The Northern Question

The Northern Question

By: Salisu Suleiman

In February, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) released figures indicating that Sokoto state, in Nigeria’s North West, had the highest incidence of poverty in the entire country. One week later, the state held governorship elections. Aliyu Wammako of the PDP won an awe-inspiring 71% of the vote. This would have been nothing new, except that Wammako has been in office either as deputy governor or governor of the state for nearly 12 of the last 13 years – overseeing the steady rise in infrastructural decay, poverty and unemployment. His re-election tells us that either the people are contended with their state of poverty, or that the elections were a charade.alt

This example is indicative of one of many challenges facing Northern Nigeria – held in the grip of incompetent and visionless leadership and unable to break free from the cycle of unemployment, poverty and hopelessness. Thus, a region that was already forty years behind the South at Independence in 1960 has not only fallen further behind, but according to former governor of Kaduna state, Balarabe Musa, is now holding Nigeria back. The rise of terrorist groups like Boko Haram – predictable and entirely avoidable – is principally a product of huge social and economic inequalities against which the thoroughly compromised political class lacks the moral authority to speak. And so the North, battered and backward, has become a drawback to Nigeria’s development.

Things are not about to get better.

Wammako’s landslide is not unusual: Apart from one or two, none of the region’s 19 governors were genuinely elected (never mind the Appeal and Supreme Court judgments). So governors and other public officials, aware that they do not have legitimate mandates, feel no responsibility to their people and their states: public office is an opportunity to steal money that cannot be spent in generations. This tiny clique falls into the category of the top one percent of the world’s richest people, while for the vast majority, it is a tale of grinding shortages in every sphere of life from birth to death.

The prospects are scarier, considering the growing number of youth joining the phalanxes of the unemployed. Due to illiteracy or the poor quality of graduates, most of them have few practical skills or know-how to earn a living, yet these unemployed (and largely unemployable youth) troop to towns and cities to end up as beggars, itinerant manicurists, shoe shiners, commercial motorcyclists, roaming tailors, barbers, waste bin scavengers – and fertile recruiting grounds for Boko Haram. Even before the current spate of bombings and killings, the North produced little and exported nothing. Today, even acclaimed commercial states like Kano depend on federal allocations to pay salaries and pensions. Poverty in states like Borno, Yobe, Plateau and Sokoto is chronic, pervasive and growing.

What can be done?

Clearly, a multi-pronged approach is needed. While the political space must be leveled to reflect voters’ choices, long term measures like free compulsory and quality education must be introduced. However, the more immediate challenge is economic development, particularly job creation. Economic development can be propelled by stimulating the private sector which is better suited for sustaining growth. Growth is the most powerful weapon in the fight against poverty because it creates jobs that use labor, the main asset of the poor. As growth proceeds, employment becomes the major source of economic support for most workers and their families.

In the North, illiteracy is higher, skills lower and the private sector, practically non-existent because most businesses are informal. However, the informal economy can no longer be ignored because it forms a large part of the economies of many economies and comprises 42% of value added in Africa, 41% in Latin America and 35% in the transition economies of Europe and the former Soviet Union. It is estimated that informal employment accounts for 84% of women’s employment in sub-Saharan Africa. The informal economy provides employment and income for many who lose or cannot find work in the formal economy and it includes a high number of young people and others from disadvantaged groups – like northerners.

While the informal economy has helped to engage many people in one form economic activity or the other, its prevalence has also limited the growth of the formal private sector. This implies that Northern Nigeria must develop a strong interest in fostering policy and institutional environments that enables the private sector to flourish and act as an effective driver of pro-poor growth. This requires addressing the needs and maximizing the contribution of the many informal enterprises, family-run farms and self-employed people, as well as those of formal and large businesses.

For a region that is already economically backward and faced with a population explosion, developing a vibrant private sector with opportunities for job creation is essential to the North. Properly regulated and operating under competitive market conditions, the private sector can generally use resources more efficiently than the public sector, especially in job creation. Private sector entities can deliver goods and services to meet growing demands and create job opportunities in the process. This is because private sector growth also increases the tax base that enables government to finance labor market programs and provide basic social services. Health and education services, in particular, give the poor a better chance to increase their productivity and earning capacity.

At the moment, most poverty alleviation or business development programs are aimed primarily at men, though women have a vital role to play in job creation. Market access for women must therefore be protected. As it were, the finances of a significant number of families are already being run by the womenfolk. There are some businesses that can be better operated and managed by women, and policies and projects of government aimed at poverty alleviation and job creation must recognize and build on this.

To create jobs, a number of issues ought to be addressed, like reducing barriers to formalization. Job creation strategies must make it easier for businesses to migrate from the informal to the formal sector – easing records keeping and facilitating access to credits from micro finance banks. Technical and financial assistance from all tiers of government, but particularly from community based poverty alleviation agencies is crucial.

Export facilitation and standardization of products can also help to develop the private sector and create jobs. One of the greatest misnomers in international trade is the reference to leather and leatherworks produced in Kano as ‘Moroccan’ leather. The fame and financial reward went to the middle-men while those who produced the leather went unnoticed and unrewarded. Relevant agencies must promote local goods and artifacts and help local businesses produce them according to international standards. There is also a need to modernize skills and production processes of artisans and products, and professionals interested in setting up professional services such as in law, estate management, surveying, auditing, etc, must be helped in obtaining professional certification.

Now, even the usually cautious official figures show that at least 100 million Nigerians live in abject poverty, obviously mostly in the North. Unless governments and businesses in the region develop and engage its vast human resources in various sectors of the economy on a truly epic scale, the current insecurity and poverty may lead to a complete breakdown of law and order.

In the meantime, no one is asking the painful question: where are the leaders?