The recent uproar amongst some elites in the northern geopolitical zones of Nigeria, following the remarks made by the Emir of Kano, His Highness Muhammadu Sanusi II, missed or deliberately ignored a central message that many States in the northern geopolitical zones of the Federal Republic of Nigeria are failing or have already failed to meet the basic, legitimate aspirations or expectations of their citizens.
It is very significant that none of the criticisms of the Emir’s remarks has so far disputed the core arguments or facts behind those arguments. My intention here is not to defend the Emir – he is the best and most capable defender of his public positions – rather, it is to bring more attention to the important message that we need to heed. We should be willing and able to discuss the difficult issues affecting our nation without resorting to personal attacks, smear campaigns or insults. These discussions should help us come up with solutions to our problems.
Nigeria’s national statistics disaggregated to the State or geopolitical zone-levels have consistently showed in recent years that poverty in Nigeria is more of a northern phenomenon. This is to not say that there are no poor people in other parts of Nigeria, but that the nature and distribution of mass poverty is more deeply entrenched in the North. It is also a more recent trend as it has not been like that in the past, for example before or just after independence.
Key population statistics in these northern regions are among the worst in the world, exceeding those of many countries that have been facing conflicts and wars over several years. National level statistics hide significant intra-country disparities. When we hear Nigeria’s Human Development Index at 152 out of 196, the picture is far grimmer if the indices are disaggregated to the State levels. When you look at, for example, the levels of educational enrollment, attainment and achievement, higher proportions of our children in many northern Nigerian States are out-of-school, illiterate, innumerate and ultimately do not successfully complete the transition from school to the labour market, as compared to States in other parts of Nigeria.
We may seek to deny it, but the facts are that our young girls in some of the northern States, at the population level, especially from poor backgrounds, tend to be left behind in school enrollment, achievement and attainment. They get married early, truncating their educational opportunities and converting them to perpetual dependents. The tragic situation of the Chibok girls in probably unlikely anywhere else. We wish for more female teachers, doctors, nurses, midwives, scientists, administrators, but fail to see the link with how we treat the education aspirations of our girls and women, and this attainment. This has less to do with religion and more to do with power and leadership.
In terms of health, measures of life-expectancy show more than a 10-year difference between a North-East State and a State in the South-West geopolitical zone of Nigeria. While fertility is much higher in the North-East and North-West zones, maternal mortality in those same zones is significantly higher than in any other geopolitical zone in Nigeria. The same pattern applies to child survival, which is between half to one-third in the North-East and North-West, as compared to other geopolitical zones of Nigeria. Outbreaks of meningitis, measles, cholera have been skewed to the North.
An under-five year old child in North-East Nigeria is three times more likely to be stunted in growth due to under-nutrition in comparison to a child in the South-East, where mothers tend to be better nourished and educated. This was even before the recent years of terrorist insurgency. The consequences of widespread malnutrition on the intellectual development of children will take many years to fully manifest in terms of school achievement and life-time incomes. Certainly, the impact will likely become larger in view of the large-scale food insecurity and economic downturn of recent years.
While the northern zones are homes to the most youthful populations in Nigeria, some of these populations – our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters – tend to be less healthy, under-skilled, unemployed or under-employed, compared to those in other parts of Nigeria. These are painful facts and we should not bury our heads in the sands thinking that things will get better by themselves.
But, we must also acknowledge the tremendous potential that exists for many of the States in the North to contribute positively in Nigeria. Their youthful population can be an asset to the nation if nurtured through deliberate investments in them by governments, community leaders and parents. This requires transformational leadership, to prepare young people with relevant knowledge and skills, good health inclusive of mental health and freedom from substance abuse, civic understanding and opportunities, for productive engagement in the economy. The youth must be engaged politically, socially and economically in a constructive manner, otherwise we will all be in trouble down the road.
It may be argued that a complex set of historical, cultural, geographical, economic and political factors interplay to contribute to the situation we are witnessing in many of these States in the North. But my view is that the fundamental reason is the lack of purposeful, sincere, effective leadership in many of these States. The 18 to 25-year-old young men and women who are currently roaming the streets – as potential tools for use by some despicable politicians – in many of these States, are the obvious symptoms of failure of leadership and governance in a generation. These are the potential cannon fodder for terrorist ideologists and other forms of criminality. Yet, if properly channeled they can be important ingredients for national development.
While Nigeria operates as a Federal Republic, responsibility for the peculiar situation of children and youth in the northern zones lays primarily at the feet of various sub-national leaders – some State governors and their elected and unelected local government minions. In many instances, these “leaders” were elected or selected, yet they did not have either a clear vision nor the basic understanding of their leadership roles and how to exercise these.
Over the years, we witnessed many of these sub-national level leaders embarking on flights of fancy, as lords of poverty, coming to Abuja along with their finance officials around the FAAC periods to collect their federal allocations, junketing in private jets and landing in empty airports where their fellow citizens cannot afford to go to, displaying toys of affluence that they do not merit, building phantom projects to collect their own returns from the construction firms, expending huge, ill-gotten sums in the “spiritual” economy and flying to Saudi Arabia or Jerusalem every Ramadan and Hajj or Christian Pilgrimage to seek for God’s forgiveness. Observing some of these leaders over the years, one cannot avoid noticing that many of them have below-average minds, but are yet placed in positions of exercising both authority and leadership, neither of which they are equipped for. Obvious notable exceptions in recent times include the current governors of Kaduna, Sokoto, Benue and Borno States.
It is on the feet of these clueless leaders, and their minions, that the primary responsibility lies for many of the northern States’ failure, as recently articulated by the Emir of Kano. The secondary responsibility lies on the political system that, by commission or omission, produced them.
As we head towards the 2019 elections, these same cohorts of failed leaders will come around to stoke divisions, invoke God and religion, spread some of their corruptly obtained money, to convince and manipulate the electorate to give them another chance. Recent videos circulated via social media indicate that average citizens in northern Nigeria are waking up to the reality that recirculating failed leadership at the sub-national levels will not proffer required solutions to their deep problems. In recent months, we have seen images of State governors, senators, members of House of Representatives running for cover from their electors who have had enough.
While urging all citizens to be peaceful and law-abiding always, I also think that the upcoming 2019 elections present an important moment in the history of the northern States, for all youth, like-minded adults, elders, traditional and religious leaders to make a unified statement – to toss out all the politicians that proved visionless and failed to deliver on basic, legitimate expectations. Fixing the problems of northern States, along with revisiting the structure of our federalism will unshackle Nigeria to achieve the greatness that lies in its future. It is also an important key to achieving our national motto: peace, progress and prosperity.
Muhammad Ali Pate, a former minister of Health, writes as a private citizen. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org