The bitter taste of honey

By IndepthAfrica
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Jul 5th, 2012
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Abdulrazaq Magaji

The increasingly impoverished people of northern Nigeria are waking up to the stark realization that the sweet taste of democracy could turn sour if you are unlucky to have the right hands in the kitchen. Northern Nigerians have never had it so bad: democracy is in the air, yet many of them will swear they will welcome the devil’s alternative. Here, we are talking of the alternative available to a distressed and poverty stricken people who are constantly harassed by red-eyed misfits who believe taking human lives is the only visa they need to go to paradise. And just before you say Boko Haram, remember this is peace time and the north is not at war; it is not even contemplating one, but the number of guns in wrong hands would have made Osama bin Laden jump out of his skin. More money, thanks to increasing earnings from oil, is being pumped into northern Nigeria but, like the guns, they end in a few, wrong hands. Democracy? Like hell! Afro beat king Fela Anikulapo Kuti once re-defined this sweet nine letter word: he called it demon crazy and we all laughed. To the average northern Nigerian today, Fela is a prophet!

Let’s begin the story by taking a cursory look at the composition of the Nigerian federal government headed by President Goodluck Jonathan. The vice president, president of the Senate, Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Chief Justice of the Federation are all from the north. What this means is that, in the event of President Jonathan dropping dead today (God! Please, forbid it!), a northerner is on queue to succeed him. Let’s extend this a bit more: in the unlikely event of the top four government positions becoming vacant today, it is taken that, anyway it is juggled, a northerner is still on queue to constitutionally take up the position of Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. The dominance does not end there, as the Inspector General of Police, National Security Adviser, Chief of Naval Staff and Head of the Civil Service of the Federation are all northerners. Apart from this northern dominance, the north has majority members in the two houses of the national Assembly. The picture gets clearer against the background that northerners, either as elected or unelected leaders, have ruled for thirty seven of the nation’s fifty two years of independence. Poser: has this dominance been of any benefit to the north and northerners?

It is not being suggested that these prominent northerners constantly breathed down the neck of President Jonathan for unfair allotment of developmental programmes in the north. What is being suggested that some northern political leaders have constituted themselves into clogs, preferring to jostle for position. Recently one prominent northerner, Alhaji Mustapha Haruna Jokolo, a retired military officer and deposed Emir (Amir or, Leader) of Gwandu in the north western state of Kebbi, took one long at the picture and unsettled many on the vast northern plain with his verdict: ‘Political power has been a curse to the north and northerners.’ His reason? ‘ If we had responsible northerners in public office, there is nothing the president can do without consulting the north, and the president will not be able to rule effectively without consulting the north.’ And his solution, military style, is: ‘The north should forget the presidency in 2015.’ Arrows have not stopped flying towards the man from the political class in a region that have lost its hitherto firm grip on what it hitherto took for granted: political power. Bereft of real power at the centre, it had long contented itself with playing second fiddle on the economic anyway. Northern political leadership (read governors of the nineteen states that make up the north) is now in complete disarray, and the people are paying a heavy penalty for the loss.

Left-leaning politician Alhaji Abdulkadir Balarabe Musa, former governor of old Kaduna state in north-western Nigeria, holds a similar view. But while not admonishing northern politicians to ‘forget the presidency’, the leader of the radical People’s Redemption Party, PRP, excuses northern politicians from efforts to resolve the crisis in the north; he says they concern themselves more with jostling for political positions and, in any case, they are guilty of being ‘criminally indifferent to the plight of their people.’ The man should know; thirty years ago, he was removed from office for attempting to reverse the status quo when he defied the entrenched northern feudal oligarchy and courageously embarked on pro-poor programmes aimed at reversing stifling principles and policies that breed illiteracy, poverty and underdevelopment in northern Nigeria.

Such harsh views cannot be dismissed off-handed. It is taken that deficit of transformational leadership is a national malaise, but it must also be taken that it is more magnified in the North. Today, the north is grappling with deficit of transformational leaders, which has continued to widen the gulf between the few rich and the majority poor and pauperized the majority of the people. A majority of northerners in leadership positions, both at the state and federal levels, either do not understand or appreciate the burden of leadership or, where they do, they merely go into office to amass wealth. To ensure their continued stay in power, most of the so-called leaders device divisive and dangerous means of founding and funding militia groups, the result of which has been the proliferation of gun and dagger-wielding youths across the north. These glue-sniffing hoi polloi of society have turned full circle: in the name of pressing a hazy religious agenda, they bomb pubs and churches alike, kill unarmed worshippers, carry out dare-devil raids on banks, silence Muslim and traditional leaders who dare condemn their style, or force them to clam up and force journalists to continue to steal glances across their shoulders. And steadily, northern Nigeria is competing for space with Somalia on all credible human development indices.

Figures produced by the official National Bureau of Statistics, NBS, for 2011 are frightening. For instance, average unemployment rate for the nineteen states of Northern Nigeria is 27.9%, which is higher than the national average of 23.9%. What this means is that about one out of every three adult employable citizens in the North is unemployed. Northern Nigeria has an estimated population of 83 million, out of which forty million pass for a working population. A total of twenty seven million of the forty million working population of the region is unemployed. The problem of high unemployment in the region has significantly contributed to the high poverty rate, which the NBS estimates at 73.8% for the three geo-political zones that made up the 19 states in 2011. This is higher than the national incidence of 69%, which means that more than seven out of every ten citizens in the North are poor. In other words, an estimated 61 million of the eighty three million residents are poor. High unemployment and poverty rates are partly a reflection of low economic activities.

This, in many respects, has translated into low internally generated revenue, IGR, for all the state governments in the region, on account of which the total IGR for the 19 states for 2010, according to the Central Bank of Nigeria Annual Report released in March 2011, was N92.1 billion. Compared to total personnel cost of N245.7 billion, internal revenue generation capacity for the nineteen northern state governments can only meet thirty seven per cent of personnel cost commitment. Taking into account the contentious minimum monthly wage of N18,000 or $120, which came into effect in March 2011, the internally generated revenue of the nineteen northern states may meet no more than fifteen per cent of personnel cost commitment.

The criminal neglect of agriculture, mineral resources and other non-oil economic activities for easy oil money from the federal government has aggravated this situation, as the federal allocations are hardly directed towards reviving infrastructure, capital projects, empowering the populace or investment in non-oil sectors of the economy. After all, the relatively easy art of sharing oil-driven monthly federal allocations has killed whatever initiative is left in a rudderless leadership to even contemplate other means of internally generating revenue. In the place of creativity, monthly allocations which run into billions of naira are brazenly shared among a few,and in most cases where they are seen to be spent, large chunks of the allocations are expended towards recurrent expenditure and unproductive ventures such as allocation of free Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage seats,distribution of rams and other essential commodities to those who ordinarily can afford them.

Some governors regularly cause stampedes by openly throwing money in the air for their subjects to scramble for. Pity! The crass neglect of education, despite the seemingly huge resources committed to it, especially in the last four decades, has contributed to the backwardness of the north and reinforced its image as a major drawback to the nation. Not even the recent and unusual admission by one prominent northern political leader that the free education embarked upon by the government of the defunct Western Region was the tonic that gave South Western Nigeria a good head start has informed the need for a reversal of steps by an increasingly clueless leadership.

This dependence on oil revenues, which has done little to benefit the average Northerner, has firmed the impression of Northern Nigeria as, in local parlance, a big for nothing entity, and northern Nigerians as parasitic and unproductive; a lazy people that have become a liability of sorts and a huge embarrassing albatross around the neck of their compatriots. This impression is not about to end, especially in the foreseeable future, considering the apparent cluelessness on the part of most political leaders in the north, even though a cursory look at recent history of Nigeria puts the lie to this impression. Until the oil boom era, the north did not only contribute handsomely to the commonwealth, but the political leaders of the First Republic had the foresight and lacked the kleptomaniac instinct; they had been able to use available resources to execute laudable projects. Indeed, a significant part of the resources that transformed Lagos and which facilitated the exploration of oil came from the famed groundnut pyramids of the north. But who cares? So, at what point did the north miss the bus? And what is to be done if the north is to avoid the hammer that is dangerously swinging on its head?

Those who blame present and past governors of northern states have a point. Governors, more than any other set of public office holders, are better placed to rejuvenate the north; they have a firm grip on billions accruing to their respective states from federal allocations. Because of this, they determine who gets what. They decide who gets elected into national and state legislatures. The result has been a huge debt profile, which, according to the Debt Management Office DMO, stood at US$834,600,888.72 or N129,363,137,751.60, representing 39.2% of the total debt of the country’s thirty six states as at December 31, 2011. According to the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission, RMAFC, the northern states combined took some N1,502,551,340,400.06 from the federation account between January, 2009 and December 2011, representing 56.53% of the total allocations to all the 36 states of the federation.

Expectedly, a large chunk of the amount was expended on personnel and recurrent commitments, with a larger chunk used to service false life-styles, aside from the criminal looting of funds to prosecute the next electioneering campaigns. A combination of greed and avarice has blinded most of the governors, who appear incapable of doing what is right. Yet, like bad workmen, the game has always been buck-passing, as several northern leaders have turned ‘unfavourable federal allocations’ into a pastime to explain their low or non-performance.

Early this year, Mallam Lamido Sanusi, governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, opened the floodgate when, armed with figures to support his claims, he fingered inequality in federal allocations as the cause of the poverty-driven violence in the north. Alarmed critics were preparing to pick holes in Lamido’s submission, epidermic as it sounds, when some northern governors gave currency to it. Hear Dr. Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu, the self styled chief servant of Niger state in north central Nigeria and Chairman of the so called Northern Governors’ Forum: “The north today is in a very grave situation where illiteracy, poverty and general backwardness are on the rise in the face of unfavourable federation allocation structure, in which the northern states are at a great disadvantage.’ Strange, but what the Chief Servant shied away from was to mention how he has been addressing growing ‘illiteracy, poverty and general backwardness’ with the few Naira notes his state collects as a monthly allocation. Rather, from his first day in office, Governor Muazu Babangida Aliyu embarked on an ambitious state-wide programme of erecting huge designer billboards carrying his photographs, to advertise and celebrate hollowness. A common joke around town is that the way things are, Niger state may soon boast of more billboards than educational institutions.

The spurious claim that the north gets an unfair share of federal allocations, even if it holds water, is defeatist. It is a claim that could make the first premier of the defunct Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, squirm in his grave, and would certainly embarrass him if he were alive. If truth be told, Sir Ahmadu Bello could not have dreamt of changing the face of the north as a parasite on the wealth from rubber and cocoa plantations of the south. He did not abandon his people to a life of pervasive illiteracy, poverty and general backwardness in the hope of shifting the blame to others, as is the case today. Those who invoke the name of the late Sir Ahmadu Bello to score cheap political points forget that, to his eternal credit, the late Sardauna never relied on free cash from the south to develop the north. Unlike his teary eyed, ever complaining, ever murmuring and ever insinuating successors, at no point was Sir Ahmadu Bello reported to have complained, either in private or public, of lop-sided or unfavourable allocations hampering his developmental programmes. Some of those who worked with him are there to bear witness.

There is a way out. From the look of things, the present policy of thirteen per cent derivation is the culprit. And since it has reduced northern political leaders to perpetual complainants, perhaps, the nation should adopt relevant sections of the 1963 Republican Constitution, which adopted a policy of 50 per cent derivation. This way, the complaining northern leaders will have no option but to sit up, look inwards and quit blaming others for their criminal non-performance. After all, the former policy, which was the brainchild of Sir Ahmadu Bello’s northern People’s Congress, NPC, brought out the ingenuity in the late Sardauna, who increasingly looked inwards to raise the resources to make the great strides recorded by his northern regional government. Northern leaders need to realize that their boring swan song of lop-sided and unfavourable federal allocations only serve to reinforce the image of northerners as a lazy, unproductive and parasitic lot.

It is for these reasons that some northerners have continued to carpet numerous meetings, called supposedly to explore the way forward, as a waste of precious time; mere jamborees and politically motivated talk shows with no bearing on aggrieved Northerners. Is someone listening? Certainly not! Presently, the northern governors have given themselves a blank cheque to produce the next President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Last May, the governors resolved to be united, with the aim of producing the (next) president. Because of their bottomless pockets, some of them have even floated mushroom organizations, ostensibly to promote and defend interests of the north and northerners, but which many know are mere smoke screens to promote their presidential ambitions. As to be expected, such misplaced ambitions will only worsen the plight of the people, considering the amount of state resources being stashed away to prosecute their campaigns.

Abdulrazaq Magaji, writer, journalist and former history lecturer, lives in Abuja and can be reached at magaji777@yahoo.com

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