BY FAIKA M. AHMED
Dear President Muhammadu Buhari,
Let me begin by congratulating you on your seventh anniversary in office, it is indeed a milestone in your historic leadership of this country.
Your Excellency, as you mark this important milestone, I am sure the growing insecurity in many parts of the country continues to concern you and is your top priority as you and your administration enter the final stage of your tenure. Many Nigerians, myself included, applaud the work and efforts you and your administration have put in to address insecurity. We know that includes significant expenditures that have re-equiped the armed forces with state-of-the-art equipment, including combat aircraft, and also improved the well-being of the armed forces that are at the forefront of this fight. This commitment you have made indeed enhances the success of the fight against insurgency and terrorism in Nigeria. We also know that those long-term investments that were lacking before you took office will continue to help Nigeria long after your term ends.
Your Excellency, while emphasis on the kinetic approach to dealing with insecurity is necessary and indeed necessary, it is important, in my humble opinion, that we pay as much attention to non-kinetic approaches as well. I know that this administration has also done some work in this area, but Mr. President, I say that this is not enough and more needs to be done.
A disaster unfolding
A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in the North West region of Nigeria and unless a bold and urgent non-military response is implemented, I fear that the problems we see today will be insignificant compared to what is to come. I know I’m no security expert, Excellency, but I’ve spent the past four years working for those whose lives have been turned upside down by these disputes, so my conclusions are informed. It is with the knowledge of all the pain, destruction and carnage that I have witnessed, first hand, that I unequivocally call for the establishment of the North West Development Commission.
The already devastated North West region has a long history of humanitarian crisis with roots in conflicts that many today do not even remember. From the Kano Maitatsine crisis in the 1980s, to the religious crisis in Kaduna, to the unrest with the Shiite movement in Zaria, and the conflict between herders and farmers that turned into raging banditry that is mutating again under our eyes and is embedded in the terrorist groups currently at war with Nigeria. The human and economic cost of these conflicts has been heavy. Kidnappings, cattle rustling, sexual assault of women and girls and murder are now a tragic part of life in northwestern Nigeria. This particular conflict is also particularly dangerous as it also involves the deliberate destruction of people’s property and livelihoods. Undoubtedly and by all definitions and magnitude, what we have is a regional crisis that threatens the very fabric of Nigeria.
Your Excellency, I know that you are fully aware of the wanton destruction of livelihoods, social facilities, ranging from schools to agricultural lands, markets and water sources among others. Far from the ideological war of Boko Haram and the crisis of ISWAP, the killings and destruction in the North West have no specific ideology, motive or even requirement, which makes it even more difficult not only to capture and profile effectively, but also to receive international counter-terrorism assistance even as this is changing. Providing a coordinated humanitarian response for the people of these states through the establishment of the North West Development Commission could make all the difference and help attract the required assistance, including from International organizations.
This is essential because the devastating impact of this crisis on the overwhelming majority of people in these states is horrific. Unfortunately, the region has lost a significant population of people living in rural areas, resulting in abject poverty in both rural and urban communities. Analysts believe that in the most affected states, you won’t find small communities of around 1,000 people like you used to. All have been forced to move to bigger cities with devastating consequences for their livelihoods, especially agriculture, with consequent consequences on food security and poverty.
According to the 2019 NLSS report, the poverty rate in these affected states is lower than the national average, with Sokoto State recording the highest rate in the country. It is no wonder that the attention of the international community is turning to solving this growing catastrophe, with many showing an interest in helping states and, by extension, the federal government to overcome this challenge. However, the effectiveness of this will largely depend on the presence of a coordination structure.
Mr. President, the Boko Haram and ISWAP conflict in the North East is having a huge negative impact on this region in particular and on the country as a whole. This is now also the situation in the North West and the ordinary, poor and innocent citizen is paying a very high price. Their lives, and this is no exaggeration, for I have seen it with my own eyes, are hells.
The education sector in the North West has been particularly devastated by the ongoing conflict. For a region that was already educationally disadvantaged, this is a total disaster. Time and again, schools have been attacked, children abducted and some premises turned into headquarters for bandits and criminals terrorizing communities. You may remember Dr. Gummi visiting a bandit lair. Video of this visit showed what appears to be an elementary school building that has been taken over by these infamous criminals. From Funtau Islamiyya School, Kankara Public School for Boys, FGC Birnin Yauri, GSS Kagara, Tagina islamiyya to Bethal Baptist School and many other schools, all have experienced terror at the hands of kidnappers and terrorists. Schools and students have become fair game for a group that has a clear interest in ensuring that children are not empowered to resist radicalization into terror and crime. Afaka College of Forestry, Greenfield University, Jangebe Girls’ School, Bakura College of Agriculture and Kaya-Maradun School, were all attacked suggesting a deliberate strategy to destabilize the ‘education. It has so far been a success. Education in many parts of the region is chaotic, we have more school dropouts and a significant increase in the number of out-of-school children with all the implications this has in many areas including insecurity.
As you know, Mr. President, agriculture, which is the basis of economic activities in the North West, is today completely derailed. This source of livelihood of more than 80% of the population has taken hold of existence. People find themselves torn between going to the farm and risking being kidnapped or worse killed, or paying a ransom to allow them to cultivate their farms. It’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t, because as you can imagine, criminals have no honor and don’t always keep their word not to harm farmers. There have been occasions where despite the payment of a ransom, people are killed. Moreover, often the income and produce from these farms is barely enough to support families and cannot be extended to pay criminals who have little choice but to flee their homes.
Some of the most famous arable areas in places like Birnin Gwari and Tegina, the fertile lands of Shiroro and those of the basin axis from Sokoto Rima to Kebbi are fallow. Farmers in the highly productive areas of Dansadau, Mada and Bagega districts, which for decades enabled Zamfara State, for example, to live up to the name “Farming Is Our Pride” are now wandering the streets, without work or returned in search of what to do, living in destitution.
While intervention programs like the Anchor Borrower Scheme are well-intentioned, they fail in part because of insecurity. Ongoing works at the Bakalori Irrigation Project came to an abrupt halt due to these unprecedented attacks on the project’s workforce. In a recent twist, the destruction of food markets, grocery stores and everything related to agriculture has completely demoralized the agrarian population, not only in Zamfara, but also in Kaduna, Katsina and Niger, as well than in Kebbi and Sokoto states. It is almost as if there is a will to completely destroy the region and introduce hunger and starvation.
The health system in the North West region has always been inadequate. In addition to long-existing child-killing conditions and diseases that state and federal governments and international development partners are still dealing with, emerging health issues associated with trauma, acute malnutrition and starvation are are widespread and present a serious crisis that requires urgent attention. Primary health care centers in Katsina and Sokoto states are deserted. The same is true for those in Zamfara, Niger and Kebbi states. Thus, there is increasing pressure on secondary and tertiary health care facilities in all affected states. Mental health problems that result directly from the violence suffered are on the rise. The same goes for reported cases of gender-based violence and child labor. Life, Mr President, is brutal and brutal now and children are the most vulnerable victims.
The nature of the conflict engulfing the North West means that there are critical areas that require urgent intervention through the establishment of the North West Development Commission. The commission, if established, like its counterpart in the Northeast and other regions, would serve greatly as a focal organization. It would be responsible for evaluating, coordinating, harmonizing and reporting on all government response programs and initiatives. This will allow for a unified approach to address the humanitarian crisis in the state. This will reinforce and consolidate the success of these interventions.
Your Excellency, the North West Development Commission, if established, will undoubtedly promote the rapid reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction of this politically and demographically important region. I believe that all the inhabitants of the region, given the opportunity, would add their voice to this call for the urgent creation of the North West Development Commission.
Finally, allow me to call on all of our distinguished senators from across the region, members of the House of Representatives, members of the Federal Executive Council, religious and traditional leaders and elites to join me in calling for this important instrument development and security for this region. The North West Development Commission is long overdue.
It’s time to step up if the Northwest is to stand a chance. Yes, weapons, soldiers and boots on the ground matter, but if we do not deal decisively with some of the humanitarian crisis and the underlying issues of the conflict, we may win battles but lose the war.
Hon. Ahmed is Commissioner, Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Zamfara State