The license-plate slogan that Yobe State cherished about itself when it was created 21 years ago was: “The Young Shall Grow.” This simple yet pithy catchphrase captures the deep, incipient thirst for growth and development that informed the agitation for Yobe State’s creation from old the Borno State in August 1991. But with what seems like the persistence of Boko Haram violence in northeastern Nigeria, can the young Yobe State really grow? Is the social soil of Yobe still fertile for growth?
The answer, oddly, is yes. I will explain why shortly.But, first, Yobe State’s desire for development, beautifully encapsulated in its former number-plate catchword, which has now been changed to ‘Pride of the Sahel’, isn’t mere sloganeering; it was rooted in the painful reality that, for many years, the part of Nigeria that constitutes Yobe State had been stuck in the infancy of development amidst huge potential.Few states in Nigeria come even close to Yobe State in terms of natural resource endowment. To give just a few examples, the state is blessed with enormous landmass, large quantities of gypsum, kaolin, limestone, diatomite, granites, silica, potassium, soda ash, rice, wheat, maize, beans, cotton, corn, groundnut, gum Arabic, and livestock.
That means smart investors can exploit these untapped resources to build money-spinning industrial outposts that dealin adhesive and pharmaceutical products, in cement, glass, Plaster of Paris, soap, flour and feed mills, textiles, leather and meat processing. The conventional wisdom among watchers of Yobe State politics is that, although Governor Ibrahim Gaidam is working harder than any of his predecessors to lay the grounds to attract local and foreign investors in the state, his efforts appear undermined by the Boko Haram crisis in the state. But conventional wisdom isn’t always right. Yobe could—in fact, will— still live up to its dreams to grow beyond the imagination of its founding fathers.
It may seem counterintuitive, even cruel, to make claims that any society can develop under conditions of violence and crisis. Any crisis that results in the loss of lives is certainly condemnable, and my intention is never to minimize or celebrate crisis. However, given my disciplinary background in development studies and my intimate familiarity with Yobe State and its people, I am compelled to share some thoughts on development especially as it relates to societal chaos.
Ironically, the history of the progress of societies shows that sometimes growth picks up and peaks under conditions of crisis.Professor Gary Gerstle, in his well-received book titled, “American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century,”makes this point very well using the American context. He argues that terrible as crisis, violence, and tension are, they can also be regenerative in a perverse way. In the dislocation that crisis creates, limits are set, bonds are deepened among frightened citizens, and paradoxically, development can set in. America, he pointed out, solidified its nationalism—and growth—during its Civil War and during the Vietnam War.
Naomi Klein’s influential book titled “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” also makes the persuasive argument that in the last 30 years, developmental expansion (of course, in the interest of capitalism) in many countries took place while citizens in those countries were struggling to respond to crisis and communal upheavals. For instance, Argentina rapidly industrialized in 1982 during the Falklands War between it and the United Kingdom. And Margaret Thatcher’s government used the period of the war to push through many economic policies. The war also created patriotic sentiments in both countries in much the same way that the Boko Haram crisis is causing many citizens of Yobe State—whether upper class or lower-class— to set aside their differences and bond together to loathe, detest and fight a common, bloodthirsty enemy: Boko Haram.
Chile, Bolivia, Poland, the Asian Tigers, and many other economies too numerous to mention developed under conditions of crisis. Now, let me be clear: the point of giving international examples of societies that recorded unprecedented growth under conditions of crisis is NOT to celebrate violence or crisis, but to point out a pattern in other parts of the world and to make the point that Yobe State’s desire for growth (and the Governor’s effort in that direction) in spite of what has become its fate in the past months isn’t misplaced.
For one, Boko Haram’s menace isn’t permanent. It would fizzle out at some point—the same way the Maitatsine crisis fizzled out in Kano, etc. As the old wisdom goes, the only permanent thing in life is change. Second, media reports of the crisis in Yobe State, as people who live there can readily testify, are grossly exaggerated. Yes, there are episodic eruptions of crisis in the state; it would be escapist to deny that.But the intensity and casualty figures are often “sexed up” for any number of reasons ranging from plain old media sensationalism, the politically motivated editorial choices of some newspapers, and the machinations of political opponents of the current governor who think they stand to benefit from pushing the idea that the state is enveloped in perpetual turmoil.
But, most importantly, Governor Ibrahim Gaidam appears singularly committed to not only neutralizing and containingthe Boko Haram menace; he is also committed to putting in place projects that will make Yobe State the pride of its people and a haven for investors in spite of the state’s current challenges. For instance, the Governor is building a multi-million-naira Yobe Investment House in Abuja’s business district to serve as a hub for local and foreign investors seeking to take advantage of the state’s vast natural resources. Abuja is the window through which the rest of the world takes a peep at Nigeria. So what better place to build an investment house than at Abuja’s business centre?
Additionally, most of the state’s urban centers and many rural areas now have access to good roads. And, as an official policy, the current administration has eased the process of land acquisition for industrial and commercial purposes. Applications for land meant for commercial and industrial investment get priority attention. The government has also initiated a policy of granting a five-year tax holiday to first-time investors in the state, among many other investment-friendly policies.
As I stated earlier, the point of this essay is not to suggest that there is virtue in crisis or violent communal upheavals. Anybody who has lost a loved one to senseless violence will tell you that.Nor am I in any way saying that development takes place only under conditions of crisis. My whole point is that a simplistic attitude to crisis can blind people to untapped potential, such as currently exist in Yobe State. People who are leaving— or planning on leaving— the state or who are staying away from the state either because of the current strains the state is going through or because of unflattering, often factually inaccurate, media portrayals of the state of security inYobe may be losing out. And that point will come out in bold relief in the not too distant future. Yobe State’s current self-description as the “pride of the Sahel” isn’t vain; it’s anchored not only on the solidity of the state’s present but also in the realness of the possibilities of its future.
Dr. Abdulkarim, a development studies scholar, lives in Abuja.