Sometimes you don’t know whether to cry or scoff at highly duplicitous statements made by ministers, particularly when those assertions do not reflect the true situation on the ground in Nigeria. Consider this. At a press conference to celebrate the 2019 World Food Day in Abuja, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Sabo Nanono, shocked journalists when he said Nigerians do not yet understand what it meant to be hungry because they have not yet been incapacitated by or experienced actual hunger.
In a somewhat bizarre and blind argument, the minister said: “I think we are producing enough food to feed ourselves. There is no hunger in the country and when people talk about hunger I just laugh because they do not know hunger. They need to go to other countries to know what hunger is all about… If you say I miss my breakfast and I get lunch and dinner, then that is alright.”
What an outrageous statement. Perhaps the minister would be convinced that there is hunger in Nigeria only when he has seen an appropriate number of people die of acute economic, financial, and resource deprivation. The claim by the minister was insensitive, unintelligent, supercilious, dim-witted, careless, offensive, and insulting. President Muhammadu Buhari must find a way to sanction some ministers who make contemptible statements that do not help to lift the low image of the government.
The minister’s claims are at odds with current reality because many Nigerians are direct victims of starvation, a situation aggravated by appalling levels of poverty. Could it be that the minister has a limited understanding of the magnitude of poverty in the country?
It is sheer hypocrisy and indeed disgraceful for a minister to demonstrate ignorance by arguing that there is no hunger in the country. Pray, what does the minister understand by the word “hunger”? Whether the minister is sophisticated or not, whether he lacks the capacity to grasp the true meaning of the word hunger, he should not have exposed his intellectual inadequacies in the public sphere.
The minister cannot understand the meaning of hunger because the high office he occupies has shielded him from experiencing the harsh realities of life the way ordinary citizens do. He is not exposed to the same economic and financial difficulties that all of us face every day.
The minister cannot understand the meaning of hunger because he does not know and has not experienced hunger. He does not know the prices of basic food items in the marketplace. He cannot tell you the price of a 50-kilogram bag of rice or how much a bunch of vegetables costs. He does not face the same economic and financial conditions as everyone else does. He lives in a glass house where his view of life has been blinkered by glossy interior decorations and the privileges of a good life accorded to him as a minister.
Privileged government officials have a distorted view of poverty. They say the poor are poor because they chose to be poor. Poverty has persisted in our society because the government does not believe the problem deserves special attention. Poverty has local and international dimensions. Hurricane Katrina that hit parts of the United States in 2005 exposed the underbelly of poverty in the country. Before that disaster, many people thought the United States represented a land flowing with milk and honey. They believe the US is the best place to migrate to escape poverty. That is far from the truth. There is poverty in the United States as it exists in some other countries. The difference is the scale of the problem.
The misconception by the minister that there is no hunger in Nigeria must be exposed. A recent World Poverty Report released this month (precisely on 7 October 2019) showed that no fewer than 94,470,535 Nigerians now live below the extreme poverty line. This statistic should put the minister to shame, particularly when the figure represents the number of Nigerians who cannot afford the minimum of N684 per day.
The international country director of OXFAM, a group of non-governmental organisations that aim to lower poverty and inequality, noted how the number of Nigerians living below the poverty line has worsened between April and October 2019. OXFAM country director Constant Tchona said that in April this year, more than 91 million Nigerians lived below the poverty line. Six months later in October, the number had worsened to more than 94 million people. What a country!
The director observed: “The number of people that live below extreme poverty level as at April was 91,501,377, making Nigeria the World Capital of Poverty. As if that was not bad enough, …six months later, the number has jumped up to 94,470,535 people. What this means is that we have added 2,969,158 people more into extreme poverty. By comparison, this number is more than the population of Gambia and Cape Verde combined. At the current rate, Nigeria is not only off track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but many now believe that up to 25 per cent of the world’s extreme poor will live in Nigeria by 2030.”
This is a depressing assessment. How could this happen in country with a government that never fails to regale citizens with exaggerated claims of economic achievements in more than four years?
To provide further evidence that developed countries are also afflicted by poverty while a Nigerian minister is denying it, here are some figures from Australia, a country ranked in 2013 as “the world’s happiest nation among developed economies for the third year running”. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported on 28 May 2013 that Australia attained this status and ranking owing to “the overall strength of its economy, in the Better Life Index compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development”.
However, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), “a national advocate for action to reduce poverty and inequality and the peak body for the community services sector in Australia”, reported that in 2018, there were “just over 3 million people (13.2%) living below the poverty line of 50% of median income – including 739,000 children (17.3%). In dollar figures, this poverty line works out to $433 a week for a single adult living alone; or $909 a week for a couple with 2 children” ( HYPERLINK “https://www.acoss.org.au/poverty/” https://www.acoss.org.au/poverty/).
This shows that poverty is a global issue that sullies many countries’ economic performance indices. In relative terms, the number of Australians who live below the poverty line as at 2018 (the current figures available for the country) pales in comparison to the number of Nigerians who live below the poverty line in 2019.
While poverty is a complex subject, the causes of that economic condition are multiple. They include but are not limited to uncaring federal policies, high levels of graduate unemployment, poor state of the economy, the result of historical circumstances, decisions taken by previous governments, lack of medium scale loans to encourage general interest in agriculture, and cutting off resources that ought to be channelled to the less privileged members of our society in the pretext that Nigeria is facing economic crises.
Hunger and poverty are twin problems that cause distress to many people. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development should not insult everyone by denying the existence of hunger in the society. After all, the government has an obligation to cater for the welfare and wellbeing of citizens.