Bardo is a village in north-western Nigeria. A Google search provides little information about it beyond popping up in a list of villages in Taura local government area of Jigawa State. There is, however, news of conflict between farmers and herdsmen in the area, which is of interest. Earlier this week, Nigeria’s social media had centred on Bardo, courtesy of an image of three stern-faced women in hijabs. In the background was a 1986 VW Passat station wagon, purchased for N1,000,000 ($2500) through a subscription of N1,000 each undertaken by the women of Bardo village. The reason for the subscription is to convey pregnant women to the nearest hospital, 29 kilometres away. To my mind, in this detail, in the purpose of this self-help, is a storm brewing. This storm is of implications as grave as the farmer—herdsmen crisis and any of the numerous Nigerian threat profiles.
First, it is impressive that these village women achieved this feat considering Jigawa State’s GDP is well under $3,000. Secondly, healthcare is in the concurrent legislative list and a service both the federal and state governments owe to the women of Bardo. Lastly, healthcare delivery in Bardo village can be indicated by the silent, unnamed women who have died while trying to access what healthcare is available to them. Therefore, these women’s impulse to pool their resources should be seen for what it is—utter desperation and an insistence on basic human dignity. When policy makers, politicians and mandarins say “no woman should die giving birth”, which words are reported by journalists and the bloggerati, it is the women of Bardo who act it out, desperately, without the help of any of these category of what must be, to add no polish to a battered shoe, hypocrites.
I have argued that a measurable arena of state responsibility exists in the quality of lives of citizens. This seldom comes for emphasis. When we speak of citizen-centred governance and security chiefs repeat how citizens ought to support government institutions, we mean that the citizen ought to be loyal to his state. This loyalty was easily manufacturable and assumable when the state was the only player in public consciousness through the use of state-controlled mass media, or the exclusive use of force. This is not the case today. In today’s world, information reaches citizens from a hundred sources all at once and in Nigeria, organized non-state actors ranging from Boko Haram to kidnappers to armed robbers vie with the state in the use of violence. When 1000 women gather N1000 each in order to buy a vehicle so pregnant women don’t die at home, at the bus park or on a motorcycle treading 29 kilometres to the nearest hospice, this is not a case of “resilience”. It is a thorough indictment of health-related policies articulated by the Federal, State and Local governments in Nigeria. The Prosecution is the 1 in 15 Jigawa women who risk death giving birth in the course of their lives as stated in data provided by Vandana Sharma et al.
In an earlier essay on healthcare in the northeast, I noted a subsidiary narrative that Boko Haram deploys to undermine the state is that the state—Nigeria—does not care about citizens, indicated by everything from a lack of basic identification documents to public school education that prepares children only for nothing-at-all, to roads so-called which, beyond being treacherous, are open only seasonally. This done, they then offer their own extremist alternative to the state. In that essay, my interest was the northeast and the insurgency there but, in last week’s piece on Nigeria’s policing problem, I expanded the terrain of state action for which citizens reciprocate with loyalty to the share of the citizen’s life the state, through governments, positively takes care of.
Non-state actors must never be seen to care about citizens more than the state does.
The idea of a social contract, rather than being dated, is even more virile now and where states, through governance, fail to deliver on their end of the contract, citizens resort to self-help; such a country will witness the proliferation of NGOs funded by all sorts of characters for all sorts of aims, and, ultimately, a possible transfer of citizen loyalty when either disenchantment peaks or an appropriate demagogue or strongman shows up. The ladies of Bardo have resorted to self-help and we can commend them till tomorrow if we like. However, none of us will be able to explain WHY exactly any of these women, and their children, should feel Nigerian. What has Nigeria given them, done for them? The brutal truth stares us in the face. Every imaginable policy that has been implemented in Nigeria and Jigawa state over the last twenty years gets an F when marked against the lives of the women of Bardo.
Now, putting it all together.
In recent memory, Nigeria’s citizens, through years of dictatorship and economic booms that limited benefits to only the elite and their middleclass clients, have seemed to have forgotten that their government owes them service under a social contract. This amnesia was, of course, sustained by the state’s overwhelming and largely exclusive ability to deliver violence and create intelligence networks that protected whatever regime was in power. This state of play is changing.
In the 21st century, individuals will resort to self-help even more but they will not think that this is “in the normal course of business”. They will do so knowing that neither God nor institutions, such as governments and the politicians and bureaucrats that animate them, played a part in providing these services. By the same token, the rise of self-help sees these citizens evaluate governments by the way(s) institutions impact their lives. Where the impact is non-existent to low, “ungoverned spaces” open up in the lives of these citizens, creating a vacuum. Whereas, with a territory, you can count boreholes or do an assessment for teachers’ qualifications, in the ungoverned space of a citizen’s life, there is no test to determine what level of indifference a citizen now feels for the state he or she is nominally under, or where they have chosen to transfer their loyalties to.
It is one thing to combat the obvious threat profiles—Boko Haram, SALW proliferation, human and drugs smuggling networks and so on—but are the operators of Nigeria thinking of the internal security threat that is apathy, especially in the rural areas? Not academic apathy but real, on-the-streets, in-the-villages apathy? There seems to be increasingly less and less that the country’s institutions can reach to the average citizen, rural or urban, on. I worry that there will be a tipping point coming, beyond which it would not really matter what we do or do not do anymore.
Richard Ali was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2010 and has worked in private legal practice, consulted in a policy-shaping role at the Ministry of Interior (2015 to 2017) and has run a preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) programme. His expertise is in soft approaches to PCVE. He is an alumnus of the US National Defence University’s Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) and of the State Department’s International Visitor’s Leadership Programme (IVLP). He is also a novelist and a poet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org