Opinion | Who is Really to Blame for the Impoverishment of Nigerians?

By Sowunari George Kerley

Sowunari George Kerley writes on ”Who to blame for the impoverishment of Nigerians.

‘Poverty itself is a weapon of the powerful. Keep people too poor to fund political campaigns and you keep them powerless. Keep them too busy to research and they can’t see through your propaganda. Keep them desperate and you can get them hating each other instead of hating you. They’re not just robbing ordinary people so they can have more for themselves; the poverty itself actually benefits them. They would benefit from keeping you poor even if it gave them nothing else’. – Caitlin Johnstone

Poverty, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, is said to exist when people lack the means to satisfy their basic needs. It defines poverty as the state of one who lacks a socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions.

It is often defined as a lack of access to resources and opportunities that are necessary for a person to live a healthy and fulfilling life.

Poverty can be caused by a variety of factors, including economic conditions, social and political policies, and individual circumstances. It can also have a number of negative impacts on individuals and communities, including poor health, limited access to education and employment opportunities, and social exclusion.

Nigeria, a country with vast natural resources and a large population, has struggled with poverty for decades. Despite being one of the largest oil producers in the world, many Nigerians still live in extreme poverty, with nearly 40% of the population living on far less than $1.90 per day.

Against the expectations of many Nigerians, our return to democracy has not translated to a reduction in poverty or an improvement in the quality of life of the average Nigerian.

This is largely because the political class and their collaborators, powered by extreme greed, crass cluelessness, ineptitude and a myopic and deeply parochial mentality , have adopted poverty as a political tool that they have not only weaponised, but also institutionalised.

But who is responsible for the widespread poverty that continues to plague the country?

Is it the Federal Government? Or the State Governments? Or the Local Governments? Or the politicians that play within these realms?

In this conversation, I will delve into the various factors that have contributed to the impoverishment of Nigerians and examine who should actually bear the greatest responsibility for addressing the pressing issue. By attempting to understand the underlying causes of poverty, we can work towards finding effective and truly sustainable solutions.

Nigerians were recently asked to choose from a list of the three tiers of government (local, state and federal,) on WHO is responsible for the impoverishment of Nigeria.
I found that exercise misleading and clad in mischief.

While corruption, mismanagement and the weaponisation of poverty by the political class have long been blamed for the pervasive poverty in the country, I have always believed that the main culprit in this conversation is first and foremost, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The Nigerian constitution is largely to blame for the escalating rise in poverty in the country. This is because it is the constitution that has given extreme powers to the various arms of government including the Executive, that enables them to plunder, abuse, embezzle and mismanage the tremendous resources that the State has authorised them to manage on our behalf.

It is this constitution for instance, that empowered a sitting President of a Federal Republic to unilaterally award a $1.8bn contract for the construction of a standard gauge fastrail project that runs from Kano State in Northern Nigeria to Maradi in Niger Republic, at a time when the Nigerian Railway Sector is still comatose and rail connectivity across the 36 states of Nigeria is still far below 30%. We have not yet addressed the issue of the tens of millions of out of school children in Northern Nigeria, regarded to be one of the highest in the world!

It did not matter that such a contract was being awarded in a democracy where a colossal fortune is yearly spent on a National Assembly who as representatives of their people are supposed to act as check and balance on the Executive but have preferred to be stooges and yes-men to a serving President and his whims.

How else would you describe a constitution that empowers a sitting Governor to award a $1billion for a Monorail Project in a State Capital at a time where less than 50% of the local governments in the state has access to good roads and hundreds of rural communities cannot access basic healthcare, education or social welfare?

It does not matter that such a state expends a fortune in maintaining a House of Assembly who are supposed to be representatives of their people, but have chosen to be stooges of the Governor and his whims.

How else would you describe a Constitution that empowers a sitting Governor to award a multi billion Naira Mega Hospital project to a company that has never built any such structure anywhere on Earth? Any wonder why decades after, there is totally nothing to show for such an expenditure?

Are Governors who mismanage billions on fantasy projects (which do not add any value to poverty alleviation or human life) not as guilty as those who steal billions and divert to crony pockets?

It is not enough for President Buhari to accuse State Governors of stealing allocations meant for Local Governments, without at least naming one of such Governors.

It is not enough for the Minister of State for National Planning, Clement Agba, whose Governor is Professor Ben Ayade, to accuse State Governors of building needless flyovers and airports instead of focusing on projects and activities that can have quick impact on the economic situation of the people. While Minister Clem Agba may have been trying to divert the blame from the Federal Government, it is important to x-ray his statement and position with a bit more clarity.

Flyovers are not necessarily needless as they serve a useful purpose in urban areas where there is a need to separate different modes of transportation or to alleviate traffic congestion. Flyovers can allow vehicles to travel over other roads, rail lines or other obstacles, allowing for more efficient movement of traffic. They can also help to improve safety by reducing the number of intersections and likelihood of collisions.

However, flyovers may not always be the most appropriate solution to traffic congestion issues and their construction can be costly and may have negative impacts on the surrounding areas. In some cases, alternative solutions such as public transportation or traffic management measures may be more effective in addressing congestion. Ultimately, the usefulness of flyovers will depend on the specific context and needs of the area in which they are being considered.

Except a flyover was built in a very low traffic area, or some underpopulated rural area where it is not needed, I would not call a flyover needless like Junior Minister Clem Agba.

Airports are also not necessarily needless as they play a crucial role in the transportation of people and goods by air. Air travel is an important mode of transportation for many people, particularly for long distance or when time is a crucial factor. Airports provide the infrastructure and services needed to facilitate the operation of flights, including runways, terminal buildings and baggage handling systems. They also provide a range of other services, such as shopping, dining and transportation to and from the airport. In addition, airports often serve as major economic drivers for the regions in which they are located, generating jobs and supporting local businesses. While it is possible to imagine a world without airports, they currently serve an important purpose and are likely to continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

Rather than play the blame game on who is responsible for impoverishing Nigerians, we should also find out whether those who we select, or elect to manage our resources have an understanding of what the Government at any level should do to alleviate, contain or end poverty.

I would like to ask. How many of our Federal, State or Local Government leaders were interrogated on their knowledge on poverty alleviation and amelioration before they were selected and eventually elected to lead or represent their people?

How many of those in leadership in Nigeria today understand any of the various ways and strategies through which poverty can be fought, contained and eliminated, so that the wellbeing of their citizens can be improved?

How many of those in leadership in Nigeria understand the power of providing access to education and job training?

How many of them know that investing in education and job training can help their people to acquire the skills and knowledge they need to secure good paying jobs, which can in turn help lift them out of poverty?

How many serving Governors today understand the power of providing social services to their citizenry?

How many Governors know that it goes beyond just building physical structures (large hospitals and health care centers, many times megastructures worth billions of naira) and that governments should also provide speedy access to social services such as healthcare, childcare and housing assistance to help low income individuals and families meet their basic needs and reduce their financial strain?

How many Governors know that it goes beyond just investing in infrastructure, like roads, flyovers and airports, but also stimulating economic growth and encouraging businesses to locate and operate within their states? So that job opportunities would abound and help boost incomes for people living in their states?

How many state governments provide structured financial assistance through programs like temporary cash assistance or tax credits to help low income individuals and families meet their basic needs and make ends meet?

How many state governments have raised the minimum wage in their states to ensure that hard working low-wage workers are able to earn a living wage and reduce their financial insecurity?

Asking Nigerians to state who is responsible for the impoverishment of Nigerians in the past seven years (2015 – 2022) should be a lot easier.

This is because a recent multi-dimensional report on poverty by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) revealed that 53 million Nigerians were pushed into poverty between the years 2015, when President Buhari came into power and 2022, a year before he is due to complete his two-term 8-year tenure as President of Nigeria.

Would it therefore be fair to say that the Buhari administration impoverished Nigerians with its crude economics, poor and vendetta driven politics?

Did the Buhari administration weaken the political and economic institutions that should otherwise guarantee economic success and prosperity for Nigerians?

In their book, ‘Why Nations Fail – The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty’, (a conversation on the huge differences in incomes and standards of living that separate the rich countries of the world, such as the United States, Great Britain, and Germany, from the poor, such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, and South Asia), Acemoglu and Robinson conclusively showed that it is man-made political and economic institutions that underlie economic success. Or the lack of it.

The current frail structure of Nigeria, complete with its tainted political and economic institution is responsible for our current economic situation. The Nigerian Constitution is at the heart of this conversation.

In his book, ‘Failed States – The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy’, Noam Chomsky posits that ‘Failed States’ are those who are unable “to protect their citizens from violence and perhaps even destruction” and “regard themselves as beyond the reach of domestic or international law”.

Chomsky further posits that ‘Failed States’ suffer from a serious ‘Democratic Deficit’ that deprives their democratic institution of real substance.

It is that ‘Democratic Deficit’ that allows State Governors to ‘lord’ over State Independent Electoral Commissions and are therefore able to dictate on who is eventually selected, or elected to be a Local Government Chairman of any of the 774 local government areas in the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

As a result, local government chairmen are ‘overpowered’ by their State Governors and barely have the right to speak up for themselves, or their people, especially when the Local Government Chairmen themselves are as thieving as the Governors who steal their allocations.

When President Buhari lashed at Nigerian State Governors for stealing allocations meant for local government areas, the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF), an assemblage of Nigerian Governors, were quick to reply.

In their response, the NGF absolved themselves of the blame of shortchanging local governments and instead accused the Buhari led Federal Government of not keeping to its campaign promise of removing more than 100 million Nigerians from poverty.

The President spoke. Governors have spoken. We are yet to hear from ALGON, the flagship body of local government chairmen in Nigeria. They too have a right to speak. Unless they are scared of confrontations with their state governors who have the powers to remove them at will. A privilege Presidents do not have over Governors.

Nigerians do have a right to hear from the horse’s mouth, the chairman of the 774 local governments that make up Nigeria.

So that the people who they superintend over, can respond to them, because they know them.

Some local government chairmen are known to spend more on themselves and their families on a monthly basis than they budget for Education, healthcare and social welfare for their local governments.

Education Intervention, Healthcare Improvement and Social Welfare provision are some of the many areas where local government chairmen have completely abdicated responsibilities and shortchanged their people.

One of the reasons why some local governments areas in Nigeria have been completely taken over by terrorists, bandits and merchants of violence is because most chairman have not only abdicated their responsibilities, but their station as most of them do not even reside or work from their respective offices in their local governments.

Most Local Government Chairmen prefer to operate from their State Capitals where they reside in large mansions built from resources embezzled from the coffers of their local governments.

I am of the opinion that people who are elected to lead local government areas in Nigeria should be passed through a period of training where they will be taught the basics in Local Government Administration with emphasis on strategy, innovation and poverty alleviation.

Allowing unschooled and uncouth people to manage the affairs of the base tier of government has been shown to be related to the high level of poverty across the nation. People who do not know anything cannot teach anything.

State Governors and Local Government Chairmen who do not know anything about poverty alleviation cannot do anything about poverty alleviation. They only complicate the problem. Again, this explains why past and current poverty alleviation schemes have failed to provide the needed results.

Local government leaders, including chairmen, councilors, heads of administration etc should be carefully shown, and taught the many ways that they can work to address poverty and improve the quality of life for their constituents who are experiencing poverty.

Access to Education should not only be made for those who need to be removed from poverty but should also be provided to those who have the mandate to lead their people away from poverty.

Some examples of actions that local government leaders can take to tame pervasive poverty include:

Work with community organizations and other stakeholders to identify the root causes of poverty in the community and develop strategies to address them.
Support initiatives that provide basic needs such as affordable housing, healthcare, and education to those in poverty.
Promote economic development and job creation in the community to provide opportunities for people to lift themselves out of poverty.
Develop and implement policies and programs that address systemic issues such as discrimination and inequality, which can contribute to poverty.
Advocate for policies at the state and federal level that support efforts to reduce poverty and improve the quality of life of all members of the community.
Collaborate with other local governments and organizations to share resources and expertise and work together to address poverty and other complex social issues.

On the whole, it is important for local government leaders to approach the issue of poverty with a sense of compassion and a commitment to finding solutions that help people improve their quality of life.

While we look forward to the day when a revitalised constitution that truly protects the Nigerian people will be made available to Nigerians, it is important that Nigerians be protected against the continued weaponisation and institutionalisation of poverty in our Local governments, State and Federal Governments.

A situation where the poor are cut off from access to Social Services, Education, Healthcare as well as Poverty Alleviation Schemes and Programs on the basis of their political affiliations and belief amounts to political weaponisation of poverty.

A situation where opportunities for jobs, scholarship programs, etc are preserved for only those with convenient political associations amounts to a weaponisation of poverty by the political class and their collaborators.

How else can one explain the prevailing poverty after the hundreds of billions or trillions that have been pumped into poverty alleviation programs in the past decades?

How come Poverty Alleviation Schemes have not yielded any wealth outcomes in all these years?

The reasons are not far-fetched. The political class and their collaborators manipulate poverty in order to control the actions and attitudes of the population, keeping them and their descendants in a state of lack of advancement and influencing their psychological and social behavior.

Rather than pointing fingers at who is responsible for the impoverishment of Nigerians, it has become necessary for Nigerians to point fingers at themselves.
If we must overcome poverty, we must expose ourselves to the education that we need to overcome poverty, contain corruption, eliminate mismanagement and grow prosperity. We must also learn to expose the leaders who shortchange us.

We must expose ourselves to not just education, but education that truly broadens the mind and enables critical thinking. The kind that enables Innovation, Enterprise and Industrialisation.

We must promote and reward hard work and creativity, especially in the areas of agriculture, commerce, mobile banking, technology, entertainment etc.

Such sustained investments in education, creativity and innovation, which should be bottom-up as well as top-down, will eventually lead to the industrialisation of communities and set the stage for job creation, wealth creation, wealth distribution and social mobility.

In conclusion, we must always remember ‘poverty is a weapon of mass destruction’, and like Reverend Jesse Jackson says, we must jointly declare a war on it.

Time for the blame game is over. The time is now.

George Kerley writes from Port Harcourt