At a time when concerted efforts by governments around the world have seen extreme poverty taking a tumble, Nigeria has taken on the dubious distinction of succeeding India as home to the highest number of the extremely poor. A new report by the Brookings Institution showed that Nigeria emerged as the unchallenged capital of global poverty with about 87 million people living in extreme poverty, upstaging India, which now boasts 73 million. Although the Democratic Republic of Congo is in the third position with 60 million extremely poor people, the projection is that it could overtake India by the end of the year.
Obviously, this is another of those negative attributes that have defined the country’s image in recent times. Within the last decade or so, Nigeria has been variously described as the “kidnap capital of the world,” and the worst place for a child to be born. In 2014, Boko Haram, the hard-line Islamist group operating in the North-East zone of the country, was rated the deadliest terror group in the world by the Global Terrorism Index, published by the Institute for Economics and Peace. In terms of the sheer number of people killed that year alone, Boko Haram easily bested the dreaded Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and its equally destructive precursor, al-Qaeda.
Not surprisingly, at an event in London two years ago, David Cameron, the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, famously described Nigeria as a “fantastically corrupt” country. Nigeria remains one of only three polio-endemic countries in the world, and also features among the top three countries with the highest rate of infant and maternal mortality. The country is a colony for the highest number of out-of-school children. The list of ignominy is almost endless, demanding an urgent response from the authorities.
For a country that is so richly blessed, Nigeria’s poverty narrative is an embarrassment to both the citizens and outsiders. Successive administrations of inept, corrupt and irresponsible leadership have conspired to make the country a laughing stock in the comity of nations. As the largest crude oil producer in Africa and one of the global big players, Nigeria has no business hobnobbing with poverty. Tim Okon, a former director in the country’s oil behemoth, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, said the country earned close to $300bn from oil business between 2010 and 2014. Yet, she became more impoverished as nobody knew what happened to the money.
While other oil producing countries, especially those in the Middle East, now boast state-of-the-art infrastructure, Nigeria’s has remained decrepit and outdated. Norway, an oil producing country which started its Sovereign Wealth Fund in 1996, was able to top the $1tn mark as of September last year. This makes Nigeria with an investment of $2bn as of September last year a non-starter. While Norway could have recourse to the fund to tackle any financial emergency, Nigeria had absolutely nothing to fall back on when the country’s economy went into recession in 2016.
This, more than anything else, demonstrates the role of corruption in the impoverishment of Nigerians. If all the available resources had been used to better the lot of the citizens, improve the level of infrastructure and provide an enabling environment for business, perhaps Nigeria’s poverty narrative would have been different today. Lack of inclusiveness and the absence of conscious and realistic efforts by the government to make life liveable for the common man have aided the mushrooming of the extremely poor, which the Brookings Institution said were growing at the rate of six people every minute.
However, the Brookings report has not come as a surprise to keen observers of events in Nigeria after the World Bank had earlier warned of growing poverty in the country. Back in February, the African Development Bank had said that 152 million Nigerians, representing almost 80 per cent of the country’s estimated 193.3 million population, lived on less than $2 per day. It follows a trajectory dating back to the turn of the century. For instance, in 2004, the National Bureau of Statistics put relative poverty in Nigeria at 54.4 per cent, which later grew to 69 per cent in 2010.
The Brookings report is based on data compiled by the World Poverty Clock and drawn from household surveys and projections of the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook. It paints a picture of how 83 million people have been able to escape poverty globally between January 2016 and July 2018, while more African countries, and indeed Nigerians, have sunk further into the quagmire of extreme poverty. Sadly, the report confirmed that 14 out of 18 countries where poverty was rising were in Africa.
While Nigeria had the third largest number of poor people by 2013, behind India and China, the two countries with populations in excess of one billion each, have managed to pull substantial numbers out of poverty, as Nigerians continue to sink further into penury. In what the President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, described as “one of the great stories of human history,” China has been able to lift 800 million people, more than four times the population of Nigeria, out of poverty since 1990 when it started its economic evolution by embracing the global market.
Although the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Okechukwu Enelamah, has tried to play down the report by saying that measures taken to address recession would soon take care of poverty, such assurances can only be taken with a pinch of salt. Previous government measures such as the National Poverty Eradication Programme, YouWin and failed micro credit schemes, have failed to address the issue. It is now time to come up with fresh solutions. This is the time for Nigeria to do things differently. If the rapid growth of population is the problem, there is no reason why it should not be tackled. But, beyond that, if China and India could carry multiple hundreds of people out of poverty, then Nigeria should also find a way of doing the same.
Besides, the fight against corruption has to be intensified. A 2010 study by a Washington-based Global Financial Integrity showed that $854bn was illicitly transferred out of Africa in the 38 years to 2010. Out of that, $89.5bn was from Nigeria. Until this habit of illicitly transferring capital abroad stops, poverty will continue to stalk the continent.