by Yomi Odunuga
A perception of the vacuity that comes with living on past glories was not lost on the intellectuals, business persons, politicians, historians and concerned stakeholders that converged on the new Government House Auditorium in Gombe, the Gombe State capital last Tuesday. It was the opening ceremony of the 2nd North-East Economic Summit where leaders from the six states of Gombe, Adamawa, Borno, Yobe, Taraba and Bauchi had met for two days, to discuss ways of transforming a blighted region towards sustained economic development. As the compere rightly pointed out, it was a summit where participants were expected to tell truth to power and evolve a realistic roadmap towards putting the region on the pathway of economic rejuvenation through the attraction of investments both local and foreign.
Simple as this objective was on paper, those present were not oblivious of the grave impediments posed to its realisation by the violent activities of the Boko Haram sect. Clearly, without peace, the region can hardly attract the required investments. Although the sect’s deadly activities are more pronounced in Borno, Yobe and some parts of Adamawa in recent times, the North-East has become a theatre of war with countless lives lost and property worth billions destroyed. What was once thought to be disjointed guerrilla attacks being perpetrated by a group of ill-motivated, self-seeking youthful Jihadists in Borno State has transformed into a huge monster which now threatens the foundation of our nationhood. For, if the truth must be told, the Boko Haram crisis has become a national malady.
Aside the brazenness of the attacks and coldblooded murders carried out by members of the sect, the Nigerian public is increasingly losing confidence in the ability of the Federal Government to halt the endless spate of senseless killings. More confounding is the fact that the huge presence of security personnel in Borno State did not stop members of the sect from attacking an Air Force base just a day to the opening of the economic summit in Gombe where President Goodluck Jonathan was the special guest. When an ill-trained group of wrongly indoctrinated youth rounds up specially-trained unit of the armed forces and the central authorities did nothing but to offer lame excuses, then we should know we are all in deep trouble. Or is that not the reality of the Nigerian nation?
For the North East, it was a moment of reckoning. As for the leadership in the region, it is one thing to embark on a fruitless academic exercise of gathering eggheads to discuss the North- East’s descent into the doldrums of economic stagnation. It is another thing to turn the annual ritual into a concrete framework for development and sustained growth. In doing this, the governors must show more than a passing interest in the paper presented by the Guest Speaker and former Minister of National Planning, Dr. Shamsudeen Usman, not necessarily because of its fluidity and eloquence but because it touched at the heart of the matter, where the shoes began to pinch the region—the painful realities that could either make or mar its future.
According to Usman, leaders in the region would have to find answers to some hard questions. Do they understand the complexities involved in a region that has attracted the headlines in local and international media for all the wrong reasons? What could have awfully gone wrong that a region which once enjoyed stability, prosperity and rapid economic growth is now practically on its knees, scavenging for investors? How come its abundant mineral resources like gypsum, limestone, gold, diamond, fertile land among others have not been able to attract the kind of investments that would propel the region into an economic hub? Where did the North, especially the North-East with its rich history of great leaders over the past 1,000 years, start getting it wrong? These, he noted, are germane to any attempt at evolving workable solutions.
Of course, Usman did not leave the answers hanging in the sky. The region, he noted, must look at itself in the mirror and place the blame squarely at its feet! It is a bitter truth that the present leaders must be prepared to swallow if they don’t want to continue to err further in the name of seeking progress. While agreeing with the Gombe State Governor, Ibrahim Dankwambo, that destiny, geography and commerce may have brought the peoples of the region together; there is no doubting the fact that they are being torn apart by the double-edged sword called illiteracy and poverty! Well, you may need to add the deep-seated religious sentiments and mutual suspicion between Muslims and Christians in the region. Elements of these, he noted, can be gleaned from the rising social tensions aggravated by the widening disparity in wealth, restricted access to basic human needs and growing rate of youth unemployment coupled with the outrageous greed of political leaders who pay mere lip service to good governance.
Question is: are these problems peculiar to the North-East? Not necessarily so. It is just that the flicker of war was lit after many years of prevalent poverty, deepening inequality, uncontrolled religious fundamentalism, sectarianism and ethnic tensions. Inevitably, idle minds became the devils’ workplace and the entire region is now reaping the dire consequences of that neglect. The leadership, Usman noted, compounded the problem by their seeming inability “to get the politics right!” So, rather than being a change agent, the leadership has become part of the problem of a region where the law is being supplanted by anarchists with a mandate to banish any shade of western education in addition to foisting their own brand of Islam on the region. Does this then mean that the North-East is dangerously treading on the self-destruct lane? Maybe. Maybe not. But, going by the contributions of participants at the two-day summit, such assumption would appear to be extreme.
Although many readily agree that no significant impact can be made without addressing the security issue, the process of reclamation, they said, should start with an aggressive education drive which would ensure that the millions of children that are out of school in the region get back to the class. Of course, this would have to be carefully planned, bearing in mind that the members of the radicalised sect have attacked and burnt such schools in the past. Perhaps, it is for this reason that Usman and most of the resource persons canvass a stick and carrot approach in resolving the security challenges in the region. While military intervention is seen as necessary, it is not a quick fix solution hence the push for community-based interaction that would turn many an unemployed youth from embracing the path that leads to perdition. And so, the nuggets for the rejuvenation of the abused region are surmised under five broad headlines: need to kick-start massive modern and commercial agricultural programmes; access to quality education by all youth including the girl child; development of an entrepreneurial scheme that guarantees gainful employment; a determined effort to bridge the yawning gap between the stupendously rich and those rolling in abject poverty; and the need for the politician in leadership positions to stop stoking the fire of deceit and pushing a perennially oppressed people to the cliff hanger.
Essentially, what the region suffers today is the consequence of the neglect of these key factors over the years. Listen to Usman: “The North, especially the North-East, needs to ask certain basic questions. What brand of north do we want? What sort of jobs and what role must we play in creating new jobs? Government should create enabling environment by working with the private sector. The political leadership should not start a fire because when you start one you don’t know if it will consume you. Some of those that started the fire in the past are busy walking the streets as free men. Unfortunately, they are being touted as leaders. Change the mindset of the youths from destructive energy to constructive energy. It requires hard work.”
Beyond the rhetoric, Dankwambo and the five other governors in the region have been saddled with the responsibility of saving this once-buoyant geo-political zone from the free fall in which human dignity has been callously abused and raped. They cannot continue to lament about how the pervasive security challenge has taken a toll on development or organise economic summits while the capital city is completely locked down in the name of security. What they are expected to do, if I may borrow the words of one of the resource persons and President of the American University of Nigeria, Yola (AUN), Dr. Margaret Ensign, is to bridge “the gap between the rhetoric of progress and reality of poverty.” What kind of progress can the region lay claim to when millions of its children make up the figure that readily put Nigeria at the base of the log of countries with the highest population of out-of-school children?
As an observer at the 2nd North-East Economic Summit, I am keen to see how the leadership reinvents itself and changes the fortunes of the region. If the spirit of camaraderie on display at the summit was anything to go by, it is safe to assume that the political class would begin the process of putting the deliverables on the ground after the talk shop. With the calibre of professionals at its disposal and abundant resources it has been blessed with, it will be a tragic twist of history for Nigeria’s North-East to self-destruct when all that is required to apply the brakes is trust, consistency and national interest. Or is Usman’s request too much a sacrifice for those who vowed to return the North-East to its glory years? Only time will tell.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Yomi Odunuga/The Nation