The Royal Institute of International Affairs, aka Chatham House, recently released a report on northern Nigeria titled: “Who Speaks for the North? Politics and Influence in Northern Nigeria”. The report is an outcome of a research project by research fellow Dr. Leena Koni Hoffman, under the think tank’s Africa programme.
It was launched both in London, and very recently, in Abuja, Nigeria.
You can download the full report (in PDF) from the Chatham House website here.
Find below, the executive summary:
Northern Nigeria is witnessing an upheaval in its political and social space. In 1999, important shifts in presidential politics led to the rebalancing of power relations between the north of Nigeria and the more economically productive south. This move triggered the unprecedented recalibration of influence held by northern leaders over the federal government. Goodluck Jonathan’s elevation to the presidency in 2010 upended the deal made by the political brokers of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to rotate power between the north and south, from which the party had derived much of its unity.
The decisive role played by the power shift issue in 15 years of democracy raises important questions about the long-term effectiveness of the elite pacts and regional rotation arrangements that have been used to manage the balance of power between the north and the south. It also highlights the fragility and uncertainties of Nigeria’s democratic transition, as well as the unresolved fault lines in national unity as the country commemorates the centenary of the unification of the north and south in 2014.
The significance and complexity of challenges in northern Nigeria make determining priorities for the region extremely difficult. Yet overcoming the north’s considerable problems relating to development and security are crucial to the realization of a shared and prosperous future for all of Nigeria. Strong economic growth in the past decade has provided the government with the opportunities and resources to pursue thoughtful strategies that can address the development deficit between the north and the more prosperous south as well as creating greater political inclusion.
When Sharia law was adopted in 12 northern Nigerian states many in the Muslim community envisioned this as a panacea for the complex and messy problems of social injustice, poverty, unemployment and political corruption. However, after the expansion of Sharia the unchanged circumstances of many who had celebrated its signing created even more anger and disaffection towards the state governments that had adopted the new laws. The disappointment with the implementation of Sharia opened up the north’s social space for extreme religious ideologies to be seeded and for older strands of radical Islamism to be revived.
Growing distrust in political leadership, a lack of government presence and chronic underdevelopment created the perfect context for radical groups to take root and flourish in northern Nigeria. Initially a fringe movement that believed in the strict observation of Sharia and providing social and financial help to poor Muslim families, Boko Haram was transformed into the most devastating threat to the northeast’s stability during the latter years of the last decade. The connectedness of today’s globalized world has allowed local extremists like Boko Haram to graft themselves into universalized debates on Muslim resistance to domination through Jihad in order to puff up their otherwise local profile.
Northern Nigeria’s political leaders, particularly the state governors, must move swiftly and strategically to deliver on repeated promises to invest in infrastructure, education and other social services, as well as encourage new sources of income for the region. Ultimately, the economy, security, stability and health of the north and south are intricately intertwined, and persistent violence and grinding poverty in any part of the country threaten the long-term progress of the whole.
The Appendix section maps out powerful individuals from the North, their personalities and their degree of influence. These include, former head of state General Muhammadu Buhari, Vice President Namadi Sambo, Senate President David Mark, former Central Bank Governor Emir Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and a host of others.
At just 20 pages, the publication is an easy read. Enjoy!
It has been over a month since the abduction of over 200 school girls from a secondary school in Chibok Borno state in Northern Nigeria. Since that time, protests have erupted in several cities across Nigeria, and around the world under the banner of #BringBackOurGirls. Influential politicians, global figures and celebrities have lent their support The protests started from Abuja, and have been ongoing.
I have attended several of the sit-outs in Abuja. Yet, today, things took a completely different turn. Scores of women wearing red t-shirts emblazoned with #ReleaseOurGirls and thugs disrupted the usually peaceful sit-out in Abuja. Several local Nigerian media had previously reported that the #ReleaseOurGirls protesters were meant to counter the narrative of #BringBackOurGirls which had put the government under national and international scrutiny.
From around 5pm, things started happened at a dizzying pace. All I could remember was that several angry young men, some of them in red t-shirts began yelling and hurling insults. Suddenly, they were confiscating cameras and mobile phones, pushing and shoving people, grabbing and breaking plastic chairs all at once. It was frightening.
Surprisingly, the over 50 policemen who were there to contain any disturbance stood by idly and did nothing as the hired goons went on a rampage. We were all told to huddle close together, not cave in, and then we broke into solidarity songs until the thugs left us alone. Eventually some of the police men reluctantly took away away one or two of the thugs.
Everything happened really fast, and I barely managed to capture this short video of the disruption:
Some photos I took as well:
So, who ‘sponsored’ these guys?
Maybe the answer lies in this picture of the vehicles and equipment used by the #ReleaseOurGirls hirelings:
Culled from Aljazeera:
“She is called the Burka Avenger and is like no other superhero before her.
By day she is a Pakistani school teacher, but by night the secret martial arts expert dresses in a veil while fighting bad guys (who want to shut down schools).
The animated children’s series is about to hit TV screens across Pakistan.”
This is a potentially effective form of positive indoctrination and soft approach to fighting terrorism and extremism in a society. Given the numerous similarities between northern Nigeria and Pakistan in this regard, perhaps northern Nigeria also needs its own version of the Burka/Hijab Avenger to fight the Boko Haram baddies.
It is becoming a tired cliché to note that Nigeria is a country with vast potentials which have remained unrealized due to socio-political and economic challenges of which dearth of transformational leadership is at the heart of all. Again, it is common knowledge that this leadership deficit is more severe in northern Nigeria relative to other parts of the country. A disturbing yet overlooked dimension of this leadership conundrum however, is that leaders who ought to be responsible for identifying the problems and finding solutions seem to have little understanding of what these problems are, they prefer to ignore them or both, and hence have little or no solutions to them. The leaders are also becoming progressively disconnected from the ordinary people and their concerns.
The summaries of various communiqués of meetings and fora involving northern political leaders (mainly the Northern Governors Forum) and most northern elders (mostly former public office holders) of recent, on the North’s numerous problems are baffling and frustrating as it is apparent the agenda of these meetings typically have little to do with the region’s gargantuan economic, socio-political and security challenges. Neither do the final recommendations.
The themes of these meetings usually revolve around increased revenue allocation to northern states from the Federal Government, lamentations over existing conspiracies to “marginalize” and “destroy” the North; emphasis on the North’s “turn” to produce the next President in 2015; hollow, rhetorical lamentations on the decline of the northern economy and the need to revive agriculture, countering the Boko Haram insurgency and occasionally, a passing reference is made on the need for good governance, and in the end, these ills are ascribed to bad leadership and that’s about it. These meetings typically produce virtually no solid, detailed, implementable blue prints on how to methodically, systematically and effectively address the North’s well-documented problems.
As the communiqués and press briefings for these meetings become public, one’s hopes of tangible solutions are further dashed by the crushing realization that our leaders are running round in vicious circles. At best, they gloss over the most critical problems, and at worst, their recommendations have practically no bearing on these problems. While the last meeting of the Northern Governor’s Forum belatedly established a committee to propose ways of addressing the insecurity in the North, it is an open secret that many of the governors have their eyes set on and are working towards contesting the 2015 presidential elections. Recently, at least two prominent northern leaders have made the case for revisiting the Federal Government’s revenue allocation formula, while at least three northern elders have variously “advised” that President Jonathan “renounces” any intention of contesting in the 2015 elections to “defuse political tension”.
While I am not disregarding the importance of these issues, there are more critical issues requiring the immediate attention of our leaders on which the fate of ordinary people and the region as a whole hang. The problems bedeviling northern Nigeria can be broadly classified into four distinct but interrelated categories: the steady economic decline of the region over several decades, the breakdown of social cohesion, the insecurity especially the Boko Haram insurgency and the gradual decline of the North’s political influence at the centre. The disturbing fact though is that the priorities of our northern Governors and many of our northern elders, are skewed towards the North’s access to political power and how to bring back the Presidency to the North come 2015 while the more important economic, social and security challenges are of secondary importance to them.
CRITICAL PROBLEMS REQUIRING URGENT SOLUTIONS
As our leaders and elders focus on these non-issues, one wonders how these would actually translate to a better life for the ordinary northerner when 8 out of 10 people in most northern states live in abject poverty, how President Jonathan’s shelving of his 2015 ambition would translate to better equipped schools and medical centres, or how abrogating the Onshore-Offshore Dichotomy Bill and revising the “unfair” distribution of Federal revenues will attract needed investments to a region where in many state capitals it’s a herculean task to find one large departmental store (an indicator of modernization), when the current revenues are clearly being mismanaged. These are the leaders and the “voices” of the North and from what they talk about, one can reasonably conclude that these are their main priorities.
The tragedy here is that not only is there an acute misdiagnosis of the numerous problems bedeviling the North and its people by our leaders and elders, those ideally best placed to know the problems and formulate solutions, but that even their proposed solutions to the misdiagnosed problems are deficient, while the region continues to decay, collapse and burn, literally. Few of our “leaders” and “elders” have for instance, actually proposed realistic and pragmatic steps in containing the Boko Haram insurgency, the most glaring manifestation of this decay and impending collapse.
Beyond the usual mantra on the need “to engage in dialogue” with the sect, is there any concrete plan on the sequence of events that would follow in the event that the sect does agree to negotiate and is somehow convinced to lay down its arms whether by an amnesty-type cooption into the system or via another means? Is there a blueprint on integrating the brainwashed flock back into society, to guarantee the safety and security of those who agree to cease fire or for massive disarmament of arms now overflowing the North? Is there any incentive (or protection) to encourage those who genuinely want to renounce violence or to convince the militants that it’s in their best interests to lay down their arms in an environment where upward social mobility for the unprivileged is almost non-existent even to the educated ones? Are there plans for engaging these youth and other legions of unemployed, disillusioned and frustrated young men and women in our northern cities to prevent their co-option by other such anarchist groups? If any of such plans or proposals exist, they surely haven’t been regularly featuring in the communiqués of these fora involving our northern leaders and elders.
Consequently, as our leaders and elders focus on issues which seem to have little bearing on the lives of the rest of us, we the rest are increasingly dissociating ourselves from what they have chosen to prioritize, while the rest of the country is moving ahead and increasingly dissociating itself from the North as a whole. Some of our leaders speak on behalf of the North and we wonder whether they are really speaking on our behalf. They speak of the North but we wonder if these are really the aspirations of the ordinary people.
While our leaders and many of our elders attribute the North’s underdevelopment to a lower share of federal revenues, many of us see how some non-oil producing states south of the Niger, some of which receive comparatively less revenues from the federal purse are embarking on relatively more transformational policies: free health-care scheme for pregnant women, children, the physically challenged and senior citizens in Ekiti state; free education policy from primary to university level in Imo state; the rail transit system and other transport infrastructure in Lagos etc. At the same time, we see our own state executives, spending N2.7 bn ($17 m) on Ramadhan gifts, more than that state’s entirely monthly revenue allocation or jetting-off to Saudi Arabia for the lesser hajj in August as Boko Haram and Joint Military Task Force (JTF) slugged it out, further traumatizing the already battered residents.
Caring Heart Primary School is one of the “five star” public mega primary schools being built by the Ondo state government all across the state. This ambitious project aims to ensure such public schools “compete favourably” with the best private schools and that the underprivileged have access to quality education.
We wonder when the communiqués of these meetings by our northern leaders and elders would shift focus from their obsession with the 2015 elections which is still 3 years away or revisiting a controversial revenue allocation formula laid to rest or from endlessly whingeing about a conspiracy to “cripple” the North by others or the over-flogged flashback to a glorious era of Northern agricultural buoyancy of decades past, and when the agenda of these meetings would actually table viable blue prints for economic rejuvenation of the region — viable proposals for mechanizing the largely subsistence agriculture, making grants and credit available to farmers and SMEs, subsidies and assistance to the comatose industries, attracting investors and development partners with business friendly policies, tax breaks and land leases; exploiting the abundant mineral resources in the North such as gold in Zamfara which dubious (local and foreign) businessmen and impoverished villagers are already mining illegally anyways; employment generation schemes; road-maps for investments in health-care, education and transport infrastructure; engaging in massive enlightenment campaigns for the masses on their civic rights and duties, the list is endless. We wonder when these communiqués would demonstrate seriousness on the part of our leaders and elders to start looking inwards for home-grown solutions which are all around us.
GENERATIONAL AND TECHNOLOGICAL DIMENSIONS OF NORTHERN LEADERSHIP DEFICIT
It is worth noting that leadership deficit is not unique to the North as it is a general Nigerian problem, and arguably a global phenomenon. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, writing in June 2012 identifies two components of the global leadership deficit prevalent in many countries — generational and technological. When this is applied to the situation in northern Nigeria, it becomes apparent that the disconnect between our leaders and the rest of us has much to do with the little generational change amongst those responsible for aggregating and articulating the North’s aspirations, with mostly the same people who have been in the thick of things since some of us were in diapers, whom we’ve read about in social studies textbooks in primary and secondary school, still dexterously recycling themselves continuously back in power – as governors, ministers, legislators, permanent secretaries, board members of parastatals – still calling the shots today.
The incredibly persistent longevity of many die-hard power-brokers in northern Nigeria has ensured that few neophytes have been genuinely groomed as successors. This situation of course is connected to the technological dimension of this leadership deficit which beyond the use of modern technology in governance, refers to the stale, archaic and retrogressive approach to leadership as a consequence of this generational gap, with little input of fresh ideas and approaches to governance. Therefore, the same top-down, gerontocratic and quasi-feudal approaches to leadership of decades past is very much the norm in the North today, increasingly incapable of addressing present-day 21st century challenges. In fact, a former Head of State of northern extraction (in)famously remarked that Nigerian youths are not ready for leadership.
Looking at northern Nigeria through the prism of generational and technological dimensions of leadership deficit put forward by Friedman enables us to understand the disconnect between what our leaders and elders regard as the North’s aspirations and what the rest of us really think are our aspirations, that they seem not to realize this gap exists, that the communication gap is widening and that it potentially has grave implications.
Now the danger is that as the North’s problems and aspirations keep being misdiagnosed, ignored and misunderstood by our leaders, with wrong solutions prescribed to non-issues, our problems continue intensifying rapidly, entrapping us further into the cavernous stranglehold of poverty, underdevelopment, political instability and conflict while other parts of the country forge ahead. According to a May 2012 report (PDF) by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), 7 out of 10 young women aged 20-29 in North-West Nigeria are unable to read or write, compared to just about 1 out of 10 young women in the South-East; while maternal mortality rate in the North-East is 1,549 deaths per 100,000 women, three times above the national average of 549 deaths.
As stale and musty ideas that pervade the northern atmosphere continue choking the very life out of a long comatose region with approaches that reinforce rather than address the glaring contradictions and atrocious inequality in the North, it is no wonder the incident of violent crime – something alien to the North jut a decade ago – is now a daily occurrence as the spate of drive-by shootings and assassinations have increased exponentially.
As our leaders and elders have chosen to focus on non-issues, pointing the blame outwards rather than looking inwards, conducting sincere assessments and proposing solutions, even the narrative about northern Nigeria outside the country is changing. I have come across many references to northern Nigeria on international websites and blogs as the “poor” “backward” or “violent Islamist North”, while Google image searches of our major northern cities such as Kaduna or Kano routinely produce stomach-churning images of mangled corpses of bomb blast victims, burnt vehicles, or arrested suspects of one vicious crime or the other.
We need new approaches to our multifaceted economic, social and political problems as the current stale and archaic ways of thinking are grossly inadequate and incapable of addressing our numerous 21st century challenges. In order to do this, we ought to realize that leaders like all human beings are driven by self-interest, and as such they are not by default prone to accountability or altruism. It is pressure from citizens that forces leaders to act in the collective interest. It is agitation by ordinary citizens especially labour and trade unions in post-war Western Europe that was instrumental in pressuring the political elite to make inclusive social reforms of hitherto exclusive and aristocratic political systems and implementation of welfare policies (such as health care, housing and employment benefits which exist to this day) to cater for the less privileged.
Thus, a huge responsibility lies with northern academics, intellectuals, commentators, analysts, professionals and just about anyone concerned about their own future (or lack of it) and that of their children to continuously and consistently speak up on these burning issues that affect us all and ensure they are brought back onto the agenda of our leaders and elders. It is just not enough to assume our characteristically fatalistic position of “Allah Ya isa” or “God dey” and then resign ourselves to this sordid fate that certainly awaits us!
The intellectuals and columnists of northern extraction should beam the spotlight more on what state and local governments are doing with the same vigorous consistency that the activities of the Federal Government are scrutinized – how revenues and resources are managed, how investment decisions and contract awards are made, etc. because our governance challenges are mainly under the constitutional purview of states and local governments, and for the most part, information on the activities of these sub-national governments is a black hole of sorts.
Public opinion moulders should provide information to ordinary citizens on what these governments are doing, whether they are living up to their responsibilities, highlighting and applauding the efforts of political leaders who are performing well so that a performance benchmark would be set for others and proposing concrete recommendations no matter how idealistic they might seem. Public debate and public opinion moulding are enabled when conversations are started on important issues that others can relate with, build on and carry along and thereby creating mechanisms for vigorous discussions, actions and demand for accountability.
For our leaders, they ought to realize that the situation in the North today is completely unsustainable and it doesn’t require the clairvoyance of a seer to foresee the imminent disaster of chaotic proportions that awaits the North as a whole. Thus it is in their own self-interest that the North is brought back from this dangerous precipice, by providing good governance we tirelessly complain about and being true representatives of the people and their aspirations at best to ensure the region does not tear itself apart and at worst maintaining the grossly unequal, predatory and destructive status quo.
For some of our “elders”, who have had rewarding careers in public service, they could use their good names and influence in proposing concrete steps towards containing the Boko Haram insurgency and plans for reviving a post-Boko Haram North. They could also take their campaign abroad to counter and disprove some destructive narratives emerging in some Western publications (at the prodding of some Diaspora based Nigerian lobby groups) that Boko Haram is a religious war against a certain religious group in northern Nigeria.
With their influence, some of our elders could also play instrumental roles in enlightening the masses on their civic rights and duties, what to expect from the government, being more proactive to demand accountability from their representatives at the grassroots level, resisting electoral fraud and selling their votes for peanuts and so on. Importantly for other “elders”, it is just time to BOW OUT, as the standing ovation has long died down, RETIRE for good and allow others to take the stage. Overall, more links between the citizens and the state need to be established with more communication channels between the leaders and the led.
Really it is time we woke up from our deep complacent slumber and started playing our roles in rescuing not just our future but our present from this steady free-fall into the dark pit of misery and underdevelopment. For in the end, what will probably kill the North faster than any insurgency’s bullets and bombs is our own silence, complacency and lack of pro-activeness in demanding accountability from our leaders and representation of our interests in their actions.
Several weeks ago, in an NGO where I was working then, one of the Executive Directors of the organization came to my department, to say hello to everyone. We exchanged pleasantries, and he asked of my nationality, to which I replied “Nigeria“. He then asked what part of Nigeria and I said “…from the North…”. He then exclaimed: “Oh! Boko Haram boom! boom! boom!!!” Everyone laughed, I laughed, but deep down I didn’t find it funny. I wasn’t offended at all but I was sad that Boko Haram was the first thing that came to his mind when Northern Nigeria was mentioned.
This anecdote shows how these days, Nigeria, or Northern Nigeria in particular is being increasingly identified with the insurgency group, Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad (popularly referred to as Boko Haram). I have written severally about the group’s activities notably its deadly onslaught against its perceived enemies: the institutions of the Nigerian state, churches and Christians, Politicians, Muslims and Imams who dare question them, media houses, universities, primary schools and so on; I have written about the pattern of its attacks; the conflicting and sometimes misleading narratives about the group’s activity and the overall implications for Nigeria’s stability and unity.
What Boko Haram stands for and the consequences of its activities touch me personally and deeply, as the group operates chiefly within Northern Nigeria. The group’s activities — and that of its numerous factions, splinter groups and copy cats — are wreaking tremendous havoc on the political-economy, the social cohesion and stability of my home basically: the various bomb blasts, gun fights, targetted assasinations, government curfews restricting movement and police and military check points are having a devastating impact on economic activity, scaring away investors, tempers and tensions are high between Christians in the region who feel most vulnerable and Muslims who feel they are equally victims. My “home” is crumbling and falling apart, and the situation is hardly improving.
There is a general sense of confusion, fear and paranoia in the North in particular and Nigeria in general over Boko Haram and the general state of insecurity. Since the escalation of the group’s insurgency in 2011, it seems there’s little new information available (to the public) as it is becoming more of a the-more-you-see-the-less-you-understand phenomenon. Therefore, I strongly advocate any research, any report or any useful information that would shed more light on the Boko Haram insurgency, suggest ways of effectively addressing it and restoring some sanity to the North and to Nigeria in general. One of such reports is: “What is Boko Haram?” by Andrew Walker – a BBC journalist – written for the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) based on extensive field research and key interviews . The following is the summary and key highlights of the report (you can access the full report in PDF HERE):
- Boko Haram is an Islamic sect that believes politics in northern Nigeria has been seized by a group of corrupt, false Muslims. It wants to wage a war against them, and the Federal Republic of Nigeria generally, to create a “pure” Islamic state ruled by sharia law.
- Since August 2011 Boko Haram has planted bombs almost weekly in public or in churches in Nigeria’s northeast. The group has also broadened its targets to include setting fire to schools. In March 2012, some twelve public schools in Maiduguri were burned down during the night, and as many as 10,000 pupils were forced out of education.
- Boko Haram is not in the same global jihadist bracket as Algeria’s al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or Somalia’s al Shabab. Despite its successful attack on the UN compound in Abuja in August 2011, Boko Haram is not bent on attacking Western interests. There have been no further attacks on international interests since that time.
- Following the failed rescue of hostages Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara in northeastern Nigeria in March 2012, President Goodluck Jonathan played up the connections between the group and international terrorism. However, links between Boko Haram and the kidnappers are questionable.
- It is difficult to see how there can be meaningful dialogue between the government and the group. The group’s cell-like structure is open for factions and splits, and there would be no guarantee that someone speaking for the group is speaking for all of the members.
- Tactics employed by government security agencies against Boko Haram have been consistently brutal and counterproductive. Their reliance on extrajudicial execution as a tactic in “dealing” with any problem in Nigeria not only created Boko Haram as it is known today, but also sustains it and gives it fuel to expand.
- The group will continue to attack softer targets in the northeast rather than international targets inside or outside Nigeria. It is also likely to become increasingly involved in the Jos crisis, where it will attack Christian indigenes of the north and try to push them out. Such a move would further threaten to destabilize the country’s stability and unity.
- Now that the group has expanded beyond a small number of mosques, radical reforms in policing strategy are necessary if there is to be any progress in countering the group. Widespread radical reform of the police is also long overdue throughout Nigeria. As a first step, jailing a number of police officers responsible for ordering human rights abuses might go some way to removing a key objection of the group
Without intending to sound overly pessimistic, my mouth went dry literally and I struggled to swallow hard at various times whilst reading the report. Nevertheless, in my frank assessment, the report is rich in information and detail, seems quite balanced, very nuanced and accurately captures the dynamics of the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria. Hopefully, Nigerians in general and our policy makers in particular would put this information to good use. Afterall, according to British scientist and historian Joseph Needham (1900-1995):
“no knowledge is ever wasted or to be despised”
On Tuesday 15th May, Nigeria witnessed its first mass wedding in the Northern city of Kano when 100 couples were married off by the Kano state government under a programme to address the high rate of divorces in the state. Mass weddings around the world are nothing new; with the earliest recorded in 324 BC during Alexander the Great’s wedding to a Persian princess when he simultaneously wed many of his outstanding soldiers to other Persian women.
Mass wedding ceremonies have since taken place in numerous countries around the world, cutting across an array of religious and secular societies for various reasons ranging from the religious, such as the mass wedding of over 2500 couples by the Unification Church in South Korea in March 2012; to those making socio-cultural statements, such as the wedding ceremony of 200 couples in Bangladesh in 2003 to protest against dowry paymentsor to save costs, such as the July 2011 mass ceremony in Indonesia of thousands of underprivileged couples who could otherwise not afford marriage certificates.
These notwithstanding, the situation in Kano might be the first of its kind where mass weddings are organized and sponsored by a tier of government as a panacea to a social malaise in the form of high rate of divorces, growing number of divorced and widowed women and the broken families spawned from such. This scheme has raised eyebrows among sceptics who perceive the action of the Kano state government as addressing the symptom of the malaise and not the root cause.
According to Kano state government figures, the state has the highest divorce rate in Nigeria and quite possibly one of the highest rates in the world, with a staggering 80% of marriages reportedly collapsing. While the NGO, Voice of Divorcées and Widows Association of Nigeria (VOWAN)estimates incredibly, that there are one million divorcees and widows in the state! This widespread
marital failure leaves a string of broken homes and a gradual breakdown of the family unit which according to government officials forms the foundation of societal ills as children from these circumstances, become susceptible to social vices such as prostitution, begging and drug abuse.
The women with little or no formal education and skills become dependent on family members, vulnerable (to social vices) and in rare cases, even stigmatized. It is in recognition of this crisis that the Kano state government via the Hisbah board (Shariah implementation agency) in conjunction with the NGO, VOWAN headed by Hajiya Altine Abdullahi, a divorcée herself, came up with the mass marriage scheme to address this social malaise. Thus a number of divorced and widowed women registered with the programme, arrangements were made for interested suitors (including Hisbah officials) to meet, those who felt they had found their soul mates were then screened (including HIV tests), and the first batch of weddings took place on the 15th of May, with other batches to follow subsequently.
Some key highlights of this mass wedding scheme include:
In the first place, it is worth noting that this programme involves women who are divorcées or widows, not single women who have never been married. This is in recognition of the fact that men typically, not just in Kano and Northern Nigeria, but all over the world are more likely to opt for a single woman who has never been married than for a widow or divorcée. Besides, in the conservative Kano society where a woman’s marital status impacts heavily on her image in society and her respectability, this is perhaps a timely move within this context, by the government to assist these vulnerable women in finding suitable partners and have fulfilling marital lives where they would otherwise find it difficult to do so. Here, the case of a blind couple, Batula Umar and Adamu Faidawa who got married under this scheme, is instructive as it would have ordinarily been difficult for them to get suitable spouses.
Secondly, it is worth emphasizing that there was no element of compulsion from the Hisbah board on these women to participate in the initiative. The 1,000 women who signed up for this programme did so out of their own volition. According to the Hisbah board and VOWAN, women and men who qualified were allowed to meet each other at the Hisbah offices, with a window of courtship period provided for the couples to get acquainted with each other and finally, they decided on their own whether they wished to go ahead with the process of marriage or not.
Thirdly, the government made concerted efforts to not only shoulder the costs of the wedding and reduce the burden on the brides and grooms, but also to empower the couple especially the women. The Kano state government provided the dowry of N10,000 ($64) per bride, N100,000 ($640) for furniture and kitchen ware, (a common practice in Northern Nigeria) and N20,000 ($124) given to each bride to start up a business venture. Thus in addition to marrying the women off, an economic solution has also been added to the equation by given them a start up capital, empowering them financially and economically.
Fourthly, the government made efforts to register and document these marriages and ensure the existence of a contractual agreement, which would serve as a check against arbitrariness on the part of either party, especially the husbands to just divorce and discard these women at will. This was buttressed by the Director General of the Hisbah board, as he emphasized that the near absence of a social contract was principally responsible for the collapse of marriages.
These ostensible merits notwithstanding, and as with any social policy, there is a healthy dose of scepticism regarding the programme’s sustainability which appears to tackle the symptoms of a problem without effectively addressing the root cause(s). Critics are of the opinion that the government has not made concerted efforts in finding out the underlying reasons behind the high incidence of marital failure, and putting in checks to ensure the high rates of divorces are mitigated.
The reasons for high incidence of marital failure have been attributed to people getting into marriage for the wrong reasons i.e. for material benefit, the excessive pressure placed on young girls to marry mainly because their peers are getting married thereby loosing the true essence of marriage as a means of finding lasting companionship; abdication and abuse of marital duties and responsibilities; the misinterpretation, misapplication and abuse of religious doctrine concerning marital rights and duties especially the exploitation of the polygamy clause in Islam by many men to marry and divorce spontaneously, among many other reasons.
Sceptics further argue that if the underlying causes of marital breakdown have not been addressed, what is to stop these government-sponsored marriages from failing as well? In this regard, credit could be given to the Kano state government and Hisbah board for registering and issuing marriage certificates at least within this pilot initiative, as a check, to monitor haphazard marriages and divorces.
Another set of arguments critics put forward is that rather than marrying off the divorcées and widows, it might be more strategic and pragmatic for the Kano state government to empower them with soft skills training and access to soft loans and micro credit, to enable them become productive members of society. While this is a very cogent argument, we have to remember the nature of this conservative environment in Northern Nigeria in general and Kano in particular, where a woman’s status and respectability are determined to a very large extent by her marital status, regardless of her achievements or contribution to society — she is regarded as “incomplete” as long as she is unmarried. Perhaps the action of the Kano state government of giving these women some grants, financing their weddings and marrying them off could be understood within this social and moral context.
Overall, like any new policy thrust, there are inherent merits and demerits, and the Kano state government and VOWAN would do well by taking some of the legitimate concerns of sceptics into consideration in understanding the underlying causes of the high rate of marital break down and putting in effective measures to mitigate such. This could entail taking opinion surveys of a select number of households, religious and community leaders on the most common causes of marital failure and ideas for solutions; conducting comparative studies with other similar predominantly Muslim-societies in West Africa, North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia to find out whether their incidence of marital break down is comparatively lower and whether the answer could lie in the (mis)interpretation of religious prescriptions.
In addition, the government, Hisbah board and NGOs like VOWAN could also consider introducing counselling services and awareness programmes on rights and duties of spouses in conjunction with local mosques in every district, Shariah courts, adult literacy programmes and radio shows. With respect to the mass weddings, the Hisbah board could consider putting in monitoring and evaluation mechanisms periodically – quarterly, bi-annually or annually – to monitor the progress of these couples and offer conciliatory advice where necessary.
Finally, as Kano state has ushered in Nigeria’s first ever mass wedding, it remains to be seen just how effective this would be in the medium to long-term, in addressing the high incidence of marital failure in Kano, and whether other states not just in the North, but all over Nigeria would tread the path of embarking on mass marriage schemes as a solution to marital breakdown and attendant social vices. It also remains to be seen how soon the government would marry off the remaining 900 women who have signed up for the scheme and whether or not other measures would be included in this initiative to alleviate the deplorable plight of the estimated one million divorcées and widows in the state.