Boko Haram and poverty in Northern Nigeria


“From the equality of rights springs identity of our highest interests; you cannot subvert your neighbour’s rights without striking a dangerous blow at your own.”
– Carl Schurz

I’m sure if the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, were stuck between a rock and a hard place, that would be preferable to the spot he currently finds himself over pronouncements made in interviews, speeches and off-the-cuff responses on Boko Haram, revenue distribution and poverty in the country, especially in Northern Nigeria.

Consider this: Most Nigerians agree that the current insecurity is worsened or aided by the high level of poverty in the country and ignore any attempt to discredit the allusions made by Sanusi and other economic experts. However, no one is able to establish a link between accountability in governance and revenue allocation or its distribution – the root cause. In this delicate exchange, the CBN Governor’s growing band of critics are having a field day, employing the first rule of politics: characterise everything he says and does as wrong. That is fair game. There are three clear groups that have emerged from these exchanges – the battle tested political class who would pick on any issue if it furthers their cause; the well-trained, disciplined and professional class, the aggrieved and excluded majority; and the public officials of which Sanusi is the most visible.

If the information, reasoning and exchanges shaping the debate were premised on facts and reflect a thorough understanding of our dire socio-economic realities, the level of discourse would be elevated beyond the current cheap political posturing taking place. Yet, there are serious issues being raised in and around the issue that should attract the attention of serious-minded persons. Indeed, given the backdrop of the terrorist siege that is taking place in the North, the stakes couldn’t be significantly higher.

For now, it is hard for the public to separate the wheat from the chaff, because of where we have been, the growing distrust of government and the biting reality of the accelerated descent to poverty of a large majority of Nigerians. This debate, however, is necessary and long-overdue; yet, before an opinion is voiced; a rebuttal is released, and soon enough everything becomes muddled up. That is no way to hold an absolutely necessary national discussion on something so critical to our federalism and collective well-being.

But in the ‘fear’ driven culture we have created, one would concede this to be an effective way to keep the people distracted whilst the populace pontificates without needing to be right, criticise without having all the facts and loudly call for a redistribution of national wealth without ever having to create one, thus further perpetuating the poverty, unemployment and education malaise.

Statistics appear to grossly under-estimate the immensity of poverty that defines Nigeria’s paradox of ‘rich country with poor masses’. More than 90 per cent of Nigerians are poor and exist largely at the mercy of fate. These realities are much more obvious in rural areas and slums. In these places, people die because they cannot afford N500 to purchase needed medication or basic public health care. Worse still, people around may not be able to help as they too may not be able to collectively raise that amount of money. It is a very obvious reality in today’s Nigeria! As strange as it may sound, this is going on side-by-side with ostentatious living by the one per cent of the population! Even official statistics admit that over 112 million Nigerians live on less than US$1.00 a day.

A factual indicator is the results of the harmonised Nigeria Living Standards Survey conducted by the non-partisan National Bureau of Statistics which puts the Nigerian poverty profile at 69 per cent — this indicates that poverty and income inequality in the country have increased since 2003/2004. Accordingly, the NBS estimated that this trend may rise further if the potential positive impact of several anti-poverty and employment generation intervention programmes of government fall through. The report reveals that 112.47 million Nigerians live below US$1.00 per day and as a result could barely afford the minimal standards of food, clothing, health care and shelter!

Since poverty and unemployment in Africa strongly correlate, it will not be surprising to assume that the unemployment rate is in excess of 40 per cent. The official figure is nevertheless about 20 per cent which analysts consider a gross under-estimation.

But be that as it may, what is true is that we have a crisis which historically has been a platform for the creation of, and dynamic sustenance of other crises. We have unresolved issues that seek to emphasise our differences more than our common destiny. We operate a system that exposes the weaknesses in the foundation of our unity which the people’s representatives shy away from confronting. Yet, if the January protests and related parliamentary probe(s) provided any lesson, it must be the fact that the inequalities and fundamental imperfections in the macro-economic structure of Nigeria are unsustainable; and that our politics cannot crowd out the impending reaction to this unaddressed problem.

Karl Marx is popularly known for a truism which emphasises our current reality: religion is the opium of the poor! Yet, it is not only about religion but our historical cultural practices of deliberately putting people in a state of ignorance. Illiteracy is also both a product of and driver of poverty. Thus, the greater the level of poverty, the higher the illiteracy rate and of course, more poverty — these dynamically reinforce each other.

Accordingly, when a young man is poor, illiterate and unemployed, he becomes a clean slate for any kind of brainwashing which, according to Marx, is more potent when it comes from religion and aided by culture. The reason is very simple. First, this category of persons lacks the intellectual power to logically question or critique what they are told. They live in the world of myths. Secondly, the activity component of the brainwashing given to them provides a quasi-equivalent of employment and thus they feel engaged in acting out what they have been brainwashed about. Is this not the kind of situation we find with the Boko Haram phenomenon?

To understand this clearly is to closely examine the coordinates of Boko Haram and that of poverty in Nigeria. Boko Haram at the outset appeared to have had its operational bases located in the poorest parts of Northern Nigeria. It is in such places where people have been denied the opportunity to go to school as well as have meaningful economic sources of livelihood that recruitment is the easiest. Boko Haram leaders are aware of it and of course are maximising the advantages of that obvious truth. It is not any different from the situation that prevailed during the pre-amnesty militancy periods in the Niger Delta. The long and short of it is that with entrenched poverty, illiteracy and unemployment, we cannot eliminate the menace of Boko Haram or similar security threats.

Awoyemi, FCA, ACIT is the CEO of Proshare Nigeria.


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