Northern Nigeria’s socio-economic decline is by design, not by accident
There is a sharp divide between Northern and Southern Nigeria. The North is deeply impoverished; the South is far more prosperous. Recently, the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, warned that “If the North does not change, the North will destroy itself”. But the North has long been destroying itself, and what it faces now is an existential decline. Sadly, the problems are man-made, not accidental. We will come to that later but, first, let’s understand the severity of the problems.
The truth is that if Northern Nigeria were a country, it would, in its present conditions, be classified as a failed or fragile state. The North exhibits all the symptoms of state fragility, including widespread insecurity, extremely weak state capacity, with very low level of public services, and an environment that is not attractive to private investment.
In 2014, the World Bank laid bare the scale of the problems in its Nigeria Economic Report. In the report, the Bank lamented the strong divide between the North and South in poverty and poverty reduction. While the three geopolitical zones in the South were experiencing declines in poverty, the three geo-political zones in the North were experiencing increases.
According to the Bank, an estimated 52 per cent of the population of the North West lived below the poverty line, while 50.2 per cent of the population of the North East were extremely poor. But if the North Central was added, the Bank said, about 66 per cent of the poor people in Nigeria resided in the North.
That was in 2014. The situation has since deteriorated. Emir Sanusi said that “The poverty level of the North is 80 per cent, while it’s 20 per cent in the South”. Statistics from the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative confirm this. For instance, in 2018, the rates of severe poverty in some Northern states were as follows: Jigawa, 68.5 per cent; Sokoto, 67 per cent; Zamfara, 63.8 per cent; Bauchi, 63 percent. But the figures for some Southern states were Edo, 0.1 per cent; Imo, 0.4 per cent; Lagos, 0.4 per cent; Rivers, 1.3 per cent; Abia, 1.4 per cent; and Osun, 1.8 per cent.
How can extreme poverty rate be as low as 2 per cent in the South, but as high as 70 per cent in the North? Northern states are really experiencing a significant worsening in poverty and living standards.
But how did the North become trapped in these dire straits? Well, states fail because of their values and institutions. And it is the North’s cultural and doctrinal systems that account for its social and economic backwardness. Truth be told, the seeds of the North’s decline are embedded in its national psyche, and these seeds are feudalism, twisted religious beliefs and political short-sightedness.
Let’s start with feudalism. The North is very conservative, while the South tends to be progressive. There is a huge difference between the two ideologies. Progressivism is based on the idea of improving the human condition. By contrast, conservatism is an ideology that promotes entrenched privilege, feudalism and a static social order. Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe pursued progressive policies in their regions to liberate the minds of their people and enhance their social progress through education. But in the North, the ruling elite allowed the people’s social status to determine their place in life.
Progressive Northern leaders like Aminu Kano opposed feudalism in the North, but the conservative leaders fought them viciously. They told the people their low status was God-ordained. Chief Awolowo’s main criticism of the North was its feudalism; he hated the fact that Northern leaders kept their people under bondage by refusing to educate them. He knew that education is the best route out of illiteracy, ignorance and poverty, and sowed the seed of education in Western Nigeria, which makes the South West what it is today. But the North refused to educate its people. Even today, according to the World Bank, while over 90 per cent of children in Southern Nigeria between the ages of 6-16 attend school, less than half of the children in the North do so!
Emir Sanusi told the North to prioritise education. But that’s inconsistent with feudalism. Under feudalism, only the children of the feudal lords are educated, the children of the serfs are not. Someone said recently that the Almajiri children have become “ready-made raw materials for criminal activities”. But that’s what those sponsoring them want, an indoctrinated underclass that can be used to serve the interests of the feudal lords. By the way, what’s the meaning of “Boko Haram”? Well, it means “Western education is a sin”. Yet, without Western education, the type that Sanusi and Nasir el-Rufai have, the North cannot compete with the rest of the country except through the quota system, which, as Sanusi rightly said, “must have a sunset clause”!
Now, let’s come to the second reason for the North’s utter decline: twisted religious beliefs. The first consequence of this problem is violence. Islam is a peaceful religion, we are told, but those causing havoc in the name of that religion believe that “if you kill, you will have a place in heaven”. But while Boko Haram creates psychological fears in the South, it’s the North that it’s mainly destroying. Indeed, as President Buhari said recently, “90 per cent of victims of violence and insecurity in the North are Muslims”. So, the North is consciously destroying itself through perverse religious beliefs.
But another consequence of twisted religious beliefs, which is also destroying the North, is the practice of marrying many wives and having many children. The Quran says a Muslim can marry up to four wives if he can look after them. But Northerners have taken that as a licence to marry many wives and produce many children who, as Emir Sanusi candidly put it, “are left on the streets to beg for what to eat”! Recently, a member of the House of Representatives paraded his four wives on the floor of the House and boasted that he had 19 children “and still counting”! It was a disgraceful behaviour that should shame the North.
But, think of it, isn’t the North deliberately destroying itself when, despite facing a population explosion, a Northern leader boasted of having 19 children “and still counting”? Of course, it is!
Well, that brings us to the last problem: political short-sightedness. In the 1950s, the North vehemently opposed the South’s agitation for Nigeria’s independence from Britain. How could a people under bondage refuse an opportunity to be free? Well, that’s emblematic of the North’s resistance to change. Yet, since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, the North has treated the country’s political leadership as its birthright. If you add both military and civilian regimes, the North has ruled Nigeria for 43 out of its 59 years of independence, leaving the South with only 16 years. So, despite initially opposing Nigeria’s independence, the North has benefitted politically from it.
Now, it’s déjà vu all over again: The North is opposed to restructuring Nigeria. But it’s being short-sighted again. The truth is that the North will benefit from the restructuring of Nigeria. Regionalism in which significant powers, responsibilities and resources are devolved to the regions under a restructured Nigeria will serve the North well. It can mobilise its resources regionally, call on support locally and internationally, and develop something like a Marshall Plan to reconstruct the region. But that can only happen under a restructured Nigeria.
So, let’s face it. The North’s existential decline is its own fault, caused by its feudalism, twisted religious beliefs and short-sighted politics. It must tackle these problems head-on; otherwise, it will irreversibly destroy itself, as Emir Sanusi has rightly warned!