According to a new report by the Brookings Institution, a US-based public policy organization, Nigeria has now taken over from India as the poverty capital of the world. In effect, with over 87 million people classified as extremely poor, Nigeria has the highest number of such people, overtaking the world’s second most populous nation’s 73 million. The import of the report becomes more poignant given the fact that India has a population of 1.324 billion people against Nigeria’s estimated 190 million. The dizzying statistic is nailed by the projection that while the number of extremely poor people is decreasing in India, six additional extremely poor persons are created in Nigeria every minute while that of India continues to drop. In terms of percentage of the population, only 5.5 percent of India’s citizens fall with that category while over 43 percent of Nigerians are too poor.
According to the World Bank and the United Nations, living in extreme poverty is living under $1.90 (about N700) per day and is a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It is also said that extreme poverty is more than a lack of money or material resources. It is a condition whereby individuals lack the opportunity to make choices that will sustainably improve their life.
Despite being blessed with abundant natural resources, especially crude oil, a succession and combination of poor management of the economy, corruption, poor infrastructure, rising population, inequitable distribution of wealth and uninformed policy choices among others have left a disproportionately large segment of the population reeling in avoidable extreme poverty. As if that was not enough, poor policy choices and lack of planning have left the outlook for the future bleaker. In the projections by international agencies, the prospect of a reprieve for poor Nigerians are not bright.
The displacement of many farming communities by Boko Haram in the northeast and Fulani cattle herders in the middle belt and saddled the country with millions of people forced to live off charity and hand outs in internally displaced persons’ camps. Beyond that, the prospects of a serious threat to food security are now clear and present with government still unable to effectively curb the violence in the areas renowned as the food basket of the nation.
Again, the collapse of the naira in the early days of the Muhammadu Buhari administration had severely eroded the purchasing power of the people and demolished the middle class. From an exchange rate of N191 to the United States dollar, the naira crashed almost overnight to its present rate of N360 to a dollar. The still subsisting minimum wage of N18,000 which in 2015 could purchase three bags of rice is now barely enough to buy one.
However, the response of the federal government to the Brookings Institution report is disappointing. Too much premium is being placed on the fact that Nigeria exited the most severe economic recession ever in the early months of 2018 which the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investments, Dr. Okechukwu Enelamah, used to dismiss the report as a product of data obtained during the recession. Even though the recession is statistically over, the people are still in the throes of its impact while the real sector is on a cliff hanger with industrial capacity utilisation at less than 30 percent and warehouses fully stocked with unsold goods.
The challenge before the federal government must not be trifled with politics. When almost half of a country’s population is living in abject poverty and unable to generate up to $2 a day for their upkeep, the society may face existential problems.
A basic factor that needs to be addressed urgently is the absence of opportunities for individuals to make choices that would improve their lives and contribute to national development. The choking dominance of the economic landscape by an unwieldy government at federal level alongside its cumbersome civil service, inadequate infrastructure, especially in electricity supply and roads, limited access to quality education characterised by the restriction on the education of the girl child as well as the increasing insecurity are some of the factors that have limited the capacity of otherwise entrepreneurial Nigerians to take their destiny in their own hands.
Stemming the tide of rising poverty is not a task that the federal government can legislate through its technocrats. Rather, it is part of the national question which should be addressed holistically, not by the government alone, but by every component groups in the country. It will involve charting a road map on how the country should be governed to give individuals and the private sector the freedom to drive development in an atmosphere devoid of an overbearing and command and control government, reliable infrastructure and guaranteed security.
That Nigeria is universally acknowledged to be rich in human resources is no idle talk. The challenge is to turn the population which in its present state is more of a burden into a huge asset that it ought to be.