Lagos — One thing majority of Nigerians are looking forward to as Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar'Adua mounts the saddle of power today, is how he will tackle poverty, the greatest cankerworm that has eaten deep into the nation's fabric. Is he going to break with past policies that have proved worthless? asks Davidson Iriekpen.
That Nigeria is the richest country in Africa is no longer in doubt. As the world's sixth largest producer of crude oil, with huge reserves of mineral and agricultural riches and manpower, one would think that the country should be enjoying some of the highest global living standards, but this is not exactly the case. Despite its plentiful resources and oil wealth, poverty is wide spread in the country. The situation has worsened since the late 1990s, to the extent that the country is now considered one of the 20 poorest countries in the world.
Over 70 per cent of the population is believed to be poor, with 35 per cent living in absolute poverty. Poverty is especially severe in rural areas, where social services and infrastructure are limited or non-existent. The great majority of those who live in rural areas are poor and depend on agriculture for food and income. About 90 per cent of the country's food is produced by small-scale farmers cultivating tiny plots of land who depend on rainfall rather than irrigation systems.
Even the surveys conducted by Nigeria's Federal Office of Statistics show that in a 16 year period that began in 1980 (the year the oil boom years of the 1970s began to go burst), the percentage of Nigerians living in poverty rose from 28 percent to 66 percent. Numerically, while 17.7 million people lived in poverty in 1980, the population living on less than US $1.40 a day, rose to 67.1 million by 1996. the country's pervasive poverty occurred in spite of the fact that between 1970 and 1999, the country earned an estimated US $320 billion from the export of crude oil.
A Situation Assessment Analysis published in 2001 by National Planning Commission and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), reveals that despite its oil wealth, Nigeria has performed worse, in terms of basic social indicators, than sub-Saharan Africa as a whole and much worse than other regions of the developing world, such as Asia and Latin America.
"At the heart of the problem," the assessment adds, "has been a crisis of governance and public management, which has its roots in the competition among rival elite and their ethno-regional constituencies for control of the huge rents that accrue to the state from the operations of the petroleum industry."
Out-going president, Olusegun Obasanjo while mounting the saddle in 1999 after 15 years of military rule, acknowledged that fighting poverty was one of the most daunting tasks facing his government. He nevertheless, set a goal to reduce the population of Nigerians in poverty by half by 2015.
Achieving such a target would require an economic growth rate of seven to eight percent a year for 15 years. In his first three years in office, he has recorded an average growth rate of 2.8 percent yearly. Perhaps, realising that no effort has ever been made to reduce poverty in the country, Obasanjo's government has developed an Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy.
Under the plan, the administration sought the assistance of donors to work on four key areas, identified as youth empowerment, development of rural infrastructure, social welfare services, as well as natural resource development and conservation. Overseen by the National Poverty Eradication Programme, chaired by the president himself, it set a target of ending absolute poverty in 10 years.
Many analysts believe that not even the advent democracy in the country in the last eight years has helped to solve poverty. Majority have agreed that they are yet to witness any strategic change and that poverty has even increased. This has made them lose faith in the capability and willingness of political office seekers to better their living condition. These apprehensions were eventually vindicated when the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) issued a country report last year and asserted that rural and urban poverty has increased astronomically in Nigeria. A conservative estimate of 75 percent of Nigerians are said to be living below the extreme poverty benchmark.
Last March, the European parliament deplored the high rate of poverty in Nigeria and called on government to take drastic action to better the living condition of millions of people in the country. This has made the European parliament to urge the federal and state governments in Nigeria to implement result-oriented measures to check the rising trend of rural and urban poverty. The parliamentarians in their words stated that: "whereas despite efforts made in recent years by the Nigerian government to promote human rights and to stem corruption, and despite some improvements in respect for civil and political rights, a number of urgent and basic human rights issues remain to be addressed and the country remained marred by corruption, arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial Killings and political violence. Whereas ethnic and religious divisions, as well as widespread poverty, are major causes of chronic inter communal violence".
In 2006, the UNDP said of Nigeria: "though Nigeria's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per population in 2004 was $560 United States dollars (a little over the poverty line of $1 US dollars per day), the situation has not changed in the last 30 years. While less than half of the population has sustainable access to improved sanitation, the number of people with access to clean drinking water has dropped from 48 to 46 percent over the last 14 years while the average life expectancy for other low developing countries is 58.7 years, Nigeria's stands at an abysmal 43.4 years."
Reports by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) have it that between 1990-92 and 2001 to 2003, the number of undernourished people increased from 169 million to 206 million. The report further stated that Nigeria is among the few in sub-Saharan Africa that saw only a marginal reduction in the numbers of undernourished people while the prevalence declined.
Enoh Ekanem of the Economic Emancipation Bureau, believes that the vicious circle set in motion by widespread poverty accounts for the bourgeoning rate of crime in Nigeria. Hear her: "Crime was not only domiciled in the country, it was also exported as thousands of desperate young Nigerians moved abroad, becoming involved in various criminals rings engaged in fraud, drug and human trafficking."
Among the economic migrants, she said, are also thousands of professionals who left Nigeria to work in different parts of the world. "Many of them were trained at government expense, but they have been lost to other countries where some have distinguished themselves in their professions," she added.
The poor living condition of most Nigerians has made it imperative that the political office seekers need to tell Nigerians in very clear terms the strategies and modalities to be truly adopted by them to better the excruciating living condition of millions of Nigerians. The questions on the lips of most analysts and commentators are: would the in-coming Alhaji Umaru Yar'Adua's administration be any different? Would there be succour at last for the poor? What new initiative would he bring to bare or would he continue from where the Obasanjo administration stopped even though nothing remarkable was achieved after wasting billions of naira? The previous measures all started on a good note but got entangled in a web of corruption, which saw to their demise.
During his electioneering campaign, President Yar'Adua, assured that he would implement measures that will end poverty in Nigeria, the president, who had sounded more passionate about the need to abolish poverty through deliberate revolutionary pro-poor policies of government said he will ensure that poverty becomes history in the country. According to him, the abundant natural and human resources the country has would be galvanized by his federal administration to end the cycle of poverty that has entangled millions of Nigerian families in the unfortunate web of insecurity of life and property. Though Yar'adua has anchored his priority programmes on a seven point agenda to include power/energy, agriculture, industrialization, education, human empowerment, poverty eradication and redemption of Nigeria's past glory, Nigerians are waiting anxiously to see how he will bring these priority programmes that will encompass economic prosperity, transparency and an accountable government that will do more in improving their living conditions.
But despite the touted progress the Obasanjo administration has atrributed to itself in economic development, Prof. Chukwuma Soludo, Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), recently described the country as "one of the most unequal societies" in the world.
As far as he is concerned, it is not yet time to celebrate, as there is still a long way to go, adding that continued prosperity is possible, only if the dynasty of poverty is broken, particularly spatial inequality. Headded that there was need to break the natural resource and oil curse. Other areas that need to be looked into by the in-coming government he said, is bridging the infrastructural gap, particularly power, transportation, natural gas policy, security and law and order.
His belief is that, given the progress so far recorded in the national economy by the Federal Government, the reforms must be taken to states. One of the problems the new government will have to address, he said, is that of the recurring crisis in the Niger-Delta. He said the government must take a "decisive solution to the Niger-Delta". Also, he advocated the provision of employment, especially for urban youths .
"Nigeria is comparable to Indonesia in 1973. By 1995, Indonesia's GDP was more than twice Nigeria's; manufactured exports was 40 percent and Nigeria's less than one percent. Malaysia borrowed palm technology from Nigeria, and exports palm produce to Nigeria. Recall the austerity measures; essential commodity era; SAP era; guided liberalisation, and all forms of experiments with reforms. Per capita income of $2,010 (N255, 270) in 1980 declined to $547 (N69, 469) in 1993. GDP growth rate in decade of 1990s was 2.8 percent; and poverty soared to estimated 70 percent", he said.
The only way the new president can make appreciable impact in poverty eradication and alleviation, is for him to divorce himself from the grandiose programmes and policies of the previous administrations. For poverty to be eradicated or alleviated in the country, areas such as power/energy and infrastrunctural facilities need to be drastically improved upon. How the new president would fight the problem of poverty in the next four years would determine the success of his administration.