Home » “Why the South is Angry With the Northern Nigeria” =Ex V.P Atiku Abubakar

“Why the South is Angry With the Northern Nigeria” =Ex V.P Atiku Abubakar


The Challenges of National Integration and Survival of Democracy in Nigeria makes two very important acknowledgements: 1) national integration and the survival of Nigeria’s democracy are related and are important; 2) they both face challenges in Nigeria today. I believe that most Nigerians would agree with those propositions although we are likely to have differences regarding how to achieve national integration and ensure the survival of our democracy.

I have spoken, I think clearly and forcefully, on both issues on several occasions in the last twelve years or so. Permit me to focus on national integration in this presentation.

National integration, to me, simply means the process by which different components of a country, with economic, political and cultural links, develop a sense of nationhood, of unity, of oneness, of interdependence, irrespective of their different histories, experiences, ideologies, and cultural values and practices. Such a sense of nationhood and oneness encourages a commitment by the people to the survival of the nation and its values and principles, cultures and territorial integrity. One of those values may be democracy, that system of government which allows citizens the freedom to choose their leaders in periodic elections, speak their minds, associate with their fellows, and puts limits on the powers of leaders.

As a country we have mightily struggled to live up to this ideal. We have obviously not done enough to realize national integration, and the survival of our democracy is still a work in progress. The cost to us has been enormous. We even fought a civil war to forcibly keep the country together.

Since the various amalgamations that created the entity that we now call Nigeria, different segments of Nigeria’s population have, at different times and sometimes at the same time, expressed feelings of marginalization, of being short-changed, dominated, oppressed, threatened, or even targeted for elimination. Apart from regional, ethnic and religious groupings, other segments of the population such as labour and professional groups have expressed similar frustrations arising from a sense of exclusion and helplessness.  This often stems from feelings that their voices are not being heard or that they are unable to hold those in power to account. There is also a sense of disengagement of large portions of the population, especially due to high rate of youth unemployment and lack of obvious economic opportunities.

We have over the years responded to these agitations in a variety of ways and with a variety of measures.  These include the creation of states from the earlier three (and later four) regions to the current 36 states; a civil war, and other military operations in different parts of the country at different times; federal character principle; changes to revenue allocation formula; National Youth Service Corps; federal take-over or establishment and management of schools, universities, hospitals, and huge federal presence in the economy as an investor. Others include the excessive centralization and concentration of power at the federal level and the weakening of the federating states; and amnesty for “repentant ex-militants” of the Niger Delta.

Unfortunately these measures have not worked adequately to enhance national integration and the sustenance of our democracy. If anything, our unity has been fragile, our democracy unstable, and our people more aggrieved by their state in the federation. We have always responded with a suspicion of the “other” in trying to deal with these challenges to our integration and democratic survival. And, quite naturally, our responses/solutions have also been, at least partly, shaped by sectional interests and sentiments.  The problem though is that sometimes what is in the short-term interest of a group may not be so in the long-run. And, more importantly, nation-building requires sacrifices of some sectional interests for the overall interest of the nation and all the segments.  Unless we do not think that the nation’s unity is worth sacrificing for or that the sacrifices have to be made only by others and not by us!

Sometimes we implement contradictory policies that weaken national integration. An example is the requirement of state and local government of origin rather than residency for access to government services and jobs. That alone restricts people’s mobility and infuses in them a sense of rejection by the very country that wants them to feel welcome and proud.

Personally I believe in one strong and united Nigeria. I believe that we are stronger united, and that together our potentials are enormous. And I believe that Nigeria’s unity is worth sacrificing for.

It is not a secret that many Nigerians from outside the North hold the view that the main beneficiary of the status quo has been the north, an undifferentiated north. Sometimes they say it is the northern elite or the “Kaduna Mafia”. This sentiment, I think, stems largely from the following reasons:

people of northern extraction being the heads of government at the national level for much of our post-independence period until 1999, during which period much of the current structure was put in place,
the leading role that the north played in the war to keep the country united between 1967 and 1970,
the country’s reliance on oil revenues which comes mainly from the Niger Delta, far away from the North, as well as
what some see as a knee-jack resistance from northern elements to calls for the restructuring of the federation. Having led the federal side in the war to keep the country together, it is understandable that northern leaders would have less tolerance for what they perceive as another attempt to break up the country.
My focus here, however, is to show that the north and Nigeria have not been served well by the status quo and there is need for change. Who among us who went to primary and secondary school in the 1960s had much to do with the federal government? Did the northern regional government wait to collect monthly revenue allocations from Lagos before paying salaries to its civil servants and teachers or fixing its bridges and roads? In May this year the Governor of Niger State publicly stated that his state could no longer pay salaries because of dwindling federal allocations. And he is not alone. A recent report by Economic Intelligence published in a number of Nigerian newspapers showed that 9 out of the 10 States with the lowest internally generated revenue are in the north. And they are among the 15 states that the report said may go bankrupt if federal allocations to states continue to decline because their IGR is less than 10% of their federal allocations.  There is something wrong with the structure of this country and we must see it for what it is. Even in the unlikely event that federal allocations are shared equally among all the states, we would still be in trouble if we cannot generate revenues internally.

How can we excuse the reality that the section of the country that produces most of the country’s food cannot raise revenues to cater to its internal needs? Who do we blame for having a large number of our school-age children being out of school? Why should our people continue to roam the forests with herds of cattle and sheep in the 21st century when we have had the opportunity to take advantage of advances in the technology and science of animal rearing to settle our herds in particular spots and produce even fatter animals to meet the country’s rising demand for meat? This is what the rest of the organized world has done. Therefore we need to promote diverse economic activities, tax the proceeds of those activities and use the proceeds to provide public goods and services for our people.  Citizens and businesses do not generally volunteer money to governments.

It is the rising dominance of oil revenues that led us to abandon cash crop production and neglect food agriculture. Before oil, agriculture was our main industry and we taxed it (and the products of other economic activities) to develop the north – to provide education, healthcare and infrastructure. But because of oil we now plead helplessness. The north has the largest known deposits of solid minerals in Nigeria including some of the rarest and most expensive. So why should we be afraid of the concept of resource control, that is the control of rents by the areas of derivation?

My brothers and sisters, government revenues are based on taxation. Infrastructure for economic development is built with taxation. Rents on natural resource extraction, including oil rents, are not sustainable sources of revenues for government. And whenever and wherever they are dominant for a nation they tend to distort the economy, discourage productivity and encourage rent-seeking activities and dependency.

What Should be Done.
For a start we need:

an honest reappraisal of the motives and principles behind existing solutions to our national integration challenges and their efficacy under current circumstances. Such an appraisal should not be shaped by which political party we belong to or any expected political benefits to individuals. It can be done with the help of a body of independent experts from this part of the country or even from outside the country.
an honest and clear-headed look at better working federal systems in the world. Those systems will reveal among other things a greater devolution and autonomy for the federating units, less interference of the centre on local matters, such as local government administration, including local policing; central governments that depend on taxation of resource extraction and other economic activities rather than rents for their operations.
I’ve been speaking about achieving greater national integration through devolution and decentralization for some time now because I know that too much concentration of power at the centre hurts the country and the north in at least three critical ways: (1) destroying our economy and values as it does elsewhere; (2) putting too much premium on the struggle for power at the centre; and 3) creating the false perception that the north benefits from the status quo, thus presenting the north as being responsible for the country’s development challenges.

There is no doubt that oil revenues have helped Nigeria (and the north) to expand infrastructure, education, and health facilities.  Those benefits have to be weighed against the long term costs, including distortions, the creation of dependency and unstable politics. And the level of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and sense of hopelessness among our people, especially the youth, gives the lie to the perception that the north is better-off with the current socio-political structure in the country. Today the price of oil is low and the country’s economic survival is being threatened by groups disrupting the flow of that oil. When we look at our future in these circumstances what exactly do we see?

The north has ample supply of people, young people. All we need to do is educate them and provide them with the skills to be competitive in the country and the world. They and the north will succeed, and if they do, Nigeria will succeed. The world of today is not one of dominance by mere numbers. The quality of those numbers is more important. The world is also not dominated by the regions with the largest deposits of natural resources. For example, Japan, which has no significant mineral deposits and little land for agriculture is the third largest economy in the world. Also, Singapore moved from being a Third World to a First World economy despite having little in terms of natural resources.

I believe that we have reached the peak of the oil economy.  Even for those who think nothing of diversifying to alternative revenue sources, the ‘jamboree’ is clearly over.  Oil prices may still go up in real terms in the future, but the long-term trend will be downwards, and here are the reasons:

New technologies of oil and gas extraction, especially hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) have helped in pumping out more oil than the world needs. In fact, those technologies have helped to push the US towards becoming the world’s top oil producer. Is it any wonder that US import of Nigerian oil has declined to almost zero?
Growing investments in alternative energy sources as well as the declining costs per unit of these alternatives have not only added significantly to the world’s energy mix but also appear to have set the world on an irreversible move towards reliance on non-fossil and renewable energy.
Let me give you just a few examples. In 2004 the world generated only 48 gigawatts of electricity from wind power, but by 2014 wind power accounted for 318 gigawatts.  In 2004 only 2.6 gigawatts of power were generated worldwide from solar photovoltaic (PV), but by 2014, 139 gigawatts were being generated, and this excludes an additional 326 gigawatts thermal solar water heating capacity. Also total annual biofuel production rose from 30.9 billion litres in 2004 to 113.5 litres by 2014. The same phenomenal increase is noticed in annual investments in renewable energy, from a mere $39.5 billion US in 2004 to $214.4 billion by 2014. In 2004 only 48 countries had policy targets regarding renewable energy but by 2014 the number had reached 144. As we speak here today cars using non-oil based energy either in full or in part are being produced for the mass market. And just last month the US, Canada and Mexico pledged to derived 50% of their energy from clean sources by 2025.

The impetus for these dramatic changes came from the various energy crises which the world has experienced since the early 1970s; the creation of critical markets for renewable energy by such pioneer countries as Germany, Denmark, Spain and the U.S.; and the growing efforts to mitigate climate change. Of course the declining costs of renewables arising from the increased investments and capacity have been helpful. All of these will continue to put pressure on oil prices even when the world economy fully recovers.

You can, therefore, see that the fight in this country over “resource control”, while it may still have significance today, is really a fight that belongs to the past. Even a discovery of large quantities of oil and gas in the north today can only bring temporary relief but cannot reverse the fundamental shifts in the world’s energy trajectory. In any case how are we to improve this region and hold it (and the country) together in the time lag between such a discovery and actual production and revenue in-flow? I humbly submit that we need to move on, like the rest of the world.

I am not trying to be a messenger of doom but to alert us to the serious challenges ahead if we do not take immediate corrective actions both in our economics and our politics. For this region particularly the following measures will be helpful for our economic, social and political recovery and development. Interestingly they are also what Nigeria needs.

Devolution of more powers and responsibilities to the federating units with the accompanying resources currently expended on them by the federal government. And here I am not saying the units must be the existing states. We may have to revisit the issue of the current geo-political zones becoming federating units. This will also help put an end to the endless quest for the creation of more states, with little thought as to how those states will be financed. In any case, each federating unit can decide to have as many local authorities as it deems fit. Education, agriculture, healthcare, roads and bridges should be the responsibility of the federating units (zones or states) while the federal government sets standards and enforces them.  Resources such as mining rent should belong to the federating units where they are derived from while the federal government retains the power of taxation over the corporations that are involved in their exploitation and of course the federal portion of personal income tax. Federating units should have the right to set the wages of their employees in line with their needs and ability to pay. As our history has shown, a strong centre does not translate to a strong and united country.
We should begin to think strategically about how to develop this region as a collective. At the minimum, states in each geo-political zone (with or without the zones as federating units) should begin to work together to share responsibilities such as infrastructure provisioning and the running of social services such as schools and hospitals. This will help save cost and help us integrate the zones and the region more socially and economically.  There is no reason why some states cannot merge their universities, polytechnics or even hospitals and run them with one administrative unit.
The ACF and other socio-cultural organizations based in this region should broaden their scope to include research and advocacy to encourage the states in the north and/or in each geo-political zone to engage in meaningful collaboration in governance. And they should produce a research-based position on the restructuring of the federation, possibly along the lines of geopolitical zones as federating units, in order to assist political leaders and representatives of the region in understanding the issues involved and in their negotiations among themselves and with the rest of the country.
Those who argue that restructuring of the polity won’t be necessary once we diversify the economy are mistaken. As long as the federal government remains overly dominant relative to the federating states, it will continue to matter which section of the country ‘captures’ federal power with its attendant instability. And as long as the federal government keeps the bulk of oil revenues for itself, its desire and will to provide the leadership needed to diversify the economy will continue to be limited.

I suggest we resolve today to support calls for the restructuring of the Nigerian federation in order to strengthen its unity and stabilize its democracy.  I believe that restructuring will eventually happen whether we like or support it or not. The question is whether it will happen around a conference table, in a direction influenced by us and whether we will be an equal partner in the process. Or will it happen in a more unpredictable arena and in a manner over which we have little influence? It should be at a table and we need to be at that table. A nation is an organism; it grows, it evolves, it changes, it adapts.  And like other organisms if it does not adapt, it dies.

Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, national integration is achievable in Nigeria.  But we must do the little things that will help in that regard. Apart from resolving issues around access to economic resources and power by the federating units, there are vital intangibles such as values, ideology, and a sense of investment in the nation that help in fostering a sense of national integration. It is one thing to say that Nigeria must remain a united nation. It is quite another thing to forge that sense of nationhood without which you can never have national integration. And to forge that nationhood requires, at the very least, three critical things:

a sense of something beneficial that the nation does for a people that they feel they cannot get elsewhere to the same vital degree.
people’s perception of fairness and equity in the way and manner they are treated
arising from these, a sense of pride in the nation and its leadership by most segments of the population. All three are linked to government performance, integrity of the leadership and honesty of purpose, all evident to the citizenry. From these, ideologies that project the nation as special can arise and help to cement the people’s commitment to it.
These, to me, are more effective than forcing or bribing people to stay together.

This is a gathering of major stakeholders in the Nigeria project and people here need to join that debate on restructuring. But let our positions be guided by reason, by facts, by history and by a deep reflection on what is in the best interest of our people, and the people of Nigeria, our country.  Let our positions not be guided by a knee-jerk reaction that rejects every position on that matter except the one we have held for forty or more years.

And while we are at it, let us educate our young people. Let us make sure that every child born in this part of the country goes to and stays in school until the age of 18 by which time most would have completed secondary education. Let us also support those who want to proceed to tertiary education as well as technical and vocational training. Let us prepare our youth for the challenges ahead, so they can thrive in the world of rapid technological advances, a world that is unlikely to have a viable place for the uneducated. Let’s once and for all wipe out the false impression held by others that we deliberately keep our people illiterate and backward, especially because the elite among us ensure that our own children go to school.

Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, it is fitting that we are gathered here in memory of one of the illustrious sons of the North and Nigeria, the late General Hassan Usman Katsina, a man who played a critical role in our national affairs, including efforts to keep this country united. Once more that unity is under severe stress, and statesmen must rise up to the occasion and proffer solutions that are sustainable and can endure. We cannot tell a person who says he feels pain that he does not feel pain. Rather we find out what the person says is the nature of the pain and then try to find effective remedies.  Interestingly we too feel pain and need urgent remedies.

I am grateful to the Organizing Committee for this conference for inviting me to deliver this paper. And I thank you all for your attention.


Paper Presented by Atiku Abubakar, GCON, former Vice President, Federal Republic of Nigeria, at the Late Gen.Usman Katsina Memorial Conference, at the Umaru Musa Yar’Adua Memorial Hall, Murtala Square, Kaduna.



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