opinionBy Bashir Kadir
Americans have a habit of calling rural America "real America." Well, it isn't just the alliterative similarity between "rural" and "real" that makes this statement true; it is also because rural areas form the cultural and foundational fulcra of societies. It is where we all came from, and it is where we are most likely headed in the twilight of our lives.
This fact is truer of societies in the Third World than it is in America which popularized the notion of the "realness" of "ruralness."
In Nigeria, for instance, almost everyone traces his descent to a rural community. What's more, the greater majority of our people still live in rural areas. This is particularly true of northern states like Yobe, which the media always labels as rural and agrarian.
Unfortunately, over the past few years, there has been a gradual but nonetheless noticeable demographic shift from rural areas to urban centres. This migratory trend, as most people know, is instigated by people's search for better opportunities, for the comfort and lures of modernity that urban living offers - or at least seems to. But if "rural areas" represent "real areas," that is, if rural Nigeria, to borrow the American maxim, is real Nigeria, we risk losing our realness as a nation if we neglect rural communities and cause everyone to gravitate toward urban areas. So part of the abiding responsibilities of governments should be to half or at least reduce the rural-urban migratory drift.
This imperative, fortunately, is the cornerstone of the Yobe State government's rural intervention programmes. People familiar with the thinking of the Gaidam administration never fail to remind whoever cares to know that the governor believes it is incumbent upon him to transform rural areas because they symbolize our roots and, paradoxically, our future. Most people who live in urban areas most of their adult lives often return to rural areas in retirement. It stands to reason, therefore, that a lot of our rural folks, who actually feed the nation with their hard work, would choose to remain in their present stations if they are provided with the basic necessities of life.
The Yobe State government's rural development policies are anchored on this imperative. The government intervenes in the development of its rural areas in two fundamental ways. First, it does this directly through its relevant ministries such as the Ministry of Water Resources, which has sunk hundreds of boreholes and hand pumps in various communities across the State in the past few years, the Ministry of Agriculture, which distributes fertilizer to farming communities at subsidised rates, the Ministry of Works, which builds and renews rural roads, etc. Second, it intervenes through the appointed or elected governments in its 17 local government councils.
Examples of direct state intervention in rural development are legion, but a few instances will suffice. Last year, for instance, Governor Gaidam approved N493 million for the procurement of 170 pieces of 30KVA power generators for the 17 local government areas of the state to boost water supply.
The state government, through its Agriculture Ministry, also heavily subsidizes agriculture, the mainstay of rural economic life. For instance, the governor periodically orders the agriculture ministry to sell grains from the Strategic Grains Reserve to rural dwellers at highly subsidized rates. In some cases, the governor gives free grains to the less privileged in both urban and rural areas. This policy is important not only for its compassion to the rural poor, but also because it has ensured that the government often buys agricultural produce from rural farmers at prices way above the market value, which it then sells back to the community at rates lower than the current market value. This policy has the twin advantage of boosting agricultural production and providing social safety nets for the poor, especially the rural poor.
Similarly, in a move designed to ease the burden of retirees in rural areas, including previous urban dwellers who have retired to rural areas, Governor Gaidam, in 2012, approved the payment of N307, 241, 268.04 for the payment of pension and gratuities to 324 retired and deceased workers at the local government level. This is certainly a creative way to make living in rural areas attractive.
Another productive way that the state government transforms rural areas in Yobe, as was hinted earlier, is through the instrumentality of local government councils. The governor makes it a point of duty to require appointed council chairmen to submit requests for funds to execute community renewal and empowerment projects. The chairmen, in turn, use their councilors and other officials to assess needs specific to various communities. For example, some communities need boreholes while others need a health clinic. Yet others may need feeder roads, etc.
Once specific needs are identified and compiled, council chairmen forward the request to the governor through the Local Government Affairs Ministry. The governor then grants approval to the requests and directs that funds be released to the councils to execute the projects.
For instance, the state government has what it calls the Grassroots Service Delivery initiative. This multi-billion-naira initiative invests in improved service delivery for people in rural areas to make life a little easier for them. In November last year, for example, Governor Ibrahim Gaidam approved N5.1 billion for the execution of special projects in Yobe's 17 local government councils. He had approved N1.5 billion previously for similar projects.
The Grassroots Service Delivery initiative revolves around improving water supply, education, primary health care, agriculture, security and general administration in all of the state's rural areas. Under the water supply sector, for instance, "some of the equipment and accessories provided include solar, submersible and hand pumps, construction of steel overhead tanks, construction of concrete and cement wells, drilling of new boreholes, overhauling and repair of borehole generators and purchase of new ones, water reticulation, etc." according to a recent news story. In the education sector, according to the story, the local government councils will provide new classroom blocks and rehabilitate dilapidated ones, fence primary school premises that have not been fenced before and improve the general teaching and learning environment.
In order to guard against potential abuse of funds by people entrusted with the responsibility to execute this rural improvement initiative, the governor set up a special committee to periodically monitor, evaluate, and report back on the activities and expenditures of the people charged with the responsibility for the initiative. The governor often makes sure to publicize every release of funds and the kinds of projects to be executed to not only ensure transparency but to also make the communities know what to expect.
In addition to special funds releases, which are periodic, the local government councils themselves often submit requests to execute certain projects which they deemed critical or urgent and the governor, upon assessment, normally obliges such requests. Through these initiatives, scores of rural roads have been built and several rural areas have been opened up to the world.
It is hoped that in the not too distant future, these initiatives and many more being embarked upon by the Gaidam administration will so radically transform Yobe's rural communities that they will become indistinguishable from urban communities in developmental terms. When that happens, the term "rural" would cease to carry a tone of condescension and would merely be a label to describe the size of communities.
Kadir is a Development Specialist and writes from Sabon Pegi area, Damaturu Yobe State