On Saturday, Kaduna State Governor, Nasir el-Rufai, spoke at the Northern Youth Summit organised to deliberate on developing northern Nigeria. He painted a picture of Nigeria’s defective growth and development. El-Rufai said two countries presently inhabit the womb of Nigeria and while northern Nigeria ranks the same as war-torn Afghanistan, southern Nigeria is “developing.” His speech was full of other ethnic-tinged howlers, and curiously, that was where he stopped. He did not get to the part where he reflected on the role the elite like him played in the fate of the North.
Truly, the worst-hit states in almost all the measurements of growth and development are in northern Nigeria, and that is not surprising. Years of militant convictions, of religious doctrines and abysmal leadership have birthed a concatenation of poverty, diseases, terror, violence, banditry, drug abuse, and other indices of social breakdown. El-Rufai is right that Nigeria’s weight of poverty, illiteracy and other indices of underdevelopment sag in the North. Whatever hope one has that Nigeria can overcome its challenges is usually dashed by taking just a cursory look at the northern situation. The region has been a quasi-war zone with the North-East a theatre of war since Boko Haram’s 2009 uprising. The North, however, is not monolithic neither is Nigeria’s underdevelopment limited to that region; almost every Nigerian is a victim of Nigeria!
El-Rufai said other things, some of them factual enough. At the same time, we should be careful about a complacent narrative that pits a “backward North” with “developing South.” This dichotomous rhetoric should give us pause. Notice that “developing” is in the present tense? That gives the impression that the South is undergoing some economic rejuvenation and social refurbishment that is being denied the North. Words are powerful, and in a tribalised polity such as ours, they also have policy implications. When those words are uttered by someone like el-Rufai, we need to be circumspect and even paranoid. In 2016, Borno State governor, Kashim Shettima, also contrasted the “two countries” inhabiting Nigeria saying, “poverty wears a northern cap,” while the South is “more stable and prosperous.” These look like a chain of spin narratives by political actors to eventually dispossess other longsuffering Nigerians what they have achieved in their region in spite of atrocious Nigerian leadership
Why is the lamentation about the northern condition coming up at the time general sensibility has it that Nigeria is being Islamised and “Fulanised”? The managers of Nigeria’s affairs have not tackled the perception that undergirds the reality of Fulani hegemony. They have instead doubled down on their clannish proclivities. Now, el-Rufai wants us to believe that southern Nigeria has a comparative advantage over the North? No, there is no “developing South” anywhere; all of us are jointly diminished by the leadership class. Southern Nigeria too suffers from the problem of poverty, ill-literacy, and poor infrastructure.
Nigeria has failed to grow and develop like any other country where the elite are more concerned with state capture for their friends; where rentier mentality informs revenue generation, and the politics of religion subtends policies and projects. From the South to the North, the Nigerian tale is that of poverty, dilapidation, and abject waste of human resources. If el-Rufai had looked well enough, he would have seen that even the South suffers from a chronic lack of infrastructure and resources. Southern Nigeria is at the lowest ebb in the history of modern Nigeria. The only thing that has grown is the population, and at an exponential rate that cannot be sustained by available infrastructure. From schools to hospitals, public infrastructure, and social welfare, southern Nigeria lives on past glory. The federal roads that pass by my childhood home in Ibadan, constructed over 40 years ago, have not received a single tar in more than 20 years. The manufacturing industries that we grew up with are long moribund, and most families today do not have enough to survive let alone boast disposable income. In terms of revenue, Lagos State is the outlier and even what they generate disappears into the sinkhole of corruption and incompetence. The state of their infrastructure does not reflect the level of resources they generate.
So, where did el-Rufai see “developing South”?
We should not get carried away with the misery of the “backward North” benchmarked against the “developing South” and allow el-Rufai to get away with tales that lack introspection. If the North is sinking because of its social troubles, it is because its leaders – including el-Rufai – prefer it that way. There is a reason the northern states fund religious pilgrimages and mass weddings (to boost reproduction) ahead of education and health. Recently, the Buhari administration reversed itself on the purported almajiri ban and none of them was struck by the urgency of the almajiri situation to protest. One even wonders why an administration known for not keeping promises bothered to contradict itself when it could just not back its announcement with action. By merely announcing a ban, the administration must have rattled the elite so much it had to reassure them by publicly backtracking. One can only imagine what the proposed ban did to the political and religious establishments whose privileges are built with the blood and flesh of almajiri children.
After President Goodluck Jonathan lost the election in 2015, former Kano State governor, Rabiu Kwankwaso, boasted that it was their almajiri children they mobilised to win the election. As far as Kwankwaso and co are concerned, their wretched of the earth are bred so their thumbs could be harvested. It means nothing to them that those children are one of the reasons Nigeria is the poverty capital of the world. They have no plan for neither their present nor their future. They keep their almajiri class unhealthy in both body and mind so they perpetually serve the feudal elite. That is why, despite all the lamentations of el-Rufai, he did not ascribe blame where it belongs.
Finally, let me emphasise that in this season of post-truths, we should be wary of seemingly obvious truths, especially those that proceed from the mouths of politicians. El-Rufai is an influential politician, and he only needs to repeat the myth of a northern region that is disadvantaged compared to its southern counterpart before it becomes a refrain. Before you know it, the propaganda of “developing South” vs. “backward North” will gain so much ground they will launch a policy that will cannibalise the South to divert resources to the northern region.
El-Rufai rightly recognised that the North has a “demographic superiority” over the South. That means they have the political leverage to successfully wangle an agenda that will favour a section of the country against the other. Northern politicians dominate power at the federal level. The southern politicians are bought over, and their most radical response to issues is to nod in acquiescence to “orders from above” like hand-operated toys. It was before our very eyes that President Muhammadu Buhari told the World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, to put the North first in its developmental programmes. That can happen again if they keep up with the rhetoric of “North vs. South.” While we can argue that indeed, the North-East particularly needs some welfare package to level up with the rest of the country after its debilitating wars, we should also not forget that many of the resources that have been sent there in the past ended up in private pockets. Nothing has changed anywhere. El-Rufai and his cohort of politicians need to be informed that there is no “developing South” anywhere. There is only one country – Nigeria – and we have all been jointly disadvantaged by the visionless leadership.
The article was first published in The Punch.