By Alex Otti
“Extreme poverty anywhere is a threat to human security everywhere.” – Kofi Annan
“Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.” – Aristo
Late Gen. Andrew Owoye Azazi (1952-2012) was my friend and brother. We had had dinner in a Lagos restaurant with Herbert Wigwe, then Deputy CEO of Access Bank, two days before the helicopter crash that took his life and that of another friend, Governor Patrick Yakowa of Kaduna State. We concluded the dinner with an agreement to fly to Port Harcourt together very early on Saturday, December 15, 2012. He was going further to Bayelsa to attend the burial of the father of Douglas Uranta while I was headed to Okirika to attend the burial of the parents of my friend Ben Willie, whose parents were so united even in death that the father literally followed his mum, when the news of the departure of the latter was broken to the former. Ben Willie and his family decided to bury them together on the same day. We had planned that I would accompany Gen. Azazi to Bayelsa and he would join me thereafter, to Okirika and we both would finally pass the night in Port Harcourt.
As providence would have it, I overslept on that fateful day. When Gen Azazi arrived at the airport and couldn’t find me, he place a call to me and I apologized, pleading that our earlier programme be changed so that he would proceed to Bayelsa while I would go to Okirika and meet up with him in Port Harcourt later in the day. That meeting never happened as it turned out that the helicopter in which he was traveling back to Port Harcourt from Bayelsa had crashed. The news of the helicopter crash came piecemeal until finally, it was confirmed that no one survived the mishap. Although Gen. Aziza is gone, some of his words live and will continue to teach us some basic and inconvertible lessons.
A few months before his death, General Azazi had spoken at a South South Economic Summit where he removed his toga of officialdom, being the then National Security Adviser, to say it as it was. He blamed the insecurity in the land, which then was assuming unacceptable proportions, on politicians. He had actually called out PDP which was the ruling party at that time. I was in the hall when he made this statement which attracted large applause from the audience. The then President, Goodluck Jonathan and the PDP apparently took up arms against the General as he was subsequently removed as National Security Adviser and Colonel Sambo Dasuki was appointed in his stead.
One of the profound things that Azazi said and which struck me was that it normally took a very long time for people to decide to go into violence. He charged everyone to brace up for tougher times security-wise and adjust ourselves to live with more and more insecurity for a long time to come. He argued that once this kind of violence was allowed to start, it became very difficult to stop. His prediction was not only correct, but everyone will agree that banditry has assumed such a frightening dimension that no day passes without at least one tale of large scale violence from one part of the country or another. One other prediction that Gen. Azazi made which has come true is that while the violence was localized in the North East then, it was only a question of time before it spread to other parts of the country.
Now that the chronicle of carnage and mayhem foretold is finally upon us, it is necessary to ask a few critical questions. For instance, how did our society descend to this sorry state of affairs within such a short time frame? How did we manage to raise such a large number of miscreants and bandits from among our kith and kin? When did we begin to dislike each other to the extent that the lives of our fellow citizens seem no longer to mean anything to us? How did the bandits terrorising our society acquire so much armoury that they are able to take on a large contingent of state security personnel and inflict heavy casualty on them as reports from many parts of the country appear to suggest?
I have spent considerable time studying this phenomenon and reflecting over it quite extensively. My conclusion is that the root cause of the combined problems of banditry, insurgency, kidnapping, thuggery, armed robbery, and other types of violence ravaging our society today is illiteracy. An enlightened and educated society is a progressive and positively dynamic one.
Any society that does not care about the education of its young ones is a failed one. In our recent intervention on the 2019 budget, we had raised the issue of the chronic but deliberate underfunding of the educational sector. Just like we highlighted, we budgeted N620.5b or 7% of the total expenditure for education this year. While this is poor, relative to the UNESCO recommendation of about 20% of budget, the state of decay of education puts it in such a situation that it requires a lot more funding. The figure of N524b for 2018 representing 6% of the budget for education that year was also appalling. Considering that that budget was not fully implemented, chances are that a chunk of the budget may not have translated into expenditure.
It is easy to see the effect of illiteracy and lack of functional education on the greater majority of our people. Most of the youths are roaming the streets in search of non-existent jobs when in the real sense of it, a lot of them are not even employable. In the Northern part of the country, young people are on the streets begging for daily bread, under the guise of the ‘Almajiri’ system. The Almajiri is a prevalent educational system whereby young people are ostensibly meant to learn but are instead sent out to beg. Those that are supposed to teach them are ill equipped to impart any functional knowledge. The schools are hardly funded and facilities are scarcely available. The pupils are made to go out on the streets in search of arms for both themselves and their Mallams. That is why one finds it difficult to describe this contraption as an educational system.
Truth be told, this system has outlived its usefulness and now simply produces children that will reinforce a vicious cycle of poverty. This sad phenomenon is self-reinforcing because these unfortunate children are of very poor parentage. The educational system is such that they are virtually not taught anything useful for participation in the modernizing society of today. Because they are hardly taught anything that will help them belong to this modern society, their ignorance ensures that they do not aspire for any opportunities, which sadly even where they exist, will only be available to children of the rich who are well educated. These children grow up in poverty to adulthood and continue with reproducing children who in turn would also be Almajiris. Condemning the Almajiri system, Prof. Idris AbdulQuadir wrote about the Children as follows: “ Some are lost through violence in the streets, some through child stealing, while others are lost through diseases and hunger. Those who make it usually complete the reading of the Holy Qur’an and eventually became traders, drivers and so on. Those who could not make it are condemned to menial jobs, since they have no skills at hand. They resort to wheelbarrow pushing, touting and so on. They remain as untrained armies available to anybody poised to ferment trouble. They have their own axes to grind against their parents, authorities and the society at large.”
In the Southern part of the country which arguably has a slightly better story, the general standard of education has also fallen drastically. This is basically because of underfunding, lack of interest on the part of government and changing demographics. It is important to also add that the decline of meritocracy has dealt a major blow to formal education and skill acquisition. The Public school system has taken a hard hit as the schools have become a scourge as they are incessantly on strike and the quality of faculty and curricular has dropped drastically. Private schools have come in to the rescue, but most parents are unable to afford the high cost of education at private schools. We have seen very high failure rates in institutions in the Southern part of the country as well. Children whose parents can afford it have been yanked off local schools even at tender ages to go abroad including other African countries like Ghana and Togo. What a shame!.
The result of all this neglect is that we have over 10m out of school children in the country. These children are supposed to be the leaders of tomorrow. As they grow older, it becomes clear to them that there is in fact, no guarantee that the tomorrow they are dreaming of will come. It is also this group that the Word Poverty Clock captured to place the country as one with the highest number of poor people in the world. According to the figure published by that body in June 2018, over 44% of Nigeria’s population (about 87 million people) lived in extreme poverty or more directly, below poverty line of less than $1.90 per day. India, the country we displaced which used to have about 218 million people living below poverty line, has reduced their own number to about 71.4 million people (5.3% of its population), pulling close to 174 million people out of poverty. Exactly 8 months later, as at February 13 this year, our case had worsened. The number of Nigerians living in extreme poverty has grown to 91.16 million, with six people falling below the poverty line every minute. India, on the other hand, continues to improve as it now has 48.7 million people living in poverty, from 71 million in June 2018. This means that India has pulled out about 23 million people from poverty in less than eight months while we have added 4 million more people into that pit.
Closely related to poverty is unemployment. The official rate of unemployment as at third quarter last year was 23.1%. This is an increase from the figure of 18.8% by the same time, a year before. Adding this number to the underemployment rate of 20.1%, means that over 43% of our workforce needs jobs. When you have close to half of the workforce unable to eke out a modest living, the outcome can only be increased tension. Put simply, we have a large number of a reserved army of unemployed youth who will easily be available for violence for a few reasons. They are idle and hungry; two factors that serve as tinderbox for violence and instability. Added to this is that they are unhappy with the system that has literally excluded them from economic activities. Matters are not helped by the contradictory opulence in the same economy that seems to promote the interests of a few over and above that of the majority. It is therefore, very easy to indoctrinate them with either ethnicity or religion or both and lace it up with some financial inducement which they are sure they wouldn’t get if they did not accept the offer. That explains the level of banditry and insurgence we have been experiencing in the recent past. It is therefore our considered opinion that rolling out the government’s instrumentality of coercion, though capable of reducing and decimating some of the criminal activities, may not completely eradicate them. That is precisely the reason why shortly after every announcement that Boko Haram has been technically defeated, we are greeted with more ferocious attacks by the bandits. We must therefore deal with the fundamentals of the insurgency. We must ensure that we move our people away from the line of sight of those who would like to recruit them for crime by making it unattractive. We must also recognize that having gotten here, just like Gen. Azazi said, the problem cannot be exterminated over night. We must, however, start from somewhere. We must sit down and plan our educational system and ensure that we comprehensively make qualitative education available to all Nigerians at affordable cost. All the subsidy we can afford must be channeled into education. Our educational curriculum must be reviewed to ensure that it is 21st century-compliant. We must ensure that we engage quality teachers who are competitively remunerated to ensure that the required skills are imparted. Modern teaching methods, modern laboratories and libraries must be made available to every school.
We must also ensure that job creation becomes a major driver of the economy. Granted that there is only so much the public sector can do in this respect, but like we had consistently argued in this column, government must create the enabling environment for the private sector to thrive, if for nothing, for purposes of creating jobs. One major area where we keep faltering is power. The truth is that it is virtually impossible for businesses to grow in an economy of 200m people with peak power generation capacity of about 4000Megawatts. This is simply a joke. Even if the government does not do any other thing in the next one year, it must address the issue of power. In an emergency situation like this, government should attack it without minding the cost as the benefits cannot easily be captured in the mere Profit and Loss Account of the state. We recommend approaching it with a different mindset, since everything that had been done over the last decade seems to have failed. We must also support renewable sources of energy to aid the underperforming non renewables that we have traditionally relied upon.
Finally, we must take a cut-off date and give ourselves targets of what we intend to achieve. We say this because some people get discouraged given how long we have groped in the dark and may wonder what impact would be made if we started today. It is imperative to note that since we have driven ourselves to this sorry state, we shouldn’t deceive ourselves by believing that there is a magic button that we can press and the insurrection in the land will disappear. There is no such luck. We must start with the first step and it is with repairing our educational system without delay.
This article was first published by Thisday