Much has been said in the past few weeks about the level of poverty in the North, especially in the aftermath of the post-election violence. For me as a person, I have never denied the existence of poverty in the North and in Nigeria as a whole, but the extent to which it is deep in the North has never been so bare to me as now. Needless to say, I lived in a bubble, as do many young people in my generation and economic class.
Right behind my house lies a low-income neighbourhood, a slum, which I have been frequenting often whenever I needed few things close by. The level of poverty and idleness is so shocking that a lot of times, I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb and I will be the first victim should a class revolt take place. Throughout the day, able-bodied men from mid-teens to middle age spend their time idly sitting under the shade of trees, talking about nothingness. The few businesses present looked so pitiable that you wonder if the business operators ever made anything worthy enough to feed their families with. Add to the fact that the area is largely populated and growing fast, with a large number of kids who attend schools so poor in educational quality that a Primary Four pupil I met didn’t know the colour green. Many others didn’t even attend any schools. My bubble became shattered.
The level of poverty has gotten to the point where every state in the North, especially the North East and North West should declare it an emergency. The divide between the rich and the poor is so enormous, that if care is not taken, it will get to a point that people would not be able to even drive cars because they could be attacked. The scary thing is even the fact that those defined as the rich are just comfortable, not rich in the true sense of the word. The only security rich people can have is if they are no poor people. It is a very dire situation, especially when the South is advancing economically. With the Petroleum Industry Bill on the verge of being passed and the Gas Revolution Masterplan already drafted, the hundreds of thousands of jobs that will be created will all be in the South. We have to design our own economic revolution too.
The best way for the North to drag its way out of poverty is to focus on massive education and agro-based industrialisation. This is the most feasible way for us to lift millions of people resident in the North out of impoverishment. We have the land mass to be able to go into commercial agriculture, and add value to the crops by creating or encouraging the creation of industries around it. Whether it is cotton, tomatoes or grains, they can find their home in the North. For example, the Lake Chad Basin alone can produce enough wheat to meet all of Nigeria’s needs, despite the fact that the lake is shrinking. Yet, nothing is being done about it. Our agricultural policy has to go beyond giving fertilizer at subsidized rates towards the end of the rainy season. It has to be more encompassing: from better agricultural inputs to financing and mechanization and extension services. It should include governments, universities, research institutes and international organizations such as Food and Agricultural Organization. These bodies would be more than willing to help.
The NE and NW are the two lowest zones in terms of literacy rates. A recent survey in Bauchi State discovered that as many as 58% of school-age children are not and have never been in school. This is besides the ones that went to school and stopped after secondary school. There is a need for focus to be on basic public education more than the other levels of education. Standards should be raised: from facilities and infrastructure to qualified teachers to curricula. Public school system is still the best vehicle to deliver education en masse.
Admittedly, the situation needs urgent action, but more importantly, it requires the right action. Government policies to raising the financial levels of the people should be well-thought out, consistent and implementable. Unless this is done, we shall always have the right environment for the creation of extremist groups like Boko Haram that channel the frustration and anger of the people the wrong way. If government must win the war against militancy and insurgency, it goes beyond military action and amnesty. Economic action is even the most powerful method.
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