FG IS MAKING A JOKE OUT OF A NATIONAL TRAGEDY.
“It ain’t the things you don’t know that cause the problem. It’s things you think you know that ain’t so.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882.
This article is based on giving the Federal Government’s top officials the benefit of doubt which deep in my heart, they don’t deserve. Recently, at a function to which the President was invited, a declaration was made. According to the FG, Nigeria under Buhari has lifted 6 million people out of poverty in four years. As usual, that was a statement designed to advance their usual strategy of denial of unpleasant facts. Two basic approaches have been on display repeatedly. First, they make claims which they refuse to substantiate. Second, they fail to disclose the rest of the facts which would reveal the alarming degree of failure and disaster it entails.
Buhari, ill-advisedly, not only made poverty alleviation his legacy programme, he placed a figure on it. He went further. The Social Intervention Programme, SIP, had the largest allocation in the first three budgets – N500bn 2016, N500bn 2017 and N350bn 2018. But, like most promises by this administration, it was mostly talk. One might even call it a swindle. In 2016, only about N110bn was actually spent; less was released in subsequent years. In fact, in the four years 2016 to 2019 inclusive Buhari’s government has not released up to the N500bn promised for 2016 alone.
“I am beginning to wonder how many fools it takes to make the term “My fellow citizens.” Honore de Balzac, 1799-1850 in LOST ILLUSIONS.
Fortunately for the person who represented the President and unfortunately for those in the audience who clapped lustily, on account of their ignorance of the nature of poverty, others more knowledgeable were also listening – or at least they read the statement in several of our newspapers. They thought it was a joke; and they ere not amused. Mass poverty, especially when it is increasing as rapidly as it is in Nigeria is a major security problem and half truths or barefaced lies will never solve the problem – not in Nigeria and not anywhere else. China, India and Indonesia which Buhari cited in his June 12, 2019 address achieved the feats by facing facts and documenting achievements so they can be verified.
To begin with poverty is primarily an economic matter; it is reflection of how much of the basic necessities of life – food, shelter, clothing, potable water, primary health services, education, transport — which an individual can procure or to which they have continuous access. That is why several global organisations – World Bank, United Nations etc – have eventually reduced the economic yardstick to US$2 or N700 at N350/US$1 a day. It is just a handle not an absolute criterion. That means an individual must earn minimum of N700 per day or N21,000 per month to stay above the poverty line. The question to the FG is: where are the 6 million people now capable of earning N21,000 per month when millions of public servants, labourers, petrol station attendants, hotel and hospital staff, drivers, vulcanisers etc don’t earn that amount? It is obviously untrue and unbecoming of top officials who deserve our respect to utter statements that can easily be exposed as bogus.
We are all aware that the President promised to give N5000 per month to 5 million people (give them fish approach to solving the problem). As it turned out, the FG has not given N5000 to 5 million people in four years. That is only half the problem. Take a look again; N5000 per month is only 48 cents per day. That is less than one quarter of the poverty threshold. So, the recipients are still there deep in poverty with a possible unintended consequence. I finally located one of the “lucky” fellows receiving N5000 per month. Until then he received support from relatives and neighbours. The support in cash and kind which turned out to be more than N5000 stopped once it was known that he was on government payroll. Then, the payments became irregular. The man now wishes he never took government money. Any economist, not even a good one, could have told Buhari that N5000 would not solve the problem, Economics is a quantitative subject; not like politics where ten votes cast at a polling booth can become 107 or 1007 at the collation centre.
But, even if one is foolish enough to accept the statement at face value, further analysis will demonstrate that it does the government no credit. To be candid they should be ashamed of it instead of broadcasting it. Six million in four years lifted out of poverty in four years means 1.5 million per annum. Meanwhile, with the economy growing at less than 2 per cent every year, while population grows at 3 per cent, Nigeria is adding 5 million more people every year and six more poor people every minute. In four years, this unfortunate country has added five million more people to the number living in poverty. Surely, the President’s representative deliberately did not mention that because there might be no applause. He preferred to make an unmitigated disaster appear like a blazing success. Everything must be done to deceive the people.
Government officials know very well that most of “my fellow citizens” are economic illiterates. For that matter so are most government spokespersons. A friend working at one of the leading global institutions, working on poverty called me to find out if the speaker was a comedian entertaining guests at a cocktail party. Too ashamed to tell him the truth, I said “Yes”. It was an expensive joke.
One of the worst mistakes the FG, State governments and other well-meaning individuals always make is to assume that they can take people out of poverty by making one investment – however large. Everybody has seen pictures in newspapers of politicians giving sewing machines, pepper grinders, etc to recipients as part of their efforts to alleviate poverty. It invariably never works for reasons too numerous and situational to provide now. But, almost in all cases, the individuals run into entrenched competitors who will not readily surrender market share without a fight. Sometimes it results in carving an area which can just barely support one business into two. In the end, two poor people emerge instead of one. I laugh each time Senator Bola Tinubu distributes such things in Lagos Island because what happens afterwards is not often intended.
The reason for the high failure rate is partly known. Seldom do the governments or philanthropists conduct research to find out what happened to the recipients and the machines given to them at the well-publicised occasions. It is all right if the goal is just cheap publicity; it is quite another if the real purpose is to actually alleviate poverty. The former can be achieved in one day. The latter takes a little more time to accomplish and it might also require more than just handing over a trolley to carry loads in the open market.
Strange as it may sound, it is a fact backed by research that some poor people are not good entrepreneurs; they also lack the self-discipline of investors. They very quickly goof off when left with a machine on their own to work with and make money to lift then out of poverty. All of them need mentors.
Years ago during the Abacha administration, UNIDO EMPRETEC had a programme designed to help Nigeria‘s Medium and Small Scale enterprises. The core of that programme was mentoring. We should revisit it and stop deceiving ourselves thinking we lift people out of poverty with N5000 per month.
Poverty alleviation is not an issue for Ali Baba, 2Face, AY or other comedians inside any Rock.