I wonder how many Salisus and Alis are roaming the streets of northern Nigeria as almajiris. How many Bunmis and Fatimas have been forcibly married off and turned to mothers before they understood the micro-mechanics of their bodies? The wastage of human talents and resources anywhere is a crime against humanity. This is indeed the fight for the soul of Nigeria.

The #BringBackOurGirls movement invited the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, to give its Inaugural Chibok Girls’ Lecture on April 14, 2017. The event coincided with the third-year commemoration of the kidnapping of the Chibok girls. Key leaders of the #BBOG movement, such as former minister of Education, Obiageli Ezekwesili, Aisha Yesufu and the entire #BBOG family have consistently maintained that the fight for the Chibok girls is “the fight for the soul of Nigeria”. Therefore, it was particularly apt to have SLS speak on the issue of the Chibok girls and more generally, the social conditions of women and young girls in northern Nigeria.

His Highness’ speech was titled “Chibok and the mirror in our faces: Some reflections on gender in our society”. Emir Sanusi delved into issues that arguably only a northern Nigerian Muslim can speak on without being accused of ethnic chauvinism and religious bigotry. Sanusi argued that: “Over 70.8 percent of women in North-West are unable to read and write compared to 9.7 percent in the South-East zone. More than 2/3 of 15-19 year old girls in the North are unable read a single sentence compared to less than 10 percent in the South.” He also stated that in “eight northern states, over 80 percent of the women are unable to read and write; only four percent of females complete Secondary schools in Northern Nigeria; 78 percent of adolescent girls are in marriages in the North-West, 68 percent in the North-East and 35 percent in the North-Central…The statistics in the other zones are 18 percent in the South-South, 17 percent in the South-West and 10 percent in the South-East.”

Public engagement on the social conditions of the girl-child in Northern Nigeria by people such as Emir Sanusi is crucial. His Highness sits atop a traditional system that has contributed to the current state of affairs — a system that has not done enough to pull off the vestiges of feudalism. Alongside the political elites, this system has displayed a remarkable obduracy and reluctance to spread education to the talakawa to uplift the people. It is a weird paradox that the structure put in place by Usman dan Fodio, a warrior and scholar, has largely been manipulated to keep a majority of the masses in ignorance.

The reality, as Emir Sanusi alluded during his speech in Kaduna, is that if we disaggregated socioeconomic data on the infamous North-South dichotomy, southern Nigeria would in all likelihood be considered a middle income country. That is a not a cause for celebration in the South, it just shows the level of decadence in the entire country and how limited a distance we have covered.

There is a growing feeling in the South that the North is not ready for social development and therefore other parts of the country may need to either restructure Nigeria or exit if the northern elites (and their southern allies) remain satisfied with or continue to protect the status quo. These are difficult issues and can no longer be garnished.

Rather than make serious efforts, some northern governors have been implementing inane programmes such as mass weddings and spending inordinate amounts of money on religious pilgrimages when not looting state treasury. The governor of Zamfara State recently said that meningitis was a punishment from God for the sins of fornication. Clearly, Governor Abdulaziz Yari had not heard of Las Vegas, the world-famous “sin city”.

Scholarly research demonstrates that Boko Haram is partly a revolt against state failure and the transgenerational material deprivation in the North. Of course, the South has its share of major problems but the contrasts are alarming. Standards are falling in the South and infrastructure is either deteriorating or non-existing.

I argued in a recent article in “Studies in Conflict and Terrorism” that Boko Haram’s mode of operation has little creativity. Suicide bombing is the only new and culturally unbeknownst tactic introduced by Boko Haram. Everything else that the organisation does was already in practice in its sphere of influence before its emergence. These include hostility or scepticism towards Western-style education, forced marriages of prepubescent and teenage girls, denial of education to girls, and the cultural expectation that the only role for a girl is motherhood. The elites who are defending these practices have ensured that their children are sent overseas for the best education money can buy.

I once boarded a flight from Lagos to Abuja with former governor of Zamfara, Ahmed Yerima. He had in his bosom one of his daughters while another walked beside her mother just behind the senator. He doted so lovingly on his daughter. It was a beautiful thing to behold. I took my seat on the aircraft just behind Yerima. I could not help but wonder why he seemed like such a wonderful father and yet married other people’s daughters at ridiculous ages. Of course, as they say, even slave owners were church-going Christians.

We are at a critical moment in Nigeria’s history. The status quo is unsustainable and has become dangerous even to beneficiaries of the system. Biafran agitations and other secessionist struggles in the Niger Delta will not stop until the system is restructured. The country can no longer sustain the parasitism of a bogus and inept federal government and the sheer gluttony of federating units that are excessive, wasteful and, with few exceptions, managed by people who have no business in governance.

Harnessing human and material resources is crucial in any society. For instance, my elementary school was in an army barracks in Ogun State. It was a diverse school. Most students were non-Yorubas, given how soldiers were posted throughout Nigeria. That experience shaped my worldview. The best student in my cohort was a Hausa boy named Salisu Mohammed. A Fulani boy, Ali Mohammed (no relation of Salisu), often came second. I and Ali, if my memory serves me well, often battled for second position. Two girls, Bunmi and Mary (whose last names I no longer remember) were also quite competitive. Salisu fell ill just before exams one semester and had to be daily transported by ambulance from the clinic in the barracks (yup, we had ambulance those days) to write his exams. Somehow, Salisu managed to come first that term as he always did. We were all stunned.

My father, who took keen interest in my academic performance, asked me how a boy who was unwell managed to beat the rest of us. Years later, I realised that part of my father’s surprise might have been related to a certain cultural expectation that as a Yoruba, I ought to do better.

I wonder how many Salisus and Alis are roaming the streets of northern Nigeria as almajiris. How many Bunmis and Fatimas have been forcibly married off and turned to mothers before they understood the micro-mechanics of their bodies? The wastage of human talents and resources anywhere is a crime against humanity. This is indeed the fight for the soul of Nigeria.

‘Tope Oriola is professor of criminology at the University of Alberta, Canada. Twitter: @topeoriola