The descent by Nigerians into the poverty hole seems very rapid despite the country’s fabled wealth. In the ’70s, we were swimming in wealth. That was why the Yakubu Gowon government approved the windfall called Udoji awards. With the Udoji bonanza, workers were catapulted from being pedestrians to the adorable class of car owners in one swift jump. The government spread its wings to the West Indies as a Father Christmas, picking up the bills of civil servants in a couple of those countries. That was the time that the government felt that money was not a problem. What was a problem was how to spend it. And did we spend it? Yes, we did. That was how we had the rice and cement armada, which choked our ports and proved to be a curse rather than a cure for our existential problems. The windfall haunted Nigeria up to the end of that decade. By 1980, poverty had put its ragged shoes on and had arrived at our shores. By that year, an estimated 27% of Nigerians were living in poverty. By 1999, poverty had shown its delicate teeth as 70% of our people had an income of less than $1 a day. At that time, $1 could not possibly fetch anyone one decent meal when exchanged for the naira.
Since then we have been sliding down the slope. Data from the World Bank shows that, since 2016, four out of 10 Nigerians have been living in poverty, earning less than $1.9 per day. In 2018, the country was declared by the Brookings Institution the poverty capital of the world. According to the Brookings report, “at the end of May 2018 our trajectories suggest that Nigeria had about 87 million people in extreme poverty compared with India’s 73 million. What is more, extreme poverty in Nigeria is growing by six people every minute while poverty in India continues to fall.”
A few weeks ago, our National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), in its latest National Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index, showed that 133 million Nigerians are poor due to a lack of access to health, education, living standards, employment and security. The report also showed that the following states are the top poorest states: Sokoto (90.5%), Bayelsa (88.5%), Gombe (86.2%), Jigawa (84.3%), Plateau (84%). The least poor states are Ondo (27.2%), Lagos (29.4%), Abia (29.8%), Edo (31%) and Anambra (32.1%). The report also added that 65% of poor Nigerians (85 million) are in the North while 35% are in the South. Also, it noted that 72% of people in the rural areas are poor while 42% of people in the urban areas are also poor. The report also indicates that about 70% of Nigeria’s population live in rural areas while only 30% live in urban areas. This report is perhaps the most comprehensive done by the NBS. Its survey covered 56,610 people in 109 senatorial districts in the 36 states.
The report has expectedly generated some heat. While the Federal Government blames the state governors for the rise in the poverty level, accusing them of swallowing up the funds meant for local governments in their states, the state governments put the blame on the doorstep of the Federal Government. They accuse the Federal Government of failure to contain the rampant insecurity that has affected farmers, traders and other persons. They said: “ The Federal Government, which is responsible for the security of life and property, has been unable to fulfil the covenant with the people, thus allowing bandits, insurgents and kidnappers to turn the country into a killing field, maiming and abducting people in schools, market squares and even on their farmlands.”
Mr. Clement Agba, Minister of State for Finance, Budget and National Planning, has joined the blame game from the Federal Government perspective. He blames the growth in poverty on what he called the “misplaced priority of governors.” He says that governors spend their state resources largely on the state capitals, not on the rural areas where most of the population live. He mentioned that they build airports even where there are other airports nearby and that they are “competing to build flyovers all over the place.” He suggested that they should build rural roads so that farmers can get their products to the market cheaply.
From my perspective, both the federal and state governments are guilty of contributing to the growth of poverty. Apart from the insecurity mentioned by the governors, the Federal Government receives more than 50% of the nation’s revenue. It, therefore, deserves to take a higher share of the blame for the increasing level of poverty in the country. Besides, the failure by the Federal Government to stem the tide of serious clashes between herders and farmers in various parts of the country has affected agricultural production in a number of states. However, the Federal Government is correct in accusing the state governors of swallowing up local government funds. Most local governments are located in rural areas and if their funds are usurped by the governors then the local government chairmen have no wherewithal with which to develop these rural areas. Besides, it is also true that some governors have been embarking on conspicuous consumption and in the erection of monuments that are of no use to anybody. This happens because most of the state Houses of Assembly are weak and live only in the pockets of state governors. So in many states there are no checks and balances, only mutual chopping, which allows the governors to do almost anything they want while the state Houses of Assembly look the other way.
Over the years, both the federal and state governments have embarked on various poverty alleviating programmes such as Operation Feed the Nation (OFN), the Green Revolution, Directorate of Employment, Better Life for Rural Women, National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS), National Accelerated Food Production Programmes, National Poverty Eradication Programme, etcetera. Most of these programmes are either dead or moribund or are on their sick beds, another evidence that Nigerian governments lack the capacity for efficient management of even life-transforming programmes.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) indicates that the world should end extreme poverty by 2030. President Muhammadu Buhari has promised to lift 100 million people out of poverty by 2030. The cost of implementing this programme is estimated to be $1.6 trillion over 10 years between 2021 and 2031. This is a very tall order because Nigeria is in a deep debt hole already and its crude oil production level is below the approved OPEC quota. The high level of insecurity has been a major roadblock to high productivity. Of course, there is the problem posed by COVID-19. Now there is rampaging inflation and high prices of essential goods, which affect the poor very severely. Nigeria’s inflation level jumped to 21.09% in October this year. On February 4 this year, the World Bank had in its national development report warned that “inflation shock alone had pushed about eight million more Nigerians below the poverty line in 2020 and 2021.” Higher prices of food and fuel are eroding the real value of workers’ wages and savings, leaving households poorer. Giving N5,000 to the vulnerable may provide some temporary relief but that doesn’t help him much. There is the Chinese proverb that says that it is better to teach a man how to catch fishes instead of giving him fishes to eat. The gift of fish will not last long but being able to catch fishes will last as long as the man lives.
The truth, however, is that several governments in the past had tried to rehabilitate beggars and destitutes. They packed them out of the streets to where they were to be taught some crafts. Many of them escaped and ran back to the streets to beg for a living because begging is easier and fetches money without work. So the orientation of the poor is important in solving the problem. Poverty offers the poor the opportunity to either sink or swim. Many poor people seem to prefer to sink rather than swim. As Plutarch said many years ago “poverty is not dishonourable in itself but only when it comes from idleness, intemperance, extravagance and folly.”
When an English judge was asked what contributed most to success at the bar, he said: “Some succeed by great talent, some by the influence of friends, some by a miracle but the majority by commencing without a shilling.”
That means extreme hardwork, but many Nigerians do not want to go through the grind to get to the palace of success.
It is a fact that the federal and state governments can do a lot to ameliorate poverty, if the political will is there. But the other fact is that most of them do not consider the alleviation of poverty to be a major issue to which they should pay serious attention. Opportunities must be created for start-ups to exist and thrive; Entrepreneurship must be incorporated into curriculum of our secondary and tertiary institutions; government businesses that are not making profit should be privatised so that serious-minded private sector persons can take them over, expand them and create more employment opportunities; government must take a multi-pronged approach to the alleviation of poverty and unemployment; all the political parties and their candidates who are asking for our votes must pay special attention to the reduction of poverty and increase of employment opportunities particularly by the private sector. This would involve creating tax incentives, encouraging the export of finished and semi finished goods and putting more items under the import restriction list so that local industries can thrive. Incoming governments in 2023 must adopt measures that can stimulate the economy, improve agriculture, solid minerals and expand the exportation of crude oil and gas. We have no reason to be poor considering the huge resources under our feet. It is a crying shame that many young Nigerians are queuing up every day at the embassies of developed countries looking for visas with which to escape from the country, which has enough potential for accommodating our educated young people. It should worry our government that some of our youths trained with the country’s resources are willing and ready to go abroad and contribute to the building of those countries rather than their own. They feel that there are not many choices left for them. But the ugly part of it is that our governments do not consider this exodus as a serious problem that they should be worried about. But it is.