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Reality of the North-South Divide: Why Jonathan Should Appoint a Coordinator for Northern Affairs

April 18, 2012

“Where Justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe”. Fredrick Douglas, Washington DC, 1886.

“Where Justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe”. Fredrick Douglas, Washington DC, 1886.

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President Goodluck Jonathan should appoint a Coordinator for Northern Affairs as a mark of enlightened leadership and courage. This should be a cabinet rank position in the office of the President, charged with the responsibility of articulating a national response to the social and economic divide between the South and the North.

 Some cynics and name-callers might be tempted to ridicule or dismiss this idea. But I call for a dispassionate examination of this suggestion, which if implemented, would engender oneness, citizenship, national pride and overall national inclusion. From the onset, I want to state unequivocally that this is not a response to Boko Haram; it is not to copy what has been done for the Niger-Delta; and it is certainly not a response to the recent agitation by some notable Northerners. It is a response to our collective conscience and to the facts on the ground. Significant inequality anywhere and regional inequality in particular is socially caustic. In addressing this regional inequality, our attention must not depart from the critical work required to address the overall inequality in the country and development challenges elsewhere; and for engendering pro-poor growth throughout the nation. 

I have come about this suggestion because I believe in the promise of Nigeria and the Nigerian political exceptionalism, that enable us to pull off the cliff each time we are about to tip. Jonathan has the opportunity to use the audacity of courage to rewrite the narrative and pull us off this cliff once again. In rewriting the narrative, he would remind and re-educate Nigerians on their multiple identities none of which calls for “cultivated violence” against other citizens and the state, and would send the signal that our most important identity remains that of human beings and citizens of Nigeria.  

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I have deliberately called it a national response because it is our collective obligation. But it places a leadership role on the Federal government, requiring it to coordinate the 19 state governors of the North, the private sector, the national assembly, international development partners, the NGOs, secular and religious organizations and intellectuals towards generating and implementing new ideas that would address the peculiarities that have hindered the development of the North at equal pace. In the proposed coordination, the Federal government cannot be hamstrung unnecessarily by constitutional limitations, requiring that state governments’ institutions must be very cooperative for this to work. The responsibilities of this office should be: (1) generation of new ideas towards resolving the social and economic divide between the South and the North i.e. helping the North to develop the North; (2) Coordination/ redirection of relevant Federal Agencies and other partners in the implementation of the new ideas; (3) collaborating with the Northern governors to work on the new model; and (4) building consensus and championing attitudinal and cultural change in the context of the agreed socio-economic development path.

No one can argue against what the social and economic data in Nigeria reveal: the widening inequality between the North and the South. In preparing this piece, I went back to check the recently released statistics on poverty, the social statistics on primary and secondary school enrollment, on female school enrollment, the performance on WAEC over the years, on maternal mortality, on infant mortality. In order to gauge what points to the future, I examined the West African Examination results for 2007 and 2008. While the results were generally poor, they were much poorer in the North.  Close to half of the States in the North consistently scored below 3 percent pass rate while the average for South-South is 13 percent. The facts reveal not just gaps but widening gaps, suggesting that if a solution is not found urgently, our already weakened sense of nationhood might be further eroded. According to Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley “inequality undermines the trust, solidarity and mutuality on which responsibilities of citizenship depend.” Unfortunately, our institutions have not been constructed to respect citizen’s rights vis-a-vis State’s authority. 

I have been concerned with this divide for quite a while now. In 2005, as a newly appointed Economic Adviser to the President, I directed the Director General of the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) to understudy the Kenyan Bureau of Statistics. I was interested in learning how we could influence the formulation of the national budget as an instrument for addressing poverty as Kenya had successfully done. Her constituency Development Fund (CDF) Act of 2003 mandated that at least 2.5% of all government revenues should be put in the CDF for direct disbursement to Committees set at the constituency level to fund projects identified by the constituency. In addition, the act mandates that 25% of this fund be distributed in accordance with the poverty index. This innovative institutional arrangement has been hailed nationally and internationally. NBS successfully computed the index but the policy environment required for this budgetary re-engineering did not exist at that time. With Jonathan’s leadership, we can use the budget as an instrument for poverty reduction, national cohesion and social inclusion. The same should be true at the state and local governments where some communities are experiencing “adversity of exclusion”. 

It might be tempting to argue that the Office of Coordinator for the North would be another bureaucracy and a waste of resources. I disagree. No serious bureaucracy is envisaged here. As a coordinating office, a small staff seconded from other arms of the Presidency would be enough to generate and implement the ideas. 

New institutions should be created around critical problems. For instance, in the aftermath of 9/11 and domestic terror treat, the United States Government created the department of Homeland Security, bringing coordination to fight a new threat. In Kenya, the Office of the Prime Minister was created after the post-election crisis to accommodate the contending political forces. Back home, the federal government has set up the Asset Management Company of Nigeria (AMCON) to resolve the recent banking crisis.  

The envisaged office should be an office of ideas, focusing on resolving “coordination failure” among existing Federal institutions and mobilizing northern states and other institutions to address the social and economic development of the North. And there are a few institutions of the federal government whose activities need serious coordination in this respect. Such agencies include, National Poverty Eradication Program (NAPEP), the MDG office, National Orientation Agency, Industrial Training Fund etc.

The tradition in Nigeria is to assume that with more money every social problem would be resolved. We do not have the culture of elevating ideas and public debate of public policy to a platform that influences the quantity of resources needed, the sources and how best to make the expenditures more effective. Bridging the North-South divide would require resources, but the provision of a working model that represents our collective practical wisdom would be a good start. 

In seeking for solutions there is a need to be open to new ideas no matter how uncomfortable they may seem. We cannot adopt rigidly the notion of “cultural destiny”, that denies us the opportunity to re-examine our certain ways of being. Amartya Sen, in his new book on identity and violence reminds us of how “culture and captivity” can be used to promote cultural conservatism that denies a lot of people the opportunity to adapt and “change their priorities”. Unfortunately, it is the masses of our people, with very little capacity to question what they have been told or taught, that have this limited liberty. 

To create the office of coordinator for Northern Affairs, President Jonathan would require presidential courage.  He has already shown that he is a courageous man. But I am afraid that, in spite of his personal appreciation of the situation, there may be people around the presidency that would counsel him to discard this proposal. Michael Beschloss, a notable American presidential historian, documented courageous decisions made in the national interest by American presidents even when such decisions were likely to jeopardize their careers.   A few examples will suffice: Harry Truman’s support for the creation of Israel despite open anti-Semitic sentiments of many of his advisers; John Adams who lost an election to Thomas Jefferson because he negotiated an end to the war with France against the wishes of many in his party; Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation in the face of war, anger and bitterness etc. These were not just acts of courage but acts of presidential honor. Mandela’s forgiveness of those who imprisoned him for over 25 years for the sake of national reconciliation was courageous and honorable. Back home, General Yakubu Gowon’s “no victor no vanquished” policy after the civil war and President Yar’Adua’s pardon for the Niger-Delta militants were all acts of presidential honor.  Jonathan now has an opportunity to join this league and sign-post his regime as the one that began the journey towards genuine nation building by galvanizing the nation to tackle one of the intractable problems of our time. 


*Prof. Osita Ogbu was the former Economic Adviser to the President; a recent Fellow of the Brookings Institution & Professor of Economics at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.


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