From the Breton Woods institutions to the universities and similar actors in the global policy mill, it is a narrative of poverty as the definitive marker of contemporary Nigeria. Key to the narrative is what John Litwack, the World Bank Lead Economist said in 2013 during the media launch of the Nigerian Economic Report, (NER) that “poverty is concentrated more in the Northern part of the country as against the South West where the rate of poverty is lowest”. Most critics would say there is nothing to challenge in that conclusion even as the question of what the World Bank understands by poverty can be raised, a question which could successfully contest the incidence of poverty in Nigeria as displayed by the World Bank. Most ratings using criteria peculiar to the formal economy such as bank savings/withdrawals, purchasing power, number of television sets per head, etc have no way of escaping a horrifying but problematic rating of incidence of poverty in all largely informal economies where the pattern of flow eludes numeric capture. But, would contesting the recent ratings of incidence of poverty in Nigeria be a meaningful exercise?
The answer would be no because, as early as 1992, General Ibrahim Babangida who was also the Nigerian Head of State had wondered aloud in a rare moment of reflexivity why the Nigerian economy had not collapsed. Nearly a decade thereafter, the NEEDS document purportedly underpinning governance in the Obasanjo regime declared Nigeria’s as a collapsing economy, adding how “income inequality is very high; unemployment is threatening social cohesion and democracy; and the imminent HIV/AIDS epidemic is a potent time-bomb waiting to explode”, (p.10). It was speaking directly to an alarming national poverty profile. Since the quality of governance since the Obasanjo regime has not been remarkably different, it stands to reason that all ratings of incidence of poverty in Nigeria since 2014 are fundamentally incontestable. Analysts see this to be a very disturbing indication except for those whose loss of the ability to bring all sides of every question to analysis has assumed psychological proportions. Unfortunately, the fear too is that many in Nigeria have lost that ability, thereby bringing in an intellectual dimension of the poverty in Nigeria.
What is equally worrisome to analysts about the poverty is the prolonged concentration of its highest incidence in the Northern part, putting at risk the North which has been home to all sorts of people and been Nigeria’s region with the kind of cultural, tendency and religious pluralism that makes hegemony impossible. A logical inference is easily tempting here: if Northern Nigeria has been the poorest region of the country for quite some time now and it is also the region with the highest cycles of recrimination, hatred and carnage for quite some time too, then there must be a connection between poverty and that baggage of carnage. And the question would then be about where the poverty has come from and in such a way that the North is the least capable of escaping consequences traceable to the phenomenon such as the heightened hate ideologies along indigene-settler, minority-majority, Christian-Muslim and similar fault lines underpinning the carnage. Most observers point to how things took the current turn towards the current incidence of poverty in Northern Nigeria after Nigerian leaders handed over the country to foreign interests in 1986, turning the country into a colony thereafter.
It is geopolitics to the extent that those who act as the conveyor belt of SAP are playing the hegemonic cards in global politics. Whether they know it as such or not, they have used an instrument of rapid mass pauperisation to create unbelievable intra-group hatred in the exceptionally plural North, virtually breaking up the North which is the easiest way to break up the larger Nigerian entity. Those involved in this geopolitical marksmanship are numerous to the extent that SAP, (by whatever name it is called today, be it Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers or public-private partnership or whatever), is still the business model in Nigeria today. There could, however, be argued a northern dimension to this geopolitics to the extent that many of the Nigerian leaders came from the North and ought to know that a SAP regime is very anti-thesis of the most agrarian part of the country. And even now, the Nigerian leader who launched a SAP document a few days ago is a Northerner.
The additional question in this regard remains that of how poverty has been operationalised in such a manner that no cultural grouping in the region is at peace with itself. Each and every of them is contesting for living space, either within itself or being contested by its Others, most times violently. The Tiv have faced violence from every quarter recently – from nieghbours, from the Nigerian State and from ‘Fulani militia’. It is locked in a battle for control of Benue State. The Jukuns which though have the advantage of cultural and trade influence and are, therefore, less prone to violence have, however, been violently drawn to violence. The Kanuri which also has history is now confronted by what might be considered the most devastating case of carnage in the North – the Boko Haram insurgency on its soil. The Nupe have history but also have the problem of being divided into each of the dominant religions, that being the basis of their own internal tension. That’s the same thing with the Igala as is also the case with the Ebirra who, additionally and similar to the Idoma in Benue State, have to fight to expand their space in Kogi State politics. The Idoma look more to the national but lack the cultural influence. Without a single platform that brings them together, they are too disunited to even pretend otherwise. Lastly are the embattled Fulanis, manifest in their lack of the critical mass to be a factor in preponderance in the wake of democratic rule, the swamping by the culturally and demographically more expansionist Hausa cultural identity, resulting in the basic loss of the language and a convenient compounding of Hausas and Fulanis into the concept of Hausa-Fulani in the press when, in fact, there is no such identity. Above all, they face a fierce resistance from many other ethnic groups in the north, both for their privileged role in the prosecution of colonial warfare as well as the emergence of the ‘Fulani militia’.
The phenomenon of ‘Fulani militia’ is now at the heart of the crisis in the light of what Henry Kissinger has been credited as saying to the effect that a strange version of the Cold War has returned to Africa. A very strange Cold War indeed in which the United States and defunct USSR have been replaced by new conflict parties, (not US and China) all of which find Nigeria a fertile ground for contestation and test of strength, irrespective of the national security implications for Nigeria. So far, they would appear to be so successful because, the Sultan of Sokoto, for instance, says the guys behind militia violence are no Fulanis and that the Nigerian State should deal with all cases of lawlessness. Yet, the state is never very successful in taking herdsmen violence as a matter of emergency, suggesting how vulnerable Nigeria might have become to the strange Cold War.
This survey of the state of the cultural groups that constitutes the region in question takes us to the key question about why the North is not managing poverty as geopolitics of state breaking. In the context of poverty as geopolitics of state breaking, the expectation was that the elite would take it as a collective challenge and come together to respond to it. That has not happened. The elite are even more fragmented and disoriented than the other social classes. Some are posing a break-up of the country as the way out as if it is their own original idea. Others are talking no end about the inevitability of restructuring as if restructuring in itself will cure what poverty has wrought on popular psychology but in a way that nobody even traces current hate ideologies to poverty. How well does a discourse as restructuring respond to poverty as geopolitics of state breaking? How come the state breaking poison has been so sweet to the elite that, except the military which said recently that Nigeria might only break-up in another two, three millennia from now, no other constituency has made such a categorical intervention. Is it that the elite have no idea that the nation could slip everyone’s hands just like that or they don’t care any more? Or, is it that they are lost in the uncritical assumption that their own section of the country would disentangle and prosper in the event of a break-up? How can that be when there is not a single scenario projection of the break-up that does not fear the collapse of the entire West Africa as a consequence? No one, it is said, should be deceived by the notion that all claims of secession are gimmicks. They mostly are but even the meaning of a gimmick is neither static nor solely dependent on the gimmick master. In the absence of a legitimate and coherent state that can fire popular imagination with a binding narrative of the nation, all these are disturbing features as far as the future is concerned.
Is it possible that people are forgetting that, sociologically, every system has a way of purging and re-inventing itself? The belief is that this would also be the case, although there is no certainty as to how this happens: through a civil society uprising or a new political party that may not be radical but nationalistic or an intra-class tussle that could throw-up a ‘revolutionary’ outcome? Analysts are only sure that the language of the members of the power elite shows no clear individual and collective awareness of the depth of hopelessness in the society and the danger that lurks in that. Hence, no one is speaking the language of taking millions out of poverty.
Poverty is, indeed, proving a powerful geopolitical weapon in Nigeria. It has struck at the cord of the humanity of the average Nigerian, been manipulated to drive human beings to extremes of atrocities, generating anger and intra-group feelings that can last generations upon generations. But that is because leadership has failed disastrously. Otherwise, how come that, at the end of the day, China of over a billion human beings is ruled by no more than seven persons or so at any one moment? That is the few persons in the politburo at any one time who take the most strategic or the final decision. Yet, they have successfully raised millions out of poverty within so short a time. That contrasts with the multiple centres of power in Nigeria and still, there is difficulty in governing a population of less than 200 million that we are told makes up Nigeria. And what sort of elite is this that is collectively lost in positioning for global power status through demographic endowment that God has so kindly bestowed on the nation? What sort of people might we be that the prospects of being among the top five leading demographic powers in the world in a matter of years would not be a unifying ideology? Who is selling that tale that population is not automatically power? Only an elite that doesn’t know what it means would believe that. Is it not population and oil that have made Nigeria to still count in spite of the blunders so far, unlike the Japanese, for instance, who have sustained global primacy through brain power and cultural innovations, even after suffering a defeat in war?