Northern elites and northern economic backwardness
By Professor Moses Ebe Ochonu
The Lugardian creation that materialized as Northern Nigeria is not a product of mythmaking but its elites have constructed elaborate myths around it. One such myth is the narrative of North-South economic parity. This claim bears no resemblance to the region’s reality. Nonetheless, it has been a useful rhetoric for Northern political elites who desire an alibi for their failure to bring about actual, rather than mythical, economic parity between the North and the South. The story of Northern economic backwardness is partly a creation of the confluence of colonial arrangement and disparities in natural economic endowment.
Colonialism and its economic priorities dealt the region a bad hand from the beginning. The centrality of oceanic shipments to the colonial economy and the bigger valuation of Southern export crops like cocoa, rubber, and palm produce meant an economic downgrade for the North in the colonial scheme. The North lacked access to the ocean and its shipping revenue. It produced export crops that, compared to Southern ones, did not fetch much value in the international commodities market.
Consequently, the North played second fiddle to the South in the colonial revenue generation system. For long stretches in the colonial period the North’s administrative costs were partly subsidized by Southern-derived revenues.
There have been several attempts by Northern politicians and intellectuals to parry and deny the reality of Southern economic ascendance vis-à-vis Northern economic decline. Some of the deniers are sincere, well-intentioned observers, who reckon that admitting that the North is in a subordinate economic position to the South reflects poorly on the reputation of the region and puts it in a weak political bargaining position. The late Dr. Bala Usman belongs in this category. He went so far as to concoct a bizarre theory that claims that Southern petroleum endowments are actually Northern in geological origin! Anything is preferable to admitting the truth of Northern economic disadvantage. Other deniers are less innocent and honorable, avoiding the question of Northern economic collapse because any honest assessment of this history of loss, corruption, and economic myopia might implicate them.
But facts are facts. Today, the North is in economic freefall. Its industrial hubs are long gone, and surviving industries have since lost their luster. Northern unemployment statistics bear the staggering imprints of years of economic complacency. The Northern economic picture will depress even the most incurable of optimists. The North has failed to recapture its precolonial economic prosperity. The biggest legacy of the colonial reality of assessing Northern economic productivity in relation to the South’s was that the British colonial authorities understood North and South as competing economic zones, whose revenues and productivity were constantly compared.
Another legacy—a function of the North-South economic competition that colonialism set in motion—is that one cannot contemplate Northern economic realities without referencing their Southern analogues. For good or ill, the North and the South are economic competitors. The sooner Northern economic planners realized this reality the better for the region’s collective and fragmented economic futures.
Colonial intertwinement has bequeathed a legacy of friendly economic competition and comparison between the two regions. It is not something to be denied or decried. It is something to be recognized and factored into the ways that Northern elites imagine the economic future of their region.
Regional economic competition is not necessarily a bad thing, colonial legacy or not. Everyone needs someone to look up to or down on. It is the reality of life. There is nothing wrong with looking to the South for a model of postcolonial economic and commercial vibrancy. There is also nothing wrong in trying to locate and address the source of the differential economic fortunes of North and South.
The South has nurtured and encouraged the entrepreneurial spirit of its people since independence, weaning them of the government-is-our-father mentality. The North, by contrast, has nurtured a government dependency that cannot be sustained for much longer. The legendary enterprise of Northern Nigerians, displayed in full flavor in precolonial and colonial times, has been neglected. It has been sacrificed for a politics of patronage that has trained Northerners to tie their needs to government financial intervention and the occasional “generosity” of ethically challenged Northern politicians and bureaucrats.
The irony of Northern economic backwardness is that it is a product of the North’s greater access to political power in a country where there is a de facto correlation between political power and access to national resources. Northern political elites have done very little with so much political power and are the real villains of this unfolding story of economic failure in the North. Their default inclination has been to simply maintain access to political power and the temporary economic blessings that it bestows. But this cannot substitute for deliberate regional economic planning. It is, in fact, counterproductive because the facts show a correlation between Northern political ascendance and Northern economic deterioration.
As we approach the eve of the post-oil economy, the gloom of the Northern economic picture is more compelling—or depressing. Northern political leaders may be using state resources to practice crude patrimonial politics in the hope of preventing total economic collapse and a revolt by economically dispossessed Northerners. And they may succeed in this for now. This, however, is not a substitute for visionary thinking or for crafting a regional economic roadmap to the impending post-oil economy.
The end of oil is upon us. Oil is a finite resource that may run out before we prepare for that eventuality. But we may not even have the luxury of seeing the drying up of oil wells as the development of energy alternatives by global energy consumers may settle the issue for us, catching the North and its leaders flatfooted. The question is: what are those who employ fiery rhetoric in defense of “Northern interests” doing to prepare their region for this inevitable reality?
The South, the oil-producing region that should stand to lose more from the transition from oil, already has a head start in preparing for a future without oil. It is an irony that should not be lost on so-called Northern leaders that the region that should be more complacent in the orgy of oil revenue is the one that is better positioned to survive and perhaps thrive in the post-oil future.
Those who want to be seen as champions of the Northern cause and have built their political careers purportedly defending the North should put their money where their mouths are. They should devise and finance a plan for Northern economic recovery, a plan to wean Northern peoples off the destructive patronage of their elites and unleash their creative energies for the post-oil economic future.
Moses Ebe Ochonu is Associate Professor of History at Vanderbilt University his scholarly works and publications include: The Caliphate’s Burden: Hausa-Fulani Subcolonialism and Middle Belt Consciousness in Nigeria; and Colonial Meltdown: Northern Nigeria in the Great Depression (Ohio University Press, 2009)