Cheta Nwanze, Lead Partner, SBM Intelligence

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A manifesto for saving Northern Nigeria 13 Jan 2021

Let me begin with what may be construed as a politically-incorrect statement. Most development challenges in Nigeria are worse in the north than in the south of the country. This situation is not because people residing in northern Nigeria are somehow less capable than those in the south. It is because of the choices made by the political elite of the north.
Historically, the development of northern Nigeria was hamstrung by choices made by the colonial government, with the willing participation of the northern elite. There are moments that end up deciding the trajectories of societies for decades to come. For instance, Aminu Kano, a northern progressive politician, wanted to embark on a programme of mass education. In fact, he was a champion for the cause of women in the north and even challenged the emirate system.

But he lost out to reactionaries who were more interested in maintaining the status quo. In 1954, Kano lost a Federal House of Representatives election to Maitama Sule. When Kano later won a seat in the federal legislature five years later, his party, Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU), was in the opposition and that foray into government ended with the termination of the First Republic in 1966.

While Aminu Kano's plan to expand education in the north failed to see the light of day, the government of the Western Region, led by Obafemi Awolowo, introduced a free primary education programme in 1955. Although the programme suffered a major setback with the end of the First Republic, it already set off significant strides in human capital development in what is now the South-West geopolitical zone of Nigeria. The effects of that singular decision have only recently begun to peter out. Michael Okpara, Premier of Eastern Nigeria during the First Republic, adopted parts of the free primary education scheme in the Western Region, achieving some level of success as well.  

Since the end of the First Republic, progressive voices in the north have been unable to gain much of a foothold, losing out every time to those who use the political-religious industrial complex to win elections. The bad choices made by erstwhile northern politicians have come home to roost, especially in the last 10 years.

During his time as Emir of Kano and even prior to that, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi spoke several times about the need for a change in northern Nigeria. Back in 2017, Sanusi said, “Other Muslim nations have pushed forward girl-child education. They’ve pushed forward science and technology. We (in northern Nigeria) have adopted an interpretation of our culture and our religion that is rooted in the 13th century (…), that refuses to recognise that the rest of the Muslim world has moved on.”

Nigeria lags behind in many indices of human development. However, the regional divide is extremely hard to ignore. To attempt to do so is to underestimate what is required to change things for the better.

According to the 2018 Subnational Human Development Index (SHDI) by Netherlands-based Radboud University, the highest-ranking northern state in Nigeria (Nasarawa) was placed in the 19th position, with a HDI score of 0.574. All the 18 states in the top half of the ranking table for Nigeria’s 2018 SHDI were from the southern part of the country. As a matter of fact, the only southern state that was in the bottom half of the ranking was Ebonyi, jointly ranked 20th with Kwara State.

More than 300 students of Government Science Secondary School in Kankara, Katsina State, are now back with their families after a harrowing week as captives of Boko Haram. Their safe return is a relief, following the brutal killing of dozens of farmers a few weeks earlier by the same Boko Haram in Zabarmari, Borno State. While the country remains grateful for the release of the schoolboys from captivity, farmers in some northern states cannot access their farms without paying protection money to various armed groups.

Currently, there are pockets of violence perpetrated by bandits in the southern part of the country. However, it is hard to imagine attacks of a similar magnitude as those happening in the north taking place in the south of the country.

The fact that this is happening under a president who is a native of northern Nigeria, and a security establishment helmed by northerners is not lost on many. Denial is not a strategy and it is increasingly evident it is not an option in northern Nigeria.

The government’s boast about Boko Haram’s ‘technical defeat’ was not just premature, but also disingenuous. It showed a penchant for gimmicks instead of a sincerity of purpose. Less than three years after the insurgent group was declared technically defeated by no less a person than President Muhammadu Buhari, the governor of Borno State cannot move freely around in his state without his convoy being attacked.

Negotiating amnesty with terrorist groups has also failed as experiences in Katsina and Zamfara have shown. Any amount of money paid to these groups would simply be used to reinforce their weapons inventory. Any disarmament embarked upon would merely be the uneasy calm before the next storm.

All is not lost, however. There do exist some people in the north who have spoken out strongly against the ills of the region. Even though they have taken considerable flak for doing so, they have demonstrated that they are in tune with the challenges of the region and they want change.

The Adamawa State governor, Ahmadu Umaru Fintiri, has – despite the insurgency in the northern reaches of his state –  quietly shown a commitment to human capital development. Such efforts need to be replicated across northern Nigeria. Moreover, the north needs many more of such leaders to beat back the tide of extremism that breeds hatred toward education.

Southern Nigeria also has a vested interest in a more secure and prosperous north. Indeed, everyone from every corner of the country should be supporting the emergence of new northern political leaders who understand the gravity of the task ahead and are prepared to meet the challenge.

There is no path to sustainable development in the north that does not pass through universal basic education. A focus on improving teacher quality is a good way to go, and should be implemented across the country, not just in the north. The system of merely building classrooms and herding children into schools has failed. The security of these various schools is also crucial, especially in areas targeted by Boko Haram. Improvements in school enrolment will not be sustainable if children can be abducted at will.

Insecurity, left to metastasise, will have knock-on effects, not just on security elsewhere in the country, but generally on the entire local economy, too. To establish an effective security system, a decentralised security architecture is needed – and it’s in the best interest of everyone in the country. Under such an arrangement, the federal government-controlled army would only be brought in to supplement the efforts of the regional police where there is heightened insurgency. However, appropriate constitutional guardrails must be put in place to ensure that state policing units are transparently and professionally run, and free of interference by the executive branch.

Greater efforts must be made toward accelerating mechanisation of agriculture in the north and in the entire country, as well as imparting the knowledge and providing infrastructure necessary to improve productivity. Higher farm yields will lead to greater prosperity.

Just as important is the fact that the entire country, not just the north, needs to make itself attractive for foreign investment. Foreign investment will bring jobs to engage the youth, provide them with a purpose and reduce their supply for banditry, kidnapping and terrorism. The destruction of private property carried out by the Kano State Hisbah Corps, a religious police force, under whatever guise, can only hamper this cause.

Political officeholders must begin to decouple themselves from the political-religious industrial complex that has dominated northern Nigeria for so long, with ruinous results. Even majority Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia are gradually implementing difficult reforms, including increasing social liberties.

There is nothing inevitable about the present or the future of northern Nigeria. It is the wrong political choices that led to the current situation. Making a set of people-oriented and development-focused choices will lead to remarkably positive outcomes.

For Nigeria’s sake, here’s hoping the north succeeds.

Cheta Nwanze is Lead Partner at SBM Intelligence.