Tipping Point: The North cries out over economic hardship

15th February 2024

The recent wave of protests in Northern Nigeria triggered by economic hardship indicates that forbearance has limits. As residents of Northern Nigeria increasingly join the chorus of discontent over Nigeria’s economy, the potential for further unrest and calls for drastic measures looms.

On Monday, 5 February, residents of Minna, the Niger State capital in Northcentral Nigeria, took to the streets to protest the increasing expenses of food and daily life. The protesters, who were out as early as 0700 hours, blocked the Minna-Bida Road, thereby obstructing vehicular movements to and from the Niger state capital. A fresh round of protests broke out again on Wednesday, 7 February, in Suleja, the state’s commercial hub – an hour’s drive from Abuja. The furious inhabitants flooded the streets, urging the government under President Bola Tinubu to end the hardship and overwhelming inflation. They sang protest songs as security personnel, including police officers, watched the scene. Similarly, on 4 February, men, women, and youths in Kano State flooded the streets to protest against the high cost of living, urging the government to intervene as they could no longer cope. The protest came days after an earlier protest led mostly by women under the auspices of Gurasa (a local delicacy) bakers. The women’s pain point was their inability to afford the very high cost of flour. This happened at Chediyar Yangurasa in the Dala Local Government Area (LGA) of Kano State.

Prices of food items have been on a steady rise since the beginning of this year across the states in the North. Protesters say that hoarding of food items is now common in states like Kano, Katsina, Sokoto, and Zamfara. Aside from that, businessmen and traders, in collusion with merchants from Niger, go to the farmers in the villages and buy truckloads of food items and other commodities, then smuggle them out of the country through the border into Niger, then to Mali and Burkina Faso, mostly at night. The reason some farmers gave for selling to these people was that the value they get from such sales is usually a lot higher due to the Naira’s current poor value. This has further reinforced the belief that there was increased production during the last harvest season, leading to suspicion that hoarding and smuggling of food is responsible for the current food scarcity and high cost.

Notably, protests and riots are generally seen as haram in the North. Residents are routinely told by their leaders and clerics that protesting against their “son” and “brother” is prohibited and must be avoided, no matter the situation. This cultural belief played out when the spiritual leader and chairman of JIBWIS, Sheikh Sani Yahaya Jingir, alleged that 2020’s EndSARS protest was a “calculated plan to destroy the administration of President Buhari and the North in general.” Another Islamic preacher, Sheikh Musa Asadus Sunnah, had asked the Nigerian government to be brutal with EndSARS protesters to get them off the streets of major cities across the country. This mindset was the reason the North didn’t protest against President Buhari’s administration despite its unfriendly policies, which further plunged the North into poverty. His cult-like followership made sure it didn’t happen. This begs the question: What/who is behind this sudden awakening?

It appears that Kano State is currently isolated from the many security challenges facing the Northwest, particularly states bordering it. Issues of banditry, kidnapping and cattle rustling are rarely mentioned, rather electoral violence, religious protests and gang clashes. Kano residents are seen as a politically conscious set of people who are not easily dissuaded from whatever they believe in. Kano State is also known as the commercial nexus of Northern Nigeria. After Lagos, it is Nigeria’s most populous city, so any form of disturbance in the form of riots or protests—be it political, economic or even religious—in the state is seen as a precursor to more violence in the core North. There is always a high tendency for such to spread to other states in the region if it is not quickly contained. And in many cases, a “peaceful” protest does not always end up peaceful. An example of this is the #NorthisBleeding protest in December 2021.

Many residents of Northern Nigeria are not only struggling under the burden of high living costs, but they have also become increasingly vulnerable to different criminal groups. Previously considered relatively insulated from the violence associated with the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast, the Northwest region has now emerged as a major theatre of violence. Katsina State is currently facing a significant security challenge due to the activities of bandits, armed robbers, kidnappers and cattle rustlers. This situation has led to a deterioration in safety and security, with rural communities particularly affected by attacks. Attacks on schools and the abduction of students have become increasingly common, forcing many residents, including local leaders, to flee their homes for safer areas such as the state capital. Additionally, the activities of these criminal groups have resulted in the closure of major roads to vehicular traffic, further disrupting daily life in the affected areas. In all the chaos of recent years, we are yet to see the impact of the security forces reportedly deployed to the state to curb the bandits’ activities. With increasing youth unemployment and the inability to farm, these dark clouds over Katsina and other Northwest states will not go away until the authorities and critical stakeholders begin to find practical solutions that are both kinetic and non-kinetic.

A cross-section of Katsina State residents who responded to our inquiries said they were prepared and eager to take to the streets if a call is made, as they are currently experiencing the consequences of economic reforms causing negative impacts. They revealed that the Kano and Niger protests were encouraging. On Friday, 9 February, during the Juma’at prayers, the Imams called on the people to keep “praying” for the government to come up with solutions to the rising hunger and cost of living. A few outrightly blamed the government for the hardship and called on those who could assist the downtrodden. Many residents, particularly the youth, believe that prayers are no longer sufficient to address their challenges. They are advocating for more drastic measures, with some even suggesting a military intervention to combat the long-standing insecurity in the region.

On the other hand, some Kaduna residents we interviewed expressed caution and concern about the potential spread of protests across Northern states and Nigeria. They worry that the country’s current security infrastructure may be unable to manage widespread unrest and dissatisfaction successfully. A respondent, who is a civil servant, said that if President Tinubu were serious about ending this hardship, he would open up the land borders across the country, allow food imports, and restore the fuel subsidy. He emphasised that the government should refrain from politicising every issue, pointing to a recent statement from the APC that accused the opposition of funding the recent protests in certain states. He felt that this move may indicate a belief that Nigerians will accept the situation in docility.

On land borders, Nigeria is bordered to the north by Niger, to the east by Chad and Cameroon, to the south by the Gulf of Guinea, and the west by Benin. The border between Nigeria and the Republic of Niger is the longest among Nigeria’s neighbouring countries. Both countries have a strong historical background, share a common language and religion across neighbouring towns, and have been trading partners for decades. Nigeria benefits from the trade of agricultural products, particularly livestock and cattle. Aside from agricultural produce, trade from the Republic of Niger into Nigeria consists of consumer goods, manufactured food products, textiles, footwear, and mechanical and electrical appliances. In 2021, Niger exported $56.8 million to Nigeria. The main products that Niger exported to Nigeria were livestock, tropical fruits and refined petroleum. During the last 26 years, the exports of Niger to Nigeria have decreased at an annualised rate of 1.05%, from $74.8 million in 1995 to $56.8 million in 2021. In 2021, Niger did not export any services to Nigeria.

Despite the growing protests, the government’s response has not shown any serious commitment to action with the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Wale Edun, saying the skyrocketing food costs are due to demand and supply forces. An alternative perspective suggests that if the Northern region truly desired a functional country, these protests would have occurred during the Buhari administration when food costs began to increase. The timing of the protests raises questions about whether they are motivated by the current leadership’s southern regional origin. However, a prominent APC member was recently quoted as saying: “The hard reality is that these protests are logical responses to the realities facing Nigerians. If these realities continue unattended, these protests will spread like bushfire across every part of the country within a very short period. No one should be deceived, these are justifiable protests, which test the responsiveness of our party, our leaders, and above all, our democracy. APC and President Asiwaju Tinubu may wish to ignore them at their own peril.”

The growing frustration among the populace reflects a strong desire for practical solutions to the region’s pressing challenges, emphasising the need for action beyond mere prayers. While addressing the root causes of economic strain is vital, it is equally important to bolster security measures while addressing public concerns without politicising the situation. First Lady Mrs Remi Tinubu’s recent visit to Kano, where she commissioned a new Faculty of Law building at Maryam Abacha American University of Nigeria (MAAUN), named after her, has sparked various interpretations. The timing of her visit, coming a week after protests in the state, has raised questions about potential political motives, especially amid growing unrest across the country. During her visit, the Emir of Kano, HRH Aminu Ado Bayero, urged Mrs Tinubu to “tell your husband to address hunger and insecurity in Nigeria”. The emir further admitted that the twin issues of hunger and starvation did not emerge during this administration, but the situation has become more alarming and needs urgent attention. Also, while some view the Emir’s message as harsh, it is seen as a candid expression of the realities many Nigerians face.

There are speculations that Mrs Tinubu’s visit was an attempt to appease Northern residents amid rising protests and discontent, as it appears that the Kano State protest triggered that of other states. Furthermore, there is a potential for the protests to spread to other states, including Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara. Whatever it is, the Emir’s direct message to the President’s wife highlights the urgency of addressing the challenges, bearing in mind that his handlers might shield the President from the ground realities. In Bauchi and other regions grappling with economic hardships, the plight of residents underscores the widespread impact of these challenges and the need for comprehensive solutions that prioritise the welfare of all Nigerians. Ultimately, it is not just about paying courtesy visits and making bogus pronouncements, the government needs to roll its sleeves and do the real work of overcoming its current challenges and building a brighter and more prosperous future for all its citizens.