Poverty reduction war takes back seat

These are by no means the best of times for our country Nigeria. The most dastardly centripetal forces have been arrayed against her. And every effort, including those that are tested and proved efficacious elsewhere, have become impotent.The challenge of poverty, which was one of her biggest enemies, and against which microfinancing and other economic defence strategies were implemented, has suddenly paled into oblivion, as more vicious enemies take the centre stage. As things stand now, it is hard to focus on the war against poverty when the battle field has widened and become very shifty, as terrorists ravage the country. A whole region of the country, the North East, and several portions elsewhere, are completely engulfed by a nameless war, which is at any rate a great war, by any standard – the war waged by Boko Haram and herdsmen.

To make matters worse, Nigeria has just transited power essentially between two mutually antagonistic political groupings that are ideologically hard to distinguish. Those who inherited power had barely settled down when the country was struck by all manner of evil, akin to share bad luck – collapse of the international oil market, declining national output of the category called recession, and what may be termed self-imposed disabilities, including obviously divisive policies that have widened and multiplied the national cracks, turning them into gorges that may never be filled.

Evidently, a time like these is usually difficult for any country, wherever it may be located in the world. Sadly such times do not encourage objective assessment of challenges and hence blur the choice of effective solutions. Moreover, most governments caught up in such situations often find themselves living in denial, for a number of understandable reasons. First, the challenges they face are usually rooted in the past and hence there is ample room for alibi and blame game. Second, even where there are obvious errors and issues, such governments usually prefer to deny their existence,especially because it may be dangerous to easily accept one’s faults when one has not established a track record of performance. The result often is a lot mistrust for government.

As a consequence of this phenomenon, both at national and subnational levels, many Nigerians are viewing the current state of affairs with sociological detachment. Those who are apolitical do not see their role in anything politicians do. They sit on the fence. Others are downright naïve, and do not see how the crisis in the North East, for instance, affects them in their far away regions.They are fine with the suffering or exclusion of other groups as long as their group has its teeth deep in the pie. This kind of atmosphere is very widespread and has resulted in what many consider incongruent policy responses. Today, most politicians have set their eyes on 2019 elections without considering where the country might be at that time, given the wildly blazing fire of insecurity and discontent.It is hard to fight poverty when interests and attention are so far away from the challenge of poverty.

Even the youth, however defined, have joined the fray of blurred visionaries by seeing only the opportunity to rule Nigeria rather than to create solutions to its many problems, one of which is the absence of values among the people, including the youth. It is now the opinion that the youth have become even more insensitive to the needs of the nation than their faltering elders, by focusing on how to get themselves into the driving seat of our corruption called governance, than seeking how to save the country from same. What will save Nigeria is not that young men will take over from elders but the institutions and structures that will spew out evil men from leadership. That is what we need. The recent campaign for a reduction of age limits for occupying top political leadership positions begs the question. It is a misplacement of priorities. It gives the impression that what is wrong with Nigeria is the age of those ruling it. Obviously, that would be a wrong analysis of the challenges that confront a federation that woke up one day and discovered that the regions had been castrated, dispossessed and handed over to the central government as vassals.

There is need for a complete review of the challenges facing Nigeria, including poverty. Currently, the microfinance solution has lost traction, largely for no fault of its promoters. Although they operate in different markets, there are still some commonalities between microfinance and deposit money banks. They both need economically active people, poor or rich, to serve. It is not realistic therefore to expect that microfinance banks will function in places where deposit money banks avoid, for security reasons. Such places are increasing in number and dimension.

The president was quoted recently as saying:“My government is working hard to reduce the unemployment rates through several programmes and initiatives including the N-power, agriculture, small and medium scale businesses, all of which are supported by government guaranteed loan scheme. I encourage you all to key into any of them for national growth and development.” Those words reflect the good intensions of the president to minimize the hardship that has become emblematic of life in Nigeria, not just among the poor but in more than one way attending to most people. But even the president knows that good intensions will not do. Hand-out type policies can only fill a gap. Real solutions are structural and self-propelling and often viral in effect. The growth of jobs in a construction site marrow the growth of a virus.  That’s the need of the times. 

The challenge of poverty in Nigeria has gone beyond hand-outs and on-lending facilities. The root causes of poverty have become bigger than the problem of poverty. There is an urgent need to ask certain questions, which we have signally avoided. What kind of businesses are Nigeria’s poor doing currently into which they would invest the guaranteed loans? Is capital the most important problem facing the economically active poor people of Nigeria? Given capital, would they be able to sustain themselves in view of the security and infrastructural deficits? Poverty is complex and its antidotes need to be even more complex.

Emeka Osuji

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