The rural-urban divide is a challenge in Nigeria as it is in countries across the world. According to the World Bank, in 1960 85% of Nigerians lived in rural areas. Today less than 50% do.
Understandably, the narrative of rural areas does not easily feature in the national discourse which is overwhelmingly metropolitan. Rural areas are not the focus of governance and state institutions but are often ignored by it. The divide between rural and urban areas in Nigeria requires a greater focus from government for several reasons. But few more so than security. In rural areas insecurity, such as by the Boko Haram insurgency, is often less adequately addressed than in cities.
At the height of the Boko Haram insurgency, Yola was a fearful place. The militants, spreading down from Northern Adamawa, never managed to occupy it. But the threat of suicide bombings and explosions were constant. The militants may not have controlled Yola, but they changed it. According to locals, the market areas became more and more scarce. Attendance at schools dropped. As in many Northern cities, there was an apprehension about gathering in public places, a fear that it was an easy target for bombings, and they often were.
But those fears are now mostly behind it. A suicide attack in a market in Madagali in December, killing over 50 people, was a depressing but rare return of the kind of insecurity which in urban areas of Adamawa, had largely been absent for over a year. Yola however is a safe, peaceful and vibrant place. There is a strong military and police presence. It is close enough to insecure areas for people to be vigilant, but insulated enough for life to be relatively normal.
But in rural areas north of Yola, in villages and towns deep into the countryside, kilometres away from main roads, insecurity is a part of their lives. When Boko Haram occupied northern Adamawa in 2014-2015, their process of destroying and occupying villages and rural communities was deadly but not rushed. In Dabna, locals explained that the militants took their time, finding people who had hid in and around their homes, and killing them. They harvested the crops they could find and stole their cattle and produce. According to residents it took days before few soldiers arrived to the villages and when they did they were immediately pegged back.
The sense that the state government still isn’t really aware of the dangers they face in secluded, less accessible rural areas, is widespread. A vigilante group is now in charge of security. In the absence of Boko Haram in much of Adamawa they have still had to face threats from armed bandits and Fulani herdsmen. The vigilantes in several cases have not been able to protect residents from attacks but they have been a deterrent and are their only reliable defence.
The efforts of the vigilantes in helping protect these villages from Boko Haram and aggressive herdsmen has encouraged donations from local residents to help sustain them. According to locals, they also receive funding from the police who are aware of their inability to reach to these areas. The funding helped the vigilantes but vehicles helping them to respond quickly. Without the vigilante groups, their exposure to insecurity would be far worse. In Gombi, even the police admit that they rely on communities finding security solutions for themselves as they aren’t manned enough to always address them.
All across Nigeria the vulnerability of rural areas in comparison to urban areas is stark. The state’s inability to protect in rural areas should not be an accepted norm but a challenge that ought to be addressed. Much of the north-east relies heavily on agriculture based industry. In rural areas where education levels are lower, the reliance on farming is prevalent. In states like Adamawa, with rich, arable land, rural areas are a key part of the economy. That they can remain so vulnerable to attacks and so insufficiently protected is unacceptable.
The Shaping Davos event in Abuja tomorrow, as part of the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, will focus on how Nigerian policy makers can address the challenges that the urban rural divide presents. In addition to security, the event will focus on governance, education, health and infrastructure.
Rebuilding is evident throughout Yola. Many of the roads and buildings damaged by insecurity have been rebuilt.
There city is a peaceful, quietly bustling place. In many villages however, rebuilding of their schools, clinics and places of worship has been slow and difficult. Infrastructure spending scarcely reaches those areas, with the rebuilding reliant on help from NGOs.
The recession has placed even more strain on government spending. But the disconnect between urban and rural needs to be addressed if Nigeria, as a state, is to work for everyone.
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