It is becoming a tired cliché to note that Nigeria is a country with vast potentials which have remained unrealized due to socio-political and economic challenges of which dearth of transformational leadership is at the heart of all. Again, it is common knowledge that this leadership deficit is more severe in northern Nigeria relative to other parts of the country. A disturbing yet overlooked dimension of this leadership conundrum however, is that leaders who ought to be responsible for identifying the problems and finding solutions seem to have little understanding of what these problems are, they prefer to ignore them or both, and hence have little or no solutions to them. The leaders are also becoming progressively disconnected from the ordinary people and their concerns.
The summaries of various communiqués of meetings and fora involving northern political leaders (mainly the Northern Governors Forum) and most northern elders (mostly former public office holders) of recent, on the North’s numerous problems are baffling and frustrating as it is apparent the agenda of these meetings typically have little to do with the region’s gargantuan economic, socio-political and security challenges. Neither do the final recommendations.
The themes of these meetings usually revolve around increased revenue allocation to northern states from the Federal Government, lamentations over existing conspiracies to “marginalize” and “destroy” the North; emphasis on the North’s “turn” to produce the next President in 2015; hollow, rhetorical lamentations on the decline of the northern economy and the need to revive agriculture, countering the Boko Haram insurgency and occasionally, a passing reference is made on the need for good governance, and in the end, these ills are ascribed to bad leadership and that’s about it. These meetings typically produce virtually no solid, detailed, implementable blue prints on how to methodically, systematically and effectively address the North’s well-documented problems.
As the communiqués and press briefings for these meetings become public, one’s hopes of tangible solutions are further dashed by the crushing realization that our leaders are running round in vicious circles. At best, they gloss over the most critical problems, and at worst, their recommendations have practically no bearing on these problems. While the last meeting of the Northern Governor’s Forum belatedly established a committee to propose ways of addressing the insecurity in the North, it is an open secret that many of the governors have their eyes set on and are working towards contesting the 2015 presidential elections. Recently, at least two prominent northern leaders have made the case for revisiting the Federal Government’s revenue allocation formula, while at least three northern elders have variously “advised” that President Jonathan “renounces” any intention of contesting in the 2015 elections to “defuse political tension”.
While I am not disregarding the importance of these issues, there are more critical issues requiring the immediate attention of our leaders on which the fate of ordinary people and the region as a whole hang. The problems bedeviling northern Nigeria can be broadly classified into four distinct but interrelated categories: the steady economic decline of the region over several decades, the breakdown of social cohesion, the insecurity especially the Boko Haram insurgency and the gradual decline of the North’s political influence at the centre. The disturbing fact though is that the priorities of our northern Governors and many of our northern elders, are skewed towards the North’s access to political power and how to bring back the Presidency to the North come 2015 while the more important economic, social and security challenges are of secondary importance to them.
CRITICAL PROBLEMS REQUIRING URGENT SOLUTIONS
As our leaders and elders focus on these non-issues, one wonders how these would actually translate to a better life for the ordinary northerner when 8 out of 10 people in most northern states live in abject poverty, how President Jonathan’s shelving of his 2015 ambition would translate to better equipped schools and medical centres, or how abrogating the Onshore-Offshore Dichotomy Bill and revising the “unfair” distribution of Federal revenues will attract needed investments to a region where in many state capitals it’s a herculean task to find one large departmental store (an indicator of modernization), when the current revenues are clearly being mismanaged. These are the leaders and the “voices” of the North and from what they talk about, one can reasonably conclude that these are their main priorities.
The tragedy here is that not only is there an acute misdiagnosis of the numerous problems bedeviling the North and its people by our leaders and elders, those ideally best placed to know the problems and formulate solutions, but that even their proposed solutions to the misdiagnosed problems are deficient, while the region continues to decay, collapse and burn, literally. Few of our “leaders” and “elders” have for instance, actually proposed realistic and pragmatic steps in containing the Boko Haram insurgency, the most glaring manifestation of this decay and impending collapse.
Beyond the usual mantra on the need “to engage in dialogue” with the sect, is there any concrete plan on the sequence of events that would follow in the event that the sect does agree to negotiate and is somehow convinced to lay down its arms whether by an amnesty-type cooption into the system or via another means? Is there a blueprint on integrating the brainwashed flock back into society, to guarantee the safety and security of those who agree to cease fire or for massive disarmament of arms now overflowing the North? Is there any incentive (or protection) to encourage those who genuinely want to renounce violence or to convince the militants that it’s in their best interests to lay down their arms in an environment where upward social mobility for the unprivileged is almost non-existent even to the educated ones? Are there plans for engaging these youth and other legions of unemployed, disillusioned and frustrated young men and women in our northern cities to prevent their co-option by other such anarchist groups? If any of such plans or proposals exist, they surely haven’t been regularly featuring in the communiqués of these fora involving our northern leaders and elders.
Consequently, as our leaders and elders focus on issues which seem to have little bearing on the lives of the rest of us, we the rest are increasingly dissociating ourselves from what they have chosen to prioritize, while the rest of the country is moving ahead and increasingly dissociating itself from the North as a whole. Some of our leaders speak on behalf of the North and we wonder whether they are really speaking on our behalf. They speak of the North but we wonder if these are really the aspirations of the ordinary people.
While our leaders and many of our elders attribute the North’s underdevelopment to a lower share of federal revenues, many of us see how some non-oil producing states south of the Niger, some of which receive comparatively less revenues from the federal purse are embarking on relatively more transformational policies: free health-care scheme for pregnant women, children, the physically challenged and senior citizens in Ekiti state; free education policy from primary to university level in Imo state; the rail transit system and other transport infrastructure in Lagos etc. At the same time, we see our own state executives, spending N2.7 bn ($17 m) on Ramadhan gifts, more than that state’s entirely monthly revenue allocation or jetting-off to Saudi Arabia for the lesser hajj in August as Boko Haram and Joint Military Task Force (JTF) slugged it out, further traumatizing the already battered residents.
Caring Heart Primary School is one of the “five star” public mega primary schools being built by the Ondo state government all across the state. This ambitious project aims to ensure such public schools “compete favourably” with the best private schools and that the underprivileged have access to quality education.
We wonder when the communiqués of these meetings by our northern leaders and elders would shift focus from their obsession with the 2015 elections which is still 3 years away or revisiting a controversial revenue allocation formula laid to rest or from endlessly whingeing about a conspiracy to “cripple” the North by others or the over-flogged flashback to a glorious era of Northern agricultural buoyancy of decades past, and when the agenda of these meetings would actually table viable blue prints for economic rejuvenation of the region — viable proposals for mechanizing the largely subsistence agriculture, making grants and credit available to farmers and SMEs, subsidies and assistance to the comatose industries, attracting investors and development partners with business friendly policies, tax breaks and land leases; exploiting the abundant mineral resources in the North such as gold in Zamfara which dubious (local and foreign) businessmen and impoverished villagers are already mining illegally anyways; employment generation schemes; road-maps for investments in health-care, education and transport infrastructure; engaging in massive enlightenment campaigns for the masses on their civic rights and duties, the list is endless. We wonder when these communiqués would demonstrate seriousness on the part of our leaders and elders to start looking inwards for home-grown solutions which are all around us.
GENERATIONAL AND TECHNOLOGICAL DIMENSIONS OF NORTHERN LEADERSHIP DEFICIT
It is worth noting that leadership deficit is not unique to the North as it is a general Nigerian problem, and arguably a global phenomenon. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, writing in June 2012 identifies two components of the global leadership deficit prevalent in many countries — generational and technological. When this is applied to the situation in northern Nigeria, it becomes apparent that the disconnect between our leaders and the rest of us has much to do with the little generational change amongst those responsible for aggregating and articulating the North’s aspirations, with mostly the same people who have been in the thick of things since some of us were in diapers, whom we’ve read about in social studies textbooks in primary and secondary school, still dexterously recycling themselves continuously back in power – as governors, ministers, legislators, permanent secretaries, board members of parastatals – still calling the shots today.
The incredibly persistent longevity of many die-hard power-brokers in northern Nigeria has ensured that few neophytes have been genuinely groomed as successors. This situation of course is connected to the technological dimension of this leadership deficit which beyond the use of modern technology in governance, refers to the stale, archaic and retrogressive approach to leadership as a consequence of this generational gap, with little input of fresh ideas and approaches to governance. Therefore, the same top-down, gerontocratic and quasi-feudal approaches to leadership of decades past is very much the norm in the North today, increasingly incapable of addressing present-day 21st century challenges. In fact, a former Head of State of northern extraction (in)famously remarked that Nigerian youths are not ready for leadership.
Looking at northern Nigeria through the prism of generational and technological dimensions of leadership deficit put forward by Friedman enables us to understand the disconnect between what our leaders and elders regard as the North’s aspirations and what the rest of us really think are our aspirations, that they seem not to realize this gap exists, that the communication gap is widening and that it potentially has grave implications.
Now the danger is that as the North’s problems and aspirations keep being misdiagnosed, ignored and misunderstood by our leaders, with wrong solutions prescribed to non-issues, our problems continue intensifying rapidly, entrapping us further into the cavernous stranglehold of poverty, underdevelopment, political instability and conflict while other parts of the country forge ahead. According to a May 2012 report (PDF) by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), 7 out of 10 young women aged 20-29 in North-West Nigeria are unable to read or write, compared to just about 1 out of 10 young women in the South-East; while maternal mortality rate in the North-East is 1,549 deaths per 100,000 women, three times above the national average of 549 deaths.
As stale and musty ideas that pervade the northern atmosphere continue choking the very life out of a long comatose region with approaches that reinforce rather than address the glaring contradictions and atrocious inequality in the North, it is no wonder the incident of violent crime – something alien to the North jut a decade ago – is now a daily occurrence as the spate of drive-by shootings and assassinations have increased exponentially.
As our leaders and elders have chosen to focus on non-issues, pointing the blame outwards rather than looking inwards, conducting sincere assessments and proposing solutions, even the narrative about northern Nigeria outside the country is changing. I have come across many references to northern Nigeria on international websites and blogs as the “poor” “backward” or “violent Islamist North”, while Google image searches of our major northern cities such as Kaduna or Kano routinely produce stomach-churning images of mangled corpses of bomb blast victims, burnt vehicles, or arrested suspects of one vicious crime or the other.
We need new approaches to our multifaceted economic, social and political problems as the current stale and archaic ways of thinking are grossly inadequate and incapable of addressing our numerous 21st century challenges. In order to do this, we ought to realize that leaders like all human beings are driven by self-interest, and as such they are not by default prone to accountability or altruism. It is pressure from citizens that forces leaders to act in the collective interest. It is agitation by ordinary citizens especially labour and trade unions in post-war Western Europe that was instrumental in pressuring the political elite to make inclusive social reforms of hitherto exclusive and aristocratic political systems and implementation of welfare policies (such as health care, housing and employment benefits which exist to this day) to cater for the less privileged.
Thus, a huge responsibility lies with northern academics, intellectuals, commentators, analysts, professionals and just about anyone concerned about their own future (or lack of it) and that of their children to continuously and consistently speak up on these burning issues that affect us all and ensure they are brought back onto the agenda of our leaders and elders. It is just not enough to assume our characteristically fatalistic position of “Allah Ya isa” or “God dey” and then resign ourselves to this sordid fate that certainly awaits us!
The intellectuals and columnists of northern extraction should beam the spotlight more on what state and local governments are doing with the same vigorous consistency that the activities of the Federal Government are scrutinized – how revenues and resources are managed, how investment decisions and contract awards are made, etc. because our governance challenges are mainly under the constitutional purview of states and local governments, and for the most part, information on the activities of these sub-national governments is a black hole of sorts.
Public opinion moulders should provide information to ordinary citizens on what these governments are doing, whether they are living up to their responsibilities, highlighting and applauding the efforts of political leaders who are performing well so that a performance benchmark would be set for others and proposing concrete recommendations no matter how idealistic they might seem. Public debate and public opinion moulding are enabled when conversations are started on important issues that others can relate with, build on and carry along and thereby creating mechanisms for vigorous discussions, actions and demand for accountability.
For our leaders, they ought to realize that the situation in the North today is completely unsustainable and it doesn’t require the clairvoyance of a seer to foresee the imminent disaster of chaotic proportions that awaits the North as a whole. Thus it is in their own self-interest that the North is brought back from this dangerous precipice, by providing good governance we tirelessly complain about and being true representatives of the people and their aspirations at best to ensure the region does not tear itself apart and at worst maintaining the grossly unequal, predatory and destructive status quo.
For some of our “elders”, who have had rewarding careers in public service, they could use their good names and influence in proposing concrete steps towards containing the Boko Haram insurgency and plans for reviving a post-Boko Haram North. They could also take their campaign abroad to counter and disprove some destructive narratives emerging in some Western publications (at the prodding of some Diaspora based Nigerian lobby groups) that Boko Haram is a religious war against a certain religious group in northern Nigeria.
With their influence, some of our elders could also play instrumental roles in enlightening the masses on their civic rights and duties, what to expect from the government, being more proactive to demand accountability from their representatives at the grassroots level, resisting electoral fraud and selling their votes for peanuts and so on. Importantly for other “elders”, it is just time to BOW OUT, as the standing ovation has long died down, RETIRE for good and allow others to take the stage. Overall, more links between the citizens and the state need to be established with more communication channels between the leaders and the led.
Really it is time we woke up from our deep complacent slumber and started playing our roles in rescuing not just our future but our present from this steady free-fall into the dark pit of misery and underdevelopment. For in the end, what will probably kill the North faster than any insurgency’s bullets and bombs is our own silence, complacency and lack of pro-activeness in demanding accountability from our leaders and representation of our interests in their actions.