Sometime in 2020, the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), through its data, disclosed that 40 percent or 83 million Nigerians live in poverty. The figure is out of an estimated 200 million total population and it exceeds the total population of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Mauritius and Eswatini combined.
Regrettably, Nigeria’s poverty profile is expected to increase to over 90 million, or 45 percent of the population by the end of this year.
Well, if that is regrettable, it is very unfortunate and unthinkable that most of Nigeria’s poor people are located in the northern part of the country.
Moreover, in its poverty assessment report released early this year, which was titled ‘A Better Future for All Nigerians: 2022 Nigeria Poverty Assessment’, the World Bank decried that the Covid-19 crisis is driving up Nigeria’s poverty rate, pushing more than 5 million additional people into poverty by 2022 end.
Meanwhile, the World Bank’s Poverty Index in Nigeria by States, confirmed that northern states rank among the Top 10 poorest states with Sokoto leading with 87.73 percent, followed by Taraba at 87.72 percent and Jigawa at 87.02 percent. The data excluded Borno, which ranks among the poorest, whose data could not be captured because of insecurity.
Again, the biggest intrigue for critics and lovers of the country alike is that despite its long hold on power, the north has not been able to push its people out of poverty.
Right from 1960 when Nigeria gained independence from Great Britain, the North has always been in the corridors of power with Tafawa Belewa, from North-East, as the first Prime Minister of the country, the highest position in the land then.
While several military interventions scuttled Nigeria’s post independence democracy, ushering in military dictatorship, the north was in power all through. Apart from the six months of Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, three years of Olusegun Obasanjo as military head of states, and another eight years as civilian president and six years of Godluck Jonathan, the north has been in charge in the rest of the 62 years of existence of the country.
Considering that the southern part of the country has ruled for a little over 17 years, and the north has held power for over 45 years by the end of Mohammadu Buhari’s tenure in 2023, one may be forced to ask what the leaders from the region have been doing with the resources they allocated to the region and the so much wealth they have been amassing for themselves since then. The Babangida unaccounted oil windfall and the Abacha loot are good case studies.
Caiaphas Yakubu, a Kafanchan, Kaduna State-born legal luminary and hospitality investor, explained that the northern region, by virtue of having the most local governments and states, receives the largest resources from the Federal Government every year, but has failed to utilise them to develop the region because of corruption.
“Our governors loot us dry, but you will hardly hear of the EFCC arresting an ex-governor from the north on corruption charges. It baffles that there is nothing to show for the money allocated to them for the four or eight years in power.
Embezzlement of public funds and the inability of the government to recover stolen funds, arrest and jail these looters has been the bane of poverty in the north,” Yakubu said.
The lawyer-turned hotelier disclosed that some of the big hotels springing up in Abuja and Dubai were built with stolen funds and the owners who include ex-governors, senators and public office holders, appoint a company to front for them and are often swindled by their business partners.
“I have two hotels in Abuja and I laboured to build them. The first took me 10 years to finish, while the second was built within six years, but you will see a 150-200 room hotel being built within two years by someone who left university five years ago or by a company that was registered three years ago.
The looters in government are behind such investments and the more they steal public funds, the more they impoverish the people,” Yakubu lamented.
Collaborating Yakubu’s views, Yabagi Sani, an engineer, blamed it on politicians’ habit of stealing public funds.
While speaking to BBC News Pidgin on the reason for the increase in poverty rate in the northern region, Sani said: “It is very bad how political office holders steal public money for their families instead of using it for the good of the people they were elected to serve.”
Sani, an energy expert, noted that the belief system of the north has also influenced the way of life of the people, including the political leaders, who all believe in destiny, unlike the southern part where the majority believe in their own strength and ability.
Danladi Othman, a Jos, Plateau State-based pharmacist, decried that political power has not favoured the masses in the north since independence because of the centralized system of the north, which the colonial masters cherished.
That system, according to him, has been working against the north ever since because you cannot oppose a politician who the entire emirate has endorsed or fight the power political gladiators who the masses worship because of the crumbs they throw at them during elections, Sallah or Durbar.
“I am from Bauchi town and I am not satisfied with the level of infrastructure across the state. I made an attempt at politics and the power gladiators told me to step down because my interest would clash with an existing structure set up during Tafawa Belewa’s time.
“So, as long as you pass through that structure, you can steal and do anything and nothing will happen. How do you then become accountable, develop your area and even plan ahead,” he decried.
He regretted that the centralised system does not tolerate rebellion and has forced most northerners to think the same, look in the same direction, obey the same orders and many are now facing the same poverty level.
The pharmacist also blamed the impoverishment of the north by northern leaders on lack of strong institutions to fight corruption across the country and in the north in particular, while wondering the level of facelift the Abacha loot would have given to the region if it was utilised than being stashed in foreign banks.
“When Olusegun Obasanjo set up the EFCC and ICPC, we thought the time has finally come for Nigeria to clean up her mess that belittles her among comity of nations, but rather than fight corruption, the EFCC and ICPC were hijacked by politicians to fight their opposition.
If both anti-graft bodies have been objective at their work, the north would have been developed better than its present poor state because the looters would have been in jail and others will learn,” he said.
The Bauchi-born pharmaceutical entrepreneur, with outlets in five northern states, noted further that the north lacks spirit of enterprise unlike the southern part, hence the major interests of the people have been civil service, security, military and paramilitary services.
“Leaders from the north are part of the people and they also seem to lack this spirit of enterprise if not they could plan and invest much of the funds expended on nothing to building industries, creating PPP platforms for jobs, expanding the agribusiness value chain, which is our comparative advantage and engage many hand and push poverty far away from the region,” the pharmacist said.
However, Bidemi Ojolanre, a director of an Abuja-based civil society organisation, noted that though all parts of Nigeria has been suffering from neglect and poverty is obvious across the country, the level in the northern part should make the leaders from that region ashamed of themselves.
“During our field work in some states across the country on insecurity and employment, we encountered unspeakable poverty in some parts of the north and we keep asking why the unthinkable neglect.
They happily said the governor rules from Abuja, the senators, who are based in Abuja or Kano hardly visit, the Emir cannot talk because the governor can depose him and the local government only opens when salary comes. So, how do you expect development,” Ojolanre said.
He noted further that if you blame the presidents from the region, senators and governors, that the local government chairmen should share the blame.
“Kano has 44 local governments, one of the largest in the country, but it is only Kano city that seems lively, what about other 43 local governments. Corruption is the bane and it trickles down to the councilors in the local government, they all combine to steal funds meant to develop the north, create jobs, empower the people and drive away poverty”, the civil right activist said.
But on a different note, Chijioke Umelahi, an Abuja-based lawyer, noted that it is the assurance of stability of retaining political power that has made northern leaders to be less concerned about developing the region.
“If the north has been finding it difficult to get power, like the southern Nigeria, especially South-East, the leaders will be on fire to develop their region and drive poverty away because they are not sure when power will come back to them again,” Umelahi said.
Speaking on the poverty rate, the lawyer disclosed that it dropped from 2011 to 2016 in the southern part of the country, while still increasing in the north since then.
He suggested that adopting policies that will encourage small and medium businesses to thrive, fighting insecurity to woo foreign direct investments, allowing the EFCC to beam search light on northern governors as it does to their southern counterparts, confiscating investments made from looted funds and banning looters from political and public offices, would help checkmate the corruption and encourage appropriate utilisation of public funds in projects that will empower people and drive away poverty.
In 2017, the then Emir of Kano, Mallam Muhammadu Sanusi II, identified the emergence of “briefcase billionaires” and illiteracy as the major factors stifling the economic growth and development of the country.
Sanusi was speaking at the end of a three-day Northern Regional Conference on Security, Justice and Development: Effective implementation of intervention measures,’ organised by Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action, noted that when people get wealth they did not work for, “what follows would be disastrous for the nation.”
“When people just get wealth they didn’t work for, what that signifies was that, many injustices were permeating round many quarters of the society, meaning there is something wrong in the system that was put in place for a very long time of our national history.”
He queried, “How many of our briefcase billionaires can show you their business plants and the number of people they employ in their companies? The companies are non-existent in the first place. So, what are we talking about?”
Sanusi argued that the more the society produces briefcase billionaires, the more the masses would get more impoverished.
“We need to build an economy that looks at people; not that which further creates gaps, unimagined gaps between people. You cannot call this capitalism either. It is through such kind of arrangements that end up in creating an insecure society.
We all created the insecurity we are suffering from. Justice is one of the key and fundamental issues that can address our predicaments,” he emphasised.
Sanusi also identified illiteracy as another factor accounting for economic woes. He argued that, when people were left without education, what would follow would be disturbing and devastating.
He said, “Our children are suffering from malnutrition, illiteracy; our women are suffering from poor health care delivery. We created our insecurity ourselves. We have nobody to blame but ourselves.
So, whenever we talk of poverty we need to look at the nature of our economy. We need to ask ourselves the kind of society we are producing.”
An aggrieved citizen, while reacting to the misuse of opportunities by the ruling class, said: “Revenue allocation formula that gave a greater percentage of the nation’s resources to the feds was designed by them, with which they ought to have helped the nation or at least the north.
They created schools of basic studies to help children from their geographical expression that could not stand the rigors of the West African Examinations Council (WAEC).
Not satisfied, they created NECO as a counterpoise to WAEC. Do you now see who laid the unmatchable foundation of northern impoverishment? They recklessly offered overseas federal scholarships lopsidedly to members from their ethno-religious clan.
“They created local governments with landmass (not human mass) as a major criterion. They set up government parastatals, which they turned around to run aground with reckless abandon.
They decreed where and when new federal institutions including hospitals, airports, roads, schools of all categories would be built and located. The civil service was theirs for the asking. Some very sensitive positions for over forty years were the exclusive preserve of men and women from their ethno-religious groups.”