Northern Nigerians and the “Poverty” of Ambition, by Dr Marzuq A. Ungogo

It is with great admiration I have read the ongoing discussion online about Northern Nigeria and its unenviable economic parameters stimulated by Adamu Tilde and taken further by the duo of Gimba Kakanda and Suraj Oyewale. It takes uncommon courage to steer a rational discourse these days if the contents do not favour a community one comes from, especially if you’re from the ever suspicious “motive-ascribing” northern Nigeria. It is in this spirit I commend Tilde, Kakanda and Oyewale and it is at the risk of all the possible negative tagging, I sincerely join in the discourse!

To begin with, Tilde cited a gory comparative demographics in the Nigerian oil and gas industry and bitterly lamented on Northern Nigeria’s relative poor representation, or more sincerely, glaring absence. This shall attract no benefit of doubt! It is indeed equally true for the finance sector, the telecommunications, manufacturing industry and in non-governmental organizations. This extends to any sector outside government with entry entailing a rigorous screening exercise, requiring great patience and preparation or some sort of initial insecurity and risk taking. Sadly, we only have more members in the National assembly and the civil service. Suraj’s 3-model hypothesis is also apt and Gimba’s proposition that our reluctance to leave the “comfort zone” plays a role is largely true. But there is something deeper, much more than meets the eye.

In his bestselling book, Outlier, Malcom Gladwell described how deeply rooted psychology and sociology have shaped the future of members of families and communities, for the better and sometimes, for the worse. In a similar vein, Steven Silbiger, the author of ‘The Jewish Phenomenon: Seven Keys to the Enduring Wealth of a People’ postulated that the secret behind the ethnic group with the astonishingly highest number of Nobel laureates and Forbes billionaires is in some psychology, principle and philosophy mastered and practiced for generations. With human genome project completed and the failure to associate any racial or ethnic identity with superior genetically based intellectual ability, it is time for us to look inwards into our environment for clues as to our unsavoury economic parameters. It is time to look at ‘memes’, not genes; and ‘nurture’ beyond ‘nature’.

Culturally, Northern Nigeria operates a caste system with elites (sarakuna, malamai and attajirai) and the masses “talakawa”. Forget we are in 21st century and operating a democracy! This is is still relevant! This system encouraged the masses to be comfortable where they are and often deriving pleasure in the mastery of crafts (and misery?) they inherited. The scholars, Malamai are also not expected to pursue wealth rigorously or intrude into administration, evident in our disapproval even today when we see malamai with politicians or leaders. The attajirai and their children on the other hand have right to wealth and often befriend the rulers for some mutual benefits. No one becomes sarki unless his father or grandfather was.  Unfortunately this cannot efficiently work in 21st century where there are many bills to pay, where many traditional crafts are irrelevant and where a society works only when a large percentage is educated and economically viable. But we are yet to psychologically adapt to this, and our politicians, just like the ancient rulers, understand clearly our cultural dynamics of power which provided for the masses to remain “poor” and uneducated in order to remain blindly loyal.

The second root of our problem is misinterpretation of religious texts. For some reasons still confusing to me, the Muslim Northern Nigeria romanticizes poverty and attaches some degree of piety to it. More confusing to me is how we always manage to attach the philosophy of “poverty is a virtue” to Islam even though we grew up learning about the wealth of Khadijah, Usman, Abubakar and Abdurrhman Bn Auf. In a famous Hadith, the poor Muslim companions of the Prophet Muhammad bitterly complained that “zahaba ahlad duthoori bil ujoori”.. the rich have gone with the “lofty” rewards because the rich can perform all the physical rituals a poor can carry out and in addition commit his wealth to charity! Wealth is a virtue! Or have we forgotten our share of the worldly enjoyment despite Allah’s saying; ”wabtaghi fiima aatakallaahud daaral akhirata wala tansa nashiibaka min addunya” in Surah Al-Qasas verse 77? (Translation; ‘But seek, through that which Allah has given you, the home of the Hereafter; and [yet], do not forget your share of the world…’).

But some of us are quick to correct others that we don’t really romanticized poverty but are more contented with the little we have. This is a lie. I cannot see contentment in a community with the highest number of child and adult beggars, for he who is contented will not beg, and one can be contented with “the little he has” but not with nothing to eat, a wife dying during childbirth because of no funds to service medical bills or a leaking house in rainy season.

The third is the contempt attached to modern education. For some irrational reasons we create so much dichotomy to education. In our love for binary, we have classified everything to either fall into “material” or “spiritual”. This already puts modern education on an unnecessary position to either be ridiculed or compared as “material”. Unfortunately, this concept weighs our pursuit of education down and places us at relative disadvantage. For us to advance and ensure no woman dies giving birth, we need as many doctors and nurses as possible and we should know that this pursuit in no way hinders our spiritual efforts. The “material” and the “spiritual” are not mutually exclusive and more often than not, a happy rich soul would worship God more peacefully and frequently than a destabilized hungry spirit.

Below is an inexhaustible list of paradigm shift that will help us grow as a people. I deliberately give more emphasis in behavioral re-orientation because that forms the backbone. Once we start to get this right, the flesh will fall into the skeleton.

  1. Poverty is not a virtue: we shall start teaching our children the value of hard work and persistence as gateway to success in 21st century. It shall be clearly spelt that achieving less than what one’s potential can is foolishness and not contentment. Our children should not beg and shall grow up with the right attitude and confidence that they can achieve anything. Wealth and good character are not mutually exclusive!
  2. Success is not inherited. This shall be pronounced to every one of us again and again. Although it will very hard to do away with a “subconscious caste”, it is possible to achieve this if active efforts are made.
  3. Hard work is proportional to success. I once passed by some Hausa speaking students in a Northern Nigerian University and what I have heard them saying still resonates in my ears. “Kai dai nemi nasibi Kawai! Dagiya ba shine ba”.. “just seek for luck. Persistence is not the secret for success”.. But that’s very wrong and as Iater found out, is a very common belief among us. Of course, destiny/fate trumps effort, but here is a people with a young generation that believes no effort should be made at all. The solution is we have to raise up and counter this misleading perception among us.
  4. Mentorship. There is no point for younger members of our community to repeat mistakes made by the older members decades ago. There’s no point also in younger members of our community putting as much effort as the older members to get to where the older ones are. The society as a whole should benefit from experience of the experienced and this can only be achieved through teaching or mentorship. Since it is not everyone that can be a teacher and certain career experiences are better learnt through practical interactions with the learned or through “practice”, it is imperative to our accountants to show our teenage aspiring accountants the way to ICAN certification for example or how to get to the world bank. We should create platforms where students and youth will be informed of opportunities locally and globally. It shall be a duty for every successful professional to mentor at least 10 youth who want to follow his path. And a northern Nigerian mentor shall know that he is dealing with a disadvantaged group, as such must be more patient until we start achieving results.
  5. Maximising the Benefits of “federalism”. The future and progress of Nigeria is regional, and not unified. The earlier we understand that our states have to start functioning on themselves with minimal dependence on federal purse the better for us. To my understanding, the people we vote as our governors are more important than who becomes Nigeria’s President. Southwest has since understood this and has been the largest beneficiary of the “project Nigeria”.
  6. Education is the key: I think the excuse that “western education was 40 years old in the south before it reaches the west” is now too old to continue weighing against us. This is 2018 and almost all our Northern governors and first-class emirs have had a form of university education. Sokoto for example has a lawyer and former lawmaker as a governor and a retired army officer as Sultan while Kano has a PhD holder and a first- class economist graduate as well as nation’s top most banker manning its affairs. WHAT IS OUR EXCUSE??? None! It is time to give the most qualitative education to the highest number of people.

In conclusion, I believe something is amiss when a region has the highest number of out of school children, maternal and neonatal mortality as well as highest level of poverty compared to other regions even in the same country. I am not proud to also mention that we can as well compete ‘favourably’ in global statistical contest with these parameters. But then I am equally excited that we now know more about the “psychology” behind all these and we can surely work towards making things better for us if we want to. I am deeply encouraged by the fact that more and more people in our region are becoming concerned about this and also bluntly refused to be discouraged by the denial shown in some quarters and the distracting conspiracy theorists. May Northern Nigeria succeed!

Dr Ungogo is a doctoral researcher at University of Glasgow, United Kingdom and a lecturer with Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria.