I am not here, as what some of you might assume me to be, an elite coming from Abuja to lecture you on a prevalent social ill that you all know of, probably more than I do. I do not belong to that intellectual elite class, I was and I remain a poor Azare boy. I am not here as a public servant coming to white wash the situation to make any one in High Places feel happy that perhaps we don’t have a problem. It has never been in my character to substitute the interests of my people for personal aggrandizement. I am here today as a worried individual, as an angry son of Katagum and a very concerned servant of the people of Bauchi State and Nigeria as a whole. I am here with a message that is very dear to my heart. The message is that time is running out for us.
Time is running out for us to find a solution to the ravaging menace of the conditions that are leading many of our youth to turn to drug abuse in search for a meaning to their lives. Time is running out for us to tame the spate of insurgency and banditry that is moving like the harmattan wind and sweeping over our land. Time is running out for us to come out of the cubicle of being the poverty capital of the world, and embrace the shining light of bountiful prosperity that our God given potentials entail. Time is running out for our people in the north to occupy a respective position as citizens of this country with something meaningful to contribute than just being the factories of insecurity and poverty.
Time is running out for us if we don’t address the rampaging evil of street children in our society who will eventually be the incubators of every crisis that bedevil the society in the future. As a philosopher once said, if things are calm, time goes, if there is a crisis time goes, if there is calm and crisis, time just continues to go. And for us, time is not just going, but time is already running out and it is not going to wait for you or for me to get ready to fix our houses. The despicable situation of seeing millions of street children in the north signifies a gathering critical mass of impending explosion that will give birth to, unmanageable poverty and unending insecurity in our society. We are surrounded by an ocean of unquantifiable potentiality of destruction which if the waters are not channelled to useful purpose, they will one day explode with destructive consequences.
Today, the statistics, which needs not to be told, as the evidence confronts each and every one of us, everywhere we go, is still deeply scary. There are an estimated 11 million street kids in the north. That means if you can gather all the street kids in the north, they can form the seventh largest country in Africa. What a calamity. Some of us here are under 50, and some like me approaching the 50 age mark. For some of us, we can see how drastically our society has deteriorated just in the last 20 years since the democratic rule came into place.
In the last twenty years, from 1999 to date, we have seen a lot of physical changes in our towns and cities which was accompanied by high increase in population but apparently very little gain in human development. During the last twenty years, Nigeria has not made any significant improvement in revenue generation, oil has remained perhaps our sole source of revenue. This is a clear testimony that our leaders are more adept at spending than creating wealth. And we were lucky, that the volatility of oil prices did favour us. We gained huge, indeed unprecedented revenue from oil. At a time we were selling a barrel at over 100 dollars and lifting over 2 million barrels of oil daily. It meant greater money to the coffers of our government at federal and state levels.
Even now that oil has fallen to sometimes below 60 dollars a barrel, which is being used as an excuse for non performance by some of our executives; we should remember this was something we only prayed to have years back. Even at 50 dollars a barrel the revenue that is to accrue to government should be meaningful enough to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of our people. But alas, either by design or default, if I should borrow a word from the dynamic General Murtala Mohamed, Nigerian leaders have failed to meet up to the legitimate aspirations of this generation, the last generation and even future generations to come.
Because as revenue increased to the coffers of government, and more beautiful cars are being driven by our chief executives, more beautiful edifices are coming up with tremendous renovation costs, at the same period poverty has more than doubled. It’s so bad that people no longer celebrate any news of rising oil prices, because it is not reflective of what will happen to them. A few months back, the news was announced of oil find in Bauchi, something that would have elicited wide celebrations years ago when we were kids, but today is accepted with gloomy feelings. No one feels we have a resources problem or that more revenue to the government would improve our lives.
So, it cannot be a problem of lack of resources. It is a function of lack of focus and priority. Investing in the people of Nigeria in the human development indices column, has not been high on the list of priority of the Nigerian leadership in the past 20 years. Why am I talking of the last 20 years? First, I can see that more than half of Nigerian youths who are soon to handle the mantle of leadership fall within this group. Many Nigerians, perhaps a majority of us, do not know what the June 12 crisis was or a coup speech, because they were not born in that era.
Secondly, before the last twenty years, I and many of those in high places today, attended good public schools, I did my primary school here in Nasarawa West and later went to FGC Azare. I am a complete public school product. We didn’t know what was private school for the high and mighty and public schools for the poor back then, because we had a system that catered for all of us. These schools were funded by the government. We had children of the richest people in Bauchi, children of Governors, civil servants and even those whose parents had little to afford all coming together under one roof. All of us were taken under the care of an organized system and educated without any or little expense to our parents. Our generation and that of our leaders are all beneficiaries of this system.
Children in the past missed quality education not because they could not afford to pay school fees, but because they might not have wanted to go to school, but today it’s different. The same people that have benefited and enjoyed a workable system, are today presiding over a system that alienates and discriminates against the majority of its people who are in the lower class.
So it is not as if we don’t know what is right or wrong or good and bad, or what we need to give to our people to improve their lives and their future. We all know. We just have a different priority today that says, it is no more for we the people, but it’s for me, myself and mine. If some of us that are leaders today were born in this period of our national life, they might never have attained the height they reached in life or make the contributions they are making.
Today nearly 80 percent of our population are living below the poverty line. What that word below poverty line means, is that they cannot live in decent homes or afford to eat more than one meal a day. They cannot feed even on the proverbial 30 naira a plate that is available in Kano. They cannot afford healthcare. In Nigeria, a decent home means where the roof does not leak and the public latrines do not leak. The streets have become the home to many, and especially children and old women while the luckier ones share spaces in single compartments like fish packed in tracks.
We remember the days that General Abacha called government hospitals mere consulting clinics, today medical consultation is not even available to many of our people. You see children that are 12 years looking like 6 years old children because of malnutrition. Recently I read in the papers that the member of the Kano Emirate Committee on Health Development Mallam Dayyabu Mohammed, said 46 percent of the children in Kano are lacking nutritional requirement. We all know the situation in Kano is reflective of that in other northern states. Parents now take the best option of escaping responsibility of raising children by sending these children to the street to beg under the guise of seeking koranic education.
The picture being painted by the World Bank is telling us that it is not going to get better for us, if you check the statements of the Apex Bank, Nigeria has moved from advice to warning. The Bank has warned that in ten years-time, if we continue with the focus of the last twenty years, Nigeria will have the honor of accommodating over 25 percent of the total poor people in the world, all packed in one country, in other words we shall improve on our title of being the poverty capital of the world.
If you can accuse us of anything in the north, you cannot accuse us of not producing children. And with it comes all the challenges of population and poverty explosion. It is projected that Nigeria’s population will be about 400m in 2030 and approaching 500m, in 2050, which will make it the third largest country after India and China. And most of these people will be from the north, and most will come out from the children we have left in the streets, without education, without skills training or any equipment to fend for themselves outside crime.
In the north, we talk of only agriculture as an escape route from poverty, which is not even mechanized. Most of these street kids as they grow malnourished and undisciplined cannot bear the rigours of labour that farming demands. They will prefer to join the swarm of criminals, or seek refuge under extremism and violence as their lives fail to have meaning in a rapidly modernizing world. They will have nothing to look to and nothing to fear losing. With about 60 percent of population under 15 years of age, without school or skills training and growing to be largely unemployed and unemployable, we don’t need a clairvoyant to see the disaster waiting to happen.
As James Baldwin, the famous African American writer, would say, ‘the most dangerous person in any society is someone who has nothing more to lose’. And we have seen that with the Boko Haram crises, where these extremists as soon as they were driven out of the cities and declared legitimate targets for our military, they cease to have anything to lose or fear. The result is what we are seeing today- they have been fighting us for over ten years. From misguided youths running from tear gas, they have evolved to hardened terrorists driving military tanks and shooting down planes. It would appear that we are now busy producing more of these people for the future crisis, in their large numbers daily, making our society more dangerous by the day.
This situation was formerly confined to the North East because of the spate of religious extremism ravaging there, but where are you safe today? So it is not a problem of extremist ideology but that of poverty. JF Kennedy, one time President of the United States once said, if a society cannot provide for the many that are poor, it cannot protect the few that are rich. Are those that made themselves the few rich safe now? Even those that appear to be rich after saving hard for years to enjoy a new car are not safe. If you have the best cars you are afraid to drive them and many elected officials cannot even travel to their constituencies. It was so bad that military Generals avoid going by road from one city to another even with large retinue of guards, and part of the reasons for this problem is to a very high degree, the millions of children we have thrown to the streets who in the next ten years, will make sure we have no peace.
As the sage Chief Awolowo once said, the children of the poor people we have failed to train today will not allow our children to have peace tomorrow. Nothing more should make us know that there will not be peace for our children in those expensive private schools. It would be better we secure their futures now by taking the millions we are using to train them in those expensive schools and put it in public schools and train everyone. That is how we can secure a peaceful life for them.
Our problems can only be made worse by the fact that our population growth, which is about 3 per cent has exceeded our economic growth which is less than 2 percent, an alarming fact because this population growth is mostly unproductive. Our Population is increasing daily with children and not adults. The increase will be seen in more street children as we have made the streets a natural nursery school for millions of our children. This only means that we shall continue to slip into poverty with every passing day. When you hear such huge population growth happening, know that it is not growing in homes of the elites but rather in the poor slums, the unschooled. The dangers of this trajectory are clearly seen in the number of homeless or discarded children roaming the streets.
Our biggest challenge is that we are yet to identify our real challenges as a people. Our challenge is not to come out on top in an assumed competition between the north and south, or Christians against Muslims as the misguidance of wrong politicking and indoctrination has inculcated in some of us. Unfortunately, these self defeating opinions are often expressed even among the most educated of us that should know better. Our struggle is against hunger and against under development and against the endemic poverty ravaging our land and pushing millions of our vulnerable children to be beggars in the streets. As long as we allow these serious crises to ravage us, no one is going to even bother with us as we are left to wallow in our misery. Jumping up and down and even killing each other in celebration of someone from our part of the country winning an election can and has never been of any value to us. If that was the solution to our predicament we won’t be in here talking about these issues today.
I must have bored you with all these lamentations and recanting of our sad situation. It is said that it is solutions and not whining that brings relief or solutions to a problem. Then what is the solution? There are so many of them. But I really don’t think I need to bring a barrage of opinions as solutions, which have been over flogged over time and one can find easily in many of our libraries lying under dust. I just want us to take one lesson from the words of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the dynamic Independence Prime Minister of Singapore, who said that it is people and not a system that makes things work. Whatever system you have in place, you need good and the right people to make it functional.
Today we have a political system in Nigeria that was hijacked completely twenty years ago and precisely in 1999. If you think the political parties will bring out the candidates that are for you, then you are mistaken. And once the leadership is not pro-people, the tendency is they will only protect their interests and not that of the people and by extension bequeathing a legacy of dislocation in the society. In 1999, a lot of intellectuals, people of repute and integrity, most of whom were in businesses or public service, did not take the promise of the Military to hand over power seriously. They were more reminded of the failed promises of the military to leave the political turf and so they did not bring themselves out when the whistle was blown. The stage thus was left for political speculators and profiteers.
The situation was further compounded by the Constitution the military left in 1999, which started with the en-grained words, We the People, but ended up removing all powers from the people and handing it squarely into the hands of these state executives. From a background in which they were not exposed to ethical and financial discipline, these set of power grabbers empowered with state and local government revenue went on a looting spree. The once proud civil service that our parents served in, that was used to create the condition we all benefited from as children, was a great victim of this political misadventure. We all knew what it meant to be a commissioner in a state or Permanent Secretary in a ministry in the past.
Some years back, I read a story of a driver to a politician who barely went through school being appointed a commissioner in a ministry when his principal won the gubernatorial elections. Is this the kind of situation that can give birth to a solution or add to our problems? When the first set of political players entered the door to power in 1999, they closed it against any other group. They amassed enough wealth to become perpetual godfathers and monetized the political process out of the reach of those outside the field. In 2003, President Obasanjo said the money spent by politicians on elections could execute a successful war. So the only war in the minds of these political parties is the war to win elections, not the war against poverty or a war to create a future for the millions of our children. The battle is not to attend to societal problems but to keep amassing wealth for future elections.
This situation was aptly captured by the Noble Laureate, Wole Soyinka who described this process and I quote “The vicious circle of political power in Nigeria is guaranteed perpetuity to steal, and then use the proceeds to return to power. Use power to steal some more, use the increased proceeds to return to power, then again and so on and on until society is battered into a permanent state of stupor “. Yes we, the ordinary people, to whom the government is for, are now in state of Stupor- I don’t know if we are ready to make it a permanent situation. We are in a state of stupor, because we are completely shielded from the political process by the monetization of party politics.
Party politics in Nigeria is tele guided by selfish interests where picking a party ticket becomes a cash and carry. Before you even go to the ballots, the coup has been executed against the wishes of the people. If the parties lack internal democracy how can they give birth to democratic dividends? How can they give you the candidates that are for you? And it is okay to say that, today our politics is not for the right people. The right people don’t have the money to bribe party delegates. They don’t have money to hire thugs to beat up people and seize ballot boxes. Therefore the right people cannot come out as candidates of any political party. Let’s create a process of electing/nominating leaders that care, with foresight, who will strive to bring back our lost glory and value system.
This article was culled from a Paper Presented By Mohammed Bello Mustapha On The State Of Street Children And Its General Implications On The Future Of The Society At Garba Gadi Foundation Lecture On Sunday 29/12/2019.