By Pini Jason
IN the brouhaha that followed the agitation by the Northern Governors for increased revenue allocation to their states, I was conscious of the fact that we were missing a point. The point was whether we really want to deal with poverty in the land.
The reason we missed the point was that Governor Babangida Aliyu, Chairman of the Northern Governors’ Forum and his colleagues were pushing on the wrong door for what ordinarily would have been a genuine national concern. For one, poverty is not peculiar to the North.
Secondly, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former New York Senator opined during the debate on famine in the Third World, that to deal with poverty, you do not remove food from the table of those already able to afford to eat in order to give the poor. That to him was a wrong way to deal with poverty in the Third World.
What I think the Northern Governors would have gunned for is for the revenue allocated to the Federal Government to be drastically reduced together with its areas of responsibilities, and the money allocated to the states. I do not see why anybody who wants to set up business in, say, Lagos, Aba or Birnin Kebbi should go to a Federal institution in Abuja to register it.
Today, we do not have any Fire Service because it is a Federal Fire Service controlled from Abuja! Secondly, the Federal Government has no business creating and funding Local Governments. That has hampered the growth and efficiency of the Local Government system because its creation by the Federal Government has reduced it to an instrument of injustice. In order words, the Northern Governors should have opted to less Government on our backs. Big, remote government has been the undoing of the Third World.
By the way, who made us Third World? Our leadership! Our type of leadership should be the first point of call in dealing with poverty. Bad leadership is the bane of Africa. Africa is replete with buffoons, mad men and senile men all parading messianic paranoia and presiding over the systematic destruction of their countries. In Nigeria, we are saddled with the reign of plain rogues. We all know them. But they are foisted on us by political parties that are mere assemblage of buccaneers squabbling over the sharing of the proceeds of cartel politics. Which of these political parties would swear that they did not know the criminal records of some of the men accused of plundering their states?
Relationship between poverty and corruption
The difficult part of dealing with poverty is that we have not bothered to see the relationship between corruption and poverty. And yet it is that simple; you won’t have good roads if the money ends up in someone’s pocket; you won’t have health facilities if someone is stealing the money; you won’t have steady power if someone is buying luxury apartments in Dubai with the money! Therefore, we cannot over-emphasise the place of honest leadership in dealing with poverty. Bad leadership is an obstacle to development. That is why serious (developed) countries are very painstaking in the selection of leadership in every sphere—politics, business, religion, etc.
Whether we like it or not, we must restore merit in our national life, especially in politics. On this page, on 27 September 2011, under the title, We Brought This Woe on Ourselves, I wrote: “The seed we sowed years back has germinated and its fruit is what we are reaping today! We killed merit and elevated mediocrity as a national ethos. We did not just lower the bar, we removed the bar! And once we did that everything collapsed around our ears!” When we killed merit, we reduced our country to a country of anything-goes! Anybody can be a Minister. Anybody can be Chief Executive of any Federal parastatal. Anybody can be Governor. The most important qualification is your religion and region. And so, many people went into their family throve and fished out once never used religious names to be assimilated. People reinvented their family lineage to qualify. This culture was actively promoted by the military. Meanwhile Mr. Anybody was a hopeless twit! One after the other we watched our national institutions go under. More poverty in the land!
This is the culture that ruined the North, a Region that once had promise. The leaders created a dodgy structure that sustained the toadying elite and promoted it in the name of the masses. A structure anchored on faith and feudalism was destined to crumble. A structure that excludes the majority and denied them a say in their own affairs created the time bomb that is exploding today. So the first step is to create a democratic system that is based on merit. Democracy serves the end of development in the South because the oppressed speaks up against their oppressors. In the North the oppressors speak for themselves pretending to be speaking for the oppressed! My suspicion is that all those belching fire today are the elite who have lost out as a result of the crumbling of the dubious structure they created. If a Northerner were the President today, these elite would not see poverty or “grave situation” in the North. They would have covered it up with their billowing babanriga and created an illusion of wellbeing!
Let us imagine that the North get additional revenue today, where would it go? Will it go into sponsoring people to Hajj or building more schools for the children in the North? Will it go to buying luxury cars for Emirs and District Heads or for building hospitals? Will it go to building and maintaining palaces for the Emirs or for housing for the masses? Would the masses have had a say in how the additional revenue is spent? A democratic spirit can help reduce poverty in the North.
Practices of the past
You may argue differently. But it should be obvious that the practices of the past are no longer working, not even for those who promoted them. You can draw the map of the world’s poor regions, a region Paul Collier called the Bottom Billion, vis-à-vis the rich world and see their correlation with democracy and its effect on development. Embedded in democracy and merit is the entrepreneurial spirit. Religion, which is encroaching on entrepreneurial spirit by promising everything, preaches about life after life. Mystics say as above, so below. You must live here first before you die to go to heaven. If you are a failure here, I can’t see how on judgment day you would be rewarded above those who were successful here. Some people may pretend that they are protecting any worthwhile values by attacking secularity, but all those pretences are taking their tolls today.
I was amused reading some of my friends from the North who indulged in a jaundiced but futile exercise to run down Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu- Ojukwu, the world’s most celebrated “rebel”. There was this obvious relish and gloating over how Igbo land was destroyed during the civil war. Good. Neither the Igbo nor the perpetrators of the ruin need be reminded of the horror unleashed on the Igbo during the genocidal war. The question is, by what magic did a people given only 20 pounds, not 20,000 pounds, just 42 years ago rise to their feet? How did they turn a devastated wasteland to fertile field again, even with all the obstacles put on their way by those asking for additional handout today? How did the “labourers” in late Sarduana of Sokoto’s labour camp “dominate the camp”?
This same North that is in “very grave situation” is the same place Southerners live and make meaningful living. Riot after riot, the Igbo are killed in this same North and their property worth billions destroyed, mostly out of envy. Why do these Southerners find self-actualissation in this same arid North and the Northerners can’t? What is it that separates Northerners from the success Southerners find in the North? Where lies the difference? What culture or practice leaves the Northerner in poverty in the same North that gives the Southerner meaningful life?
Problem of poverty
The point I am making is that the problem of poverty in the North may not be just revenue-related but rather driven by attitudes, practices and cultures that are either deliberately promoted to create a rich blue blood super class and a downtrodden class or have not been identified as inimical to development. While these attitudes, practices and cultures are promoted, a degenerate and remorselessly dishonest leadership feasts on the resources of the people only to turn round and let the angry mob loose on the rest of us! Let us face it, dishonest leadership is not only in the North. But the difference is that in the South, the masses are free to speak to authority, which is not the case in the North. And the “irreverent” (apologies to Lugard) masses have reduced the adverse effect of dishonest leadership in most of the South, especially in the South West.
In 1989 or thereabout, I was driving through Kano metropolis with a friend. I was shocked by the number of children swarming around the car with begging bowls. As we got to the front of the magnificent office complex belonging to the Dantatas, then under construction, I asked my friend if a man putting up this edifice in the middle of this poverty and hopelessness were not afraid. My friend laughed and said to me, that even if I pointed out the alarming disparity in life to any of the beggars, his answer would be that it is Allah that made Dantata rich, and that if Allah so wished He could also change his fortune! The relish with which my friend narrated this lesson to me showed that this is the philosophy on which bad leadership in the North has relied to maintain and even promote poverty in the North. The talakawa has to be woken up from such soporific fatalism. A bowl on one hand and a Koran on the other cannot fight poverty. Only enterprise can. The North should begin to hold out the Aliko Dangotes as credible role models.
The challenge is to create wealth, not to position parasitic ethno-religious representatives that fight for sharing. If one man like Dangote, can produce all the wealth and create all the jobs, why should it matter where he comes from? But if you stifle him on ethnic or religious ground, it will eventually amount to self-laceration from which the nation currently bleeds. Violence is a counter-productive approach to fighting poverty. It will only create more violence.