WE have the largest number of poor people in the world, most of them in Northern Nigeria. Nigeria also has the largest number of out of school children, virtually all of them in Northern Nigeria.
—Nasir el-Rufai, Governor of Kaduna State, at the Northern Youth Summit on Saturday, July 6, 2019
In the North-western and North-eastern parts of Nigeria, more than 60 per cent of the population live in extreme poverty … the 19 Northern states, which accounts for over 54 per cent of Nigeria’s population and 70 per cent of its landmass, collectively generate, only 21 per cent of the total sub-national IGR in the year 2017.
—Aliko Dangote, speaking at the Kaduna Investment Summit on Wednesday, April 3, 2019.
From time immemorial, regional problems have been central to the formation and development of kingdoms, empires, and modern states. However, the nature and effects of regional problems vary across time and space. In some cases, the problems are complicated by religion. In other cases, ethnicity is a key factor.
There are also cases where social and economic divisions loom large just as there are others where the desire to preserve people’s rights and liberty is foregrounded. Sometimes, one or the other of these factors could be highlighted to mask the others. Any of these factors could derail the unity or development of a kingdom, empire, or state. A convergence of two or more factors could pose even more serious challenges.
For example, in the Southern United States, the desire to preserve slavery for economic reasons led the 13 Confederate states in the South to fight a bitter civil war, although apologists of the war often couch the reasons in terms of the preservation of liberty and independence. Residues of the division between the South and the rest of the United States loom large today, especially in race relations and democratic politics.
The regional problem is even more pronounced in contemporary Italy. It was Antonio Gramsci, who problematized the regional issue in that country in his now famous The Southern Question, published in 1926.
In the essay, Gramsci not only highlighted the social problems of Southern Italy, where he came from, he also outlined a theory by which class-regional alliances were employed by the Fascist government to maintain a hegemonic hold on power. The alliances involved creating a bridge between the Northern proletariat and the Southern peasantry.
Yet, despite the Italian government’s investment in the South to pull up the region, its backwardness relative to Northern Italy continues to stand out. As indicated below, many factors are responsible for the fate of Southern Italy, making it one of the less developed areas in Europe.
If Northern Nigeria and Southern Italy were flipped, then the Italian situation would provide an instructive analogy to the regional problem in Nigeria, where the focus has been on the Northern question. To be sure, certain features are unique to each of the two regions in their respective countries, but there are interesting shared features to justify such an analogy. Correspondingly, Northern Italy compares to Southern Nigeria in developmental strides, including industrial growth, per capita income, contribution to GDP, and so on.
First, both Southern Italy and Northern Nigeria share higher unemployment and poverty rates than other regions in their respective countries. On the one hand, the unemployment rate in Southern Italy has ranged between 15 and 20 percent in the last five years, while the average unemployment rate in the country as a whole is about 9 percent.
On the other hand, the average unemployment rate of over 35 percent across Northern Nigeria has been consistently higher than the rest of the country at about 27 percent. When underemployment figures are factored in, over 30 percent of Southern Italians have little or no employment, while over 50 percent of Northern Nigerians are in a similar category.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the poverty rate in Southern Italy and Northern Nigeria is much higher than the rest of their respective countries. Furthermore, the risk of poverty is also considerably higher in both regions than the rest of the country. That risk is accentuated by relative lack of education.
Second, both Southern Italy and Northern Nigeria are more educationally backward than the rest of the country. They contain the majority of out-of-school children and school dropouts in their countries. Unfortunately, the situation has been getting worse, rather than better, in Northern Nigeria, as indicated in the opening quotes.
A recent letter by legendary Civil Servant, Ahmed Joda, to the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, shows that the situation in Northern Nigeria is rooted in history as it is in Southern Italy. According to Joda, who was the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education in 1971, only 250 candidates from the North were found qualified and were awarded Federal Government Scholarship in that year, whereas 2,750 candidates from the South got the same award.
Of course, Northern leaders cried lopsidedness then and the Federal Government, controlled by Northerners most of the time since then, has used several methods to “compensate” the North. Almost 50 years later, the change has been for the worse, rather than for the better.
Again, el-Rafai sums it all up in his speech to the Northern Youth Forum: “Northern Nigeria has become the centre of drug abuse, gender violence, banditry, kidnapping, and terrorism. We have also been associated with a high divorce rate and breakdown of families.” The situation compares to some extent with Southern Italy noted for organized crime, drug abuse, and “underground” economy, often controlled by the Mafia.
Yet another feature shared by Southern Italy and Northern Nigeria is a state-dependency mentality by which the people wait for government largesse—government jobs or share of government funds. The result is unbridled corruption and appalling lack of transparency. The almajiri image of begging for food with bowl-in-hand is symbolic of the state-dependency mentality of the region. While the Governors and Emirs distribute the largesse in Northern Nigeria, the Mafia does the same in Southern Italy. The result at the end of the day is little or no development of the region.
Dangote’s injunction to Northern leaders is now more urgent than ever: “Northern Nigeria will continue to fall behind if the respective states governments do not move to close the development gap”.