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By Alex Otti
In his 1963 book titled ‘The Wretched Of The Earth’, Franz Fanon wrote on colonialism and how countries could free themselves not just from the clutches of colonial rule, but break its yoke of dysfunctional development or underdevelopment, eradicate poverty and disease and emancipate themselves from the umbilical cord of their oppressors. He was specifically addressing Algerians in their struggle for independence from the French Colonialists in the 60’s. He advised against the path to independence taken by some countries in Latin America that seemed to have encouraged a transition from foreign oppressors to local oppressors, leaving the entire structure that supported colonialism intact.
The structure, in turn, reinforced poverty and hunger on the larger populace while keeping them dependent on foreign markets and capital which ensured the institutionalization of a vicious cycle of poverty. He concludes that rather than the conventional negotiation approach to securing independence, Algeria and in fact other African countries should engage in revolutionary arms struggle, not only to uproot colonialism but to totally eradicate all its vestiges. A new crop of leaders without any trace of the old order would, therefore, emerge to protect the interest of even the poorest of the poor.
It is now several decades since the dismantling of colonial rule in Africa. It is true that majority of the independent countries have struggled with enthroning true national leadership that would work in the interest of the people. What is open to debate is whether Fanon’s recommendations would have been able to cure the issue of poverty and hunger that most African societies are dealing with in the recent times. Critics have also argued that Fanon’s theory was an open invitation to violence and could boil over to consume the countries, setting off civil wars and leading to military interventions in extreme cases.
Nigeria has battled with poverty for as long as one can remember and the level of has reached the point where serious attention must be paid to it before the country is plunged into fratricidal crises. Poverty refers to a situation where people are unable to access basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing. Poverty can be absolute or relative. Absolute poverty has to do with severe deprivation of basic human needs and has the same definition everywhere. The World Bank defines it as a condition limited by malnutrition, diseases, illiteracy, squalid surroundings, high infant mortality, and low life expectancy, which is below any reasonable definition of human decency. It depends both on the income and on the access to services. Relative poverty, on the other hand, occurs when people in a country do not enjoy a certain minimum level of living standards as compared to the rest of the population and so would vary from country to country, and even within the same country. The World Bank has defined poverty line as that amount of money below which people are not expected to lead a decent life.
The threshold has recently been reviewed from $1.25 to the current $1.90 per day. That figure translates to less than N600 per day in today’s exchange rate or N18, 000 monthly. The number of people living below this amount relative to the total population is said to live below poverty line and it is usually expressed in percentages. Countries are therefore ranked according to the percentage of their population living below poverty line. The higher up the ladder a country is, the worse off that country becomes. In the latest report published by Index Mundi, Nigeria, with 70% of its population living below poverty line, came 6th amongst the 162 countries ranked. Nigeria only did better than Chad, Haiti and Liberia with 80% each, the Democratic Republic of Congo at 71% and Sierra Leone at 70.2%.
Another measure which puts the situation in clearer perspective is the Human Development Index, HDI. The HDI ranks countries on the basis of life expectancy, education and income per capita. A country scores higher HDI when the life expectancy at birth is longer, the education period is longer and better, and the income per capita is higher. HDI is used to determine whether the country is a developed, a developing or an underdeveloped country. There are four categories that countries fall under as measured by the United Nations.
These are Very High, High, Medium and Low HDI. In the latest report released March this year by the UNDP, Nigeria placed 152nd out of the 185 countries measured. The HDI measure works in the opposite direction with the poverty rate measure, as the lower a country is in the ranking, the worse off that country becomes. At number 152, we fell into the category of Low HDI countries. It should be noted that in Africa, 5 countries made it to the High HDI category. These are Mauritius, Seychelles, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia.
So, how come a country that prides itself as the biggest economy in Africa parades this level of poor people at the same time? One answer lies in the law of averages. Absolute numbers tend to mislead but when you apply the rule of relativity, you would discover that what otherwise looked very big may actually not be that big after all. That is why, even with a GDP size of over $510b in 2014 when we rebased our GDP and became the biggest economy in Africa, Nigeria still remained one of the poorest countries when looked at on a per capita income basis. Simply put, we have a lot more mouths to feed than other countries and therefore require a lot more resources than they do. But that is not where the story ends. It is instructive that the poverty rate was slightly over 27% in 1980 and just like in most things we have made progress albeit in the wrong direction to the present 70%. Helping the slide is the number of our people that either do not have jobs or are doing jobs much below their capacity. Unemployment figures have grown with rising population from single digits of less than 5% about 10 years ago to close to the current 15%. From a statistical perspective, this is abnormal as unemployment rate should actually go down with a larger population.
Inequality is another culprit. The gap between the haves and the have-nots has become so much that Oxfam had to raise the alarm recently that 112 million Nigerians are living in abject poverty while the combined wealth of the five richest Nigerians, put at about $29.9 billion, could end extreme poverty in the country. According to Oxfam, “despite a rapidly growing economy, Nigeria is one of the few countries where the number of people living in poverty increased, from 69 million in 2004 to 112 million in 2010 – a rise of 69 percent. The number of millionaires increased by 44 percent during the same period.” If this is not a recipe for disaster, I wonder what else is.
Poverty cannot be discussed without looking at corruption, a dysfunctional political system, and bad governance. There may not be any agreement on how much has been stolen from Nigeria through the corrupt practices of its leadership in the last 57 years but everyone agrees that the funds would have been enough to eradicate poverty in the land. Besides, our political system is organized in such a way that government spends over 70% of our budget on recurrent expenditure including paying salaries and allowances of government functionaries and politicians, leaving a meager 30% for infrastructural development and social services. This is very sad and is a major reason why ravaging poverty and hunger have been the lot of Nigerians.
We also seem to have misplaced our priorities with the advent of oil. We became an oil-dependent economy and de-emphasized other sectors that used to provide jobs and means of livelihood for our people. Agriculture, particularly, has been the worst hit. Meanwhile, the majority of our people live in the rural areas. We became a net importer of food and other goods and services in which we hitherto, were self-sufficient. With population explosion and dwindling oil prices, hunger became our companion. All these were not helped by a changing value system that denigrated hard work and encouraged laziness and get-rich-quick crusade. Education was relegated to the back seat as a lot of school leavers end up in the unemployment line. The quality of education itself became suspect owing to several factors. Criminality, brigandage, robbery, and thuggery became very attractive to a lot of the young people and were wittingly or unwittingly encouraged by the warped political system imposed on the populace.
Granted, there have been attempts at reducing poverty or better still alleviating poverty as successive governments call it, they have been largely cosmetic and ephemeral. One is not unaware of some rural development initiatives, skills acquisition programs, and other intervention programs. One makes bold to say, however, that these have remained at best palliatives rather than enduring solutions. Most of our people still face acute malnutrition challenges, poor healthcare delivery systems, non-existent educational opportunities, severe unemployment and general lack of basic amenities of life. All these are in spite of the opulence exhibited by a few of us. In fact, Oxfam’s report that exposes the large and growing gap between the rich and the poor in Nigeria insists that extreme inequality is exacerbating poverty, undermining the economy, and fermenting social unrest and that Nigerian leaders must be more determined in tackling this terrible problem.
The report highlighted the fact that poor people are unable to benefit from Nigeria’s wealth because of high levels of corruption and the excessive influence that big business and a wealthy elite have over government policy making. For example, public office holders stole an estimated $20 trillion from the treasury between 1960 and 2005, while multinational companies receive tax incentives worth an estimated $2.9 billion a year – three times more than Nigeria’s entire health budget. Meanwhile, small and medium-sized businesses and workers in the informal sector are faced with multiple taxes. Despite being Africa’s biggest economy, the share of the national budget allocated to education, health, and social protection is one of the lowest in Africa. In 2016, Nigeria spent just 6.08 per cent of its national budget on education and 3.6 per cent on health. By comparison, Ghana spent 18.5 percent and 12.8 percent on education and health respectively in 2015. As a result, 57 million Nigerians lack access to safe water, over 130 million lack adequate sanitation and the country has more than ten million children out of school. The report insists “Nigeria is not a poor country yet millions are living in hunger.
The government must work with the international community to get food and aid to hungry people now but it can’t stop there. It must free millions of Nigerians from poverty by building a new political and economic system that works for everyone and not just a fortunate few. “The government can make a start by tackling corruption, ensuring big business and wealthy individuals pay their fair share of tax, investing in vital public services, and protecting the rights of women”, the report concluded.
In the face of all these, there have been a lot of strife and social tension in the country. Starting from Niger Delta militants through Boko Haram in the North, to the secessionist agitations in the South East. While social unrest is inevitable in most countries, it is our contention that Nigeria’s case has been worsened by a high level of discontent in the land which is fueled by hunger and poverty. The large “reserve army of the unemployed” would remain willing tools in the hands of whoever wants to use them for any purpose.
Literature has documented that out of self-interest, the ruling class provides for the vast majority of the masses to ensure against insurrection. Somehow, we seem to stand everything including logic on its head. Otherwise, someone should have realized that if nothing is done about the increasing level of hunger and deprivation in the land, it is a matter of time before arms struggle and probably, revolution set in. The sad reality is that students of history will confirm that sometimes, both the leaders of an insurrection and the followers may not realize that against the professed cause, the latent cause may just be social injustice, deprivation, and hunger unleashed by the ruling class. It is, therefore, time for us to deal with causes rather than effects. Let me, therefore, join my struggling compatriots in squealing, Chairman, do something; your boys are hungry!
Source: Sahara Reporters