Poverty: FG and the lamentation of the ancient mariner

AFTER the sailors of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had rowed into the frigid waters of the Antarctic, they experienced short-lived relief from a near-shipwreck. The crew were delivered from the ice jam; but alas they were drawn into more distressing anguish: they were dying from thirst in the middle of a massive body of water. “Water, water, everywhere, And all the boards did shrink; Water water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink. What can cause greater physical and emotional torture than to suffer lack in the midst of plenty? Nigeria’s Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo, was holed in the same corner of exasperation recently as he reviewed the central government’s poverty alleviation schemes over the years. Billions of naira have been spent by the administration to draw out the downtrodden from the death net. But there is little to show for it, he laments. The VP says his administration has been feeding ‘’about 9.5 million children in 34 states now across Nigeria in all public schools.’’ He adds: ‘’ We are giving monthly cash to about a million households as part of our conditional cash transfer scheme…We have also engaged about 500,000 young men and women who had been unemployed for different periods of time under our N-Power Programme.’’

Yet, those targeted have remained fundamentally untouched, according to Osinbajo. In the midst of the naira showers on them, they don’t evince any improvement in their fortunes. “…We are still very far from touching the majority of those who need help’’ is the verdict of the vice-president.  It’s the painful narrative of the old master sailor all over again. He and his men had ‘water’ in abundance around them. But it’s saline water. Undrinkable. Unhealthy. Unfit. Its abundance and availability wouldn’t guarantee its profitability and usefulness to dying men. If consumed, it would hasten the death they feared. Same with Nigeria’s enormous resources. They are unprofitable, unhelpful and unfruitful to the majority of the people and the nation at large as long as our strategy to tame our challenges remains the simplistic tradition of throwing money at them. It won’t work as it never did in the past.

The world has gone beyond the archaic notion of raw money being the answer to the needs of the poor rendered vulnerable by the greed of the exploiter class. Since we are applying wrong solutions to the problem, we can’t but wring our hands and be upset that we are not getting the desired response. We shall continue to writhe in pain as we cause more pain with our powerless strategies. What the underprivileged require isn’t cash. It is justice and equitable redistribution of communal wealth and opportunities that would enable them and their families have access to the goodies of life. It is the local capitalists and their co-conspirators in government and industry and commerce along with their expatriate lords who deify money who believe that when the deprived are complaining, they are easily pacified when they see wads of naira and dollars.

It is unfortunate that our labour leaders also fall into this snare. They go to war with the government and employers of labour all year round, achieving little at the end of the day after spilling blood, as it were. When the skirmishes are over, the workers are given a pittance we call minimum wage, which hardly offers us minimum comforts. Where is the place of N30,000 in the face of the economic demands of the 21st Century? What long-range solution can we secure from feeding only a handful of the teeming millions of those in school? How can N-Power neutralize the monstrous might of an army of the unemployed furious with their uncaring leaders? Will Tradermoni satisfy the palate of those exposed to an unequal society, where we can afford to give idle politicians millions of naira as wages in a month but can’t give at least N30,000 as minimum wage to the creators of wealth? Why do we tie the emancipation of the denied class to mere paper notes? Paper money has only paper weight which will fly away when in stormy times.

So we must look beyond what satisfies the exploited class ephemerally. We must work out a comprehensive cum revolutionary plan to salvage our people from their arthritic poverty, given our ginormous wealth. What are the people expecting from their government? They want education for all school-age citizens. They want those who missed school to be given a second chance through vocational education. They want health for all, especially the severely incapacitated class, children, aged, pregnant citizens, unemployed, handicapped. They want the rapid development of the outer regions of the urban areas through the provision of good roads, health centres, schools, empowerment for cottage industries, electrification of villages to halt urban congestion and balance national demography etc. They want to be protected from bandits, corrupt politicians and parasitic leaders who care only about the present and scarcely about the future of the citizens.

In the long run, the salutary or ‘ideal’ state of the citizen is when the nation, as the father image, meets his needs as a parent would those of a child. You fail if you don’t. You don’t deserve to be addressed or honoured as a leader or parent if you renege on these sacred duties. Your integrity is null and void if you fail to provide those basic needs. The government of Muhammadu Buhari shouldn’t expect a munificent outcome from a misanthropic socioeconomic policy that shortchanges its citizens when it can offer far more with our near-bottomless resources. Osinbajo says his government needs more resources to cover of the downtrodden. The riposte: we have enough resources to go round if we equitably redistribute our wealth, if we don’t concentrate it in the hands of a few as we’ve been doing since the military upset the structure.  Nigerians expect far more than all the skin-level interventions and palliatives their rulers are giving them. They are looking for ‘’a mission, a meaningful activity…not just good salaries,’’ as the participants at the 50th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, pointed out in January, 2020. Even capitalists and imperialists are recognizing the fatal futility of keeping creators of the wealth of society away from their wealth. They are asking governments to react to these legitimate yearnings. Otherwise, ‘’they will … have problems with an increasingly critical public that today expects more…’’

A more tragic consequence is the spectre of leaders like Buhari and Osinbajo lamenting that they are helpless to save society, even when they have in their possession the levers to deliver their people. They’re ensnared, trammelled by a cabal.

  • Ojewale lives in Lagos
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