By Farooq Kperogi
This week’s column wades into the controversy generated by Peter Obi’s reference to the poverty in the North in an April 18 Twitter thread:
Obi Seems to Be Poverty-Shaming the North, But Is He?
By Farooq A. Kperogi
In a series of tweets on April 18, Labor Party presidential candidate Peter Obi said, among other things, that he was “committed to lifting people out of poverty and I remain committed to transforming Nigeria starting from the North to every part of the nation.” This predictably rankled many northerners, particularly northern Muslims, who understood the tweet as a backhanded, stereotypical vilification of their region.
Why did Obi isolate the North for special focus in a tweet about poverty and the transformation of Nigeria? Why wasn’t he region-agnostic, i.e., not single out any specific region of Nigeria for negative attention?
Why did he come across as articulating a local and economic version of the nineteenth-century racist European doctrine known as the “white man’s burden,” which basically asserted that the unexampled civilizational superiority of the white race imposed on them the moral duty to enlighten the backward and benighted nonwhite populations of the world?
Obi’s spotlight on the North is, of course, balanced on a thick thread of irrefutably solid statistical evidence. According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), of the 133 million Nigerians who writhe in unspeakably stifling multidimensional poverty as of the end of last year, 86 million (which represents 65 percent) live in the North.
The North constitutes 54 percent of Nigeria’s population (and 70 percent of its landmass), so if the region makes up 65 percent of the nation’s poorest population there’s clearly an imbalance. Given that context, it’s reasonable that Obi chose to call attention to the poverty in the North, as he had done many times in the past, and to invoke it as the launching pad of his commitment to transform Nigeria. (Had he spotlighted the South, he might also have been accused of regional self-centeredness!)
But to expect all northerners to process Obi’s message the way I’ve done is to have a limited understanding of human behaviors and motivations. You see, every region in Nigeria, as I’ve pointed out in the past, has its stereotypical vulnerabilities about which it is sensitive.
From religious extremism to endemic child abandonment, from 419 email scams to “baby factories,” from child trafficking and prostitution in foreign lands to disabling alcoholism, from credit card scams to kidnapping, etc. Nigerians can, and often do, easily territorialize crimes and negative traits within their national space.
These stereotypical territorializations of crimes and negative stereotypes are often considered offensive when they are uttered by “outsiders” but tolerated, sometimes praised even, when they are uttered by “insiders.”
Many northerners have called attention to the endemic poverty in the North and got praises for it. Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, for instance, has been brutal and unsparing when he calls attention to poverty in the region and the culture that conduces to it.
When he spoke at the fourth Kaduna Investment Summit on April 3, 2019, Aliko Dangote, the world’s richest Black person who is incidentally a northern Nigerian, also said way worse things about poverty in the North than Obi could ever say.
“Nigeria is ranked at 157th out of 189 countries on the human development index. While the overall socio-economic condition in the country is a cause for concern, the regional disparities are in fact very alarming,” he said. “In the Northwestern and Northeastern parts of Nigeria, more than 60 per cent of the population lives in extreme poverty.”
No northerner had a problem with Dangote for what he said. In fact, many northerners lauded his forthrightness. Northerners are resentful of Obi’s oblique references to the poverty in the North because he is an “outsider” who is in addition resented for asking the “Church” to “take back” its “country” and for characterizing the 2023 election as a “religious war” between Muslims and Christians.
But southerners are also hypersensitive to even the mildest references by “outsiders” to negative indices that are exclusive to them. For instance, in March 2015, Mrs. Aisha Buhari stirred up a hornet’s nest when, during a campaign speech in Benin City, she said the biggest problems confronting Nigeria’s deep south were girl child trafficking and the mistreatment of widows.
“In each zone of the country, we have peculiar problems. Our problems differ,” she said. “For me, in this zone, girl child trafficking should be considered one of our problems, though I know there is unemployment…. There must be a design, a cultural design, that can accommodate the widow, and then a design that will make a girl child feel comfortable wherever she is in this country. She doesn’t need to leave her country to go and prostitute elsewhere. It is not her potion; her potion is to have a highly standard moral society for her to live, get married, have children, train them, and to support them to become the future of our leaders.”
Many southern Nigerians seethed with raw rage in the aftermath of Aisha’s speech. They reviled, ridiculed, and besmirched the North in retaliation. They told her to first take the plank out of the North’s eye so she would see clearly enough to remove the speck from the South’s eye.
Well, many northerners are returning the favor to Obi. There is nothing in Obi’s eight-year record as governor of Anambra State to suggest that he can help people exit poverty. Data from the National Bureau of Statistics, which Charles Soludo referenced in a 2015 article, showed that Obi took Anambra from the most prosperous state in Nigeria to one of its poorest.
In 2004, according to the NBS, poverty in Anambra was 20 percent, which was the lowest in the country at the time. By the end of Obi’s first term as governor of Anambra in 2010, poverty rose to 68 percent. His post-gubernatorial social media deodorization campaigns conceal this sordid fact.
It is easy to see why he impoverished the people of Anambra. He was by far one of Nigeria’s most virulently anti-worker governors, which makes his being a candidate of the Labor Party one of the biggest paradoxes of the 2023 election.
He merged the school fees of three terms into one and required that they be paid at once, which forced children from poor homes to drop out of school, refused to pay the minimum wage and fired workers who went on strike, caused patients to die in hospitals because doctors went on strike for 13 months over a demand for a 60 percent raise in their take-home pay, caused ASUU at the then Anambra State University to go on strike for 6 months and fired the Vice Chancellor for supporting them, etc.
So, if he couldn’t transform Anambra, if he actually took the state from the least poor state in the country to one of its poorest until his successor reversed it, how could he possibly save the North from poverty? I think that’s a legitimate query.
Obi’s other claim to machismo in governance is that he saved and left N75 billion in the coffers of Anambra State. However, his handpicked successor, Willie Obiano, said the claim was a “hoax.” The secretary to the Anambra state government who served in Obiano’s administration also said, “The N75 billion was not there; it was not handed over to anybody.”
Let’s, for the sake of argument, accept that Obi’s claims were genuine, but what’s the sense in depriving workers of their just dues while “saving” money? Money has no value except what you make of it. There is no wisdom in being parsimonious while real living people starve and sink to depths of poverty.
Well, even if Obi has the capacity to lift northerners out of poverty, he could do with more tact and discretion in saying this because people tend to take exceptions to being told home truths about themselves by outsiders. That’s why, for instance, Black American hip-hop youth call themselves “nigga” but will go to war if a white person as much as says “nig.”
I had an interesting conversation about this with my American students some years back. A white student wondered why American Blacks call themselves the derogatory name “nigga” and tolerate being told unpleasant things about their culture by Black celebrities but take offense when a white person does the same.
A Black student in the class gave a perfect analogy in response. He asked the white student if she ever fights with and insults her siblings, and she answered in the affirmative. He then asked her if she thought it would be OK for another person to fight with and insult her siblings just because she does the same. His point sank in.
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