The raging controversy over President Muhammadu Buhari’s directive to the World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, to concentrate the institution’s economic development efforts in Nigeria on the Northern part of the country boldly underscores the widespread mistrust and disaffection among the country’s geo-political zones. The traction which the directive gained in the public space and the anger it elicited in some parts of the country are affirmations of the fact that Nigerians hardly see the country as one.
This unhealthy scenario is, unfortunately, a fallout of the widespread belief that the Federal Government has been unduly partial to the northern part of the country, where President Buhari hails from, with regard to political appointments and the siting of projects. The president must, therefore, be careful to avoid statements and actions that portray him as placing the interest of the North above those of the rest of the country, as he is the president of the entire country. Nigerians must also be nationalistic, less ethno-centric, and empathetic on the devastation of the North-East by the Boko Haram terrorist group, which has attracted aid and special interventions from even other parts of the world.
Although presidential aides have said that Buhari’s directive to the World Bank chief was “twisted”, we believe that the president probably uttered the statement on account of the massive destruction of public facilities in some parts of the North by the Boko Haram insurgents. It is unfortunate that the statement was widely understood as calling for special attention to the entire northern geopolitical zones at the expense of the southern parts of the country.
The said directive was reportedly issued at a July 2015 meeting with the World Bank chief in Washington DC, in the United States, with about six state governors in attendance. Some of these personalities have since come out to assert that Buhari’s good intention for the rehabilitation of the beleaguered North-East region was taken out of context. In any case, a follow-up meeting in 2016 which involved the representatives of the World Bank, European Union and the Office of the Vice President in a Recovery and Peace Building Assessment Report on the six states affected the most by the Boko Haram insurgency found that public and private infrastructure and estates were devastated to the tune of nine billion dollars.
The urgent need to rehabilitate the ravaged parts of the North-east is not in doubt, but what many were ready to question was the wisdom in a presidential directive to develop a section of the country to the exclusion of others. This is where the controversy becomes needless, or at least avoidable. The President, as the “father of the nation,” is unlikely to have intended that the North should be developed to the exclusion of other parts of the country. If anyone holding such a high office were even to give such a directive, it would be difficult to execute, given the checks and balances of our democracy.
It would, perhaps, be useful to recall that the president’s first official visit after his inauguration was to Cross River State to launch the Calabar trans-national highway, which off-shoot resulted in the assignment by the same President Buhari of a Project Advisor for the Bakassi Deep Sea Port project. The implications of the project are vast for the economy of the particular state and the entire South-south region.
While it is, indeed, true that the Boko Haram insurgency left most of the North-east region with economic and human devastation the magnitude of which still daunts the mind, other regions of the country, especially the South-east and the South-south, have their own tales of woe. The former, with its environmental challenges and the adverse effects of the civil war, still reels in neglect and requires the equivalent of a Marshall Plan to resuscitate it. The South-south region, too, requires no less, given the harrowing history of oil exploitation and the telltale damage to human and environmental life.
So, while the President is right to draw the attention of the World Bank and other such development institutions and partners to the urgent situation in the North-east, the rest of the country has a right, too, to be included in the scheme of things. And the President must oblige them.
We believe that the president is aware of this heavy burden that he bears and must seek ways to communicate it appropriately at all times. He must go beyond mere platitudes to swift actions that eloquently communicate this. Our nation tends to be perpetually on the brink and the bonds that hold us together are fragile. A wise leader would be mindful of these fault lines, and find a way to deftly navigate the labyrinthine challenges to our unity.