The title of this piece is not mine. It is the product of a discussion in Boston, United States when, by coincidence, I met a former Nigerian military General on March 11, 2012 as I visited my friends in the city. As usual with every meeting of Nigerians, nothing attracts attention more than the affairs of our country. While we were having this conversation, this military General remained quiet. However after about two hours, he finally intervened in our discussion. He said as youths you have to think about the future of Nigeria , and for those of you from the north three things stand out and he mentioned “religion, land and population”.
According to him, in the north we have the largest population in Nigeria , we have the most fertile land that can almost feed Africa , yet we still live in poverty, and our population is becoming a problem to us because we refuse to turn it into an asset for economic development. Religion is no longer taught by the scholars who have a versatile knowledge; rather, to both Muslims and Christians, becoming an Imam and a Pastor is so easy that people can just develop an army of followers even if they don’t have sufficient knowledge to guide the people. This actually reminded me of a discussion I heard recently with one of the leading Islamic Scholars in Nigeria who said that in Ramadan, with just little understanding of the Arabic language, without a deep understanding of the expertise needed to provide exegesis of the Qur’an, people just start giving Tafseer (interpretation of the Qur’an) in various Mosques. Similarly a teacher of mine once expressed concern on how some of his former students abandoned their studies and decided to become Pastors. I hope in the nearest future this General will find time to write in detail what he meant by his thesis of ‘religion, land and population’ as I believe he is more than intellectually equipped to do so.
However this piece is a minor contribution on what in my opinion should constitute why we should think critically on how to utilize religion which defines our identity, land which can sustain the economy and population which should turn the two around. A review of the economic development of China in the last thirty years suggests that the vision of its leaders to utilize their population and land to boost agriculture led to industrialization and urbanization, and today China is the second largest economy in the world, and in the nearest future it will overtake the United States as the strongest economy in the world to be followed by India, another country where population has become an asset rather than a burden, despite the challenges it is facing. You only need to look at the fields of medicine and information technology to know how India utilized its population to become a source of strength, not for India alone, but the entire world.
How did the population of northern Nigeria become a burden, religion mismanaged, and land under utilized? Possibly, the answers could be found in five key issues; colonial legacy, the curse of oil, lack of respect for the dignity of labour, exploitation of religion and the selfishness of northern elites.
Since the conquest of northern Nigeria by Frederick Lugard and the colonial policies that followed in the region, northern Nigeria has not recovered. Muslims in particular were the heavy casualties of this conquest as expertise in religion and knowledge of other fields of knowledge studied in Arabic or ajami (writing in local language using Arabic letters) was no longer considered a skill that provides employment. The ajami script was substituted with roman script thereby rendering the largest segment of the population illiterate as the knowledge they acquired in Arabic doesn’t provide employment except for few individuals whose services are required to serve as judges, school teachers etc. This was further complicated by the perception of the people in the region that Western education is meant for proselytisation rather than economic development. The effect of this is still being felt.
While the effect of this was still biting, the discovery of oil did not help the population of northern Nigeria as the land used for agricultural production, which was sustaining the region and contributing to the federal government was abandoned. The same population that has been robbed of its intellectual capacity has now lost its economic strength because its population decided to engage in rural-urban migration in search of easy money. Neglecting agriculture is not exclusive to northern Nigeria ; it’s the problem of the entire country. The example of United Arab Emirates will be relevant here. When oil was discovered the leaders of the country came together and assembled their intellectuals to advise them on what to do with it. They were advised that they have two potentials, the Sun and the Sea; what that meant is they have two great assets that can be used for trade and tourism, and the oil money was used to develop these two sectors. Today UAE can survive without oil. Think of northern Nigeria , how can the population of the region be transformed into what India and China have done with their people, and for the UAE parable what can the region do with the Sun and its abundant land? Perhaps when there is 100 per cent resource control, the region will sit up. And I am not joking, I heard a deputy governor from the Niger-Delta region talking about it at a business summit in London the other day.
Lack of respect for the dignity of labour is a major issue that every reasonable person in northern Nigeria should be concerned about. People are happy to sit for ages under the shade of a tree gossiping for hours and dreaming to become millionaires, yet they are happy to laugh at a neighbour who used his energy in manual labour to earn a living. A university graduate is happy to sleep at home waiting for the job that suits his ego while his friend from the South has saved part of his NYSC allowance and has already started transporting food items produced in the same north to his home town without waiting for anybody to employ him.
Exploitation of religion has become the norm, religious leaders are happy to manipulate their followers to earn government favour or in extreme circumstances even extort the congregation to satisfy their personal needs. So why should the average person not acquire the basic literacy to become an Imam or a Pastor? And finally, our leaders have to remember that the children of the poor are also human beings who deserve a decent life. If they fail to uplift their condition somebody will recruit them to make life unbearable for everyone.