The North: Underdevelopment, Poverty and Leadership Questions
Abubakar Atiku Nuhu-Koko
Towards the end of the year 2008, suddenly emerged fresh debates on the lingering underdevelopment, poverty and bad leadership and governance issues that afflict the northern part of the Nigeria over the years. It is on record that the northern part of Nigeria, like its sister regions in the south of Nigeria enjoyed relative prosperity under good leadership and governance in the 1940s and up to the early 1970s.
This was made possible all but thanks to the existence then of a diversified economic base revolving around agriculture and solid minerals sectors respectively. Poverty was not very widespread as the generality of Nigerians then lived a simple subsistence life and almost all basic needs were within easy reach from the farm to the food table.
Other basic manufactured needs were affordable from proceeds generated from farm and small scale business and commerce incomes. Social services such as education and healthcare were provided by the government and accessible to a great majority of the citizens both in the urban and rural areas.
The modern and traditional leaders in all the then Nigeria’s regional blocs were upright, hardworking and trusted by their followers. The leaders themselves were fair minded in treatment of their followers, management and distribution communal resources and transparent in the conduct and manner of governance; leadership by example was the norm rather than the exception.
All these positive attributes of modern statehood gradually vanished with the sudden infusion of new found wealth generated directly from petroleum (oil and gas) exports - or what some call “black gold,” but, what former Venezuelan Oil Minister and OPEC co-founder Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo dubbed as the “Devil’s Excrement.”
Nigeria’s new generation of very young, impressionists and inexperienced, and ill prepared plus over-ambitious leaders took over the running of affairs of the whole country from 1967 to date. Nigeria joined OPEC (i.e. Organisation for the Oil Producing and Exporting Countries) - the elite club of major exporters (or what adversaries would like to use the pejorative term “Oil Cartel” to describe it) in 1971. The rest is now history.
The interesting thing about the latest re-opening of the discourse regarding the vexatious issues of underdevelopment, backwardness, poverty and bad leadership and governance in the north ( who was (is) responsible for the degeneration and whose responsibility is it now to remedy the sad situation), is that, it is taking place at a time of the current global economic and financial crises, which have very serious consequences and repercussions on Nigeria’s economic and social wellbeing like with many other countries all over the world.
Comparatively, this is exactly direct opposite of what happened during the immediate past eight (8) years (1999-2007) in Nigeria. That is to say, paradoxically, the period 1999-2007 represented and witnessed both glorious and equally, inglorious years of plentiful oil windfalls bonanza and equally speaking, concomitant mind boggling embezzlements and looting sprees ever witnessed in the history of governance in Nigeria.
Therefore, the global economic and financial crises will have more grievous consequences on Nigeria’s economic and social health because of Nigeria’s overdependence and overreliance on oil export revenues for its own financial, economic and social health. For example, In Nigeria oil still accounts for over 95% of total exports earnings, almost half of the country’s gross domestic products (GDP) recently, and more than 85% of the country’s budgetary revenues.
Nigeria is also regarded as institutionally a very weak; with a malfunctioning democracy and a per-capita income lower than its 1960 level. It is also viewed and regarded as a very corrupt nation that is heavily over dependent on importation of almost all its basic modern industrially manufactured goods and services; exposing it to all sorts of vagaries of terms of external trade and exchange that are more of than not, unfavourable to it. And now it has a state of near-civil war in its troubled Niger delta oil and gas-rich region. As matter of fact, oil has been a source of both internal and international conflicts for decades the world over.
Therefore, a never-ending debate was rekindled when a couple of weeks ago, the boyish-looking middle-aged civil-servant turned politician and Governor of Niger State, Talban Minna, Alhaji Muazu Babangida Aliyu, (PhD), made some serious remarks bordering on underdevelopment, backwardness and abject poverty in the north while addressing a one-day symposium on poverty eradication in Northern states on Saturday, December 13, 2008.
His weighty allegations were weighty enough to sparked off controversies, counter offensive rebuttals and re-ignited the debate about who to blame regarding the stark underdevelopment; de-industrialization, collapse of agriculture and the attendant very high levels of unemployment, illiteracy and abject poverty of the north. Whose responsibility is it to correct and turnaround the sad situation also pervaded and charged the democratic discourse atmosphere.
The sad situation in the north is further compounded with the lingering culture of adult, youth and child begging (i.e. Almajirce) associated with some people and or communities of northern extraction to be found all over the county’s major towns and cities.
This piece is not about blame laying and finger-pointing. It is an attempt to put the discourse into proper context and perspective; a positive development in problem-solving contextual framework. As such, I will ignore most of the personalization of the debate that took place since the issue cropped up.
A careful study of the exchanges; rejoinders and other viewpoints expressed both in the print and electronic media (including the internet), by concerned members of the public that took place since the debate ensued provided me an insight into the wider issues at stake. However, I will restrict my present analysis on just a few emerging issues from the exchanges.
First and foremost, I wish to congratulate Niger State Chief Servant, Dr. Aliyu, for having the moral courage to draw the attention of Nigerians to the plight of millions of people languishing in abject poverty in the north. He is not the first and will not be the last to do that. Statistically, abject poverty level in the north has been estimated to be hovering around 70% to 75% of the total northern population and similarly, of the total national population of Nigeria; that is, people living below the poverty line or below the basic minimum stylized $2 per day and per person.
As matter of fact, a World Bank’s recent study identified northern Nigeria as among the poorest places on earth. This shocking revelation corroborates and further supported our own Central Bank Governor, Professor Chukwuma C. Soludo when he stated the obvious facts about the worsening underdevelopment, high illiteracy rate and abject poverty levels in the north at a public function in Kaduna some time last year and he was unnecessarily vilified for saying the naked truth.
Therefore, the issues Dr. Aliyu, Niger State Chief Servant raised should not be reduced to merely simplistic blame game. His wake-up calls should not just be seen as attempts to seek for undue attention, recognition and or popularity as some stakeholders have already claimed and or alluded to.
As a highly educated, highly experienced and accomplished, and fulfilled retired federal permanent secretary and presently, a state Governor, he cannot be so accused. Having made this clarification, I will like to join issues with fellow stakeholders on these and probably other salient issues waiting to be raised and or addressed. These are as follows:
The north: its underdevelopment, poverty and inept leadership – the root causes
The fundamental factors that transformed the historically vibrant giant agricultural and commerce-based economy of northern Nigeria (ipso factor other geo-political regions of Nigeria, inclusive of the Niger delta region) to its present sleeping giant economic status can be summarized and grouped into three. These are:
a) First, the poor management of the negative consequence associated with sudden discovery of oil and gas resources in Nigeria’s Niger delta oil and gas-rich region. In natural resource economics, this is generally known as the ‘Dutch Disease’ effect - arising from the discovery of oil and gas that substituted agriculture, manufacturing and commerce as the main economic stay of the Nigerian economy and society of which the north is a major component of it.
While inflation and currency appreciation slowly killed industry and agriculture, a parasitic class of newly-rich elite lived off oil money, waiting for the next windfall bonanza to come in. By the time windfall manna from the heaven stopped falling, the nation finds it unable to balance its budget and feeds itself, forcing it to declare neoliberal economic austerity measures and finishing always at the tail end of world leading economic, human and social development indices. The very kind of situation Nigeria finds itself today.
Thus, if not properly managed, the wealth derived from natural resources endowments of a country can paradoxically, have a tremendous negative impact on the macro economics and politics of producing countries or regions as the case may be as I will be discussing in later in this my contribution to this great discourse.
b) Second, the emergence of rabid ‘rent-seeking’ and racketeering activities – a situation whereby when “free” money is flowing out of the ground, people who might otherwise be engaged in fruitful and productive economic activities such as farming or start a business or do something innovative instead busy themselves angling for a share of the spoils of the new found oil wealth. These unproductive activities create the condition political economists call ‘Resource Curse.’
According to the literature, Countries with large endowments of natural resources, such as oil and gas (like in Nigeria), often do worse than their poorer neighbors. Their resource wealth frequently leads to lower growth rates, greater volatility, more corruption, and in extreme cases, devastating civil wars. Nigeria is a typical example and the north has its proportionate share of it all.
‘Resource Curse’ is therefore a problem affecting the lives of millions and millions of people in oil and gas resource-rich countries especially in developing and transition economies; the worst being in sub-Saharan Africa with Nigeria leading the pack. The effects of resource curse have contributed to keeping millions of Nigerian people impoverished despite the oil wealth of the country.
c) Third, emergence of bad governance and inept leadership, which evolved largely as a result of the new found oil and gas wealth. The combination of ‘resource curse’ syndrome and the problems of bad governance, missing mechanisms of transparency and accountability, absence of a true democratic culture – all lead to inept leadership.
All these generate what policy sciences, political science and political economy scholars and practitioners dubbed ‘Paradox of Plenty’ in the literature. Put differently, Nigeria isn't poor despite its oil riches--it's poor because of them.
I will discuss these above outlined three key issues accordingly, in my subsequent follow-up articles on this discourse about the north and its developmental and leadership problems and challenges.