Reflections on the state of poverty in Nigeria
I watched a video on Instagram posted by a foundation that had gone to distribute grinding machines to women as part of their benevolence activities. The aim was to empower the women to generate income for themselves and their families. They didn’t have enough grinding machines for everyone, so the women had to draw lots to determine which of them would smile home with one of the grinding machines.
An elderly woman could be seen rolling on the floor in the video, thanking God and the foundation. She was completely unbothered about the fact that her clothes were getting dirty on the dusty ground. She kept chanting prayers and giving thanks as she rolled on the floor, grateful that she had won one of the grinding machines. No one could convince her to get up.
It was a very touching sight. My emotions were all over the place in those few seconds. I was moved by her expression of thanksgiving. What may have seemed like a small gesture by the foundation was a big deal to her. In a short interview afterwards, it was revealed that she was single and had never had children. She was all alone in the world and had been living in a house made of planks. Then it made sense, the grinding machine would be her connection to a much better life.
This short video sparked a whole range of thoughts in my mind. Why couldn’t things have been much better for her so she wouldn’t have had to fast and pray to get lucky? It struck me that she had done all of this for a grinding machine, a tool that people use to blend tomatoes, peppers, and whatnot into a fine paste. How much could that machine cost? I don’t know what she was doing before that day or how she had survived but it was obvious that the gift was an open door for her. A chance to start life afresh: new hopes, new desires, new dreams.
I couldn’t help but think back over my life, wondering at all of the things I have taken for granted. Things that could represent life-changing opportunities for many other people. You know how many of us often take those things we have constant, unfettered access to as being guaranteed. From the basics such as the food we eat when we want to eat it or the roof over our heads. It could even be those things that we could consider as basic luxuries such as being able to buy new clothes just because we want to or having access to proper healthcare.
I think about how many more people are in a similar or even worse position in Nigeria. There seem to be so many people begging these days, formally (on the streets) and informally (abeg, I fit get urgent 2k from you?) Things have been tough, I often wonder how people are surviving. If it isn’t the cost of food items going up on a seemingly weekly basis, it is the cost of transportation or some other essential commodity.
The first time I realised how much poverty existed in this country was many years ago when I landed at the NYSC orientation camp in Potiskum, Yobe State, in the thick of harmattan. In Lagos, one is often confronted by street beggars. In Fika, it seemed like the average child was a beggar. They would crowd around us in camp and wait for us to finish eating so they could have the remnants of our meals. After camp, I did a bit of travelling around the state and adjoining states and saw similar sights. The inadequacy of basic infrastructure was worrying. Not much has improved since then.
Very recently, the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS) released the latest National Multidimensional Poverty Index report. According to the NBS, 63% of Nigerians were poor due to a lack of access to health, education, living standards, employment, and security, and over half of that number live in Northern Nigeria. Multidimensional Poverty refers to a situation whereby a person or community is considered poor not just in terms of a lack of finance but also regarding other indices such as access to education, health, and standard of living. That being said, one isn’t poor just because they lack money but because they lack access to a whole range of other basic amenities.
Almost two-thirds of Nigerians are poor! We should let that sink in. Not too long ago, Nigeria was declared the poverty capital of the world as we had the largest amount of poor people per capita (I think India has now taken over that inglorious position). At the time, we managed to maintain the infamous position as the poverty capital of the world, with 93.9 million people in Africa’s most populous country living below the poverty line.
The government of the day has adopted a welfarist or socialist approach (I am honestly not sure which it is) to economic management. They have initiated interventions such as the school feeding programme focused on providing a meal a day to encourage children to attend school. There is also Trader Moni and Market Moni aimed at bridging the funding gaps for petty traders and market women, and conditional cash transfer programmes aimed at alleviating poverty for the poorest of the poor. To what extent can we say these initiatives have achieved their goals and have there been any reviews in line with the realities experienced by project implementers? I honestly wonder.
Many private organisations and individuals are doing their little bit wherever and whenever they can to address the poverty issues. But considering where we are, how much impact can these initiatives, most of which are palliative measures, make? Maybe if Nigeria had a more functional social security system, many of our poor would probably have better options which would have pulled them out of poverty. Our failure in addressing this critical issue has resulted in much of the social malaise we see today: terrorism, banditry, kidnapping, and online fraud to name a few. But I also think that greater economic opportunities would have created an environment for more people to thrive instead of depending on the government, family, or organisational handouts; a discussion for another day.
A friend of mine jokingly says that one day, the poor will eat the rich. It is interesting to note that the rich aren’t only those who live in the choicest part of town neither are the poor only those who roam the streets begging. This problem is our problem and we need to get to the point where all relevant stakeholders in the public and private sectors can work together to effect a change in our economic status. We need to make this a front-burner issue and this is the way I see things today.