Northern governors and the politics of oil BY REUBEN ABATI

Culled from the Guardian Newspaper Friday August 1 2008.

THE big news of the week in my estimation is the declaration by the chairman of the Forum of Northern Governors, the Chief Servant of Niger State, Dr Mua’zu Babangida Aliyu at a programme tagged First Northern Agricultural Summit on Monday, July 28, to the effect that Northern Governors have resolved to turn their back on oil revenue and develop the agricultural resources of the North. Dr Aliyu was speaking on behalf of the 19 Governors of the Northern states of Nigeria, and at the same forum, his views were further echoed by the Adamawa state Governor, Admiral Murtala Nyako. Dr Aliyu declared: “The future of the north lies in our hands. We should today begin to shape our destiny. As a Nigerian of Northern extraction, I feel very unhappy when somebody describes me as a parasite because of oil, when I know that I have the capacity to solve my problems and probably do even better through agriculture and education.” And so the North wants to go back to agriculture, with the hope that the financial sector of the economy will provide necessary support.

The politics of this declaration is important: the Northern Governors are responding directly to widespread insinuations in the Southern part of the country that the North is rather parasitic, contributing little to the commonwealth and yet getting more than a lion share of the national cake. Over the years, this distrust of the North has been expressed ever so loudly by Southern leaders and interest groups; thus turning geography into one of the more delicate sub-texts of Nigerian politics. Issues of contention include the population of the north, the political delineation of the North, resource allocation, the relatively low contribution of the North to national GDP, and the unusually large presence of the north in positions of power and authority. At the centre of this is the politics of oil, the allocation of federal revenue accruing mainly from the sale of crude oil.

The ThisDay newspaper in reporting the Northern Governors quoted them as saying: “North can survive without oil”. The Champion gave the story an even more provocative edge in its headline: “To hell with your oil: North tells South”. This is perhaps the most radical response coming from the north so far on the question of oil and its control since 1958. Before now, the Northern intelligentsia had tried to argue that the crude oil in the Niger Delta belongs to all Nigerians and not to the owners of the land from which it is extracted. The late Dr Bala Usman on many occasions even pushed a curious argument based on geology to wit: the oil deposits in the Delta flowed, over the years from the Northern parts of the country, and so the real owners of the oil in the Delta are the people of the North. A second notable response was the attempt by the then North-dominated Federal Military Government to find oil by all means in the North. So much money was spent on a search for oil in the Chad Basin, until the explorers got tired of searching. And now in 2008, the Northern Governors, for the first time have declared that “the Niger Delta can go to hell” with its oil and that without oil, the North can and will survive.

One of the earliest reactions to this came from the Arewa Consultative Forum, the social and political forum for Northern leaders, with the ACF saying that Northerners are indeed “lazy and parasites who rely on other regions for survival. There is no reason to run away from the truth.” But in s strange balancing act in the same statement, the ACF blames the Niger Delta for the economic woes of the North because according to it, people of the Niger Delta raided the Middle Belt for slaves during the slave trade era. All of these seemingly entangled issues can be taken apart.

The intervention of the ACF is at best a form of damage control, for if prompt effect were to be given to the wishes of the Northern Governors, the development process in the north which is essentially dependent on oil revenue will grind to a complete and final halt. But Dr Aliyu and his colleagues could not have been calling for a sudden stoppage of the sweet and free funds coming for the Federation Account. Their statement was clearly politically inspired and aspirational in terms of their development projections for the North. But talk is cheap. However, it is not only the North that is dependent on oil, it is not only the Northern states that are parasitic, nor is it only the people of the north that have become lazy. The curse of oil affects every part of Nigeria and all the people. Nigeria’s national productivity index is one of the lowest in the developing world.

The black gold is at the root of most of the ills in the Nigerian society: the laziness of the leadership elite, the bowl in hand, beggarly conduct of the states and the imposition of unitarist modes on the governance process in spite of the federalist principles in the Constitution. It is the entire country that is lazy and parasitic therefore: and it is one of the reasons why the people and the militants of the Niger Delta have had to continue to remind the rest of the country to become productive and make a contribution to the national pool instead of stealing Niger Delta resources in a greedy and unfair manner which leaves nearly nothing for the real owners of the resources. This wake up call had been long in coming but it is now more strident with the insistence of the people of the Delta on federalism, the militancy in the creeks and calls for resource control.

It is perhaps not difficult to see why the North is specially targeted and labelled an unproductive part of the Nigerian Union. The ACF accuses the people of the Niger Delta of raiding the Middle Belt for slaves during the slave trade era. The slave trade ended over 200 years ago. Where is the connection with the development crisis in the North? The ACF’s statement in this regard is meaningless, and this is unfortunate coming from the same ACF that is humble enough to admit that the South is saving the North. The problem with the North is its elite. Nearly every politician who becomes a big man in the North wears a big babaringa and refuses to work. More than any other group in Nigeria, the northern elite have had more access to state resources and more control over the same resources, but this has not been used to bring development to the people.

The same oil resources that Southerners claim Northern leaders have taken have largely been used to oppress the poor in the North and sustain feudalism. In this regard, the average Northerner is just as aggrieved as the average Southerner, for in the end, the patterns of dispossession imposed on this society by successive governments at all levels have produced uniform grief. The underdevelopment of the North has nothing to do with the slave trade; it has a lot to do with the attitude and lifestyle of the Northern man of power. Northern Governors trace the de-industrialisation crisis in the North to “international conspiracy against the North”, If there is any conspiracy at all, it is internal and it is the conspiracy of the northern elite against their own people.

One example: Governor Danjuma Goje of Gombe state has approved for himself and his predecessor in office a sum of N200 million as “executive pension”. The North, like the South, is in need of new leaders, not rent-collectors. If Northern Governors want development, they must begin with changes at the level of attitude and lifestyle. Nothing in Northern agriculture as proposed can sustain their present lifestyle. Vice Admiral Murtala Nyako, the Adamawa Governor, was right when he lamented as follows: “No nation has ever enjoyed lasting peace and stability or could ever survive when only a few of its citizens wallow in wealth and affluence at par with the rich of other nations, while the rest of its citizens are entrapped in poverty.. the simple truth is that the above reality obtains more in the North than other parts of the country”.

Northern Governors have been holding meetings since 1961, and at every meeting, they talk about the same issues – agriculture, education and development. But nearly 50 years later, there are more poor people in the north than other parts of Nigeria. The streets are full of distracted kids, with bowls in hand begging for alms during school hours. When UNICEF reports that more than ten million Nigerian children of school age are out of school, they can be found mostly in the North.

Northern Governors want to focus on agriculture, but to use agriculture as a launch pad for growth and development, the states must invest first in education. Who will work on the farms that the North will set up? In a few years, the growing population of almajiris on Northern streets will be old enough to be mobilised for riots not for any productive activity. It is a shame that many years after independence, the North continues to enjoy an affirmative action privilege in education and politics, which easily annoys Southerners who feel that they face much stiffer competition in seeking and gaining access to opportunities. Who will manage the agricultural renaissance of the North? This same set of fertilizer-stealing, rent-collecting elite? And where is their blue-print?

North-South relations in Nigeria are often constructed in form of rivalry and competition, and this is discernible in the tone of the statements by the Northern Governors and also the ACF. But it is an unhealthy competition that promotes further divisions. Rather than dismiss the Niger Delta and its oil, the Northern Governors should show humility and gratitude. If they are serious, they should be more interested in raising constitutional questions and seeking reviews which would free the North and other parts of Nigeria from the tag of “parasitism”, and which in the long run will ensure a return to federalism under which every state in Nigeria will be required to become productive. Under that new arrangement, the Niger Delta people will be glad to go to “hell” as advised

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One thought on “Northern governors and the politics of oil BY REUBEN ABATI

  1. Reuben, Don’t mind all those thieves. Until one day when they are all eliminated, Nigeria will not progress.

    From Yar Adua to Obasanjo to Babangida and all the useless politicians in Nigeria, they are all the same. Looters, thieves, killers, murderers, dream killers.

    They have no plans, no blue-prints. All they want is power and then to steal.

    Unless the masses wake up one day and say enough is enough, this trend will last forever.

    How can a country so blessed continue to rank among the poorest in the world? How can we allow so much corruption and impunity?

    If these gangsters now represented by Yar Adua are not “done away with” I’m sorry to say that Nigeria is going no where. That country is is trouble. See the sufferings on the streets…it’s too much to bear.

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