This is dedicated to the 317 students of Government Girls Science Secondary School, Jangebe, Zamfara State abducted by armed bandits on February 23, 2021. And also to the 27 schoolboys and 15 others of Government Science College Kagara, Niger State abducted on February 17, 2021. May God Almighty protect and return them safely to their families. Amin!
It was the late economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, in the book: “The Nature of Mass Poverty,” who warned that: “Poverty is man’s (and woman’s) most powerful and massive affliction. It is the progenitor of much further pain – from hunger and disease on to civil conflict and war itself.” In our case in Nigeria, beyond our self-inflicted ethnic and religious conflicts, poverty is also at the root of all the kidnappings, abductions and banditry.
The problem of high incidence of poverty in Nigeria has been our reality for decades, which no Nigerian can deny. Year after year, both governmental and non-governmental, including multilateral, institutions continue to remind us of the ugly reality of our high incidence of poverty. Just recently, the World Bank released its annual report on Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2020: Reversal of Fortune. The report indicated that 2,969,158 Nigerians are living in extreme poverty and a total of 94,470,535 million are below the poverty line of $1.90 or about N700 per day. It also highlighted sadly that Nigeria has the largest population of poor people, accounting for 20 per cent of people living in poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, with a further projection that the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on the economy will increase the number of people living below the poverty line to more than 100 million by 2022.
Beyond this alarmingly damning statistics, the report drew attention to the stagnant reality of the problem of extreme poverty in the last three decades across the world. In the particular case of Nigeria, the North and North East are reported to have poverty rates higher than the national average. This is certainly not a new revelation at all. As Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Prof. Charles Soludo, as far back as January 2007, drew attention to the worrisome conclusion that ‘Very high level of poverty is essentially a Northern Phenomenon.’ In a presentation to Stakeholders on the Economy, Prof. Soludo highlighted that three northern regions had an average poverty incidence of 70.1 per cent as compared to 34.9 per cent for the three southern regions. Of course, more than anything, what justified Prof. Soludo’s assertion: “Very high level of poverty is essentially a Northern Phenomenon,” had to do with the fact that the 10 states with the highest incidence of poverty were all northern states. This contrasted with the information that the 10 states with the lowest incidence of poverty were all southern states.
The 2010 National Bureau of Statistics report of Harmonised National Living Standard Survey (HNLSS) released on February 13, 2012, indicated that poverty in Nigeria increased from 54.4 per cent in 2004 to 69 per cent or 112,518,507 in 2010. And ahead of her August 29, 2018 visit to Nigeria, former British Prime Minister, Theresa May, declared that 87 million Nigerians live on less than $1.90 a day, which according to her makes Nigeria “home to more very poor people than any other nation in the world”.
Interestingly, most times when problems of high incidences of poverty are raised, many Nigerians, including our political leaders easily switched to either denial modes or using politics to distract attention. This was the case in 2012 when the NBS report was released. The government reject the NBS 2012 report on the ground that $1.00 per day measure used by NBS overstated the nation’s poverty profile. In its place, the government argued for the use of purchasing power parity measure of $1.15 per day, based on which the headcount measure was said to be lower than the 69 per cent or 112,518,507. It was in recognition of the need not to play politics with poverty that as a party, APC acknowledges that poverty incidence in Nigeria is more than 100 million. The manifesto of the party explicitly underlines this reality based on which the APC government of President Muhammadu Buhari committed itself to lifting more than 100 million Nigerians out of poverty.
Therefore, without questioning the legitimacy of World Bank underestimated figure of 94 million Nigerians living below poverty, both the APC and the government of President Muhammadu Buhari acknowledges that more than 100 million Nigerians are poor. The critical issue is to what extent are we committed, both as a party and as a government, to implement initiatives aimed at reducing poverty in the country? Somehow, given our increasing challenges as a nation, the impact of government welfare programmes appears to be hardly satisfactory, which account for the stagnant reality of the problem of extreme poverty as reported by the World Bank. Often, we over politicise challenges and, in the process, weaken our capacities both as citizens and as governments to mobilise effective national responses to the resolutions of serious problem of poverty in the country.
With the knowledge that our people are poor, why is it difficult to associate our current high levels of crimes, producing all manner of conflicts with high incidence of poverty in the country? Could it have been a coincidence that less than three years after Prof. Soludu raised the alarm that ‘Very high level of poverty is essentially a Northern Phenomenon’, Boko Haram insurgency took over the North East? Part of what Prof. Soludo highlighted in his 2007 presentation was that the North (excluding FCT) ‘have less bank deposit than South-South zone’ alone. Secondly, the North (again excluding FCT) accounts for approximately only 10.75 per cent of deposits and 8.5 per cent of bank loans. While this may not present an objective measure of the level of economic activity, to some degree, it is indicative of the volume of formalised activities.
Between 2007 and 2010, what have we done both as citizens and as governments at federal and state levels to bring down the levels of poverty in the country, based on which income levels of citizens are raised? This is not about politics, and we need to rise above easy resort to propaganda to explain or divert attention from the naked problem of high levels of poverty. While it could be convenient to put all the blame on federal authorities and to that extent play politics with reference to condemning the party in power at the centre, we need to all take responsibility where it matters most. For instance, if high level of poverty is the ‘progenitor’ of Boko Haram in the North East, what did the Borno State government for instance do to reduce poverty especially between 2007 and 2010 when the insurgency began. Note that Borno State has been, until 2015, under opposition All Nigeria Peoples Party, one of the legacy parties that merged to form the APC. The issue is beyond complaining about the inability of federal authorities to initiate the right response. After all, initiatives to reduce poverty falls in sectors covered under the concurrent legislative list in the Nigerian constitution.
Being members of APC with all the commitment to contribute to the success of the party, we need to tell ourselves the hard truth, which is that an important determinant of return to peaceful coexistence and moving Nigeria forward under the leadership of our party is dependent on the capacity of our governments to lift Nigerians out of poverty. Therefore, we need to engage the disturbing issue of high levels of poverty in Nigeria beyond the narrow prism of politics. Outside the simplistic strategy of promoting our political choices, it is equally important that we wake up to the reality that high levels of poverty have produced really unimaginable existential threats both for citizens and for the nation. Daily, lives are being lost, individual liberties and freedoms are under permanent threats, properties and livelihoods are being destroyed. Every Nigerian today live with the fear of one form of threat or the other. The North East has been ravaged by Boko Haram for more than 10 years. The problems of banditry and kidnappings are gradually taking over the North West and North Central.
Since 2010, peaceful life has eluded us in the country, more so in the North. Problems of suicide bombings, kidnappings and banditry are now very common. High casualty rates, including loss of human lives no longer shock Nigerians. In February 2014, 59 innocent school children of Federal Government College Buni Yadi, Yobe State were killed by Boko Haram insurgents. This was closely followed by the abduction of 276 secondary schoolgirls of Government Girls Secondary School Chibok, Borno State in April 2014. In February 2018, 110 students of Government Girls’ Science and Technical College Dapchi, Yobe State were similarly abducted. Cases of abduction of school children have become frequent. In December 2020, close to 500 schoolboys of Government Science Secondary School Kankara, Katsina State were abducted. In February 2021, it became the turn of 18 passengers of Niger State Transport Authority. Few days after, 27 schoolboys and 15 others were abducted from Government Science College, Kagara, Niger State. The most recent is the abduction of 317 girls of Government Science Secondary School of Jangebe, Zamfara State on February 26, 2021.
We may delude ourselves into all the debate based on the reckless consideration of amnesty and divisive ethnic and religious propaganda. The reality is that criminal activity of banditry, kidnappings and abduction of innocent school children are emerging to be very lucrative economic activities in the country. It is now a sophisticated business network with frontend that may involve people and institutions that are least suspected. For instance, how is it possible that tens and hundreds of people would be abducted without any trace? Wouldn’t they pass through towns, villages and communities? Along the routes they passed, wouldn’t there be police and security posts/stations, traditional and religious leaders that could confirm suspicious movements?
And with all these sad reality of our existential threats in the country, which is destroying our educational sector, we are debating whether we should have state police or not. Anybody debating whether or not to have state police is simply part of the problem. How many private securities are guarding our homes? With all that is happening to our schools, isn’t it a case that require the establishment of armed police station in each school to guarantee the safety of our children? Can this be provided by the Nigeria Police as it is constituted today? Isn’t this a challenge requiring emergency response? How can the lives of school children be so threatened, and we are busy debating politics? Our leaders in APC must wake up and stop all the hesitation around consideration of the APC True Federalism Report. Why was the Committee setup in the first place if our leaders knew that they are not committed to resolving problems that question what we have today? Isn’t it a common knowledge that no problem can be solved by replicating exactly what may have created the problem?
While it may be tempting on account of our divisive politics to imagine that we can resolve our problems based on strategies that merely reproduce old initiatives in different forms, we need to strongly appeal to our leaders, especially President Buhari to recognise the fact that our national situation is no longer acceptable. All the indices suggest the high possibility that most Nigerian children are potentially either criminals or abductees. Nigeria is fast losing its capacity to produce skillful, innovative, resourceful, entrepreneurial and industrious citizens. Given the efficiency with which abduction of school children are successfully being executed, it would appear that the population of criminals working as bandits, kidnappers and abductors is more than the number of police and security personnel in the country. With the alleged collaboration of security personnel, traditional and religious leaders in the business of kidnapping, banditry and abduction in the country, the only safe person is probably a kidnapper, bandit, abductor or their collaborators. This being the case, how can any military and security strategy alone successfully end the problem of banditry, kidnapping, abduction and insurgency? Military and security strategy would remain a mirage and resource drainpipe so long it is not combined with effectively implemented ambitious strategy to lift Nigerians out of poverty.
As Nigerians and especially those of us who are members of APC, we must work hard to push our leaders to combine military and security strategy with successful implementation of ambitious national initiative to lift Nigerians out of poverty. Our loyalty to our leaders must, as necessity, include getting our leaders to succeed in lifting Nigerians out of poverty. That is perhaps the only insurance cover that can support us to begin to move towards peaceful coexistence in the country. So long as we have Nigerians living in conditions of extreme poverty, crime rates, including banditry, kidnapping and abduction of innocent school children will remain high. Reducing this challenge to issues of enforcement of law and order alone will be insufficient. The factory that produces bandits, kidnappers, abductors and insurgents is the very condition that hold more than 100 million Nigerians below the poverty line.
The good thing is that our party and our leaders are not in denial about this reality. Since May 2019, President Buhari has declared commitment of our APC government to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty. And just on Tuesday, February 23, 2021, President Buhari requested the Presidential Economic Advisory Council, led by Prof. Doyin Salami, to present a plan for poverty reduction strategy in the country. From the reports after the meeting between President Buhari and PEAC members, the defining principles of the proposed strategy recognises that: “Poverty is not only the lack of cash. It is defined by lack of access to shelter, health, education and jobs which must all be addressed.” Part of the shocking information in the plan, which jolted the president was that only two per cent of Nigeria’s vast agricultural land resources are being utilised. Although Prof. Salami was reported to have informed President Buhari that the plan has so far gained overwhelming approval of stakeholders across the country, it is important to draw attention to the question of commitments of Nigerians, especially our political leaders, irrespective of partisan affiliation, in implementing initiatives for poverty reduction in the country.
Without making any specific demand, while recognising that the PEAC has broadly defined poverty beyond financial capability, covering access to shelter, health, education and jobs, our governments and our leaders, especially President Buhari, should translate the ambitious commitment to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty to very high capacity to mobilise large scale investments in achieving set national targets. It is highly recommended that our ambitious plans to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty should come with both sectoral annual targets as well as negotiated committed by state governments and other non-governmental and private sector players to take responsibilities. For instance, with the clear focus on shelter, health, education and jobs, can responsibilities under the plan to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty include the construction of houses, hospitals, schools and the number of jobs to be created at all levels? Can these targets also include deliberate initiatives to increase medical personnel, teachers, provision of modern healthcare equipment, books and teaching materials? What will be the responsibilities of state governments and other non-governmental actors? How will funding be mobilised at all levels?
Conscious that only two percent of Nigeria’s vast agricultural land resources are being utilised, what will be our annual targets? This is where given that statutorily our state governments are the custodians of lands based on the provision of the Land Use Act, states must be mobilised to play leading roles in implementing initiatives to achieve national targets. Certainly, the capacity to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty cannot be achieved with the same level of resource application in all these sectors. To what extent are we taking steps as a nation to mobilise the resources required to achieve lifting of 100 million Nigerians out of poverty?
Recognising further that since 2015, the government of President Buhari has been implementing National Social Investment Programme, which is far more than what any government in the past has done, it is important that the impact of all initiatives in the lives of citizens are guaranteed. Now elevated to a ministerial status, there is the need to ensure that credible method of targeting the poor and vulnerable for the reduction of poverty, effective monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, among others under the NSIP initiatives are being employed. Predicated on the need for more sustained and inclusive economic growth, reduced poverty rates and closing the wide income inequality gap between the rich and the poor, a lot of welfare investments are being implemented in the country under the NSIP initiative.
Founded on the four pillars of N-Power, Conditional Cash Transfer, Home Grown School Feeding and Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme, millions of poor Nigerians are benefiting from these initiatives. For instance, GEEP has disbursed N36.9 billion in interest-free loans of between N50,000 to N350,000 to more than 2.3 million Nigerians. Under the Home-Grown School Feeding Programme, 9.9 million primary 1 to 3 pupils in 54,952 public primary schools in 35 states have benefited. Additional 107,000 cooks have been engaged. In the case of Conditional Cash Transfer more than 3 million poor and vulnerable households have been registered on the National Social Register, out of which more than one million families are currently being paid N5,000 monthly.
All these should be consolidated with sectoral targets and commitment to implement initiatives by our states and non-governmental actors in order that they contribute to lifting Nigerians out of poverty. It is to the credit of the Buhari administration that investment in agriculture especially around initiatives to provide support to farmers is a major priority. Early in the life of the administration, the Anchor Borrower Programme funded by the CBN was launched with N200 billion on November 17, 2015. More than 1.5 million small farmers producing 16 different commodities and cultivating over 1.4 million hectares of farmland have been funded. What this demonstrate is that if after all these public investments by the Federal Government, only two percent of our vast agricultural land is being utilised, it simply means that levels of investment in the agricultural sector should be increased by more than tenfold if we are to target utilisation of anything around 10 – 15 percent. To achieve such target, would require strong partnership of the federal, states and private players. Again, it will be deceptive to imagine that any target can be achieved if the issue of security is not resolved. With high rates kidnappings taking place in farms, there has to be a special framework initiate to provide security in our farms. Could such a framework be possibly covered under the current Nigeria Police Force?
More than any government in our recent history, attention to infrastructural development is a major priority. Railways have returned as a mode of transportation in the country. Abuja Metro Rail, Abuja-Kaduna Rail and Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri Rail started by previous administrations have been completed. Lagos-Ibadan Rail started by the current APC administration in 2017 has also been completed. Even in terms of the politics of it, once poverty rates remained high, it will require some levels of subsidy for citizens to access the rail services. In addition to the return of railways, there are so many road projects across country.
Part of the challenge which limit the impact of initiatives of government in terms of reduced levels of poverty in Nigeria has to do with the bias which makes governments to focus more on aggregate performance of the economy that emphasises issues of economic growth rates. The major attention then is market reform policies with the assumption of inbuilt mechanism to guarantee access to income earning opportunities by citizens, which in turns translate to improve standard of living. But like the Human Development Report 2020 of United Nations Development Programme argued: “Economic growth is important, especially for developing countries; raising income levels is crucial for those living in poverty, in every country. But as the 2019 Human Development Report emphasised, the increasingly important questions for many countries are not about the overall size of the pie but the relative size of its slices.”
Therefore, beyond the excellent initiative of government to ensure that Nigerian economy is on the path of sustained growth, which is largely responsible for the quick exit of the country out of recession, it is important that deliberate policy to increase both the levels of economic activities in the country as well as share of income citizens earn through participation. This can’t be achieved based on rigid mindset, which makes our leaders to only seek to protect old standards. As a nation, we need to wake up and stop fantasising. Our lives and especially the lives of our children are what is at stake here. Today’s anger and frustration should provide the resilient energy to nurture and create our envisioned Nigeria – the country of our dream with abundant opportunities and leadership that walk the vision of our generation and that of future generations. Both as a nation and as citizens, we are faced with existential crisis, which can only be addressed if we are able to move our citizens out of poverty!
Lukman is the Director General of the Progressive Governors Forum.
This position does not represent the view of any Governor elected on the platform of the All Progressives Congress or the Progressive Governors Forum.