The Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has said that the federal government has adopted a three-pronged approach to ensure the safety and security of lives and property particularly in the North-east states where Boko Haram attacks have been prevalent.
Making this known yesterday in London when she briefed the British parliament on the Safe Schools Initiative, the minister said: “We are taking a three-pronged approach to dealing with the various dimensions of crisis, and this includes security, political and economic solutions.
“On the security front, our military men and women are confronting an unprecedented challenge that they were not really trained to confront and so we thank them for their courage and bravery. The President, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, has increased the number of troops that are in the North-east from 15,000 to 20,000.
“Regional cooperation on security has gotten better following a decision by neighbouring countries: Chad, Cameroun, Benin, and Niger, to each contribute a battalion of soldiers, to fight Boko Haram alongside Nigeria.
“President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan has accepted offers from the international community for more surveillance, aircraft cover, and equipment that enhances our ability to locate, fight and root out insurgents.”
These efforts, she assured the UK parliament, were beginning to make a difference, intimating them that Nigeria’s security forces busted a Boko Haram intelligence unit only two days ago.
“More of these counter-insurgency actions will be forthcoming. We are prepared to do whatever is necessary today, tomorrow and in the future to secure the country,” she added.
“On the political front, we are working with state governments, traditional and religious leaders within the most affected regions of the country, to encourage dialogue with the sect.
“The president set up a Dialogue Committee that is working behind the scenes and also a fact finding committee on the Chibok girls in particular.
“And finally on the economic front, given some linkages between the insurgency and high youth unemployment, we are trying various schemes to assist the youth in the region where possible.
“Using monies from our Subsidy Reinvestment Programme (SURE-P), we are implementing a Community Services Scheme that engages the youth in public works (we have so far recruited 11,500 youth into this programme – 4000 in Borno, 3500 in Adamawa and 4000 in Yobe State).
“We also have YouWin, which is supporting hundreds of young entrepreneurs with grants so they can start up a business or expand existing ones to create jobs for their fellow youth.
“Over the longer term, the government will vigorously pursue economic empowerment in the region through a Presidential Initiative for the North East (PINE) which is currently being developed,” the minister said.
She, however, told the British legislators that the president had instructed her to work with the international community, led by former British Prime Minister and UN Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, and the Nigerian business community, led by the Chairman of the Dangote Group, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, and President of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) and Chairman/Editor-in-Chief of THISDAY Newspapers, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, in an initiative to make our schools safer.
“Every child is special, every child precious, every child unique. While we will never give up on the effort to locate the Chibok girls, we must also assure parents, pupils and teachers that schools are safe. Children and teachers must be again free to go to school unharmed and unafraid.
“So the Safe Schools Initiative is designed as a nationwide intervention programmes that will prioritise schools in states under emergency rule like Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe.
“To this effect, the Nigerian private sector has set aside US$10 million for this initiative and the Nigerian government has immediately matched that with another US$10 million.
“We are aiming for a fund of US$100 million and we have received indications of support from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, DFID, and the Norwegian and German Governments towards the initiative,” she stated.
Okonjo-Iweala stressed that schools must never be instruments of war, nor battlefields for terror campaigns, noting: “While we do not aim to turn our schools into fortresses, the Safe Schools Initiative will rely on needs assessments to deploy measures that will either upgrade existing security systems in schools or put in place new systems where they currently do not exist.
“These measures could range from the basic, such as perimeter fences, toilet facilities for girls, use of fire retardant materials in reconstructing schools, housing for teachers, community policing and school guards, to more sophisticated measures like alarm systems, communication equipment, and solar power panels to ensure schools are well lit,
"Whatever needs to be done to make all our schools safer and more secure we will consider. We will work with state governors, community leaders, teachers and parents to achieve the objectives of this initiative.”
She thanked the former British prime minister for his support in setting up the Safe Schools Initiative, and for his leadership of the international community on education for children, and indeed his efforts to get all of Nigeria’s 10.6 million “out of school” children, into schools.
She informed the parliament that the Safe Schools Initiative is just one of a three-part effort the federal government recently launched to deal with the crisis in the short term.
The other two, she said, are the Emergency Relief Initiative that will step up support by our National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) to over 3 million displaced persons and communities through the provision of emergency accommodation, food, basic healthcare and other relief items as needed; and the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Initiative, that will help rebuild public infrastructure that have been destroyed by the insurgents.
Members of parliament who listened to her speech included Brown; Rt. Hon. Harriet Harman MP, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party; Rt. Hon. Sir Malcolm Bruce MP, Chair of the International Development Committee; Rt. Hon. Justine Greening MP, Secretary of State for International Development; Alison McGovern MP, Shadow International Development Minister; and Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Nigeria.
Others present were Baroness Glenys Kinnock, former Foreign Office Minister responsible for Africa; Baroness Sue Nye, former Head of Government Relations to UK Prime Minister Brown; Lord Jim Knight, former Education Minister; Lord Paul Boateng, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and former High Commissioner to South Africa; David Bull, Executive Director, UNICEF UK; and Rt. Hon. Andrew Mitchell MP, former UK International Development Secretary.
Also, Glyn Davies MP, Phil Wilson MP, Sharon Hodgson MP, Dianne Abbott MP, Chi Onwurah MP, Lindsay Roy MP, Jim Sheridan MP, Lord Murray Elder, Ann McKechin MP, Valerie Vaz MP, Anne McGuire MP, Barbara Keeley MP, John Randall MP, Lynn Brown MP, Sandra Osborne MP and Lord Ian Blair, former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, were at the parliament during the minister’s presentation.
Insurgency to Impact Nigeria’s GDP
Similarly, the minister on Tuesday revealed that the Boko Haram insurgency will slow down Nigeria’s economy again this year, knocking half a percentage point off growth like last year, adding that her 6.75 per cent 2014 growth forecast took this into account.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told Reuters that while the violence in the North-east might put off some potential foreign investors, those who are in Nigeria for the long-term seem to be holding their nerve, just like portfolio investors in its government debt.
“We are expecting about 6.75 (per cent growth in 2014) and we have accounted for the impact of the insurgency which we think will take half a percentage point off GDP growth,” she said in an interview during a visit to Berlin, Germany.
Nigeria overtook South Africa as the continent's biggest economy this year, following a rebasing calculation that almost doubled its gross domestic product.
The economy grew about 6.4 per cent last year, the minister said, with the Islamist rebels having most economic impact on agriculture in the North-east.
The economist and former World Bank managing director said her talks with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble emphasised “our strong fundamentals despite the challenges that we face”.
She sought his support for the creation of a new Nigerian development bank to improve financing to small and medium-sized private enterprises which could become an “engine for growth” as the country seeks to diversify its economy away from oil.
Rebasing the country’s GDP had revealed hidden strength in sectors such as services and telecoms, which had “gone to 0.7 per cent of GDP to 7 per cent” and was seeing strong growth, said the minister.
She said the creation of a secondary mortgage market could help kick off growth in housing, another sector that she hoped could “help to make up for some of the lost growth”.
The minister cited government bonds yields of 4 to 5 per cent as evidence that financial investors were not panicking: “The prices are quite reasonable which is an objective assessment that investors may be looking at the long-term underlying fundamentals of the economy, which are strong.”
However, some potential foreign direct investment might be affected negatively by the Islamist insurgency, she said, but existing investors – especially those from emerging powers such as South Africa, China and Brazil – were proving resilient.
“Part of our turbulence may also be linked to the upcoming election (in 2015),” the minister said. “Whenever we have elections there is always some increase in violence and disturbance.”
Boosting the regional economy is part of President Goodluck Jonathan’s response alongside counter-insurgency efforts and attempts at dialogue with Boko Haram, which was hampered by the fact that “they have not articulated any political demands”.
Soyinka: Nigeria’s Break-up Unlikely
Meanwhile, Soyinka, speaking to Reuters at his home in Abeokuta, Ogun State, has said Nigeria is suffering a greater carnage at the hands of Islamist group Boko Haram than it did during a secessionist civil war, yet this has ironically made the country's break-up less likely.
Soyinka said the horrors inflicted by the terrorists had shown Nigerians across the mostly Muslim north and Christian south that sticking together might be the only way to avoid even greater sectarian slaughter.
The bloodshed was now worse than during the 1967-70 Biafra war when a secessionist attempt by the eastern Igbo people nearly tore Nigeria up into ethnic regions, he added.
“We have never been confronted with butchery on this scale, even during the civil war,” Soyinka said in his front room, surrounded by traditional wooden sculptures of Yoruba deities on Tuesday.
“There were atrocities (during Biafra) but we never had such a near predictable level of carnage and this is what is horrifying,” said the writer, who was imprisoned for two years in solitary confinement by the military regime during the war on charges of aiding the Biafrans.
Soyinka, a playwright and one of Africa's leading intellectuals who still wears his distinctive white Afro hairstyle, turns 80 in two weeks. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the first African writer to receive it.
A million people died during the Biafra war, though mostly through starvation and illness, rather than violence.
Boko Haram's five-year-old struggle to carve out an Islamic state from its bases in the remote northeast has become increasingly bloody, with near daily attacks killing many thousands.
The conflict's growing intensity has led Nigerian commentators to predict it may split the country, 100 years after British colonial rulers cobbled Nigeria together from their northern and southern protectorates.
“I think ironically it's less likely now,” Soyinka said. “For the first time, a sense of belonging is predominating. It's either we stick together now or we break up, and we know it would not be in a pleasant way.”
Several regional movements have launched low-level independence campaigns that get little national attention. But Soyinka said fewer people were shrugging off Boko Haram’s menace.
“It’s almost unthinkable to say: ‘Well, let's leave them to their devices.’ Very few people are thinking that way.”
Attacks spreading southwards, including three bombings in the capital since April, showed it is not just a northern problem.
“The (Boko Haram) forces that would like to see this nation break up are the very forces which will not be satisfied having their enclave,” he said. “(We) are confronted with an enemy that will never be satisfied with the space it has.”
Soyinka blamed successive governments for allowing religious fanaticism to undermine Nigeria's broadly secular constitution, starting with former President Olusegun Obasanjo allowing some states to declare Sharia law in the early 2000s.
“When the spectre of Sharia first came up, for political reasons, this was allowed to hold, instead of the president defending the constitution,” he said.
Soyinka sees both Christianity and Islam as foreign impositions.
“We cannot ignore the negative impact which both have had on African society,” he told Reuters. “They are imperialist forces: intervening, arrogant. Modern Africa has been distorted.”
He added that while the leadership of Boko Haram needed to be “decapitated completely”, little had been done to present an alternative ideological vision to their “deluded” followers, driven largely by economic destitution and despair.