Nigeria’s northern region is victimized by an ethnic politics of “winner-takes-all” that “is dangerous and unsustainable.”
The crisis is exacerbated by a northern political elite that hopes “to disempower the people, minimizing potential resistance to their power and political influence over flows of petrodollars from the central government.”
Nigeria Risks Losing Its North
by Dayo Olaide
This article previously appeared in Pambazuka News.
“The failure of the political elite to respond to national development needs in the last five decades have deepened ethnic suspicion and religious rivalry.”
Youth unemployment and hopelessness pose a serious threat to development and peace in the north. Increased initiatives and budget spending on youth unemployment, poverty alleviation and empowerment programs are quite positive. If sustained, these programs could reduce the risk of violence.
Northern Nigeria needs help. Decades of bad governance have continued to traumatize the region. In this period, successive administrative and political leaders have failed to educate the region’s poor, pursuing instead conscious policies to lock the vast majority in poverty and illiteracy in order to keep them subservient and passive. In doing so, the north’s political elite hope to disempower the people, minimizing potential resistance to their power and political influence over flows of petrodollars from the central government. The result is dangerously high levels of inequality that has produced a fragile society with sharp divisions between a small, despised, rich, elite class and an impoverished, illiterate majority. The people, once considered subservient and passive, have become fuel for the incendiary conflicts that frequently ravage the north. The responsibility to solve the problem rests, first, with the people and government of the region. Different ethnic and religious groupings that once lived and co-existed in the region for decades and centuries must learn to tolerate one another and live together again peacefully in order to reverse imminent danger of complete breakdown of law and order throughout the region. The evidence is clear. Militants with fundamentalist ideologies are gradually taking hold of parts of the region. This is a dangerous development and must be quickly confronted to avoid a possible scenario similar to those in Somalia, Afghanistan and Mali. However, leaving the region to deal with the problem alone is bound to be counterproductive. The consequences are bound to reverberate through to the rest of Nigeria.
“Militants with fundamentalist ideologies are gradually taking hold of parts of the region.”
Four things need to be done to save the region. First, governments and political leaders, at state and local levels, with assistance from the federal government, must address the massive youth illiteracy and unemployment in the region. A lot of the drivers of grievances that frequently turn violent are economic in nature. They stem from limited economic opportunities and exclusion from state programs. Second, leaders and peoples of the region must fix the “identity” question that eats at its peace and security. A lot of exclusion and discrimination in the allocation of economic opportunities takes place on the basis of “identity.” Your identity as “indigene” or “settler” is crucial to your being in Nigeria, but the destructive potential of this constitutional lacuna is most evident throughout the north. It has caused more havoc than cohesion and development. And it is time to expunge the provisions from our body of laws before its full destructive potential is unleashed on the land. Third, the region must uphold accountability and justice. Reports of public inquiries into violence and deaths have been abandoned to gather dust. Without implementing the recommendations and bringing perpetrators of violence and killings to justice, there cannot be forgiveness and healing. Fourth, the North is in urgent need of political and economic revival.
Nigeria’s north has the highest number of children out of school in the world, according to a 2010 World Bank report. Girls are most affected with enrolment rate of 20 per cent and 25 per cent respectively in the north-east and north-west, compared with 85 per cent each in the south-east and south-west and 75 per cent in the south-south. World Bank, in another report in 2012, estimated that 50 million youths are unemployed in Nigeria. A 2010 poverty profile released by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reveals the devil in the details. Unemployment is highest in Zamfara, Bauchi, Niger, Gombe, Bauchi and Nassarawa, with rates between 36.5 and 42.6%. It is not surprising that income inequality is also highest in the north, in Taraba and Yobe States, based on the Gini coefficient released by the NBS. Gini coefficient measures income distribution on scale of zero to one. According to experts, numbers between 0.3 and 0.4 indicates a relative income gap and numbers between 0.4 and 0.5 indicates large income gaps, while above 0.5 means that inequality is severe, requiring urgent actions in the society. Income inequality is 0.5241 and 0.523 in Taraba and Yobe states respectively; more than 0.447, the national average. Urgent actions are needed to check inequality in the region and reduce grievances that turn violent as a result of the apathy expressed by the “have nots” towards the “haves.”
“Without implementing the recommendations and bringing perpetrators of violence and killings to justice, there cannot be forgiveness and healing.”
There is realization among northern elites of the danger youth unemployment poses to development and peace in the north. The growth in number of governors’ initiatives and budget spending on youth unemployment, poverty alleviation and empowerment programs is indicative of this. If sustained, these programs could go a long way to reduce the risk of grievances from limited economic opportunities turning violent. But the current approach of poverty alleviation and empowerment may be counterproductive and could exacerbate cynicism and distrust for the government and its programs. This is because a lot of employment and empowerment programs are fraught with secrecy, favoritism and corruption. In the absence of clear guidelines for managing and measuring performance and impact, the implication is that the programs are politicized, often to gain political mileage, and therefore leave no dent on the problem. Some programs are simply exuberant. For instance, a state governor recently announced international scholarship to train 100 pilots in an expensive international graduate training program. The announcement has sparked public reactions among residents in the state. One resident asked, “Of what use to the state is a graduate training program for pilots when the state neither runs nor owns an airline business capable of absorbing the new pilots?” It is not clear how beneficiaries of the pilot graduate program have been selected or the children of whom they are.
A lot of the responses to the problem of limited economic opportunities merely scratch the surface. The missing link has been poor planning, politicization of programs, the lack of openness and citizens’ participation. Promoting transparency, openness and predictability in government youth employment and empowerment programs can improve the benefits and beneficiaries, and reduce grievances and risks of violence that often result from apathy and feelings of exclusion. Transparency will benefit the citizens and government. By making information on employment and empowerment programs available to citizens, the people are able to participate in the design and functioning of these programs, draw benefits, and hold responsible government agencies accountable for the management of the programs and budget allocations. This is likely to result in positive change in citizen-government relations. A transparent and accountable government will benefit from reduction in the distrust, cynicism and confrontations that often characterize government-citizen engagement. Governments must be able to envision the long term benefits in being more open in order to invest in it.
“A lot of employment and empowerment programs are fraught with secrecy, favoritism and corruption.”
Over time, Nigeria citizenship has been defined into “indigene” and “settler” where the former is synonymous with “nativity”; that is, being born in a particular location into a specific ethnic group considered to have a “homeland” within the locality. Settlers, on the other hand, have their ethnic genealogy elsewhere, even if they were born in a particular state or lived all their lives there. This classification has evolved as the basis for citizenship rights, entitlements and access to opportunities. It is the basis for discrimination—in employment, admission to schools, running for political office, scholarships, etc. It has gravely fractured the north far beyond the rest of the country with frequent violent conflicts. Experts have explained that “indigene” and “settler” status are creations of the misinterpretation of the 1999 constitution. Yet the absence of a clear mechanism for a perceived “settler” to become an indigene in order to draw citizenship benefits makes the dichotomy a major challenge in the north especially. For example, a third generation resident of Jos who has lived in Jos for more than a century is disqualified from aspiring for a political office; they would be excluded even if they had lived in Jos for five centuries. This crude interpretation of the constitution should have no place in modern Nigeria and must be urgently addressed. While the constitutional reform process in the 2009-2011 phase failed to put the ‘identity’ question to rest, some states in the south have found creative administrative procedures to achieve inclusion and involve minority groups in state running. The ongoing constitutional reform presents a second chance for the northern region to put this vexing issue to rest once and for all. Northern Governors’ Forum and residents must seize the moment before Nigeria switches fully into the elections mode. Leaving the issue to drag for too long could make it “petrol” for violence during the next elections in 2015.
Nigeria has had a history of unresolved violent conflicts. The failure of the federal and state governments to address the root causes and drivers of these conflicts leaves room for reprisal attacks and increases the risk of conflicts throughout the northern region. According to the International Crisis Group, at least 80 episodic violent conflicts were recorded in Jos between 1994 and 2004. The conflicts, mostly between indigenous Berom, Anaguta and Afizere groups and non-indigenous Hausa and Fulani people, has consumed about 4000 souls over this ten year period, according to the Human Rights Watch. National figures estimated that conflicts displaced more than 6 million people throughout the country. Governments’ responses are often to set up commissions of inquiry. The inquiries have generated reports and recommendations that are never implemented. This action of government does not show any commitment to justice or interest in finding lasting solutions to the frequent bloodbaths in the region. Some reports contained recommendations to prosecute individuals that have been identified on account of their roles, and payment of compensation to some groups and individuals for the losses they have suffered. Implementing the recommendations of the commissions of inquiry will deliver justice, help the healing process and facilitate the process of peaceful coexistence necessary to rid the north of intolerance and violent conflicts. Commitment to justice and fairness is the essential ingredient for lasting peace in the region. Implementing the various reports of commissions of inquiry is an important first step to this. Federal and state governments must therefore work together to ensure accountability and justice.
“Every ethnic and religious group is suspicious of potential domination by the other.”
Politics of winner-takes-all in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and highly-classed society like Nigeria is dangerous and unsustainable. The failure of the political elite to respond to national development needs in the last five decades have deepened ethnic suspicion and religious rivalry. Every ethnic and religious group is suspicious of potential domination by the other, and has no confidence that the other group, if given power, would protect its own interest. This suspicion runs deep in the politics and governance across the country. It is responsible for the wide inequality, exclusion and rivalry that have devastated the north. The region remains chronically poor and worse off than the rest of the country in many development indicators. This is in spite of its record of producing the largest number of Nigeria’s presidents. The northern political hegemons have failed to develop the region.
Inordinate greed for Western lifestyles and an absence of active citizenry fed the lack of vision and waste that plundered the state resources. The result is a large illiterate, unemployable labor force that is frequently instrumentalized by its political elite. The story is not very different in other parts of the country, which may be considered lucky not to have recorded as many conflicts so far. Northern leaders at all levels have an urgent responsibility to rally round and find lasting solutions to the widespread poverty and inequality in the north, expand opportunities, and ensure equity and fairness in the distribution and allocation of benefits to all residents. They must recognize and embrace conflict-sensitive approaches in government programming by encouraging inclusion, transparency and accountability, equity and justice, and fair representation. A stitch in time could save the whole of the north from imminent combustion.