An Agenda for the North, or How to Avert Civil War in Nigeria

by | Jan 27, 2012

Northern Nigeria is in turmoil. Last week’s attacks in the main northern city of Kano, which left at least 180 dead, are the latest in a series of bombings and shootings by the Islamist terror group Boko Haram, which demands the imposition of sharia law across the country.

There is a risk that the violence will spread southwards. A Boko  Haram assault on the United Nations building in Abuja killed 21. Southern Christians have avenged their northern counterparts by burning mosques and Islamic schools. A Yoruba militia group last month marched through Lagos threatening to fight back if the south is targeted. The writer Wole Soyinka has said the nation is heading for civil war.

Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan has responded to the escalation in violence by declaring a state of emergency in the north and announcing a massive increase in the security budget. So far this has proved fruitless, for it is not just policing that the north needs – mistrust of the security forces is so entrenched, indeed, that a response based on strengthening their power is likely to aggravate discontent.

Young northerners’ anger, whose most extreme manifestations have fuelled the unrest, is rooted less in religious sentiment than lack of opportunity. A polytechnic student I talked to in Kano in 2009 said that ‘the violence in the north is not because of religion but frustration about poverty and corruption.’ A Kano University professor agreed. ‘If we have a crisis or violence that they call religious,’ he said, ‘it’s really about poverty. It’s the poor who are easily recruited.’

Northern Nigeria lags behind the south. All ten of the country’s poorest states are in the north. The north has the lowest school attendance, lowest vaccination rates, highest infant and child mortality, and highest maternal mortality. In some instances the differences are stark. Under-5 mortality in the North West region is double that in the South East. Vaccination rates in the South East are seven times higher than in the North East. And while 90 percent of births in the South East are attended by skilled personnel, only 12 percent of northern mothers receive such care. These disparities, as the recent violence has proved, are unsustainable. In the face of glaring regional inequality, a burgeoning northern youth population will not remain placid; even if Boko Haram is defeated, others will come forward to take its place.

To neutralise the threat and dilute the appeal of extremism, Nigeria’s government needs a program for northern development – only by closing the north-south divide will deep-seated resentments be quelled. Enhanced policing in the short-term must be combined with sustained commitment to social and economic reforms. A long view is important – decades of underdevelopment will not be reversed overnight – but quick wins are also needed, to show that the government means what it says and that new promises, unlike old ones, have substance. An Agenda for the North should be based on five principles:

  1. An honest assessment of the problem: Goodluck Jonathan must publicly admit that the north has been left behind. He must be candid about the gaps in wealth, education and access to services, and accept that his government and its predecessors have done too little for the region. Northerners, of course, know all this already, but their cynicism will only be blunted if past errors are acknowledged.
  2. A grand plan for change: To begin to regain ground in the propaganda war with Boko Haram, big and well publicised commitments are needed. Raising school attendance to southern levels, matching southern infrastructure, and equalising employment rates and incomes nationwide are daunting challenges, but nothing less will be acceptable to young northerners. The north needs its own Development Goals, with ambitious deadlines, milestones and concrete investment plans.
  3. Youth involvement: Development Goals in obvious improvement areas like transport and power can be announced immediately, but other objectives should be developed in consultation with northern youth. The latter too want electricity and roads, but what are their other priorities? Research among young people for the British Council and Harvard’s Next Generation Nigeria project threw up widely varying demands, from agricultural extension programmes to support for small businesses to teacher training and school toilets. But unless the government engages systematically with young northerners it will not know what the region needs. Nigerian politicians have cut themselves off from the wider society – giving angry young people an outlet other than violence will help diffuse tensions and make reforms relevant.
  4. Small wins: Northerners, understandably wearied by years of broken promises, will have no faith in grand Development Goals unless they quickly see their fruits. While the federal government announces overarching objectives, state governments must spell out which roads will be built and when, how many teachers will be trained, how they will engage with young people, and so on. Then they must take prompt action – begin work on that road, equip a hundred schools with fans, achieve small, quick wins to show that a start has been made.
  5. Accountability: When they make targets, federal and state governments must stick to them.  Those who fail to deliver must be held to account, making it clear that business as usual will not be tolerated. Next Generation Nigeria argued for the creation of a national youth forum that would hold regular discussions with policy makers. A Northern Forum could be charged with monitoring compliance with the Agenda for the North, and given free rein to demand action when progress slows.

Goodluck Jonathan is floundering – yesterday he feebly pleaded with Boko Haram to identify themselves and spell out their demands. He has run out of ideas. An Agenda for the North, desirable and necessary even without the emergence of the terror group to give it urgency, has the potential to break the impasse. It might be Mr Jonathan’s best hope of proving the doomsayers wrong.


  • Mark Weston

    Mark Weston is a writer, researcher and consultant working on public health, justice, youth employability and other global issues. He lives in Sudan, and is the author of two books on Africa – The Ringtone and the Drum and African Beauty.

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