One is saddened by the current constitutional impasse occasioned by the lingering ill-health of President Yar’adua and the spiralling effects of this on the entrenchment of good governance. This unwarranted political cum constitutional crisis remains an impediment to the country’s stride towards progress and economic recovery. Our failure to harness our abundant human and material resources remains our greatest albatross while lack of responsive and visionary leadership has persistently clogged the wheel of progress. It is imperative to fashion out an acceptable, progressive and sincere political formula if the nation is to escape from the suffocating throes of poverty in which millions of its citizens are presently wallowing.
Poverty abounds in the land like a plague that defies all sanitary measures. The faces of poverty are many and varied in Nigeria. It is depicted by the many slums that abound in many cities and towns. It is reflected in the thousands of school age children hawking “pure water”, bread, roasted corn, eggs and milk. It is the face most depicted by that elderly Hausa woman who remains a significant part of my primary school memories. She was ever present by the school gate with her little box of “groundnuts” (cashew nuts) and what is popularly termed “kuli-kuli” (hardened groundnut cake). Poverty seems to have established an enduring base in our midst. It should not be allowed that the chronic nature of poverty would lead to the search for “poverty genes” amongst Nigerians as our uncomfortable romance with abiding poverty remains a mirage. Our genetic make-up should not be allowed to undergo mutation due to many generations of abiding poverty which appears so unshakeable.
Nigeria is an ethnically diverse and the most populous country in Africa with a chronic history of political instability. It is brimming with an army of young, unemployed men many of whom are gradually embracing violence and crime in the absence of jobs. More than half of its 150 million people live in poverty despite the country being a major oil producer. One in five children dies before the age of five. Some of the states in northern Nigeria have the worst human development indicators of any region in the world which is not affected by conflict. Nigeria has a very high maternal mortality rate. Though the country has 2 per cent of the world’s population yet her share of maternal mortality remains at an alarming 10%. These are very uncomfortable statistics.
On one hand, Nigeria is an oil-rich nation being the 6th largest oil producer in the world. Yet the poor constitutes about 70% of its population. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) recently confirmed Nigeria as the 26th poorest nation in the world. The country has vast mineral, oil, water, land and human resources yet many Nigerians live on less than $1.00 (one U.S. dollar) a day. Victor Dike (Global Economy and Poverty in Nigeria) once maintained that no precise definition is really needed in Nigeria for us to understand what poverty is, as poverty is indelible on those afflicted by it. The poor are those who cannot afford decent food, medical care, recreation, decent shelter and clothe; meet family and community obligations, and other necessities of life. As in furtherance of this, the UNDP Conference Report (2001) defined poverty as a form of oppression.
The World Bank encompasses virtually all about poverty when it described it as:
“Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time.
Poverty has many faces, changing from place to place and across time, and has been described in many ways. Most often, poverty is a situation people want to escape. So poverty is a call to action — for the poor and the wealthy alike — a call to change the world so that many more may have enough to eat, adequate shelter, access to education and health, protection from violence, and a voice in what happens in their communities.”
Thus, poverty is a state of being poor or indigent or the scarcity or want of means of subsistence. It is an indigent state or needful state reflecting the deficiency of elements or resources that are needed or desired, or that constitute richness.
The tool for determining the relative prosperity of a country is the GNP (Gross National Product). Available indices indicate that our GNP per capita is about $260 which is below even that of countries like Bangladesh with a per capita income of $370. Ours, unfortunately, compared favourably with that of countries like Tanzania ($260) and Mozambique ($220). It is interesting to note that South Africa ($3,170) and Botswana ($3, 240) are in a different league. Furthermore, would be heart breaking to compare our GNP with those of Western nations.
On the other hand, Nigeria could be viewed as an oil-ruined country. Our dependence on oil wealth has made the country vulnerable to the volatility in oil prices over the last few years. The impact of unstable prices is compounded by the instability in the oil-producing Niger Delta region where the poor conduct of oil companies and the massive socio-economic neglect on the part of the government has led to a state of violence and kidnappings. Oil has distorted the economy and discouraged growth in many other vital sectors. Competition for oil wealth has distorted politics, bred corruption and distracted the government from focusing on the necessity of providing basic services to the people. Oil has terribly failed to impact on the country’s development.
Nigeria is not internationally regarded as an aid-dependent country but aid still accounts for about 1 per cent of her Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For example, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) allocated £120 million to Nigeria for 2009-10, up from £20 million in 2001-02. The DFID supported this level of funding on the basis of the regional significance of Nigeria to West Africa, its close ties with the UK, and the scale of poverty in the country. The support from the UK government could have been higher but corruption and poor governance remain the antagonistic factors.
Nigeria is not on track to meet any of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as anticipated by 2015. Governance, public finance management, and delivery of basic services suffered with 30 years of military rule and continued to suffer with our stuttering experiment with democracy. And change is likely to continue to be elusive, slow and incremental until the Nigerian authorities provide stronger leadership for reform. Of importance is the need to effectively ensure a structure where funding is not misused or blunted by the weakness of domestic structures. Oil wealth and international aid must be made to improve the lives of Nigeria’s poorest people. This can only result from fundamental changes in governance aimed at building and sustaining capacity development and fighting endemic corruption.
Efforts must also be made to diversify the economy. This remains imperative if Nigeria is to be able to cope with the demands of its ever surging populations in years to come. Fundamental reformation of political leadership also becomes important especially in the light of our present experience where a sick, lame duck President can be absent from the country for over two months and yet the country remains powerless to effect a change. Nigeria has come a long way in her chequered history for selfish, primordial and bane considerations to still dominate national discourse and government actions. It is important in this stage of our history, if the country must remain as one, for us to begin to learn how to build a nation devoid of the superiority of ethnic or cabal considerations. The shift from mere geographical expression to a nation founded on committed patriotism must begin now. Otherwise, Nigeria as presently constituted is doomed.