Breaking the vicious grip of poverty in the North – Punch Newspapers

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Punch Editorial Board

Yet another report highlighting the pitiable underdevelopment of northern Nigeria is trending. But, like numerous previous missives, the region’s leaders are carrying on, seemingly unconcerned and unashamed at presiding over the world’s poorest territory in the midst of plenty. To rescue Nigeria from the grip of poverty and deprivation, however, urgent, intelligent action is required from within and outside the region.

           The latest reminder of our national malaise came from the United Kingdom’s Oxford University in its Human Development Initiative, Multidimensional Poverty Index Data Bank, 2017. In all aspects of “multidimensional poverty,” the report said the North performed very poorly, posting 85.36 per cent poverty on the average. Six among the 19 states were rated “worse states.”

           Zamfara State is the poorest, posting 92 per cent poverty, followed by Jigawa with 88 per cent; Bauchi, 87 per cent; Kebbi, 86 per cent; Katsina, 82.2 per cent and Gombe, 77 per cent. Taraba in the North-Central was 78 per cent in a zone that featured better performers such as Kogi with 26 per cent poverty.

           Nigeria, despite being Africa’s largest economy with current Gross Domestic Product of $460.66 billion, has a weak GDP per capita of $2,376, placing it among the world’s poorest. Without the drag of the northern states, as acknowledged by some perceptive northern elite, Nigeria would have been better off. Poverty in the southern states, said the report, was below 30 per cent, save for Ebonyi in the South-East with 56 per cent.

           Poor governance, inept, selfish and corrupt leadership defy regional barriers in Nigeria. However, the universal quest for education and the values of self-improvement and aspirations to match the world’s best enable residents of the southern states to do better on human development indices, despite the incompetence of their political leadership.

           Rich in agricultural and mining potential, its leaders manage, however, to keep the northern masses in perpetual ignorance and human misery. It is not for lack of resources: their size and larger number of local governments entitle them to higher revenue.

To save the region and Nigeria from continued underdevelopment, the North’s leaders need to overcome their poor, lazy and unimaginative leadership that combines with manipulation of religion.

           Instead of investing to educate about eight million children that are out-of-school, they expect the Federal Government to continue to fund almajirai schools, while they misuse their resources in the divisive sponsorship of religion.

Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State and Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi, have publicly acknowledged how the north is dragging the country backwards. Said el-Rufai, “When you disaggregate this number (human development indices) and look at them from zone to zone, it shows that some states in Nigeria are as backward as Afghanistan in education, health care and opportunities.” According to UNICEF, the largest number of girls out-of-school is in northern Nigeria. The region also boasts the highest poverty rate worldwide by a UNDP report in 2012; 93 per cent female illiteracy, according to UNESCO, and the third highest number of adult illiterates as recorded in the CIA Factbook.   

           Ranked among the “most miserable places on earth to live,” the 13 states of the North-East and North-West join Pakistan and Yemen as the last refuge of polio in the world. Citing UN statistics, a former Nigerian diplomat, Ibrahim Gambari, recalled that immunisation coverage in the two zones was a miserable 3.7 per cent and 3.6 per cent respectively, compared to 44.6 per cent in the South-East and over 50 per cent in the South-West. The former UN Under-Secretary-General said while girl-child school enrolment was 85 per cent in the South-East and South-West and 75 per cent in the South-South, the North-East and North-West had 20 and 25 per cent respectively. In its food security survey covering January 2016 to June 2017, the National Bureau of Statistics said 75 per cent of residents of the North-East are food insecure, by far higher than the national average. 

           In the area of insecurity, the north comes off worse in a country where crime and lawlessness are rampant. Like the southern states, kidnap-for-ransom has berthed in Arewa land. The myth of peace and security promised by the promoters of sharia in the 12 northern states has exploded in their faces. Many parts of the region have become killing fields: sectarian violence; mutual hostility between ethnic nationalities; banditry and cattle rustling, as well as prostitution and drug addiction, compounded by the Boko Haram terrorism, have turned a former bastion of tranquillity and moral rectitude into a morass. The National Drug Law Enforcement Agency has reported a spike in drug use and addiction, arresting 2,205 suspects in the North-West in 2015 for drug abuse. The Senate heard recently that over three million bottles of Codeine, a drug syrup misused as stimulant, are consumed in the region, while the Kano State Government has acknowledged a raging drug problem among youths and women in the state.

           Across the country, the quality of leadership and governance is dismal, but the northern states are rendering the crisis of underdevelopment worse.  Change is imperative, not only because it is beneficial to all, but also because the country is becoming more divided by the day.

           The first objective should be to reverse the poverty rate; fast-growing economies and Asia’s economic miracles began with massive investment in education. In today’s knowledge-driven world, a society with low literacy cannot thrive, according to the UNDP. The CIA Factbook records literacy rate in the phenomenal United Arab Emirates at 95.8 per cent for females and 93.1 per cent for adult males; Turkey’s literacy rate is 95.6 per cent, and in Indonesia, adult female literacy, says UNESCO, is 93.59 per cent, male 95.38 per cent. This has helped propel their economies and living standards without losing their cultural and religious identity.

           State involvement in religion has ruined the region and its cohesion. States and the elite should stop dabbling in religion; instead they should invest in education, health care, infrastructure, skills acquisition and job creation. Regional economic integration and partnership will help reduce the need for financially wretched states like Gombe establishing two universities, for instance, which they cannot fund. Social initiatives on population control, immunisation, sanitation and hygiene, as well as sustained campaign to change negative practices like child marriage and the irrational almajirai system should be rigorously pursued.

           With its overwhelming advantages in agriculture, mining and crafts like leather works and dyeing, the region’s leaders should promote private sector-led revival of cash and food crop farming, ranching, textiles and the once-thriving industrial sector.

           Above all, however, they must tackle insecurity from the root by stamping out deviant sectarianism and enthusiastically join the rest of the country in returning Nigeria to true federalism to unleash their full potential and end mass poverty in the midst of plenty.

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