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KADUNA, Nigeria, 24 March (IRIN) - In southern Nigeria, the economic powerhouse of the country, the popular perception is that the historical political dominance of the north has translated into a discriminatory allocation of resources.
But while the northern ruling class may have benefited from political power, judging from social indicators, their people have not. Latest figures from the Federal Office of Statistics (FOS) show that the core northern states have the lowest literacy levels, shortest life expectancy, and the highest under-five mortality rates in the country.
Sokoto, Yobe, Jigawa and Kebbi states have literacy levels of 11 percent to 16 percent. If non-indigenes of the states are left out, the performance is even worse. By contrast the southern states of Lagos, Delta, Abia, Rivers and Ondo manage rates of between 64 and 89 percent.
A 1996 FOS survey found that 43 percent of the population in the northwest and 37 percent in the northeast live below the poverty line. In the southeast, the corresponding rate is 18 percent.
The southern-based media have also reported - gleefully - that Zamfara, the northern state that touched off Nigeria's current religious crisis by introducing Sharia (Islamic) law in January, has the highest rate of syphilis in the country.
There are cultural and historical reasons for the discrepancies. Under British colonial rule, the northern Islamic emirates were largely self-governing and missionary schools were discouraged. In the south, however, people seized the opportunities presented by Western education. Status is still, to some extent, predicated on how many people an individual has managed to support through school.
Unable to compete with the more developed south, the north has protected its interests by holding onto political power through successive military regimes. In the current Sharia crisis, in which some northern states have challenged the country's secular constitution by introducing the Islamic penal code, southern analysts suggest that religion is being used to obscure the failure to address poverty.
"What these people are trying to do is political and not a reform of the legal system," a Kaduna-based human rights lawyer, Festus Okoye, told IRIN. "The only ready tool is religion."
There is also a class dimension to the problem. In the north, the brunt of poverty is borne by the almajiris, young boys assigned to itinerant Islamic scholars, but who often wind up as street children. For Okoye, they are a "standing army that can be mobilised in defence of the faith". In the religious violence in Kaduna from 21-23 February, Okoye said there was "an element of class warfare", where the almajiri deliberately attacked symbols of wealth.
Felicitas Iagbogun of the Kaduna chapter of the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) says: "I don't think they understand the full import of what Sharia means, which allows them to be manipulated."
The Sharia controversy has sparked a rethink over national unity. There is growing agitation in the south for a looser federation as a way of addressing the problems of coexistence.
For more than two decades, Nigeria's homegrown affirmative action programme has supported northern states through a system known as the "federal character" which ensures a quota of university places and government jobs to indigenes in all 36 states. The allocation of state revenue by the central government is also partially based on a social development index that rewards states based on the number of children in school, but also rewards those with high dropout rates.
"We are paying people to be educationally backward," a senior federal government official told IRIN. "WE gave incentives to close the education gap, but with no time limit, and we have been giving those incentives for the past 30 years."
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