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Feature Article of Saturday, 15 September 2012

Columnist: Yahaya, Moses K.

West African governments ignore their northern regions

.......with dire consequences

Moses K. Yahaya

The widely circulated notion that development in the northern region of Ghana is stymied by sporadic violence is embarrassingly naïve; there is more to it than meets the eye. You see, several years ago, an insightful and thought provoking article in the Financial Times of London piqued my interest because of its prescient message; the writer lamented the profound lack of development in the northern regions of West Africa and warned ominously that if the central governments in the region did not adequately address glaring inequities, discontent among the population would lead to open rebellion.

Recent events in the region have, sadly, confirmed the writer’s dire prediction; Bokom Haram is terrorizing residents of northern Nigeria and the Tuaregs are openly defying authorities in Mali and Niger. In the Ivory Coast, our closest neighbor, the northern region was embroiled in a destabilizing and vicious turmoil with their southern compatriots. The contagion, nice to note, is yet to spread to northern Ghana where similar conditions of grinding poverty and dearth of economic opportunities abound.

These events certainly are not occurring in a vacuum. They are sparked by the benign neglect. It is common knowledge that there has been a systemic and deliberate marginalization of the northern regions of West Africa beginning with colonial rule and shamefully continuing with post-independence African governments. Like their colonial predecessors, modern West African governments demonstrate little appetite for large scale, robust development in their northern regions. But as the Financial Times article warned, they neglect the northern regions at their own peril.

Some see the troubles in northern Nigeria, Mali and Niger as Islamic influenced upheavals. This view is wrongheaded and vastly misleading; it has had the detrimental effect of influencing governments to act less strenuously to provide concrete solutions to the economic and social problems plaguing the regions. There is an economic and financial component to the uprisings that is neither discussed nor analyzed at length. Bokom Haram and the Tuaregs are motley collections of disgruntled and unemployed young men whose religious bona fides are none too stringent; they are not the pious, Al- Qaeda wannabes as some would want us to believe.

Rather, they are a neglected segment of the population whose needs for education, good healthcare and education are sparsely met by central authorities in their countries. They therefore cloak their words and dastardly deeds in religion and we take the bait and brand them as such.

You would think that the events in Nigeria, Niger and Mali would scare or better still, nudge Ghanaian administrations to seriously think about accelerating progress in the northern regions. All approaches to development issues in the regions have been half-hearted. Yes, some efforts have doubtlessly been made to create opportunities for the regions to advance economically, but the fact still remains that residents suffer disproportionately from high levels of unemployment and poverty than their southern compatriots.

Ghana is currently awash in foreign direct investments; the Chinese, Europeans and South Americans are thronging the country in search of opportunities. But a small amount of these investments trickle down to the northern regions. Instead of spreading the wealth around as the saying goes, foreign investors, like foreign tourists are deliberately kept away from the regions for reasons that are steeped in ignorance and fear. It is a sad commentary on how little things have changed.

The northern regions will not explode a la Mali, Niger or Northern Nigeria. There is too much at stake…national integrity and regional unity…. for the perennially unemployed youth of the regions to even contemplate doing anything remotely akin to what we are seeing in our neighbors’ backyards. But their patience can wear thin..

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