In 2006, the then Central Bank Governor, Professor Charles Soludo presented a paper titled “Poverty: A Northern Phenomenon” at a lecture organized by the Northern Development Initiative in Kaduna where he drew our attention to calamity about to befall the Northern region. At the event, Soludo was generous in asking the federal government to declare the poverty situation in the north a national crisis. He said: “Poverty is unacceptably high in Nigeria but the alarming and persisting level of poverty in Nigeria is a phenomenon in the North wherein some states it is as high as 95 per cent of the population.
Soludo’s declaration did stir up debate among policy analysts and some NGOs, but the region’s political elites did little or nothing to address the situation. It is 14 years since Soludo’s declaration and the story is still the same, if not worse. This proclamation is made in view of the recently released poverty and inequality profile 2019 report by the Nigerian Bureau for Statistics which showed that poverty is still a northern phenomenon.
A typical spectacle in the streets of most of the cities and towns of northern Nigeria looks like this: multiple streams of school-age children roaming about with begging bowls if they are boys and with tray loads balanced on their heads selling trifles if they are girls. If they are youths, aged 20 and above or thereabout the males are likely to be selling petrol measured in jerry cans in the black market or loafing idly and the females will have small or big basins doling out food to buyers in the streets. Those middle-aged or older lounging tiredly on mats spread on street corners are likely to be beggars with no discrimination to gender.
There is more to the above. On the same streets, the latest brand of luxury Hondas, Toyotas, Range Rovers or Mercedes Benz cars sure to draw a long glance will be purring softly as it traverses pot-hole-filled roads with their expensively dressed occupants. In virtually every street, even in the poorest neighbourhoods, there will be the usual big mansion looming over dilapidated houses that have seen better days. There are school children too, either coming from or going to school.
This is a caricature of the two worlds which combine to make up the North today – one of abject poverty, disease and illiteracy and the other of breathtaking wealth and sophistication. It is typical of the kind of world found in most other underdeveloped societies. However, what has gotten development economists worried about the make-up of this society as found in Northern Nigeria is the preponderance of over 70% of her population in the absolute poverty trap, with a yearly rising number among children, women and youths. While in the south of Nigeria there are reductions in the number found in this group and the hope that the future looks bright with rising educational enrolment and skill acquisition, the North’s situation looks calamitous and in urgent need of attention before it degenerates to far worse levels.
But the fact is a big proportion has been left behind for so long. What is urgently needed is for the region’s elites and politicians to aggressively stem the tide and embark on a policy rethink that will be more people-focused with a long term aim of resuscitating the dying sectors of agriculture and industry that have at a time been the mainstay of the region’s economy.
Northern elites must also begin to rethink how they design and implement development policies and programmes. Most often, their policies and programmes do look beautiful on paper, proclaiming such lofty ideals and objectives that after the massive expenditure of state and donor agencies funds do not amount to much at the end of the day.
These shortcomings point at other failures that are central to the absence of effective leadership, which is basically about the endemic level of corruption and poor implementation capabilities that see a sizeable chunk of monies meant to uplift the poor and improve their living standard falling into the hands of a few. If northern elites must reverse the poverty situation, (and we must with urgency) we must deal with bad governance, illiteracy, primordial sentiments, and corruption among several other issues. Above all, they must be willing, and ready to build the implementation capabilities required to deliver results.
It is quite sad that most northern elites are always quick to dispute the poverty figures assigned to their state (when they are unfavourable), rather than take out time to evaluate what was said to be the nature and extent of sure a phenomenon with the view to addressing them.
On a final note, it is time the northern state elites realize that poverty and inequality go beyond giving out stipends or poorly packaged microcredit or social intervention programmes whose impact is hardly felt by their people. Poverty is a multidimensional problem that requires a well-thought-out strategy that will enable citizens to have access to quality healthcare and education as well as a voice in the governance process. Without this in place, the region will continue to battle with abject poverty and the consequences as we all know is the youth restlessness, high maternal and infant mortality, high level of unemployment, crime, and of course the wanton killings presently experienced across the region.