In my piece on poverty in Northern Nigeria the week before last, I argued that poverty in the region and, by extension, the country, is not so much due to low levels of education or a general lack of enterprise, as usually assumed, but to the structural defects of the Nigerian economy that keep most northerners, including those educated, in the least economically rewarding jobs in the country.
Apparently, the question of poverty in the country, and its peculiar manifestations in Northern Nigeria, is an issue that resonates well with many Nigerians, even if it is not a dominant issue in our politics. The piece generated quite a bit of interest with readers, at least going by the number of phone calls, text messages, and e-mails I received following it. I always value feedback from my readers, but on this occasion I paid particular attention. Beyond encouraging comments and a few posers, some readers proffered possible solutions of their own. But the one issue that stood out is the ultimate query: what can be done about it?
The first, and for me, the most important, step is to politicise the issue, to push poverty into the mainstream of Nigerian politics and political action. Consider this: In just the past few weeks, several potential candidates for the 2023 presidential elections including former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, Governor of Ekiti State and Chairman of the Nigerian Governors Forum, Kayode Fayemi, Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State, Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State, and former Governor of Rivers State and Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi have spoken publicly about the state of the nation.
None of them spoke about poverty in Northern Nigeria as a specific issue that requires national attention, even though poverty is deeply tied to the current security situation in the region. All of them, by contrast, spoke about ‘restructuring’ or ‘secession’, and in the case of Atiku, Fayemi and Tambuwal, quite scathingly. Yet, both issues are relatively unimportant to northern voters. Potential candidates for national office at the next elections speak about these issues not because they have much bearing on bread and butter to most Nigerians, but because somehow they have been elevated to national political discourse as among the most important issues for the country.
That is the power of political agenda. The structural defects in the economy that sustain and worsen poverty in the North must first be transformed into a political agenda, that is, as a matter of politics and policy that political leaders must take seriously. After all, it is an issue that affects over 80 million Nigerians. Doing so will not be easy since ‘poverty’, either as lived experience or as a policy issue tends to have a negative connotation in Nigeria where churches and mosques implore even the poorest to pretend they are not poor.
But it is possible. Northern organisations with much political clout like Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) and the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), as well as traditional rulers and religious leaders in the region could draw sustained national attention to the issue by speaking constantly about it, by citing poverty figures and tying these to the myriad challenges in the region, and by mobilising policy makers within and outside of national and state governments to generate strategies for combatting it.
Media, civil society organisations and trade unions in the North, which always claim to be working on behalf of the poor, could also take up the mantle and constantly challenge politicians in government and the opposition about their plans for creating jobs and reducing poverty levels in the region and the country. Without sustained efforts to push poverty in the North and the structural arrangements in the Nigerian economy that both cause and exacerbate it into the centre of national discourse, the issue will remain on the fringes of politics.
Second, the northern economy is overwhelmingly informal, and therefore unhelpful for job creation, taxation and overall wealth generation and sustenance. The North must make concrete attempts to formalise and integrate the regional economy. On the question of integrating the northern economy, consider the transport sector in the region. In addition to the countless commercial drivers plying various routes within and beyond the region, nearly each state in the region has a largely government-owned transport company. But hardly any of these is doing well as businesses, and many have broken down several times in the past.
There is nothing wrong in merging them all together as one or two companies and then floating them on the Nigerian Stock Exchange to generate funds. In one day, you would have created a billion-dollar business that banks, pension funds, insurance companies and others can invest in for the long term. And instead of the 14-seater buses that crumble after a few years, you can then purchase or lease buses that are more durable and have more passenger-capacity.
You can then systematise routes across the entire region and the country, based on schedule rather than passenger convenience, so that the same vehicle that takes off in Maiduguri will be picking and dropping off passengers across the same route all the way to Ilorin or even Lagos. Our hypothetical transport company may not necessarily create too many jobs as such, but it is an example of what is possible. The same process can apply for many other sectors, which leads us to the issue of formalising the northern economy.
Whenever Nigerian leaders, particularly those in the North, think of alleviating poverty, they generally do so through programmes and policies that are not only tokenistic, but sometimes outrightly affronting to the poor. But what is sorely needed is to develop the private sector in northern Nigeria, and to do so by actively creating it. Take the health and education sectors. Most owners of private schools, clinics and hospitals across the North are in fact Nigerians from other parts of the country. Northern states, in collaboration with the federal government and the private sector, must actively seek to develop northern private participation in these areas by providing carefully selected entrepreneurs with incentives such as land and long-term interest-free loans to build and run large-scale hospitals and schools.
The emphasis is, of course, on large-scale. The key to economic transformation, of a region or a country, is big business. Carefully selected entrepreneurs across the region must be supported through appropriate incentives and regulatory mechanisms to establish, and run, large-scale farms, construction, engineering and property companies, large fashion and food businesses, and indeed many other areas of the private sector. It is not enough to give people N30,000 to start a micro business that, quite frankly, cannot go anywhere in Nigeria’s harsh economic environment.
The goal must be for creating, or recreating, through mergers and acquisitions for example, solid businesses that can create enduring jobs, pay workers at least reasonable living wages, access finance, poach talent, pay tax to local and state governments, and generally compete with their counterparts across the country and the continent. If this looks like a programme for transforming, not just the northern region, but the Nigerian economy as a whole, that is also the point.