Nigeria at 58: Celebrating poverty
AS Nigeria clocks 58 years as an independent entity today, perhaps the most remarkable fact about the country is the widespread poverty among the populace. Naturally, today being Independence Day, there are colourful celebrations going on at the seats of power, with President Muhammadu Buhari and the 36 state governors giving fine speeches about Nigeria’s turbulent journey and preaching justice, fairness, togetherness and unity. But these words have no serious meaning even to those uttering them. There are enough promises to fill the proverbial Christopher Okigbo basket, but the people on whose behalf they occupy office mouthing political lullabies are in serious pain. Right now, at this very moment, there are millions of Nigerians who have not yet had anything close to breakfast, not because they are unwilling to but because they have nothing to eat, and there is no respite from the next-door neighbour. Nigeria’s narrative at 58 is, in the language of the late Afrobeat king, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a tale of sorrow, tears and blood. Entire families are in pain and agony, literally bereft of a pot of soup, and angling in vain for a morsel. But the leaders are busy celebrating their poverty of thinking which has caused the people so much misery.
Not surprisingly, in some parts of the country, restaurateurs are reportedly counting their losses as their businesses come under attack, besieged by hungry and desperate villains. The tension among the populace is palpable, disappointment is rife and lamentations are effusive. Particularly in the last three years, poverty has assumed alarming and distressing proportions. The vast majority of Nigerians remain trapped in appalling and horrendous conditions. Quite symbolically, last week, pensioners in the South-East geopolitical zone, speaking for themselves and their compatriots across the country, described retirement as a curse, their grouse being with the lack of pensions. But then, it is not just retirement poverty itself that is a curse; the very fact of being a Nigerian—with sham elections, a boastful but morally perverse leadership, stagnant manufacturing sector, widespread insecurity, widespread hunger and deprivation and a return to the police state—has become virtually synonymous with a curse and there is, unfortunately, no telling when the drift towards anomie will be arrested.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), between January and September 2017, 4.07 million Nigerians became unemployed. The number rose from 11.92 million in the first quarter of the year to 13.58 million and 15.99 million in the second and third quarters. Between the second quarter and third quarter, the number of economically active or working age population (15 – 64 years of age) increased from 110.3 million to 111.1 million. The 2018 figures indicated that the economy remains fragile as GDP growth slowed down in the second quarter of this year. The economy grew 1.5 per cent in the quarter, a downturn from the 1.95 per cent growth recorded in the first quarter, yet population growth continues steadily at 2.5 per cent. In March this year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) averred that despite the recovery of the economy from recession, more Nigerians were sliding into poverty. The Federal Government itself said that no fewer than 80 million Nigerians lived in poverty, and that only about 455,857 (0.57 per cent) had been captured in the National Social Register (NSP) being used for its National Cash Transfer Programme. Of those captured, just 297,973 (0.37 per cent) of the identified poor actually got the monthly support.
In any case, the Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy organisation in the United States, has asserted that Nigeria is now the poverty capital of the world. It said: “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.” Thus, ahead of her visit to Nigeria in August, Mrs. Theresa May, British Prime Minister, lamented: “Much of Nigeria is thriving, with many individuals enjoying the fruits of a resurgent economy, yet 87 million Nigerians live below $1 and 90 cents a day, making it home to more very poor people than any other nation in the world.”
Yet, in spite of our incessant warnings, the government has failed to create an enabling environment for businesses to thrive and is consequently not getting enough tax revenue to help the poor with. As we pointed out in previous editorials, although in 2016 it set up the Presidential Enabling Business Council whose activities resulted in the country moving up 24 points on the ease of doing business index published by the World Bank in 2017, the fact is that there still exist institutional barriers such as the squabbles among government agencies located at the ports which slow down the pace of doing business in the country. It has also refused to address the cost of doing business, forcing many firms to reduce their operations, lay off staff, or go out of business altogether. Nor has it addressed the country’s infrastructure deficit, particularly in electricity generation. We have not been persuaded to change our opinion that it is a thriving private sector, not a stipend-sharing government, that holds the key to poverty reduction.
To be sure, in sharp contrast to the pains of the populace, the political class led by President Muhammadu Buhari has been very comfortable, enjoying the perks of the country’s skewed federalism and scoffing at the need for a restructured polity. Power remains concentrated at the centre, with unmanageable weight on the exclusive legislative list. Nigeria needs a government that will restructure the polity. Without this, poverty can only worsen in the country.