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Poverty doesn’t turn people into terrorists

By Tunde Obadina

Many political commentators and non-governmental welfare organisations have advised Nigeria’s incoming administration to deal with the insecurity fuelled by the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency in northern Nigeria by addressing the issues that drive young people to join the rebellion. They suggest that poverty and ignorance are the main underlying factors in the growth of the Islamist sect that has killed thousands of people over the past six years.

The idea that government should introduce programmes to eradicate poverty and boost education in northern Nigeria as a strategy for defeating violent extremism is supported by many people. However, although reducing poverty and improving education are undoubtedly worthy causes, there are two basic problems about linking poverty and ignorance with the threat posed by Boko Haram and other criminally violent groups.

Firstly, the assumption that poverty and poor schooling are major recruitment conditions for extremist groups is probably wrong. Given that the vast majority of inhabitants in northeast Nigeria, where Boko Haram thrives, live in abject poverty it is unsurprising that many of the group’s fighters and followers are poor and uneducated. But this does not necessarily mean that impoverishment and shortage of schools has driven ordinary people to pick up guns to terrorise their neighbours.

As far as I know there has not been detailed study of the composition of Boko Haram or any other jihadist group conducted in Nigeria, but it is probably fair to surmise that the Islamist movement is made up of people from varied socio-economic backgrounds. There are the disillusioned souls who come from relatively wealthy families. There are many who are relatively well-educated, including university graduates. Indeed, for a person to arrive at the conclusion that society should be purged and forced to operate according to a particular Islamist ideology presupposes above average intellectual endeavour and at least enough literacy to read the Koran. Indeed, it is because religious fundamentalists tend to be thinking people who are less concerned about material wealth, that make the job of defeating them with offers of money more difficult than was the case with Niger Delta militants, many of whose leaders were easily softened by the state with offers of cash and lucrative contracts.

Boko Haram also comprises of mercenaries who fight not for the establishment of a caliphate but for the loot they can obtain from plundering. There also individuals who have been coerced into fighting, such as those who were kidnapped, given a gun and placed in a firing line where they must chose either to kill government troops and innocent civilians or be killed. For the mercenaries, zealots and the captive warriors, increasing government welfare spending in terrorism-plagued areas is unlikely to dent the militants’ recruitment capacity.

The second problem with the advice that government tackle the unrest by investing in poverty eradication and schooling is that the proponents fail to explain how such massive welfare programmes will be funded. The tendency is to assume that with better resource management, primarily through elimination of corruption, adequate amounts of money could be available to government to substantially reduce poverty and make education freely available to all. This view stems from an utterly unrealistic assessment of the fiscal positions of both the federal administration and the state governments in the insurgency affected areas.

In 2014 total federally collectable income in Nigeria was about US$60 billion, which after deductions was shared roughly 50-50 between the centre and sub-national governments. This means the nation’s 36 states received on average less than US$1 billion each. Furthermore, Lagos is the only state that internally generates substantial amounts of revenue. Most other states are almost totally reliant on federation funding, especially those in the north. For example, income generated by Borno state, home of Boko Haram, amounted to a paltry US$14 million in 2013. Kano, the richest northern state, internally generated around US$110 million, less than 5% of the amount yielded by Lagos state.

The combined overall annual revenue of all tiers of government in Nigeria amounts to around US$390 per person. This is just over a US$1 per day. The actual sum available to spend on economic and social projects is substantially less than this due to deductions for items like reinvestment in oil production and debt servicing as well as the fact that the bulk of public revenue is spent on running government.

The reality is that the scale of resources available to northern states is simply insufficient to achieve any major government-led welfare transformation, even if official corruption was somehow completely removed. Similarly, the federal government is too poor to be able to pump substantially more money into northern states without risking a dire backlash in the south where people are also struggling with poverty and inadequate education.

There is a connection between poverty and insecurity. It is not that low income renders individuals prone to engaging in murderous rebellion, but that poverty makes communities susceptible to attack because they lack the wealth to pay for effective protection. Boko Haram has been able to kidnap hundreds of schoolchildren, maim and kill thousands of poor people not because its combatants are destitute or unlearned but because their victims have had little protection from violence.

The prime purpose of the state is to protect us from each other and outsiders.  This duty should take precedence over all other considerations, including building infrastructure, alleviating poverty and expanding education. The fundamental problem in Nigeria is that states are too weak to adequately protect their citizens. This is largely because they lack the necessary resources due to low economic production by society and the fact that the small amounts of tax revenues available are spread too thinly across a wide range of expenditure. The consequence is a loss of focus on the prime purpose of the state; security of its citizens.