I am grateful to the organizers of this important lecture, the Annual Sir Ahmadu Bello Memorial Foundation Lecture, for their kind invitation for me to give this 2024 edition. For a variety of reasons, it was not one I could dodge: the objectives of the Lecture are even more relevant today than they were a decade ago, I am afforded an opportunity, while in Maiduguri, to reaffirm my appreciation, along with millions of compatriots, to Governor Babagana Zulum for his outstanding focus on things that matter to the people of Borno State. That the invitation came through Dr. KoleShettima, a colleague and friend, made it more certain that I would be here.
Mr. Chairman, distinguished friends, most of my reflections today pertain to northern Nigeria. They are, however, anchored on the view that matters of importance to any part of Nigeria are important to other parts of the country. To operate otherwise is counterproductive.
It is also necessary to remind ourselves that solving major problems in one part of Nigeria impacts not only Nigeria but also the West African sub-region. The proper integration of Nigeria into the subregion and Africa is a crucial and urgent one for the health and well-being of us all. There are hardly islands where we can live our lives undisturbed by truly global events: COVID-19, the war in Ukraine and the Israel attacks on Gaza should make this reasonably evident. If this is the case, as I hold, northern Nigerian challenges need to be looked at first within it, but without ignoring its connections further afield. What we are talking about is subsidiarity, not meaningless fracture.
Mr. Chairman, I would like to submit that behind much of our discussion around what we could call the northern predicament relating to insecurity today is the sense that the region did far better in the past, even with its slim number of leaders with high academic credentials. Behind much of that achievement on the ground was the stellar leadership of the towering figure, both physically and metaphorically, of Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of Northern Region. He was most popularly known by his traditional title, the Sardauna of Sokoto. He worked with individuals and within institutions to inspire positive change. He is still an inspirational, larger-than-life, figure.
Introducing the Problem
In the last three decades, almost all major reports about development have had indices of development including security, poverty, education, agricultural productivity, and healthcare, showing northern states, in aggregate, doing far worse than their southern counterparts. We have also seen, in comparison, data suggestive of less than favourable performance of Nigeria compared to many developing countries in respect of some valuable attributes. While we can, for now, disregard arguments about the methodological limitations of some of the reports, we can agree broadly that we can do far better than we know we are doing.
In some cases, these data, fueled by the new media and toxic politics, provide cannon fodder for the presentation of “the north” in terms that could further complicate our efforts at nation building. This is not a one-way affront. There are also, in the same media, data presented to describe some other parts of Nigeria in unflattering terms. For northern parts of Nigeria, a significant portion of this challenge is from within.
Social life, broadly understood, is not without its contradictions. One critical example is the well-known cardinal observation that Nigerians have no reason to be food insecure or poor. The grounds for this are not far-fetched. The northern part of the country, which constitutes more than two-thirds of its land mass, is largely arable and produces anywhere from 55% to 85% of the country’s sugar cane, maize, ginger and garlic, meat and milk, tomatoes, groundnuts, cotton, beans, and yams among others. In addition, the same area has an array of mineral resources. So, why do we still experience food insecurity and poverty?
If, as I believe, poverty is a serious affliction that is at the root of our problems in food sufficiency, healthcare, education, and even conflict, why should we delay in tackling it? Is it wise to be pursuing the rat, while the house is burning, as the Igbo remind us? The Hausa further remind us that “it is with the water in the stomach that you draw water from the well”. This suggests that we should invest wisely and avoid getting to a point where there is nothing left in the stomach. We must use what goodwill is left in us to address our problems.
The Legacy of Sir Ahmadu Bello and the Northern Region
Sir Ahmadu Bello and his colleagues did not pursue the rat and ignore the burning house; they used what they had wisely. They were never caught sleeping on the job. Rather, they faced up to the challenge of their times with every legitimate tool at their disposal. They developed a vision of a prosperous, self-reliant, and self-assured Northern Region. They created, repurposed, and reinvigorated institutions to make their vision a reality. They gave responsibility to the civil service. With the latter, they ensured probity, fairness, responsiveness, accountability. They were also very skillful in managing diversity, thereby inspiring loyalty and enabling common purpose. Even as they fought opposition parties in the Northern, Eastern and Western Regions to actualize their vision in national affairs, they also cooperated and collaborated with them to attain joint objectives as Nigerians. These are key attributes of what later came to be called good governance.
It is in this context that we have better appreciation of the establishment of educational institutions across the length and breadth of the Northern Region. Schools and higher institutions of learning (especially Ahmadu Bello University), banks and industries, media houses, and clinics and hospitals were created. Yet, at the center of all this was the worth they attached to values, especially to justice and fairness. The guiding motto was “One North, One People, One destiny”.
Mr. Chairman, is it then in doubt how they are still inspiring us after so many decades? This kind of motto is one that our country sorely needs, I submit. Back then, our nation’s leadership, by and large, lived by example. Stories of how they led by example are many. But a telling one is the respect with which public servants were accorded, even when they disagreed with political leaders on matters of implementation of policies. Sadly, this is a far cry from much of the successor leaderships of Nigeria. The gap between the self-serving pre-occupations of today’s elite and the existential realities of the multitude is progressively widening. This must be reversed if we should succeed in tackling insecurity.
The literature on good governance is vast and has deepened since the mid 1980’s. In summary, it speaks of governability, efficacy and effectiveness in enforcement of rules and the delivery of services. From early on, it shied away from the perennial question of “legitimacy” that has been the bedrock of theorizing about politics. Nonetheless, conversations about consultation with “stakeholders” and incessant requirements to uphold rights and dignity of the governed bring the legitimacy issue back into the matter of governance. Value-for-money considerations became associated with the “new management”, as the civil service was being weaned away from “public administration”. Whatever tendencies we prioritize in the governance discourse, the fundamental basis is the centrality of the citizen’s interests and the utilization of State power solely in relation to the public interest. That is why, in addition, notions such as probity, accountability, transparency are also relevant in terms of what good governance pertains.
We can say, with some justification, that the period where Sir Ahmadu Bello led the Northern Region (1957 – 1966) was a different era, and a different context. But was it completely different, to such an extent that we are wasting our time attempting to learn from them? Certainly not. True, Sir AhmaduBello was leader of one political entity which was to become several States after his death. At the time of his assassination, Nigeria had four Regions, including the Northern Region. Today, Nigeria has thirty-six States, one Federal Capital Territory and 774 Local Government Areas. Elections are conducted for legislative and executive positions, while the judicial appointments remain independent and non-political. Nigeria now operates a presidential system, as opposed to the parliamentary one known to the Premier of Northern Nigeria. The population has grown from roughly 55 million to about four times that number.
The Cold War, as known to the 1960s, has been replaced by a newer and still evolving system. In addition, the world of technology has exponentially transformed literally every important human activity. ICT and the new media have made governance far more complicated. In the African region, the African Union (AU) has replaced the Organization for African Unity (OAU) and is a more muscular one. The AU has a vision of a peaceful, integrated, and democratic Africa. In 2013, it unveiled an ambitious agenda of reaching its goals by 2063, including:
i. A prosperous Africa, based on inclusive growth and sustainable development;
ii. A continent that is politically integrated, united and based on the ideals of Pan-Africanism and the vision of African Renaissance;
iii. An Africa in which good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice, and the rule of law exist; and
iv. An Africa that is strong, resilient and an influential global player.
At the same time that Nigeria made a commitment to Agenda 2063, “The Africa We want”, it has also, as a member of the United Nations, committed to the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, with the following 17 interconnected goals, vis:
1. Poverty Eradication;
2. Zero Hunger;
3. Good health and well-being;
4. Quality Education;
5. Gender Equality;
6. Clean water and sanitation;
7. Affordable and clean energy;
8. Decent work and economic growth;
9. Industry, innovation, and infrastructure;
10. Reduced inequalities;
11. Sustainable cities;
12. Responsible consumption and production;
13. Climate action;
14. Life below water;
15. Life on land;
16. Peace, justice, and strong institutions; and
Many terms in use in the documents cited above are new. But what they speak to were not necessarily alien to Sir AhmaduBello and his colleagues, as they struggled to guide northern Nigeria, and Nigeria at large as it transitioned from colonial to post-colonial status, and to democracy from the traditional/colonial system. They knew how to plan. They knew how to build teams to deliver what they determined were important goals for the Northern Region. Pointedly, they knew better than subsequent leaderships the value of building community and peace across a vast and diverse Region. They prioritized knowledge and fairness. They made policies that worked because they ensured implementation. They did not give in to self-doubt, even with the multiple challenges before them.
What should our Priorities be in the Face of Banditry and Insurgency?
In light of the considerations above, it is my view that giving undivided attention to the following would yield reasonably quick dividends:
i. Rebuilding trust and working on peacebuilding;
ii. Ensuring quality education for all;
iii. Modernizing agriculture;
iv. Building infrastructure, including in energy and ICT;
v. Rebuilding the civil service (including the Judiciary) and being open to the world; and
vi. Creating credible media to support the above and related objectives.
Why are these priorities for the northern parts of Nigeria, even with the regional and global commitments of Nigeria? Fundamentally, this is a matter of what is most urgently required for the survival and well-being of northern States and Nigeria. From many sources, in the last year, the loss of lives due to banditry, insurgency and related criminality in Nigeria has risen. Over 15,000 persons have been killed, about 75% of which were in the northern parts. Not surprisingly, relocation and displacement, leading to loss of livelihoods, follows the same pattern. The data on displacement are rarely ever complete, as many simply move on their own to safer spaces unconnected to government. Nonetheless, estimates are in the range of 2 to 3 million and growing.
This situation is connected, in turn, to absence from farms and factories, schools, hospitals and organized markets; further fueling poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease. Here, institutions and processes that once worked to guarantee peace and understanding need to be examined and refurbished and put into service for all. Everywhere in the north, it has been made clear that peace and security is the first order of business, especially now that sanctimonious finger pointing has been seen for what it is: an excuse to do nothing.
Education is a critical tool for all-round development of societies, now and into the future. So, its provision, even in conflict, is key. Means to do so must continually be found and acted upon, as knowledge gaps created especially in young and adolescent kids can trigger difficulties for them and their communities in the future. Review of curricula and selection and motivation of teachers must be given due attention. Students of vocational and professional subjects must be exposed to the whole range of practical exercises necessary for the qualifications and certifications they seek. This is important if we are to have graduates that support the economy and can sustain themselves. They should also be prepared to be competitive nationally, regionally, and globally.
Northern Nigerian leaders built and sustained educational institutions and establishments of all types. They used merit as the basic principle by which to admit and retain students because they believed in education as a tool for meaningful change for individuals and societies. We need to honestly ask and answer the question: To what extent are we their true heirs?
Agriculture is the key to food sufficiency and poverty alleviation for a vast number of Nigerians. Yet, low mechanization and inadequate utilization of modern techniques for both production and processing of foods has turned many away from it. Whether we are dealing with crop or meat production, the need for modernization is evident. Yields per hectare for almost all crops are too low to make our farmers competitive. The situation is even more stunning in milk production, where our local herders receive less than 10% of what they could be making if they utilized modern techniques and inputs.
Given the connection between movement of cattle between parts of the country and conflicts, it is of the utmost priority to study and come up with workable policies in this area. Policies in support of agriculture are many and varied, including provision of improved seedlings and seeds, marketing, financing, and so on. Arrangements relating to all such areas should be pursued within proper platforms for enactment of policies or regulations. If and when properly conceptualized, agriculture can reduce unemployment, reduce import bills and support industrialization. It can also reduce the incidence of poverty and enhance wealth creation among the populace. It is imperative that any effort to advance peace and development in our communities give due attention to this.
Infrastructure is both a catalyst and evidence of development. Without it there can be no meaningful integration of countries, regions and beyond. Without it, human suffering multiplies. Schools, hospitals, roads, railways, telephones, boats and ferries, airports and airplanes are necessities of life for communities, countries. So are energy and ICT, as enablers of virtually every other infrastructure and every other activity (education, health, agriculture, communication and entertainment and security). Without reliable and affordable energy, the industrialization which has been desired and planned for in northern Nigeria since our independence will continue to elude it. As it is now, insufficiency and the high cost of energy has hobbled the limited industrialization achieved in many parts of northern Nigeria. The situation is only marginally better in the southern parts of Nigeria. Of course, some policies are under the purview of the federal government, making it mandatory to collaborate, or align, with the latter. For large scale infrastructure, partnership with relevant national, regional, and global players is necessary. So is the involvement of our universities and research institutions.
In all these, a sound civil service is crucial. It must be shielded from partisanship and must do its job well. When such a service is in place, it will guide policy and implementation as well as ensure a proper relationship with the private sector. Where consultants are required, there is need to be clear as to what purposes they may be engaged, and under what conditions. The sole consideration must be the protection of the public interest. Included in the civil service must be a media able to provide truthful and timely information to the public. It is not easy reading half-truths or disinformation about oneself. But this is becoming rampant today, even on mainstream media platforms. You should learn to listen to what others say of you and make necessary adjustments where you are giving undeserved offense to others. It is also helpful to learn what is said of, or prayed for, you by others.
What is certain is that even with its less than optimal performance, Nigeria has made appreciable progress in several critical areas over the past fifty years. It has also had its failures, some of them even spectacular. But we must envision a Nigeria that is able to live up to its promise of greatness in all things that truly matter; at the core of which is peace with itself and a reassurance that it can get things done, it can address the abuses of power in privileged spaces, and it can provide needed leadership for African integration and renaissance.
Hopeful Signs of Positive Change
It is necessary to admit that most northern States of Nigeria, as is the case with Nigeria in general, have been under serious stress due to a combination of the criminal activities of terrorists and bandits. This has had terrible consequences, including the loss of hundreds of thousands over the last two decades, as well as displacement of millions. Individuals and communities have been traumatized. Governments have reacted in various ways to this unpalatable situation. Because of laws regarding firearms, even in remote communities with hardly any presence of federal law enforcement bodies, the federal government is expected to take the lead in addressing banditry and insurgency. Kinetic approaches tended to have been favoured, police and the armed forces have therefore been most visible in these efforts. Much progress in respect to the fight against insurgency was recorded some years ago; but that proved not to have been fully irreversible. With cattle rustling and kidnap-for-ransom becoming the new means of bringing terror and deaths to hundreds of communities, some State Governments have created quasi police outfits of sundry names to assist in securing the people.
Many individuals and groups also joined. Sadly, in some cases, members of the new vigilante groups or outfits used their positions to settle personal scores or unjustly attack others, making the achievement of the goals that much harder. Yet, most added something valuable to the task. Having a sizable pool of not only out of school children, but also youths who do not apply themselves to useful preoccupations has also been a prime challenge of the area under discussion. This, too, needs dedicated attention from all levels of government.
Conferences and informal discussions about what to do became common throughout the northern States. NGOs and CSOs sprung up to gather information, provide support to communities and victims and so on. Higher institutions of learning created centres and directorates to understand and proffer solutions to the growing cancer. Some schools even rushed to design whole academic programmes on “security studies”, or related subjects. These attracted both serving professionals and those hoping to be so. Admittedly, some wanted to just be teachers or analysts of “conflict”, including how to “deconflict”. Secular groups and members of the clergy joined traditional rulers and institutions to find solutions. This became a near-permanent subject of discussion at the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS). NIPSS also partnered with the National Defence College and others to better comprehend insurgency and banditry. A month ago, in celebration of the first anniversary of the installation of Ambassador Ahmed Rufai Abubakar as Sardauna Katsina, a conference was organized on “Traditional Institutions and their role in addressing contemporary security challenges in Nigeria”. Four outstanding papers were presented and discussed.
I believe that much of what needs to be said has been said. What is required are actions that substantively, progressively, and irreversibly remove banditry and insurgency from our communities. We need resilience; we need to communicate and show that we are prepared to stay the course; and that criminality will no longer pay. We need to plan for the day after so that this situation no longer returns.
On the “popular side”, away from the government, remarkably important things in favour of justice, development, unity, and peace of Nigeria are happening. Some of it is being led by the local film and movie industry: Nollywood, Kannywood and so on. They speak to our limitations: envy and greed, inequality, violence and so on. Yet, they project the virtues of justice, generosity, compassion, and reconciliation. They often transcend profiling whole groups. In the latter, they are like younger Nigerians, the majority of whom talk with pride about their country, passionate about the necessity and urgency to improve it. Some of them do not even live in the country. It is the case that today there is much in the media about “Japa”, (which used to be called “Andrew”). Even harping on this phenomenon is due to exaggeration and lack of balance. Far more worthy of reporting is the overwhelming number of Nigerians either returning home for good or returning for short periods of time to “give back” to their communities.
The recommendations suggested hereunder must be preliminary, as they need to be scrutinized by knowledgeable people and practitioners in specific fields. What is on offer are broad outlines of actions to be undertaken in uprooting banditry and insurgency in the northern states in particular, and Nigeria in general.
The recommendations are:
First: We must resolve to work together to enhance the mutual trust necessary for achieving lasting positive outcomes in favourof peace and development. Tackling bandits and terrorists who have amassed financial and logistical resources and have made a dent in our self-confidence is not easy. Various levels of government must be given their recognition to play appropriate roles in securing people. Aside from this, in enhancing mutual trust, State Governments need to be clear as to the roles of traditional rulers and institutions and provide enablement for playing such roles. We should make better use of our cultural resources, including “cultural industries” and even “joking relationships” of communities and groups, for peacebuilding.
Related to this are the unendingly destabilizing questions about citizenship and indigeneity. Many Nigerians, including heads of legislative bodies, take pride in being “dual citizens” of Nigeria and some other (especially North American and European) countries. Yet, they recoil when challenged to find realistic approaches such as would enhance, rather than create problems for national integration in Nigeria. While this is a national challenge, it has taken on very dangerous dimensions where it is conflated with religion and language. In a country where we sing the values of diversity, this is unfortunate. We must rise to the occasion and work to find a workable and durable solution to this.
Second: We need to connect, or reconnect, disaffected communities with the government.
Third: The monumental corruption and the brazenly open ways in which its proceeds are being flaunted must be confronted. That corruption destabilizes societies in multiple ways is evident.
Fourth: The fight against poverty and unemployment through modernization of agriculture and industrialization must be a priority.
Fifth: The task of rebuilding a professional civil service for all levels of government must begin.
Sixth: Given that many governments and agencies are involved, there must be a coordinating body. Such a body has to be appointed to undertake several tasks, including serving as a think tank to identify broad policies and programmes in areas of need, drafting and blueprints or roadmaps for the key priority areas, collecting data to track performance and suggesting follow-up actions.
As there will be different political parties with multiple programmes, a buy-in from many of them will be helpful. To better ensure that happens, the highest political leadership of northern Governors is needed in the identification of few people to lead such an effort. Whether this is housed within an existing institution like NNDC or through a new institution or body, needs to be discussed and agreed upon.
Seventh: There is a need for a media that better understands northern aspirations and challenges in the context of Nigeria’s need for peace and development, including its regional and global commitments. Reliance on its professional media to put messages of hope in favour of peace and development is prudent. Sir Ahmadu Bello was referenced as saying that it is advisable to “blow your own trumpet”, as others are too busy blowing their own to attend to yours.
Mr. Chairman, distinguished attendees, the tasks before us are as critical and urgent, as they are difficult and necessary. We must get off the easy position of merely lamenting our seemingly permanent state of conflict and less-than-optimal performance. This we do for ourselves, and posterity. Every one of us has a role to play.
I thank you.
Being the 10th Annual Sir Ahmadu Bello Memorial Foundation Lecture, held in Maiduguri, Borno State, on 27h January 2024