By Louis Odion, FNGE
It is not exactly new talk; the news is that it came from the lips of Aliko Dangote, thus breaking the age-old culture of silence.
Summoning a moral courage rare among the elite, the Forbes-certified richest black man came down hard on northern governors while lamenting the clear and present danger extreme poverty poses to his native Arewaland.
Speaking at the fourth edition of the Kaduna Investment Summit (KadInvest 4.0) in Kaduna last week, Dangote wondered why a region endowed with vast land that should have been exploited to drive agrarian revolution is, instead, wallowing in abject misery.
His words: “It is instructive to know that the 19 Northern states which account for over 54 percent of Nigeria’s population and 70 percent of its landmass collectively generated only 21 percent of the total subnational IGR in the year 2017. Northern Nigeria will continue to fall behind if the respective state governments do not move to close the development gap.”
The severity of the reality Dangote speaks to is perhaps better appreciated when juxtaposed with the existing classification of Nigeria as the world’s poverty headquarters. The Arewa situation could only be described as something worse than grim therefore if the broader picture of the nation seen from outside had already been termed beggarly.
As he put it: “Nigeria is ranked at 157th out of 189 countries on the human development index. While the overall socio-economic condition in the country is a cause for concern, the regional disparities are in fact very alarming. In the North Western and North Eastern parts of Nigeria, more than 60 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty.”
Indeed, the symptoms are visible in Boko Haram, abysmal literacy level, decrepit healthcare system, exploding Almajiri population and lately widespread drug abuse.
Unless drastic measures are adopted to reverse the trend, one does not need to be a sociologist to know that the region’s preponderant poor are condemned to perpetuate the dynasty of poverty. According to reports, the North-west has 77.7% of its population living in relative poverty while the North-east comes second with 76.3% and the North-central 67.5%.
Dangote’s candid words in Kaduna are a reminder of the melodrama in Abuja last year when visiting Bill Gates cast diplomatese aside before a much wider audience and decided to shock his hosts with bitter hometruth.
Decrying what he saw as a misalignment in government’s spending and the people’s needs as reflected by the economic blueprint unveiled, the world’s second richest man gave it straight to the special session of the National Economic Council led by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. To achieve sustainable growth, he counseled that investments in infrastructure must go hand in hand with human capital development. According to him, building roads, ports and factories without skilled workers to manage them cannot sustain an economy.
Of course, no one could accuse sexagenarian Gates of mischief or insolence. Through Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the American billlionaire and philanthropist has shelled out more than $6 billion of his personal fortune fighting polio and other charity causes in Nigeria since 2006.
Taken together, if there is any lesson to be learnt from the cold statistics reeled out by Dangote it is undoubtedly another sad reminder of the curse of rent-seeking. On top of the over-abundance of natural resources, the nineteen states of the north collectively get the bigger share of the national cake monthly. But this hardly translates to prosperity for the generality of the people other than oiling a feudal system that nourishes a tiny few and immiserates the vast majority.
Indeed, philosophers and scholars had long diagnosed the cancer afflicting the north; what remains is the will of the political leadership to effect the prescriptions outlined. Central to a sustainable recovery strategy will be education and re-education, as well as the pursuit of an economic rehabilitation and reconstruction through agriculture.
For instance, Boko Haram and the festering Almajiri culture are fruits of cultivated ignorance. So, the sort of education Arewa kids need at this age is the type that truly liberates the mind, purges the mind of undue suspicion and channels their creative energies in the right direction.
In Kaduna, it is reassuring that Governor Nasir El-Rufai is leading the way by taking sometimes draconian but necessary measures to change the story in the acclaimed political capital of the north by insisting that only qualified teachers remain in the classrooms to teach the pupils the right ideas.
But there is also need to be broad-minded to receive offer of genuine help from outside. For instance, an otherwise patriotic initiative, though token, by Bishop Hassan Kukah to help address the issue of Almajiri by persuading them off the streets and enrolling them in free schools has received the harshest criticism from bodies quick to read religious motives to it. But while in a hurry to shoot down the idea obviously to protect their sectarian turf, such critics fail to offer a viable alternative to curbing the social menace.
While the Almajiris today offer ready recruitment ground for thuggery for unscrupulous politicians, let it be acknowledged that the original incarnation was innocent. The word, Almajiri, derives from the Arabic word “Al-muhaajirun”. It describes a learned “ulama” who propagates the peaceful cause of Islam.
But the concept has since been bastardized to also become the by-word for child begging/destitution and potential recruits for the terror enterprise.
With its vast land resource, the Arewa states have the comparative advantage to engage not only in growing but also processing agricultural products. A partnership between Lagos and Kebbi States two years ago created the LAKE rice. With collaboration among the governors of states like Sokoto, Kebbi, Niger, Zamfara, Jigawa and Kano, the envisaged economic turnaround of the region can, in fact, be catalyzed by harmonising policies and programmes to fully exploit their huge rice potentials, incorporating the Fadama for mechanised production.
The time has come for the political leadership of the north to incentivize the migration of the Almajiri back to their respective communities rather than allow them to continue to loiter around the cities. Of course, no one should stop them from professed desire to study the Qur’an. But they should also be made to understand that nothing stops them from being gainfully employed on the farms on the side.