Most of the poverty in this country is in fact in Northern Nigeria. The numbers are stark and scandalous enough. According to the 2019 edition of the Nigerian Living Standards Survey (NLSS), the official measure of poverty in the country compiled by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), a poor Nigerian is one who lives below the national poverty line of N137,430 per year, about N382 per day. Some 41 per cent of the total population—87 million Nigerians—are caught up in this situation, most of them from the North.
For example, of the 17 states which have poverty rates higher than the national average, according to the NBS data, 15 of them are in the North, including states like Kano (55.1 per cent) and Kaduna (43.5 per cent). Only Ebonyi and Enugu have poverty rates higher than the national average of 41 per cent, while just three of the 18 Northern states measured (Benue, Kogi, Kwara) are below it. No state in the North has a poverty rate below 20 per cent. By comparison, eight Southern states have poverty rates below that figure and some states like Delta, Lagos, Ogun, Oyo and Osun are below 10 per cent.
Moreover, nine Northern states each has a poverty rate above 60 per cent, and in Jigawa, Sokoto and Taraba states, the poverty rate is 87 per cent or higher. This means that nine out of every 10 Nigerians in these three states is poor. Due to security reasons, the NBS had no poverty data for Borno State in 2019. But since all the other five states in the North East (Adamawa, Bauchi, Gombe, Taraba, and Yobe) each has a poverty rate above 60 per cent, we can safely assume that Borno will be no different from the rest. In short, Nigeria is poor because Northern Nigeria is poor.
The consequences of this staggering level of poverty for the North—and Nigeria—are all too clear now. But the causes are not so obvious, and often outrightly misunderstood. For instance, it is also often said that Northern Nigerians are lazy, unenterprising, and fatalistic. Indeed, many northerners believe this narrative too, particularly the more successful ones. But this argument is simply one of the Great Lies of Nigerian politics and society. Northerners are not lazier than their compatriots across the country. Nor are they less enterprising.
If we seek a proper understanding of poverty in Nigeria, and in Northern Nigeria particularly, then we must shift the debate from things like education and jobs to the balance between work and reward. The North is poor because northerners are engaged in the least economically rewarding sectors of the Nigerian economy. A man who treks 10 miles a day to cut other peoples’ nails, or to shine shoes or sell fruits, or to mend clothes in homes, or to scavenge for metal or plastic, or to push water trucks, or to sell locally made perfumes, or to sell a handful of clothes, car wipers, phone chargers, belts and other Chinese wares cannot reasonably be accused of laziness, fatalism or lack of enterprise.
Nor could you accuse the young girls who trek similar distances selling groundnuts, and quite often get violated in the cause of it, or the several young women you see selling bean cakes or roasted corn in a single street only a few metres apart, of being lazy. If we map out these and other kinds of low paying jobs across the country, and survey those engaged in them, we will find the numbers are in millions—majority of them northerners. They are all doing valuable work. It is just that the reward they get out of their labour is not enough to get them out of poverty.
With a different structural arrangement in the economy, these people would be doing different jobs and the same amount of time and effort would earn them incomes significant enough to keep them out of the poverty trap. Trekking 10 miles a day to sell anything is enough work and enterprise already. Millions of people in Nigeria or the developed economies don’t put in more effort than that in their own jobs to earn a living. So the real problem is the structure of the Nigerian economy and its reward system, both of which are heavily weighed against the average northerner.
This brings us to the second factor frequently attributed as the cause of poverty in Northern Nigeria. It has been said again and again that poverty in the North is the result of low levels of educational development in the region, or as some people like to confound the issue, illiteracy. Low level of formal education is a contributing factor to poverty, but it is not the main reason the North is poor.
It is true that school enrolment figures, completion rates and even literacy levels are alarmingly lower in the North than in the rest of the country. It is also true that education generally correlates with higher incomes and lower poverty, almost everywhere. But if you truly want to get a person out of poverty, give them a job and pay them a reasonable living wage. After all, education, even university education, by itself alone does not put food on the table.
There is no better illustration of this point than to look at the outcomes for the northerner who is even educated. The next poorest person in Nigeria after the uneducated northerner is the educated northerner. In Nigeria, as elsewhere, an HND holder or university graduate may work in the public sector (federal, state or local governments), in the organised private sector, or in the third sector of the economy.
Across each of these spaces, the employment opportunities available for a northern graduate are vastly fewer than those available for their southern counterparts, which in turn has direct effects on their life chances from that point onwards. The organized private sector in Nigeria is almost 90 per cent southern in location, ownership, and personnel. Indeed, even the branches of many leading companies operating in the North are staffed mainly by southern graduates, and even for jobs for which qualified northern graduates abound.
The same applies in the non-profit sector. It is likely that 70 per cent of all NGO activity in the country today occurs in northern Nigeria. Yet, that sector is entirely southern dominated, particularly at the summit. The federal government is not much different. The two states of Imo and Anambra have a higher number of federal civil servants than all the seven states of the North West combined. So where would the average Northern graduate work?
Only in their own state governments does a graduate from Northern Nigeria has an advantage for employment, nowhere else in Nigeria. If a Northern graduate does not get a job in his state government, or at a federal entity located in his home state, then he’s almost already outcompeted by his Southern counterpart. So, if the structure of the economy is one major impediment to prosperity in northern Nigeria, the structure of society is another. It is called social capital.