Ending the scourge of poverty in Nigeria

by Olusegun Fakoya

One is saddened by the current constitutional impasse occasioned by the lingering ill-health of President Yar’adua and the spiralling effects of this on the entrenchment of good governance and the eradication of poverty in Nigeria. The failure of Nigeria to harness her abundant human and natural resources remains her greatest albatross.

Nigeria is an ethnically diverse and most populous country in Africa with a chronic history of political instability. It is brimming with an army of young, unemployed men who are at risk of turning to violence and crime in the absence of jobs. More than half of its 150 million people live in poverty despite the country being a major oil producer. One in five children dies before the age of five. Some of the states in northern Nigeria have the worst human development indicators of any region in the world which is not affected by conflict. Nigeria has a very high maternal mortality rate. The country has 2 per cent of the world’s population but suffers 10 per cent of global maternal deaths.

Poverty abounds in the land like a plague that defies all sanitary measures. The faces of poverty are many and varied in Nigeria. It is depicted by the many slums that abound in many cities and towns. It is reflected in the thousands of school age children hawking “pure water”, bread, roasted corn, eggs and milks. It is the face most depicted by that elderly Hausa woman who remains a significant part of my primary school memories. She was ever present by the school gate with her little box of “groundnuts” (cashew nuts) and what is popularly termed “kuli-kuli” (a hardened form of bean cake). Poverty seems to have established an enduring base in our midst. It would be no surprise in these days of genetic mapping if a pool of “poverty genes” were to be discovered in Nigerians. Our genetic make-up could have undergone mutation due to many generations of abiding poverty which appears so unshakeable.

In spite of Nigeria’s oil wealth (the nation is the 6th oil producing nation in the world), the poor constitute about 70% of the Nigerian population. And recent report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) shows Nigeria as the 26th poorest nation in the world (The Guardian, July 26, 2002; also see Dike, October 6, 2002). With the vast mineral, oil, water, land and human resources, many Nigerians live on less than $1.00 (one U.S. dollar) a day. Victor Dike (in Global Economy and Poverty in Nigeria) maintained that no precise definition is really needed in Nigeria for us to understand what poverty is, as poverty is indelible on those afflicted by it. The poor are those who cannot afford decent food, medical care, recreation, decent shelter and clothe; meet family and community obligations, and other necessities of life. With this, it is not surprising that poverty is regarded as a form of oppression (UNDP Conference Report, 15-17 March 2001).

Poverty could however be defined as a state of being poor or indigent or as the scarcity or want of means of subsistence. It is an indigent state or needful state reflecting the deficiency of elements or resources that are needed or desired, or that constitute richness such as poverty of soil, poverty of ideas, etc. The World Bank encompasses virtually all about poverty when it described it as:

“Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time.

Poverty has many faces, changing from place to place and across time, and has been described in many ways. Most often, poverty is a situation people want to escape. So poverty is a call to action — for the poor and the wealthy alike — a call to change the world so that many more may have enough to eat, adequate shelter, access to education and health, protection from violence, and a voice in what happens in their communities.”

The tool for determining the relative prosperity of citizens of a country is the GNP (Gross National Product). Available indices indicate that our GNP per capita is about $260 which is below even that of countries like Bangladesh with a per capita income of $370. Ours compared favourably with that of countries like Tanzania ($260) and Mozambique ($220). It is sad to note that South Africa ($3,170) and Botswana ($3, 240) are in a different league. It would be heart breaking to compare our GNP with those of Western nations.

Nigeria is an oil-ruined country. Our dependence on oil wealth has made the country vulnerable to the volatility in oil prices over the last year. The impact of falling prices is compounded by the instability in the oil-producing Niger Delta region where the poor conduct of oil companies and the failure of State authorities to use their substantial resources to benefit their citizens has allowed violence, kidnappings and abuse of the rights of local people to flourish. Oil has distorted the economy and discouraged growth in other sectors. It is such that competition for a share of oil wealth dominates politics, feeds corruption and diverts attention away from improving governance and providing the basic services which the Nigerian people need. The country’s development is ever hardly affected by its enormous oil wealth.

Nigeria is not an aid-dependent country but aid still accounts for about 1 per cent of her Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For example, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) is allocating £120 million to Nigeria for 2009-10, up from £20 million in 2001-02. The Committee supports this level of funding on the basis of the regional significance of Nigeria to West Africa, its close ties with the UK, and the scale of poverty in the country. It is the belief of the UK government that it would not be sensible to increase aid while corruption and poor governance remain such significant barriers to poverty alleviation in the country.

Nigeria is not on track to meet any of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and these targets stand little chance of being met by 2015 at Nigeria’s current rate of progress. Governance, public finance management, and delivery of basic services suffered with 30 years of military rule and continued to suffer with our stuttering experiment with democracy. And change is likely to continue to be slow and incremental until the Nigerian authorities provide stronger leadership for reform. Of importance is the need to effectively ensure a structure where funding is not misused or blunted by the weakness of domestic structures.

Oil wealth and international aid must be made to improve the lives of Nigeria’s poorest people. This can only result from fundamental changes in governance aimed at building and sustaining capacity development and fighting endemic corruption. Efforts must also be made to diversify the economy. This remains imperative if Nigeria is to be able to cope with the demands of its ever surging populations in years to come. Fundamental reformation of political leadership also becomes imperative especially in the light of our present experience where a sick, lame duck President can be absent from the country for over two months and yet constitutional requirements cannot be fulfilled to move the country forward. Nigeria has come a long way in her chequered history for selfish, primordial and bane considerations to still dominate national discourse. It is important in this stage of our history, if the country must remain as one, for us to begin to learn how to build a nation devoid of the superiority of ethnic or cabal considerations. The shift from mere geographical expression to a nation foun

ded on committed patriotism must begin now otherwise we are doomed.

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