Sometime in 2019, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former minister of finance in both the Obasanjo and the Jonathan administrations, spoke of the need for federal and state governments to pay some urgent attention to the development of the rural areas. Matters are getting worse there and for the country as a whole, obviously. Did anyone need to remind our leaders that the continued neglect of the rural areas is a drag on our social and economic development? Apparently.
I have not heard our 23 presidential candidates speak of their rural development policies or programmes. I hear them speak passionately about seeking our votes to turn Nigeria from a struggling third world country into a first world country in the time it takes to spell a promise. They are not telling us how. I think any such promises not anchored on a sensible rural development policy to ensure even development can only dance in the wind. Our social and economic development paradigm remains tightly tied to making our towns and cities attractive to their dwellers. I see no signs of an early shift here. It is foolish to erect skyscrapers in the rural areas.
The downside of that has been the steady rural-urban drift. State governments are confronted with the inevitable challenges of coping with the influx of fortune seekers in the urban areas. Brigadier Mobolaji Johnson, former military governor of Lagos State, once referred to them appropriately but derisively as the Dick Whittingtons of our time. The problems of rural-urban drift are so stark that no one needs to be reminded of them. At least, not those who seek to lead this country into the better future they promise us. They should know better, much better.
The rural-urban drifters are a scourge on the urban areas. Victims of failed promises, they are forced into self-help efforts to survive. The easiest path for them is the unholy option of crimes and social deviance. Meanwhile, our rural areas are depleted; the farms are abandoned and this country with about 80 per cent arable land, is a net importer of food from even Thailand. What else is new?
The last time a Nigerian government paid any determined attention to the rural areas was in 1986 when President Ibrahim Babangida launched his ambitious Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure, better known by its acronym, DFRRI. Its basic philosophy, as the name implied, was to make life better in our rural areas – with good, all season roads to facilitate social and commercial interactions; increased food production to enable the country feed itself; potable water to end the people’s dependence on unhealthy water from the streams; rural electricity to give the rural dwellers a feel of what it means to live in the age of electricity as opposed to the age of the candle. In short, its objective was to make the rural areas so attractive to their dwellers that they could feel confident enough to seek their fortunes there and forget the fabled wealth and easy life in the urban areas. It attempted to encourage a shift in our development policy to rescue our rural areas from years of neglect.
That policy has neither been sustained nor has any of the succeeding governments thought of a similar programme to address the twin problems of rural-urban drift and the population explosion in urban areas. Here you see the face of the disarticulation in our development paradigm. The futuristic skyscrapers in our urban areas give visitors to the country a totally false impression of our national development. We are still trudging wearily along the foot path towards the skyscrapers of modern development.
In the last decade or so, a good number of other developing countries have applied the wisdom of rural development in fashioning their national development policies. The results in those countries have been phenomenal. President Jerry Rawlings did for Ghana what Babangida tried to do for Nigeria. The country’s rural development is now an integral part of its national development. India, Brazil and China have similarly put in place policies and programmes for even development of both the urban and the rural areas. One can appreciate their emphasis on rural roads as an acknowledgement of the wisdom of the Roman dictum that civilisation follows the roads.
Nigerian leaders do not need anyone to make them see that so long as the rural areas are condemned to under-development, so long will our national development efforts suffer the pangs of continued failure, no matter how loudly the skyscrapers paint a false picture of our national progress. No one need be told that our country is paying a stiff price for the grievous sin of developing our urban areas at the expense of our rural areas.
Any one, even without, eyes can see that. Nigeria was pushed to its current status as the poverty capital of the world because most of the 86.9 million officially certified poor people in the country live in the rural areas. No surprise there. The bulk of our 198 million people still live there. There can be no appreciable effect on our frightening unemployment without our governments taking on the challenges of rescuing our rural areas. Most of the unemployed, some 55.4 per cent of the population, are bracketed in the active age group of between 15 and 34 years, according to the latest unemployment figures from the National Bureau of Statistics.
The irony of the neglect of the rural areas is, perhaps, the mother of all ironies. We have 774 local government areas in the country. The wisdom in that third tier of government is to bring government closer to where it matters most – the rural areas. With so many governments closer to the people, why does the neglect of the rural areas still persist to the detriment of our rapid national development? The simple answer is that our local government system is dysfunctional and has been deliberately made so by those who should know better than shoot our country in the foot.
That question takes us back to an issue we have stubbornly refused to address, namely, the place of the local government system in governance and national development. The local governments are gratuitously referred to as the third tier of government in the country. In truth, they are nothing of the sort. Their capacity to drive development at the grassroots level is effectively impaired by the fact that each state governor is allowed to do what he will with his local government funds. The local government councils do not receive their allotted shares from the federation account because the governors corner them through the local government joint accounts controlled and administered by the state governments. The local governments receive a pittance, enough to make the local government chairmen feel like important people in government.
In the Obasanjo administration, Okonjo-Iweala, aware that the state governors were stealing the local government shares, tried to stop them by publishing the shares of the three tiers of government from the federation account each month in our newspapers and magazines. Of course, it did not stop the governors from doing what they would with the local government fund. In places where the people have a tradition of holding their leaders accountable, the minister armed the people with the right information to demand accountability from their state governors and local government chairmen. But this, as we like to say, is Nigeria.
We cannot go on like this. Something must give. The continued absence of a pragmatic and focused rural development policy is inimical to our national development. For one, the rural-urban drift would continue unchecked. And for another, we would only sink further in our level of poverty. Okonjo-Iweala has sounded the wake up call. Our politicians should quit pretending to be deaf to it. We could do without a utopia. We cannot do without our rural development.
(Note: This column was first published on January 25, 2019).
Agbese can be reached via Email: [email protected],
SMS & phone: 08055001912