi, 87 per cent; Kebbi, 86 per cent; Katsina, 82.2 per cent; Taraba, 78 per cent and Gombe, 76.9 per cent.
The problem with figures such as these is that they are impersonal. People do not feel touched by them because it is not easy to relate them to human beings. But they are about human beings and their struggle to rise from the morass of poverty and mere existence into what the premier called “the light of life and the happiness of contentment.”
It should not be difficult to see that wherever you have this level of poverty, life is unarguably nasty and short. Think of it again: 91.9 per cent of the people in Zamfara State are not just poor but face the daily challenges of grappling with the grinding multidimensional poverty. Makes your heart bleed.
According to the report, the southern states have generally performed much, much better than the northern states. Here are the facts: Lagos, 8.5 per cent; Osun, 10.9 per cent; Anambra, 11.2 per cent; Bayelsa, 29.0 per cent; Akwa Ibom, 23.8 per cent; Imo, 19.8 per cent. You do get the point. Two countries? Obviously. The implication for our national development must not be lost on us.
Here you have the faces of poverty in a paradoxically oil-rich but in real terms, poor nation. There is nothing particularly new about the high level of poverty in the north in general and in the two geo-political zones in particular. The World Bank and UNDP have drawn attention to this repeatedly in their annual reports. Each year the reports get worse – as if no one is listening to the experts who know what a drag poverty is on national aspiration and development.
The high level of poverty has a deleterious effect on educational and social development in the region. The two geo-political zones have the highest rate of adult illiteracy, the largest number of children out of school as well as the poorest level in terms of female education. The situation fosters dependence and turns the people into helpless victims of the cynical manipulation of poverty by the wealthy. Ignorance remains a big challenge. Despite the gleaming edifices of state universities, the north is not as educationally advanced as it may seem.
There might be some oases in this arid desert in that some states are trying mightily to shine through the gloom. If so, Hallelujah.
The net effect is that northern youths have increasingly become social deviants. They have virtually marginalised their southern counterparts in crimes such as kidnappings, armed robberies and drug use, especially Codeine syrup. The Senate once held a retreat on this latter problem to sensitise the leaders and the youths to the dangers of youth-dependence on this and other dangerous drugs. The lawmakers talked to the deaf and the unconcerned.
Funny enough, the irony of the northern situation is the irony of the nation itself. It is a rich but poor region. It has untapped solid mineral resources; extensive arable land to support a thriving agricultural production to feed the nation. Yet, almost all the states in the region depend almost entirely on the monthly handouts from the federation account; none of them can generate enough revenue internally to meet its basic expenses such as the payment of salaries and pension.
This being a democracy with the Sword of Damocles of accountability hanging over them, the governors want to be seen to be performing; so they unwisely take on projects of doubtful social and economic development value to the people – and waste money or redirect it into their own pockets.
Let me enter a caveat here. I am as worried about the current situation in the north as any one who sufficiently cares but I am unable to offer any prescriptions on how the north can pull itself out of the morass of poverty. Let me throw it to the laps of the leaders. They are leaders precisely because they claim the high moral ground of leading the people aright. I think the leaders of the South-West have something to teach the leaders of the north in terms of properly articulated co-ordinated efforts to gradually improve the situation in the region. Individual state efforts, while commendable, are only isolated solutions that do not usually make a dent on the state of harrowing poverty in the north.
Our northern leaders have a choice – either to let things be as they are and continue to reap the short term benefits of exploiting the masses or accept that leadership comes with grave responsibilities – and rise to the challenges of turning the region into what Sir Ahmadu Bello dreamed for it.
I am afraid, they won’t rise to the challenges. Blame politics. It is the path to power without responsibilities.
•This article was first published on May 4, 2018. A few minor corrections have been effected here.