How jobs, stronger economy can unite Nigerians, stem sectarian strife

Atiku Abubakar

By Atiku Abubakar

Over the last few months, our nation has had to reopen a fresh chapter in the conversation on internal security, peace and unity in the wake of renewed violence in the North Central and North East of our country. These sad episodes have not only led to questions by Nigerians (and Nigerians as a whole) around the effectiveness of our security structure, but also questions about the integrity of Nigeria’s unity.

Unity is not something we just have because we are Nigerians, or because someone like me or any other weighs in asking Nigerians to be united. Unity is something we must deliberately work for. In order to unite Nigeria, me must consciously define the fundamentals of our nationhood, to ensure everyone feels safe, secure and carried along.

To build a truly united nation, we must address the issues which lead to insecurity at their roots. We must pay more than lip service to “poverty alleviation”, and truly get Nigerians working again. A person who has a job has less time for ethnic bickering.

Let truth be told, the people in the upper classes of our country rarely engage with each other with ethnicity in mind. When people have food to eat, they are less suspicious of each other and begin to focus on creating value. People who have food to eat and good homes to live in do not worry about the ethnicity of their business partners or co-workers. They are more worried about what value their business partners bring, rather than where those partners come from.

There is this joke which I get to hear often – when a small car hits another small car, the drivers come out to shout, because they don’t know which of them has money to fix the damage, but when two big cars hit themselves, the big men come out, shake hands and exchange cards. As people get better quality of life, they begin to place more value on life and wellbeing of others. This obviously means that if our people have better lives all-round, there will be fewer suspicion and confrontations between groups of people.

Now let me share a bit of experience with building unity. I come from Adamawa State, made up of almost an equal number of Christians and Muslims, Fulani and disparate people’s collectively called Chamba. In many ways, Adamawa is like Nigeria. I grew up as a Fulani boy. My grandmother and uncle were tradespeople, so it was not uncommon to have a lot of Christians and people of different ethnicities and religions in our home. Our neighbours were Christian and Muslim, so I grew up really not exposed to tribalism until I went to secondary school. There were two sociopolitical organizations then, one for Chamba people and the other for Fulani. I was a popular student, so was promptly invited to join the Fulani organization.

But privately I had been speaking with both my Fulani and Chamba friends about unifying both organizations before the invitation came, so it was difficult for me to go and join the Fulani organization. I publicly refused to join the organization, and instead worked with both sides to create the Adamawa Students Union, an umbrella union which collapsed both the Chamba and Fulani organizations into one.

This was the inspiration which would later lead to the creation of the Adamawa Peace Initiative, a non-governmental organization which brings together all the stakeholders in our state to work for peaceful coexistence. The API brings together scholars, clerics, youth, market women, businesspeople (many of whom are of Igbo extraction), representatives of security organizations, and co-chaired by Muslim and Christian leaders. This organization helps defuse conflicts in Adamawa communities, organizes entrepreneurship classes and sports events for young people, as well as coordinates relief projects whenever and wherever the need arises in Adamawa. API was the first organization to coordinate the absorption of internal displaced people from around the North East into Yola and surrounding towns.

A few years ago, the API heard rumours that certain groups were spreading fake news that another group was planning attacks on the other from out of state. The organization quickly got together, assembled both Christian and Muslim leaders to address the issue. That Friday, the imams around the state had been briefed to speak about the issue to reduce tension, while the Christian churches did same on Sunday. Crisis was averted. This has been the template with which API has addressed issues since then.

The experience here shows that building peace and unity goes beyond goodwill messages. We should not be in denial about the weaknesses in our communities. We must actively pursue peace and unity by coordinating grassroots organizations. Fake news did not begin on the internet – rumours have led to unfortunate incidents of bloodshed in our communities around Nigeria. Inter-group grassroots organizations can provide a trustworthy partner in keeping everyone assured of their safety.

But the tasks of NGOs like API are only secondary. The primary needs of Nigerian communities are jobs and opportunities to build sustainable ventures. Our economy needs to grow to accommodate the population which has been growing faster than our GDP.

I was having a conversation about Nigeria’s population growth rate, and a friend of mine joked that I am probably not the right person to have this conversation with, seeing as I have a really large family. This is true in many ways. Many people in my generation grew up in large families, it was all we knew, but must we continue in what we knew, in the face of new information and reality? It is also often the case that the elite families can afford to train their children, so large families become a resource, but the reverse is the case with poorer families. It is easy to see how income inequality will grow even wider as our population grows further, especially in rural communities.

For the avoidance of doubt, there’s nothing wrong with huge population. It can indeed be an asset if properly harnessed, especially in situations where the citizens are exposed to good education and skills, ensuring that they get a head start in life, like it is the case with China. The challenge however is where population growth far outstrips GDP growth as is currently the case with our country. In this instance population becomes a liability by default.

It is important that we grow our economy at a rate to cope with our population growth. Our current population growth of 3 per cent when compared with our GDP growth of 1 per cent in 2017 and the expected 2.5 per cent in 2018, will see us ending up with a lower per capita income and becoming even poorer at the end of 2018. Our GDP growth needs to outpace our population growth to make the latter an asset and not a liability.

As a father (and one with a large family) on one hand and a promoter of education on the other, I will counsel that on a scale of balance that parents have children that they can train to acquire good education and skills that will give them a head start in life and make them productive members of society.

An alumnus of American University of Nigeria, Mr. Muhammed Zanna is a daily reminder of the nexus between education and job creation. The young man could not wait to graduate before venturing into the entrepreneurial world. He bought over a business that had served as a practical for their business management class. Today, the young man runs a personal business, a testimony that education can indeed be a tool for creating small businesses. The Zanna experience, incubated at AUN in Yola, is an apt reminder that when our young people are taught how to create small businesses, their creative energies are unleashed to the betterment of the individual, our economy and society.

Atiku Abubakar is a former Vice President of Nigeria and PDP chieftain.