Cumulative official neglect of youths in northern Nigeria now ‘rewards’ the country with radicalization and insurgency
With youth unemployment close to 83% in most of the northern states of Nigeria, it is easy for the young, uneducated, and hopeless to offer their services to misguided community leaders intent on destabilization of the region. Lacking in job skills, and neglected by all levels of government, it is also easy to understand the allure of self-determination and spiritual fulfillment offered by radicalization. It is in this context that one must perceive the actions of the young in northern Nigeria as primarily driven by economic needs, and not religious hegemony. The excellent research by William Willies is a good point to begin this journey of comprehension of a neglected group, and their capacity to do harm.
Each time Aliko Dangote travels to the provincial capital of Yola in Adamawa, one of three states worst affected by the Islamist insurgency laying waste to Nigeria’s impoverished northeast, he is bothered by the same thing. The young men there seem permanently seated in the shade of trees. “If you go on Saturday or Sunday you can’t tell the difference from Monday or Tuesday. They don’t have any jobs,” says Mr Dangote, whose industrial conglomerate has turned him into Africa’s richest businessman.
The region’s languishing economy and the smouldering resentment that has accompanied a parallel loss of political power to the more prosperous and mostly Christian south have provided fertile ground for recruitment into the brutal campaign by extremists.
Mr Dangote has based himself and his businesses in Lagos, the commercial capital, since migrating there in the late 1970s from the ancient city of Kano in the predominately Muslim north. But with a sense of urgency inspired by the breakdown in law and order across Nigeria’s north – of which the onslaught by Boko Haram extremists is the most obvious sign – he has begun to invest some of his fortune into reviving the region’s agricultural sector.
Last week he announced he was putting $2.3bn into sugar plantations and rice fields as part of a four-year plan to end Nigeria’s dependency on imports. “If we don’t contain it [the insurgency], it is going to end up consuming all of us,” Mr Dangote told the Financial Times, persuaded that this can only be done by providing jobs for the region’s multitudes of unemployed. “This is no time for talking. It is time for action.” His view is gaining currency in the capital since two car bombings there and the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok in the remote northeast last month. People in Nigeria have tended to see the insurgency as a parochial problem, mostly confined to the remote northeast. But the problem is spreading, eroding public confidence in government and tearing at the nation’s multi-faith and ethnically diverse fabric.
Over the past decade and a half businesses in the south have gained from liberal market reforms and helped propel Nigeria to becoming Africa’s largest economy this year. By contrast, many of the state-owned and protected industries, established in cities such as Kano and Kaduna as part of efforts to promote national economic balance, have gone out of business.
The north’s inhabitants, although more numerous than in the south, are far poorer, and therefore a less attractive market for the banks, telecoms providers and retailers that are thriving in pockets of comparative affluence in the south.
Prospects of bridging the gap have been complicated by the insurgency.
But there is also an urgent need for longer-term thinking.
When Nigeria was first amalgamated by the British as a nation 100 years ago, the north’s agriculture and mining resources provided the bulk of national revenues. That reversed after the discovery of oil in the Niger delta, and once thriving centres on trans-Saharan trading routes became relative backwaters.
“You’ve got so much poverty in the north because people have been thinking of Nigeria as an oil economy,” says Lamido Sanusi, the central bank governor suspended this year after he exposed a multibillion-dollar hole in the oil accounts. “If instead they thought, this is an economy that is rich in minerals, that’s rich in agricultural potential, but that’s landlocked and that needs to have links to the coast, you’d have a different developmental agenda,” he said.
Mr Dangote, whose cement, sugar and flour empire is worth $23bn, is among the few Nigerian businessmen with the capital to make a rapid difference in the region. He has already cleared land for sugar in Adamawa, and is negotiating with state authorities and communities for the use of hundreds of thousands of hectares across the northern states. He hopes to be a catalyst in helping to reverse the region’s decline and calming its most radical elements. “Nigerians like to copy. When they see Dangote investing they think there is money to be made,” he said.
While the south and federal capital in the centre have become magnets for global and local investors, the massacres, bombing and kidnappings carried out by Boko Haram have turned much of the north into a no-go zone.
“They have got to address the disparity in wealth between the north and south,” says a western businessman who has done business in the north and who asked not to be named for fear of jeopardising his investment.
In recognition that the military alone is probably incapable of ending the insurgency, the government has been developing an economic strategy alongside a programme to deradicalise jailed extremists and unite communities against them. The “presidential initiative for the northeast” is intended as a multibillion dollar “Marshall plan” with infrastructure and agriculture at its heart, according to Soji Adelaja, a former US academic who is co-ordinating it from the national security adviser’s office.This will begin with an infusion of short-term emergency supplies.
Britain’s Department for International Development, which estimates that 4.2m people need food relief, says “the situation is dire” in the conflict zone.