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Development in South Africa: Bridging the Gap

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To live in one of the most unequal yet highly urbanised societies in the world means that there are high levels of inequality, poverty and other injustices that the majority of the population have to live with  (Burger, Van der Berg, van der Walt, and Yu, 2017). This reality carries with it not only decades of discriminatory policies, but poverty stricken livelihoods that cripple any chance of progress in a society where wealth has a strong racial correlation (Burger, et al, 2017; Leibbrandt, Woolard, and Woolard, 2000). While South Africa is the most advanced and diversified economy in Africa, and the wealthiest in terms of GDP per capita, the country is still haunted by high levels of inequality. According to the 2018 World Bank Report, more than half of South Africa’s population lives below the upper poverty line of R992 per month per person by use of 2018 prices. These are the realities that we are faced with – this is in addition to being the leading country in the world in unequal income distribution with a Gini index of 63.4 as shown in Table 1.1. Although great strides have been made in targeting unemployment and economic growth to ensure that development has taken place, historical inequities still need to be addressed adequately in order to improve the quality of life for the majority of South Africans, and to bridge the gap between these parallel worlds. This chapter will take measure of the nature of inequality as well as advance some routes which could be taken to allay the present challenges.

The world’s 10 most unequal countries

(Source:https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-world-s-most-unequal-countries.html)

Ranking Name of country Gini coefficient
1 South Africa 63.4
2 Namibia 61.3
3 Haiti 60.8
4 Botswana 60.5
5 Suriname 57.6
6 Zambia 57.1
7 Central African Republic 56.2
8 Lesotho 54.2
9 Belize 53.3
10 Swaziland 51.5

Not a New Idea

The idea of bridging the gap between two parallel worlds is not one that is unheard of (Zhu, 2017). Asia, being the largest continental economy by GDP (Gross Domestic Product), also implies that it has experienced rapid socioeconomic development in recent years. A great example of this is China – since the late 1970s, the development in the cities has not only attracted immense inflows, but have also been a key driving force for urban growth and development, with the 2010 census stating that 87 percent of China’s “floating” population migrated to cities and towns from villages. Zhu and his colleagues make use of the in situ urbanization, which refers to the process of rural settlements and populations transforming themselves into urban or quasi-urban ones with little geographical relocation of the residents. This phenomenon has two dimensions whose development has played a key role in China’s urban growth between the late 1970s and the late 1990s (Zhu, 2017). Of the two dimensions, one of them focuses on the creation of new industrialised centres, and the other dimension refers to the practical and physical modifications of rural areas through the expansion of township and village enterprises (TVEs) (Zhu, 2017).

The experiences of developed countries propose that in the industrial period and post-industrial period, many individuals and their families move between and/or within cities numerous times due to changes in either employment status or housing needs, which are often caused by various life cycle events such as marriage, child bearing, etc. This is the kind of urban-urban and intra-urban mobility that is often observed in many developed countries (Zhu, 2017).

From the case study mentioned above, we learn that incorporating migration along with in situ urbanisation will not only ensure that people residing in the rural areas benefit from the prosperity of the cities, but will also benefit from the resources and potential development that could occur in their hometowns (Zhu, 2017). Spatial links will need to be visualized and implemented at finer spatial levels, with “a coordinated regional approach” required to “cuts through fragmented boundaries” in order to assist the movement of people between and/or within urban and rural spaces (Zhu, 2017). Additionally, more attention will need to be given to issues of various social security programs and public services, to ensure that migrants will not be disadvantaged by this migration (Zhu, 2017). Gopaul’s (2009) paper based on the South Africa case also indicates that something needs to be done to assist people living in rural areas who live in extreme poverty; else, their standard of living will continue to worsen. He suggests that the solution lies in tourism – “to accomplish rural development, there is a need to nurture a sense of willingness and enthusiasm amongst the poor communities to participate in rural development” (Gopaul, 2009).

The Evolution of Urban Development in South Africa

Rapid development and large scale rural-urban migration in South Africa were inspired by the discovery of diamonds in Kimberly, and that of gold in the Witwatersrand in the 1860s and 1880s respectively (Mabin, 1992; Turok, 2012). These economic activities brought some much-needed opportunities to the rural community, and transformed South Africa from an agricultural state to an industrialized nation (Moomaw and Shatter, 1996; Turok, 2012). An invasion of foreign investment in mining from De Beer, Anglo American and Consolidated Gold Fields was also witnessed in the late 1800s, and further generated rapid growth of support industries and services that were supported by temporary migrant labour that was migrating to the cities (Turok, 2012). As a result, the developing world – including South Africa – has witnessed unprecedented growth in urbanisation rates in the last two decades (Cohen, 2006). Thus far, urbanisation in South Africa has been increasing by roughly 0.5% on a year-to-year basis, with technological innovation and employment in urban areas continuing to increase due to its ability to offer considerable socio-economic opportunities in comparison to rural areas. Behrens and Robert-Nicoud (2014) further argue that cities are not only the locus in which inequality materialises, but they are hosts to instruments that contribute extensively to changes in that inequality.  Thus, it is not surprising that individuals seem to migrate to economic hubs where more opportunities exist (Behrens and Robert‐Nicoud, 2014; Ozler and Hoogeveen, 2005).

Having an urbanised economy or cities as economic powers while rural communities are under-developed is not an exclusive South African phenomenon – it happens all over the world because of several reasons as seen in the case of Asia. Amongst the key reasons is that of economies of scale and rural-urban migration. As such, Fields (1972) referred to the rural-urban migration theory as an economic phenomenon in his paper. The theory hypothesizes that workers compare the projected incomes in the urban sector with agricultural wage rates in the rural areas and migrate if the former exceeds the latter. In addition, the rural-urban migration is often regarded as the adjustment mechanism that workers use to assign themselves between different labour markets, some of which are located in urban areas and some located in rural areas. Thus, rural-urban migration is the equilibrating force that connects rural and urban projected incomes and is regarded as a disequilibrium phenomenon (Fields, 1972).

Consequences of Urbanisation

Over time, we have observed how urbanised South African cities are, and how they continue to advance. The downsides of these advances have had destructive societal, economic and environmental consequences (Turok, 2012). Meanwhile, rural areas continue to remain under-developed with high levels of deprivation with respect to sanitation, access to water and access to energy, high levels of unemployment, inadequate use of natural resources, insufficient access to socio-economic and cultural infrastructure, low skills level and insufficient literacy rate (Behrens and Robert-Nicoud, 2014; Burger, et al, 2017; Gopaul, 2009; Krishman, 2016; Ozler and Hoogeveen, 2005).

Upon the analysis of international studies, Barro (2000) found that people living in rural areas might be using old technological methods, whereas urbanised areas employ more recent and advanced techniques in their daily undertakings. As such, we observe how large municipalities within the cities are deeply accommodative of additional commercial services and more advanced roles concerning finance as well as developmental projects; whereas smaller municipalities, which are mainly located on the peripheries of the cities are only able to accommodate a large portion of lower mandate facilities and industrial work (Behrens and Robert-Nicoud, 2014). In addition, these smaller municipalities are often under-resourced and are surrounded by areas that have high levels of poverty and deprivation.

As it stands, an approximate 66% of South Africans are living in urban areas, with the expectation that eight in ten people will be living in urban areas by the year 2050. This not only means that the demand for infrastructure and housing will increase rapidly, but the cost of living will also increase for the average South African. Though urbanisation is the most convenient instrument currently being used to accelerate the rate of growth in developing countries by means of (i) driving economic growth, (ii) sustaining larger and more productive populations, (iii) sourcing higher means of income, new and diversified engines of growth need to be considered. The results of having cities that are too urbanised may have negative externalities that may affect negatively on rural economies, whose role is to provide economic sustainability and food security (Krishman, 2016). As such, other measures need to be considered if we are to sufficiently and effectively bridge the gap between rural economies and urban economies in order to ensure that growth takes place in a way that is beneficial to everyone.

Although cities are the dominant centres of economic activity and employment, and continue to attract maximum foreign investment; they are not performing to their potential or reaping the benefits of agglomeration due to prevailing shortages of energy and water infrastructure, transport congestion and deficits in education and skills (Turok, 2012). This is in addition to creating poverty traps on the peripheries of the cities, which results in favouritism for road-based transport – private cars and minibus taxis (Turok, 2012). To ensure that rural economies are not left behind in this fast paced economy, we need to consider redeveloping rural areas into sustainable communities that can support themselves economically (Gopaul, 2009; Krishman, 2016).

Poverty and Inequality in Rural Areas

Households that have high levels of poverty and inequality are largely black or coloured communities who tend to reside on the periphery of the cities, thus, a high level of vulnerability is usually observed in some areas that are remote and isolated from the main cities (Burger, et al, 2017). High levels of unemployment are largely concentrated among the poor people in rural areas and continues to remain a core challenge in the South African economy with a 238% growth from 1 703 863 in 1994 to 5 752 632 in 2016 (Dube, das Nair, Nkhonjera, and Tempia; 2018 Quantec, 2018). According to Ozler and Hoogeveen (2005), South Africans are neither separate, nor are we equal in post-Apartheid South Africa. The authors make this statement because the question of whether the economic inequalities of the apartheid era have faded remains, especially with the high levels of poverty and inequality that this country still faces in the rural areas.

Poverty is at an all-time high in South Africa and is highly concentrated within the African race, women, rural areas and the youth (Triegaardt, 2006; Woolard, 2012). Statistics show that Africans account for 95% of the poor population and a large percentage of them reside in former homelands, rural areas and townships households (Woolard, 2012).  It is also important to note that poverty is closely linked with the mortality rate. This stems from the fact that poor people have difficulties in accessing health care facilities seeing as they do not have the basic income for transport services, nutrition and clothing which further perpetuates the high levels of inequality (Woolard, 2012). Consequently, the unsatisfactory living conditions continue to intensify the high poverty levels, which further exclude and marginalise poor people from participating in the economy (Triegaardt, 2006; Woolard, 2012). As such, agriculture presents opportunities of job creation, particularly in rural areas (Dube, et al, 2018). As a labour-intensive and rural industry, agriculture makes a contribution of 10% to total employment. However, a slight decline has been observed between the period of 1994 and 2016 – from 12 percent to 6 percent (Dube, et al, 2018).

How Can Agriculture Help Eliminate Poverty and Deprivation?

In rural areas all over the world, agriculture represents the principal land use and is a major element of the practicality of rural areas. Rural communities can be developed to increase their competitiveness in agriculture. The in situ urbanisation case mentions to how rural areas have to transform themselves into urban or quasi-urban ones with little geographical relocation of the residents; in the case of South Africa, this can be achieved through agriculture. Farming and related undertakings primarily encompass the basic fabric of rural life, contributing meaningfully to the overall state of rural areas by facilitating and creating employment, business prospects, infrastructure and quality of the environment. This can be a driving force for economic growth and can have lasting impacts on the overall community.

In South Africa, agriculture is a twofold production system that comprises of large-scale commercial farmers and small-scale farmers (Dube, et al, 2018). As it stands, agricultural production remains concentrated on field crops given their prominence in determining national food security. However, the growth in South Africa’s agriculture sector –the fruit sector and small-scale farmer participation in particular – is restricted by insufficient infrastructure; mainly ripening facilities, pack-houses and cold storage facilities (Dube, et al, 2018). This limitation causes costly delays, limits entry into the formal sector and hinders expansion into export markets.

Government or private sector needs to intervene by initiating and constructing capabilities in agriculture and agro-processing if these small-scale manufacturers do not have the means to get their products to final consumers (Dube, et al, 2018). What will ensure success in this initiative is linking farmers with large producer-exporting companies that already have access to infrastructure and international markets (Dube, et al, 2018). The government can then incentivise large producer-exporting companies to collaborate with minor producers. In return for large-scale companies lengthening technical services and information on production and standards to small-scale farmers, the large companies can be offered tax breaks, grants for investments in storage and cold chain amenities or support with raising funds. This initiate is one that not only benefits the small-scale farmers, but also the capability to have spill over effects that will benefit the whole economy.

Recommendations

Rural areas undoubtedly have the potential to lead to great economic growth; however, this reality will only be possible if skills uplifted and investment in R&D (research and development) is prioritised. The results of investing in rural economies will have spill over effects and positively impact on urban areas, while creating employment in the peripheries of the country. With a highly urbanised country as South Africa, it is crucial that we look into other alternatives which will not only benefit the country as a whole, but also have an undeniable impact that can bridge the gap between rural and urban areas.

Competitive agriculture in rural communities, particularly when supported by technological platforms can drive economic growth – an example of this is the Khula app.  Khula is a farming app founded by Karidas Tshintsholo with the aim of assisting emerging farmers in finding their feet. To date, 175 farmers are currently using it, and this has ensured that famers who were initially unable to access the formal markets can connect with suppliers. The purpose of the app is not only to assist small-scale farmers, but to assist with alleviating poverty and ensuring that young entrepreneurs have an opportunity to make a decent living.

With such great innovations taking place in the country, the possibilities of the kind of development that can be fostered in rural areas are endless. Indeed South Africa’s developmental woes can only be resolved from within; through South African ingenuity, and modulation of the experiences, technologies and investment of external partners.

Lesego Masenya is an Economics graduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she obtained a BSc majoring in Economics and Computational and Applied Mathematics, Honours in Economic Science (with distinction) and is presently a Masters candidate in Economic Science. She obtained the Bain Africa award for top student in her Economic undergraduate class, and has numerous awards from Genesis Analytics including First Place in her Honours class and Top Female award from her undergraduate class.Her areas of research include inequality, poverty and development in South Africa. She is currently part of the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research Young Scholars programme for the 2018/19 period. She is also a Postgraduate Researcher at Acacia Economics.

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Addressing Economic Challenges in Africa Through Deep Investments

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The African continent comprises a diverse collection of countries, each with its own set of challenges. The governance of individual territories, regions, and countries requires tremendous care and attention, particularly where peace and stability are concerned. Leadership is central to the prosperity of the African continent, particularly economic development. If the authorities are perceived as legitimate, peace and prosperity have a better chance of succeeding. The political culture and climate of the African continent is an important barometer of where Africa will be as an emerging force in the global economy.

Currently, Africa’s 54 nations comprise approximately 25% of the countries making up the United Nations. The interaction of regional and national governance is sacrosanct. Over the years, Africa has undergone periods of violent change, from precolonial to postcolonial, and modern-day leadership. Given that European cartographers drew the boundaries of many African nations, the ties between people and their leaders are often fraught with difficulties. Over the years, African governments have redrawn their boundaries to better reflect cultural, political, and social nuances.

Over time, the conflict-ridden areas throughout Africa have eased. Multiple peace initiatives have supplanted growing conflict, and fomented a new cultural consciousness that espouses growth and development over war and conflict. While conflict still exists across many parts of Africa, the overall climate has cooled significantly from the days of rebellion and genocide. War-torn zones still exist, and development in these areas is riddled with challenges, extreme poverty, and hopelessness.

Conflict and governance are interlinked across Africa. Corruption is a widespread problem, particularly in the Central African Republic, Somalia, and South Sudan. Post-Cold War, major changes began to shape the political and social landscape across Africa. The liberalization of the USSR led to the development of civil society across Africa. Consider the Freedom House report from 1988 (17/50 countries were free or partly free) compared to the report from 2015 (31/54 countries were free or partly free).

Massive and Unprecedented Urbanization across Africa

Governance is also impacted by external forces. Global political movements, particularly the rise of India, China, Russia, and Arab states have impacted African society in many ways. These external actors necessitate economic environments which are conducive to peace and stability. The increasing urbanization of African society is yet another driver of success. The shift from rural to urban development is unprecedented. A report titled ‘Urbanization and Migration in Africa’ found a total of 53% of African emigrants living within Africa as a percentage of the total emigrants population

The migration between people is one of the most notable trends taking place across Africa. In 2017, intra-African migration was strongest in countries like South Africa, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, Uganda, Nigeria, and Kenya. Factors leading to mass migration include underdevelopment and development. Nigeria currently tops the list of countries in Africa with remittance receipts at approximately $22.3 billion (2018), followed by Egypt at $18.1 billion, Morocco at $7.1 billion, and Senegal at $2.3 billion. The rate of urbanization in sub-Saharan Africa was measured at 37.9% in 2015 and is expected to grow towards 54.8% by 2050. The figure is even greater for the continent as a whole at 40.4% in 2015, and 55.9% by 2050.

Tapping into Africa’s Rich Natural Resources

Africa is a hive of activity with respect to natural resources. South Africa is home to vast supplies of gold and coal, while countries like Angola are rich with diamonds, oil and natural gas. North African countries are the chief suppliers of crude oil, including Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, Tunisia, Sudan and South Sedan. Central African countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Botswana, and Angola lay claim to massive diamond supplies, cobalt, and petroleum resources. The issues of extracting these natural resources and marketing them to the world at large hinge upon the effectiveness of transportation networks, infrastructure development, and telecommunications facilities. Many African leaders are investing heavily in these areas, fast-tracking Africa’s learning curve to meet the requirements of major world players like China, the United States, and the European Union.

Spotlight on Angola: An African Giant in The Wings

Angola has substantial resources of liquefied natural gas and oil. It also boasts tremendous economic potential, given its hydropower facilities, agricultural growth and development, fisheries, gold production, iron production, and diamond production. The country also lays claim to significant international financial support a.k.a. FDI. Of course, its reliance on commodities like crude oil means that the country’s revenues are subject to extreme volatility. Among the many other challenges faced by Angola are its rising unemployment rate and social inequalities. The country, like many other African nations lacks a world-class infrastructure, and it has a fragile banking sector.

Leaders like Isabel Dos Santos, chair of Unitel, and other major companies like ZAP, Candando, Sodiba, and Efacac are convinced that the pathway to success is the result of a multi-faceted approach. Education and skills training, rural development, the provision of basic resources, access to financing, eradication of malaria and waterborne diseases, hospitals and paediatric clinics, and combating gender stereotypes are central to the success of Angola. For her part, Isabel Dos Santos has invested heavily in gender equality initiatives, such as promoting women from within the ranks, empowering local communities of women to take charge of their own economic destiny, and fostering a climate where female academic and economic development is encouraged and supported.

Angola’s GDP rate is expected to turn the corner by the end of 2019 and reach 1% growth, following three years of negative growth rates. The inflation rate has declined from 30.4% on average in 2016 to 15.9% forecast for 2019. Public debt in Angola has also declined from 71.9% in 2016 to a forecast total of 69.9% for 2019. And yet, despite these dramatic strides, Angola still battles the demons of volatile prices for commodities. The country generates approximately 90% of its revenues through crude oil exports, but its strongest resources have yet to be tapped – its people. By investing in the youth, women and men through literacy initiatives, educational development, and vocational training, business leaders like Isabel Dos Santos are confident that the economy will turn the corner for the better.

The World Bank report on Angola states that the new administration in the country is supportive of reforms geared towards macroeconomic stability. This is all conducive to economic growth and prosperity. The IMF has offered additional assistance to the country through its Extended Financial Facility (EFF) valued at $3.8 billion. While oil accounts for 33% of GDP and 90% of Angolan exports, there are factors limiting economic expansion in the current year. These include a production limit set by OPEC, and low oil prices globally. The central bank of Angola has adopted a monetary tightening policy to hedge against inflationary pressures, and this is already starting to pay dividends with reduced year-on-year inflation figures reported in January 2019. The World Bank group has committed $1.05 billion towards 9 investment projects across Angola.

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Africa yet to unleash full potential of its nature-based tourism

MD Staff

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Countries in Africa can do more to develop tourism in protected areas, which would in turn create jobs in rural places, diversify and grow their economies and improve environmental resilience in the face of growing pressures, a report has said.

Africa’s biodiversity could “transform” the continent’s economy, but at present many governments are scaling back on protection because of limited budgets needed for other pressing public needs, a report produced by conservation organization Space for Giants Club and the UN Environment Programme said. To preserve their wildlife and wild places, governments should look at protected areas not only as environmental assets but economic ones as well, with the continent’s 8,400 protected areas producing US$48 billion in revenue.

According to the paper, nature-based tourism could improve the livelihoods of many people as it generates 40 per cent more full-time employment than agriculture and provides greater opportunities for women than other sectors.

Oliver Poole, Executive Director of Space for Giants Club, said the organization “strongly believed” that the right type of nature-based tourism done in a sustainable way is a powerful conservation tool.

“That’s because it creates jobs for the local community, and it brings visitors to the national parks, creating money for wildlife services, that often have limited budgets,” he said. “But it also starts building a nature-based tourism sector that pays taxes and builds economies, making them of national importance and therefore more likely to be protected.”

Wildlife is the single biggest revenue for Africa’s tourism, with the United Nations World Tourism Organization stating 80 per cent of annual trips to Africa were for wildlife watching. And as projections point to a doubling of visitors to the continent by 2030 from the current 62 million, the report argues that additional revenue is attainable.

Ethiopia, which boasts nine UNESCO World Heritage sites, wasn’t able to attract more than 50,0000 visitors to each one in 2016. To improve these numbers, the report says the country would need to invest in better infrastructure for national parks and capitalize on its unique features, like being home to 835 bird species—a potential birdwatcher’s paradise rivalling Costa Rica or South Africa.

As the continent grapples with a growing population, poverty, climate change and a booming illegal wildlife trade, the report says important ecological areas could be lost before their value is utilized. Several places in Africa have already developed parks in ways that could threaten their natural capital, while others are planning to extract oil, minerals and other activities.

Doreen Robinson, wildlife expert at UN Environment said it was important for governments to develop partnerships with private, community and non-profit organizations to realize the full capacity of nature-based tourism in Africa and thus ensure wildlife for future generations.

“Private investment and know-how are needed to develop attractive tourism services and products, while good public management must ensure equitable business practices and reinvestment of profits into conservation of wildlife,” she said. “Ultimately this formula grows the economy, protects nature and supports human development.”

The report states only four African countries—Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa and Zimbabwe—are top nature tourism destinations, each attracting between 2–5 million visitors a year. But there is a lot of room for improvement, particularly in western Africa that has tropical forests and beaches, yet due to poor marketing hasn’t tapped its full tourism potential.

For governments to gain the most of protected areas, they should create national tourism plans for protected areas and integrate them into the economic plans of the country—that way, wild places will finally get the resources they deserve.

UN Environment

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Saudi Iranian rivalry polarises Nigerian Muslims

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A recent ban on a militant, Iranian-backed Shiite group raised the spectre of the Saudi Iranian rivalry spilling onto Nigerian streets as security forces launched a manhunt to find the alleged Boko Haram operatives who killed 65 people attending a funeral.

Nigeria, Africa’s foremost oil producer, banned the Iranian-backed Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) this weekend after demonstrations in the capital Abuja to free its leader, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky turned violent. At least six people were killed.

“The Saudis watching the Iranians trying to break into northern Nigeria is almost like watching someone else try to befriend your best friend,” said Ini Dele-Adedeji, a Nigerian academic at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, referring to the region’s religious elites that have aligned themselves with the kingdom.

Saudi cables released in 2015 by WikiLeaks reveal concern about Iranian-funded Shiite expansion in West African and Sahel nations including Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Nigeria.

Mr. Dele-Adedji said Saudi and Iranian funding was “on the surface…about these countries helping out with ‘charitable work’ activities. But beyond that it’s also a way for those countries to almost create extensions of themselves.”

Mr. El-Zakzaky, a Sunni Muslim student activist inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution, initially agitated for a repeat in his native Nigeria. When that didn’t work, Mr. El-Zakzaky went to Iran, converted to Shiism, and started wearing the white turban of a Shiite cleric.

Returning home in the 1990s, he became the leader of the Islamic Movement and turned it into a vehicle for proselytizing and gaining followers.

Things got out of hand when Nigerian troops killed hundreds of Shiites in the ancient university town of Zaria in December 2015 and arrested Mr. El-Zakzaky and hundreds of his followers. The army accused the Shiite group of attempting to kill Nigeria’s army chief-of-staff, a charge the movement denies.

Iran has been funding Mr. El-Zakzaky for years and the area of Zaria he worked in became the “mecca for the dispossessed in Nigeria,” according to Matthew Page, a former U.S. State Department specialist on Nigeria. The Islamic Movement has been receiving about $10,000 a month from Iran, he estimated.

Mr. El-Zakzaky used the money to fund soup kitchens and homeless shelters, Mr. Page said. “This was a very inexpensive way for Iran to have a toehold in Nigeria,” he said.

Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of London-based consultants Cornerstone Global Associates estimated that Mr. El-Zakzaky’s organization operates more than 300 schools, Islamic centres, a newspaper, guards and a “martyrs’ foundation.” The network is similar to welfare systems established elsewhere by Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups.

The Nigerian government first declared the Islamic Movement a security threat in 2017, comparing it with the Boko Haram insurgency, according to Nigerian diplomats.

Peregrino Brimah, a trained medical doctor who teaches biology, anatomy and physiology at colleges in New York never gave much thought while growing up in Nigeria to the fact that clerics increasingly were developing links to Saudi Arabia.

“You could see the money, the big ones were leading the good life, they ran scholarship programs. In fact, I was offered a scholarship to study at King Fahd University in Riyadh. I never thought about it until December 2015 when up to a 1,000 Shiites were killed by the military in northern Nigeria. Since I started looking at it, I’ve realized how successful, how extraordinarily successful the Wahhabis have been.” Mr. Brimah said.

He decided to stand up for Shiite rights after the incident in which the military arrested Mr. El-Zakzaky.

The Nigerian military said that it had attacked sites in Zaria after hundreds of Shia demonstrators had blocked a convoy of Nigeria’s army chief General Tukur Yusuf Buratai in an effort to kill him.

Military police said Shiites had crawled through tall grass towards General Buratai’s convoy “with the intent to attack the vehicle with [a] petrol bomb” while others “suddenly resorted to firing gunshots from the direction of the mosque.”

A phone call to Nigerian President Mohammed Buhari in which King Salman expressed his support for the government’s fight against terrorist groups was widely seen as Saudi endorsement of the military’s crackdown on the country’s Shiite minority.

The state-owned Saudi Press Agency quoted King Salman as saying that Islam condemned such “criminal acts” and that the kingdom in a reference to Iran opposed foreign interference in Nigeria.

Mr. Brimah’s defense of the Shiites has cost him dearly, illustrating the degree to which Saudi-funded ultra-conservatism and Iranian agitation has altered Nigerian society.

“I lost everything I had built on social media the minute I stood up for the Shiites. I had thousands of fans. Suddenly, I was losing 2-300 followers a day. My brother hasn’t spoken to me since. The last thing he said to me is: ‘how can you adopt Shiite ideology?’ I raised the issue in a Sunni chat forum. It became quickly clear that these attitudes were not accidental. They are the product of Saudi-sponsored teachings of serious hatred. People don’t understand what they are being taught. They rejoice when a thousand Shiites are killed. Even worse is the fact that they hate people like me who stand up for the Shiites even more than they hate the Shiite themselves,” Mr. Brimah said.

In response to Mr. Brimah’s writing about the clash, General Buratai invited him for a chat. Mr. Brimah politely declined. When Mr. Brimah reiterated his accusation, General Buratai’s spokesman, Colonel SK Usman, adopting the Saudi line of Shiites being Iranian stooges, accused the scientist of being on the Islamic republic’s payroll.

“Several of us hold you in high esteem based on perceived honesty, intellectual prowess and ability to speak your mind. That was before, but the recent incident…and subsequent events and actions by some groups and individuals such as you made one to have a rethink. I was quite aware of your concerted effort to smear the good name and reputation of the Chief of Army Staff to the extent of calling for his resignation,” Colonel Usman said in an email to Mr. Brimah that the activist shared with this writer.

General Buratai “went out of his way to write to you and even invited you for constructive engagement. But because you have dubious intents, you cleverly refused…. God indeed is very merciful for exposing you. Let me make it abundantly clear to you that your acts are not directed to the person of the Chief of Army Staff, they have far reaching implication on our national security. Please think about it and mend your ways and refund whatever funds you coveted for the campaign of calumny,” Colonel Usman said.

Mr. Brimah’s inbox has since then been inundated with anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian writings in what he believes is a military-inspired campaign.

Mr. Brimah’s predicament reflects the fallout of the Saudi Iranian rivalry in West Africa as a result of Saudi and Iranian funding that has let the genie of intolerance, discrimination and bigotry out of the bottle.

Issoufou Yahaya, in the Sahel state of Niger, recalls his student days in the 1980s when there wasn’t a single mosque on his campus. “Today, we have more mosques here than we have lecture rooms. So much has changed in such a short time,” he said.

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