Poverty Relief: More Programs, More Pains

Past governments have engaged in the past time of glorifying poverty alleviation on the pages of newspapers and news conferences but have failed to deliver. The earliest poverty alleviation programmes were the 1972 Gen. Yakubu Gowon’s National Accelerated Food Production Programme and the Nigerian Agricultural and Co-operative Bank, entirely devoted to funding agriculture. The NAFPP turned out to be a colossal waste and nothing was achieved. There was the much publicized Operation Feed the Nation in 1976 by the then military strong-man, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, “which expended much money and effort in getting ill-prepared university undergraduates to go to the rural areas to teach the peasants farmers how to farm. A kind of teaching an old dog a new trick. A theoretical farming graduate teaching a farmer, who makes his/her living out of farming, how to farm. The scheme’s only success was in creating awareness of food shortage and the need to tackle the problem. The 1979 Shehu Shagari’s Green Revolution Programme had the twin objectives of curtailing food importation while boosting crop and fibre production.

The overall objective was big (mechanised) farming. “Many senior civil and military officers, both in and out of office, used their access to the state to the advantage of the wide range of facilities committed to the Green Revolution. Many private businessmen also joined these bureaucrats -cum – farmers. Some new-breed farmers were only interested in getting Certificate of Occupancy for large tracks of land. The land can then be used for speculative purposes, for example, as collateral for securing loans”. When the programme ended in 1983, 2 billion naira tax payers’ money was wasted. That is more than two hundred billion naira in today’s exchange rate. Buhari’s government introduced the Go Back (School) to Land programme with variations such as the former Rivers – State governor, Fidelis Oyakhilome’s School to Land programme and his Lagos – State counterpart, Gbolahan Mudashiru’s Graduates Farming Scheme. Initially the Oyakhilome’s scheme worked wonders in Rivers, made headline news in some newspapers.

But like everything, Nigerian, it fizzled out and died. There is a belief that one of the major reasons for the failure of all these agricultural/poverty reduction programmes was that they were based on “faulty philosophy”. The belief is that food programmes such as the Gen. Gowon’s National Accelerated Food Production Programme; the Gen. Obasanjo’s Operation Feed the Nation; the Shehu Shagari’s Green Revolution, and the Gen. Buhari’s Go Back to Land Programme “failed because of the far – fetched objectives of making farmers out of all Nigerians, and that no country attains self – sufficiency in food by seeking to turn all its citizens in to farmers, that farming should be left for those whose business it is to farm.” In 1986 Gen. Babangida established the Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI) for rural development.

This was meant to provide feeder roads, electricity, and potable water and toilet facilities for the rural dwellers. The projects gulped N1.9b (about N80 billion today’s value) without Nigerians benefiting from them. Various projects were set up for poverty alleviation purposes. Amongst them, are the Peoples Bank of Nigeria and the Community Bank of Nigeria. Neither did these financial institutions lived up to their expectations, nor did they actualized their aims and purposes. Babangida’s wife, Maryam, also went in to the business of caring for the Nigerian poor. She set up Better Life Programme and ended up making millionaires out of the BLP officials and friends. The better life for rural women became the better life for rich women. The Nigerian poor did not know what hit them, before the poor could say “Food At Last”, the food was taken away from them, and they were left gapping and hungry as usual. In 1993 Abacha and his wife found a gold-mine in the business of pretending to care for the poor. The Family Support Programme and the Family Economic Advancement Programme were set up.

The Nigerian poor, again, were taking for a ride. According to the Tell magazine of 3/8/98 “FSP gulped over N10 billion of tax payers money at a time her husband, Abacha, was retrenching hapless civil servants nation-wide.” Would this present measure by Obasanjo be any different? Would there be succour at last for the poor? The previous measures all started like today’s own. The Better Life for Rural Women, the Family Support Programme and the Peoples Bank were particularly interesting because they were directed to the poor. Shame that the government’s objectives and purposes ran parallel to the Nigerian poor expectations. Shame that they were bent on taking the Nigerian poor for a ride. A distinctive type of political system in which the rivalries and struggles of powerful and willful men, rather than impersonal institutions, ideologies, public policies, or class interests, are fundamental in shaping political life. It is a monopolistic politics as against pluralistic or multiparty politics. It is usually a civilian one – party state or a military dictatorship (There is overwhelming believe that Obasanjo’ PDP government is shifting towards a full blown one – party state ).

It is the politics of Big – Men who are a considerable distance from the ordinary people. Politics of no accountability, transparency and responsibility came in place. Other practices in personal government are conspiracy, factional politics, clientelism, and corruption, purges and rehabilitations and secession manoeuvres. In this type of monopolistic politics there is little or no time for the governed. When the governed, the ordinary people, are eventually remembered, a not – well – thought of system is put in place to alleviate their sufferings. At the end the beneficiaries of the systems (Poverty Alleviation Programmes ) are the same big – men that the political system is made – up of. Nigerian politics since independence (perhaps, with the exception of the Balewa government) to the last military rule have been monopolistic in practice. Hence the lukewarm attitudes towards the impoverished majority and the badly managed programmes that supposed to alleviate their sufferings. I was one of the Nigerians who sincerely believed in Babangida’s economic policies.

When, in 1986, he embarked on the structural adjustment programmes and some people criticized the idea, I was one of those who believed Nigeria needed SAPs because I had (and still have) the opinion that if each time “Peter” (Nigeria) is in need of money he goes to his neighbour “Paul” (USA or Europe) to lend him some money and, frequently, Peter does not honour his debt repayment, the neighbour, Paul, has the moral and economic right to seat the frequent borrower down to discuss the terms of the next lending. Terms such as, Peter, no, I am not lending you money this time unless you tell me what you intend to do with the money, (for I believe you have not been using the previous lending judiciously well, and that is why you keep coming back for more and also you have not been honouring your debts) and if I do not like your plan, I will advise you on what I think will benefit you and me. On take it or leave it bases. I understand that bilateral and/or multilateral lending is not as clear cut as is put here. There are much more to country lending than just Peter and Paul. The fact was that Babangida inherited a steadily declining economy from his predecessor, Buhari, who ran out of new ideas on how to revamp the recalcitrant economy.

The regime’s counter – trading economic policy (exchange of oil for raw – materials, spare – parts, machinery and consumer goods) was worsening the economy, international debts were not being honoured and IMF conditionalities did not appeal to Buhari and Idiagbon. Babangida implemented the conditionalities and the rest as they say is history. Nigerians are quick to criticise SAPs for the country’s woes but the question is, did SAPs fail Nigeria or did Nigeria fail SAPs? I think Babangida failed Nigerians, not the other way round. Babangida wasted more than 100 billion naira in phantom projects. Projects such as his wife’s Better Life Programmes for the poor, DFRRI, People’s Bank of Nigeria, two democratic transition experiments, big time corruption in which members of the Babangida regime enriched themselves. So it goes without saying that according to the book implementation of SAPs would do any country good. When also the Peoples Bank was established, I supported the august idea, hoping that the measure would do well to ease the plight of the Nigerian poor.

My optimism was premised on the knowledge that the idea had been tried and tested somewhere in the world and it worked and, guess what, the idea is still thriving now as you are reading this article. The country in question is Bangladesh and their own Peoples Bank is called Grameen Bank. In fact Nigeria got the idea of the Peoples Bank, as an effective way of alleviating poverty, from the Bangladesh‘s Grameen Bank. So one is forced to ask why is it that when something is working perfectly well in one country, when the idea is imported to Nigeria it stops working. As my mother used to say, it is not what you do, but how you do it. The Nigerian problems lie in the lacklustre attitudes to execution of government projects. If Obasanjo could correct that ugly aspect of the Nigerian factor (lacklustre execution), the country’s problem is half solved. A tall order, maybe, but the success of this country movement forward or backward hinges on three things: ideas, implementations and executions. Had Buhari been honest in his management of the petroleum trust fund, PTF, the amount of money that was in his disposal, he would have alleviated Nigerian poverty ten fold.

Written by
L.Chinedu Arizona-Ogwu
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