The governor of Borno state, Kashim Shettima soberly expressed, “In Nigeria, poverty wears a northern cap, if you are looking for a poor man, get somebody wearing a northern cap.”
Nigeria is a country of extremes. Amidst enormous wealth, exists endemic poverty. According to the World Poverty Clock, Nigeria is now regarded as the world’s poverty capital, with around 87 million people living in extreme poverty, surpassing the densely populated India.
The North-South Divide
If Nigeria is the poverty capital of the world, the neglected North is the poverty capital of Nigeria. Three of the six geo-political zones are in the Northern part of the country, and they have the worst indices of poverty when compared to the South. With the exemption of Ebonyi state, the top 10 poorest states are located in the North.
While a number of northern states – Kano, Kaduna – compare favourably to others in the country, Nigeria is clearly divided along regional lines. This regional gap widened significantly in the last decade. Between 2004 and 2013, the cumulative number of poor people in the South declined by around six million; whereas in the North it increased by almost seven million.
Education and poverty are strongly correlated, and for a region that occupies around 60% of the national population, the illiteracy rate in the North is alarming. The World Bank reported that over 90% of children in the Southern part of Nigeria between the ages of 6-16 attend school. Meanwhile, for the North West and North East, less than 50% of children attend.
A Ticking Time Bomb
One consequence of an uneducated and impoverished population is the appeal of extremism.
In the heavily attacked Borno state, Musa Grema, a 13-year-old boy disclosed that he accepted ₦5,000 to spy on soldiers and set three primary schools afire because he is the breadwinner of his family. Musa, like many others, was presented with a choice of taking a life or preserving his.
It takes an incredible level of hardship for a person to risk everything in exchange for monetary rewards. For the many individuals trapped in the cycle of chronic poverty in the North, Boko Haram offers an escape.
The emergence of Boko Haram is an undisputed cause and consequence of worsening poverty in the North. The region is now the epicentre of crime and conflict in the nation, a menace that is also fuelled by the never-ending game of politics in Nigeria. First, it was Goodluck who believed Boko Haram attacks were a ploy conceived by the North to prevent him from getting re-elected and now Buhari has "evidence" that politicians are sponsoring the North Central herdsmen crisis.
The Snowball Effect
“When we advise investors coming to Nigeria, they don’t even talk about the North.”
The archetypal businessman is risk-averse and reluctant to invest in areas filled with uncertainty. And the security situation has drastically hindered investment in the region. Apart from insecurity, the sub-par level of education and poverty has also derailed investment due to the lack of skilled labour in the region.
Another reason for a weak labour force is poor health.
"Health is wealth." Yet, the state of healthcare in the North is appalling even just compared with the South. For instance, immunisation rates were 14% and 21% in the North West and North East respectively, in comparison with over 70% immunisation rates in the South. Unfortunately, the insurgency has exacerbated the issue. In 2016, insurgents damaged around 743 health facilities in Borno state, damaging about 40% of all health facilities in the state. Many health workers have also been injured or killed.
Many parts of the North are stuck in a poverty trap. Poverty and low levels of education lead to insecurity, poor health and reduced investment, which in turn creates a bad environment for any work or economic growth, thereby worsening poverty levels. States can't generate enough revenue and therefore struggle to provide better services without federal intervention.
Hope on the Horizon
Ultimately, the current situation exemplifies the failure of leaders across the different levels of government to implement sound economic and social policies.
But, hope is not lost.
Vast arable land, mineral resources, unexploited oil deposits and human capital; Northern Nigeria has the resources required to escape its poverty trap. Before the discovery of oil in the Niger Delta, the economy derived a substantial part of its revenue from agriculture, which is one of the North's greatest assets. While the government has increased its focus on tackling poverty and improving welfare in the region, there is still room for improvement.
Reviving the North is essential. Not only will it lift millions out of poverty and contribute to national development, but it could also be a potential solution or at least a tranquilliser, to the chaos in the region.
Lagos and friends cannot leave the North behind. Nigeria is only as strong as its weakest link