The Poverty Tribe
By Tunji Lardner
Never mind those boastful allusions to greatness that we routinely make to the world. ‘The giant of Africa’ is the term usually bandied about, with its corollary being ‘the most populous country in Africa with over 250 ethnicities and over 400 languages spoken.’ While that might be true when projected outwards and relative to other countries on the continent, at home these numbers dissolve into a tissue of lies about the veracity of our census and true our demography. Since independence, we have kept up the big lie about the true and accurate numbers of the various ethnicities, especially the big three; Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba and with scant regard for the teeming minority ‘tribes.’ Our political leaders have instead preferred to maintain and legitimize this fiction, because in a mono-cultural petro-state, with most of the national income goes to the centre and revenue from the proceeds of Oil, how much you get, depends on dubious population claims or primordial claims to land rights, either way, we have collectively chosen to substitute fact for fiction.
The truth however is that contrary to all these demographic claims, there is one large and growing tribe that is possibly larger than the big three ‘tribes’ put together. The largest tribe in Nigeria today is the poverty tribe. Now before we start parsing what the definition of poverty is to confuse and distort its meaning and manifestations in Nigeria today, let me offer a UN definition that describes poverty "as the total absence of opportunities, accompanied by high levels of undernourishment, hunger, illiteracy, lack of education, physical and mental ailments, emotional and social instability, unhappiness, sorrow and hopelessness for the future. Poverty is also characterized by a chronic shortage of economic, social and political participation, relegating individuals to exclusion as social beings, preventing access to the benefits of economic and social development and thereby limiting their cultural development."
Sounds familiar? It should, because all our socio-economic indicators validate the depredations of poverty that is so widespread and all around us that we have become inured to the destitution, desperation and death by poverty that afflict most of our compatriots; by some credible estimates, up to 70% of Nigerian live below the poverty line. In the last five years it has been estimated that the poverty rate in Nigeria has doubled to manifest as 112 million Nigerians living the very miserable lives articulated in the preceding UN definition.
Recently the venerable Economist Magazine published a list of 80 countries that were measured on a quality of life index, with the title ‘The lottery of life’ Where to be born in 2013. According to them, the best place to be born this year is Switzerland and the worst, right at the very bottom of the list was Nigeria. Granted that it was not a comprehensive list of countries and a valid point can be made about the Economist’s predictably snarky reportage about Africa in general, even so, Nigeria has for a long time been one of the worst places to be born for mothers and children. The fact is that we have one of the world’s highest maternal and infant mortality rates, as well as one of the highest HIV infection rates. Beyond the expected apologia about Nigeria being a developing country and as such should not be compared with Switzerland...blah..blah...blah, and the present administration’s trope of a transformational agenda that is ‘sure and steady,’ the country’s vital signs do not look too good, Nigeria is sick, some might say terminally so.
For the rest of us counting ourselves lucky enough not to belong to this tribe on the basis of access to material goods and services, well I have news for you. We all suffer from even more insidious forms of poverty. It is possible to be rich and still be poor at the same time. I’ve often wonder about this paradox, especially when engaging with Nigerian plutocrats, mostly the ever changing roster of the nouveau riche, the latest beneficiaries of a corrupt petro-state. One gets the impression that in spite of the outward, and I dare say, crass accumulation and display of material wealth, these individuals at close quarters resonate with a ringing hollowness, mental shallowness, and a startling lack of self awareness.
It is this mental shallowness that best describes the mental poverty, or better still, the poverty of the mind that seems to afflict many Nigerians and is especially rampant in its leaders. For all the buck passing and excuses we give about why Nigeria is so dysfunctional, one simple fact emerges and that is the very poor policy formation and decision making processes that we presently have in place at all levels of governance. When we examine government policies closely we discover that they are typically very short sighted and expedient, primarily designed to fulfil more privatized interests than ultimately the public good.
Stripped off the theatrics and insularity that Nigerian governments typically shroud their policy formation and delivery processes, a policy is really and quite simply what a government chooses to do, or not do. In this light, it simply means that the persistent and chronic poverty in the land is a reflection of what our governments and leaders have chosen to, or not do, over the last fifty odd years. And contrary to the frequent invocations by politicians and government officials of the devil or dark forces as being responsibly for our failures; poverty in Nigeria is man-made, an artefact of our collective creation, because we have failed to hold our leaders accountable for their misdeeds.
Now if indeed the devil has had a hand in creating this hell on earth, he/she must have done so with the active connivance of Nigerians, who display such callousness and abject disregard for their country and country men, that it can be argued that these group of people (and we all know them) must be indeed possessed by Lucifer. This poverty of the soul or spirit is writ large in our national psyche. We claim to be deeply religious, spiritual even, but remain stubbornly amoral, putting up an impenetrable moral firewall between our public ethics and our private morality. Take the recent and celebrated case of John Yesufu Yakubu a mid- level civil servant and our ‘thief de jour’ who is reputed to have made off N32.8, which in real money is over $140 million of the Police Pension Fund. His was let off by the Judge and fined N750,000 (about $5,000).
The rich irony of stealing from the Nigerian police aside, the opportunity cost of this grand larceny to the common wealth and wellbeing is astounding. I ran some numbers indexed against Nigeria’s 2012 national budget and came up with these figures. Yakubu’s haul is 536.89% of the budgetary allocation for the Ministry of Police affairs and 777.31% of the budget for the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), which in lay terms means that Mr. Yakubu can technically afford to run the Police Affairs Ministry and the ICPC for five and seven years respectively-two of the instruments of state expressly designed to uphold law and order and put criminals like Yakubu behind bars for a very long time. Equally stupefying is the fact that one man and his cronies stole the equivalent of 48.07 of the National budgetary allocation for Universal Basic Education, which means that perhaps half of Nigeria’s school age children running into the tens of millions could technically be denied an education because the system we have co-created allows and encourages people to steal from the commonwealth, with no real fear of consequences.
At a personal level, and from the larcenous vantage point of Mr. Yakubu, I must ask...what accounts for such reptilian greed, such insatiable pillaging and worse still, such collective numbness and indifference to an act so dangerous and damaging to the common good, it must be considered high treason. The answer in a word is poverty. Nigeria is a rich country full of poor people.
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