It goes without saying that northern Nigeria is facing unprecedented political, social and economic crises. At a time when it should be experiencing historic levels of economic growth, the region has, within the last decade and half, moved from the most stable and peaceful to the most volatile in Nigeria. Most attention is focused on the Boko Haram uprising and terrorism in the north-east, but a number of other ethno-religious and inter-communal conflicts exist in other parts as well.
The perennial herdsmen-farmers clashes have become more violent of recent. Many states are scrambling to deal with the situation as population growth increases tensions over new farmlands and ancient pastures.
The slightest disagreement now provides opportunity for bloodshed, as happened recently in Otukpo, a previously peaceful town in Benue state, when a minor difference over the location of a livestock stand led to the burning of the homes of most Hausa and Muslim residents –including many who were born and had lived there for decades.
In nearby Nasarawa state, many inter and intra-communal tensions exist – not the least of which is the Ombaste imbroglio which led to the slaughter of over 100 policemen and security operatives last year. There might be a truce, but the underlying grievances remain unsolved.
And as we enter another election circle, the drums of war are beating louder and harder, fuelled in no small measure by the ambitions and utterances of recently empowered politicians like Labaran Maku and old war-horses like Modu Ali Sherriff in Nasarawa and Borno states, respectively.
Meanwhile, the hostility that resulted in what can only be termed as genocide and ethnic cleansing in Southern Kaduna following the 2011 elections remains largely unsolved, with tens of thousands of refugees unable to return to their homes. Though the future these internally displaced persons remains uncertain, intense politicking for next year’s elections has taken over the attention of government and policy makers. In adjoining Plateau state, despite the intense blood-letting of the past 13 years, the crisis is unrelenting.
Several factors are responsible for transforming the north to a land of anarchy: Many underlining tensions and grievances – left for too long – created distrust among people that hitherto coexisted peacefully. And politicians – from the region and elsewhere – have tapped into these sentiments to create havoc.
That said, the north’s wounds are actually a reflection of the region’s poverty, ignorance and hopelessness. These are the key factors that drive people to religious and political extremism. It has become routine for ancient quarrels or new political arguments to ignite mindless violence which can engulf whole towns and villages in just hours. And the security operatives sent in to settle such disturbances end up doing more damage.
In the end, there is a self-perpetuating cycle of violence, leaving people at the mercy of known and unknown warring factions with no defined rules of engagement. For every Baga and Bama that was reported, there is evidence of crimes against humanity everywhere.
Incidentally, even with the recognition in some quarters that ethnicity and religion are mere veneers to mask the conflicts, not much is being done to rein in poverty, unemployment and hopelessness in the region. And so the economic situation is worsening by the day. Unemployment is higher than in other parts of Nigeria. Factories, even in the commercial heartland of Kano now echo more with silence than the buzz of commerce.
Assuming peace returns to the north today, it would take about a decade to return the factories of Kano and Kaduna to where they were in the 1980s – by which time, they would be a further 20 or 30 years behind the rest of the country.
Agriculture, the region’s pride and mainstay of its economy is largely subsistence and remains dependent on the vagaries of weather. This is in spite of the many dams and huge tracts of fertile land the region possesses. Properly developed, the north has the capacity to produce enough rice to feed Africa, yet it is a fact that Nigeria spends about N1 billion per day to import poor quality rice.
How the region’s leaders can allow such huge economic resources to waste is unfathomable – as the fact that northern farmers can earn even more from wheat farming. No one, it seems, can be bothered.
If the governments and leaders of the north had massively adopted a policy of ‘economic determinism’ - the provision of basic needs and economic empowerment of their people by developing the real economy, they might have spared the region and Nigeria the anguish that is crippling our progress as a nation.
Alas, northern elite still insist on monopolising all economic and political spaces to the exclusion of the majority – a policy they sustain by leaving most of their people illiterate. It is no wonder that the end may not be in sight for the cycle of poverty, unemployment and insecurity.