It is curious that President Muhammadu Buhari the other day decried reported concentration of the wealth of the country in the hands of a few people in five states and the Federal Capital Territory without details and context. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that he must have been briefed by officials of the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) or any organs charged with such a responsibility.
A cursory look at the economic landscape of the country shows that the gap between the rich and poor is widening at an alarming rate. Too many people are out of paid employment. Too many graduates are jobless.
In rural areas, there are too many people who live from hand to mouth. Also, there are too many people asking for the financial help of friends and family because they are unable to meet their obligations. In the midst of this, there are many Nigerians who have entered the class of the rich within such a short time. Huge structures are continually springing up across the land. It is this contradiction that seems to have created a veneer of wealth in the country.
It is true that across the globe stupendous wealth is often in the hands of a few. Even in America the bastion of capitalism, ‘“wealth ownership has long been concentrated in the hands of a small minority of the population” where the “bottom 90 per cent of the population holds only 23 per cent of the wealth.” Oxfam International reports that ‘‘the combined wealth of Nigeria’s five richest men – $29.9 billion – could end extreme poverty at a national level yet five million face hunger.’’ The same Oxfam report states that 112 million people live in poverty in Nigeria. It is this frightening report that Mr. President has obliquely alluded to. But what is the government doing about the grim statistics?
There are many reasons that account for this wide gap between the rich and the poor. This is because of the very basis for being rich – access to capital – is outside the reach of the poor in most countries. What the industrialised world tries to do is spread the wealth to a good percentage of citizens through a policy framework reducing the level of poverty. What Mr. President did was to draw attention to the level of poverty in the land. But the need to tackle this ancient problem has become imperative.
Poverty refers to the capacity or otherwise of having access to the basic things of life such as education, food, transportation, accommodation, and water. It refers to a situation in which the income level is so low that basic human needs cannot be met.
Often poverty includes political, social, cultural and economic elements. There is yet a classification of the ‘‘poorest of the poor’’ in which persons lack the means necessary to meet basic needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter. In one report last year, The World Poverty Clock asserted that Nigeria had overtaken India as the country with the ‘‘most extreme poor people in the world.’’
The World Bank states that 1.85 billion people or 36% of the population of the world are extremely poor. Using dollar access as a benchmark, it states that half of the population of the developing countries lives on less than one dollar per day. We do not need a social scientist to prove to us that there is the poverty of different grades and levels in Africa’s most populous country.
How many Nigerians can meet their bills through their regular modest incomes both in the public and private sectors? How many people have access to good education, comfortable and affordable housing and to affordable and decent health care? With the current minimum wage of N18,000 per month, how many Nigerians in that category can enjoy the good things of this life? Can we say that the nation’s infrastructure base can support citizens’ desire and access to the realisation of life’s goals?
Mr. President has taken the first step in raising awareness. The second step is to use a policy framework to redress the imbalance. The existing literature on poverty alleviation will serve as a guide if adapted to suit the Nigerian environment. Urgent steps, short-medium- and long-term measures should now be taken to stimulate the economy so that more people can be gainfully employed. The informal sector, which dominates the economy, should be empowered through a policy framework and the development of infrastructure support. The economy should also be diversified with a view to reducing our dependence on oil.
Education is crucial to poverty alleviation. The nature and quality of education, which the citizens have access to will help in this effort. Currently, we produce university graduates who may not be able to survive independently without formal employment. At the junior level, there is no emphasis on skills acquisition. For example, good artisans are scarce in the country. Builders prefer menial workers from neighbouring countries because of their skills. This challenge has to be addressed boldly and firmly.
We must also promote entrepreneurship in all its ramifications. Apart from teaching entrepreneurship, there should be programmes, which will help to sustain persons who have embraced self-development through managing their own businesses. This will include soft loans and expert support as they manage their ventures. Some universities now teach entrepreneurship. This is welcome. However, concerted efforts should be made for beneficiaries of this education to have access to capital.
Meanwhile, the government should also embark on developing rural areas so that persons who live there may not see the need to drift to urban areas in search of paid employment. Through this policy, agriculture should receive massive support in rural areas. Other allied businesses would then spring up there. Nigeria can and ought to be self-sufficient in food production.
Mentoring young ones are also crucial in combating or alleviating poverty. Our youths have massively embraced false values. Most believe in getting rich without hard work. They often see the results of hard work in others without paying attention to how they got there. Through proper mentoring, there will be a change in value.
The war on corruption is a good step. Corruption has short-changed the nation in a fatal way that all hands must be on deck to tackle it. Billions of naira, which ought to be invested in the nation’s infrastructure and social services are in the hands or pockets of very few individuals and politically exposed persons (PEP). This is anti-progress and should be curtailed. Indeed, corruption has become an institution in the country so that people flaunt it as a way of life.
The greatest bulwark against poverty is the idea and practice of democracy. That provision that obliges elected officials to return to the polls once every four years for the re-validation of mandates is crucial. Alas, that process has also been corrupted by politicians working in concert with the people.
Finally, poverty is a socio-economic disease that ought to be frontally tackled by the government. The 2018 classification, which has made Nigeria home to the poorest people on earth and President Buhari’s recent assertion demands urgent action from the government. Poverty is real. There are too many hungry people in the land. There are too many people who lack access to the basic necessities of living. Except the government addresses these issues we would be setting the tone for a massive rebellion against the state.