BUHARI AND HIS ILLUSION OF WAR AGAINST POVERTY, ANYONE STILL BEING FOOLED?

UnderTow

After six years in office, President Muhammadu Buhari has admitted that one unclear thing led to another and his presidency fell asleep.  Nevertheless, he is awake now, and he is ready to get things going, starting with changing the circumstances of the hoi polloi wallowing in misery. Although the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in May 2019 noted that some 89.2 million Nigerians (40.1%) are living in poverty, the world poverty clock suggests that about 105 million Nigerians (51%) live in poverty. The presidency seems to agree with the latter, as it has at sundry times expressed its commitment to lifting 100 million of such Nigerians out of poverty. The president’s admission of somnolence occurred last Tuesday at a meeting with the Presidential Economic Advisory Council (PEAC). It had all the ingredients of the Muhammadu Buhari-led presidency’s controversial public outings. First, the president was not there and was represented by a media aide, this time his Senior Special Assistant (SSA) on Media and Publicity. Next, the statement shot the president in the foot. Third, the statement was vague, contained no clear-cut policies, but was replete with philosophising and recycled promises. It did not need the SSA to identify it as a Buhari administration classic.

The statement gushed: “I was shocked hearing from you that of the vast agricultural land resources available to the nation, only two percent of it is under irrigation. We will make the best use of the land. Thank you for shaking us up. We are now awake; we will not doze off again. We didn’t just bump into this; we believe it is something we can deliver on.” Meanwhile, somewhere in the statement, the government promised that the scheme to lift that century of millions of Nigerians from poverty was not an accident but a deliberate policy that would be pursued with grit and determination, agreeing that the country required a poverty reduction strategy that would usher in a rapid, sustained, sustainable and inclusive economic growth. No one doubts that the presidency, to the best of its ability, tried to come up with what it believes is the best strategy.

It is, however, shocking that after all these years in office the presidency still talks futuristically about its policies. A government that has less than three of eight years left in office should be talking in the present continuous. Is this a sign that public analysts were on to something when they warned Nigerians of the vacuousness of promises constantly doled out by the government? Worse is that the government’s sloganeering and social investment schemes have received one major criticism – they do not treat the disease but the symptoms. Those schemes, sceptical Nigerians say, can barely lift anyone out of poverty, let alone furnish them with the means to enjoy a decent standard of living. Nigerians struggle to understand why they are being programmed to live off government’s cash injections, but have to spend expensively in an inflation-riddled economy. Why does the government have to serially borrow money to pump into the economy for alleviating poverty through various schemes? Are those schemes, rapid as they sound, as sustainable as the government promises? Is it sustainable that the government shares N5000 to Nigerians every month in a bid to lift them out of poverty when the conditions that pushed them into poverty remain in place, including excessive and sometimes double taxation, for those who do pay, and arbitrary shutting of Nigerians’ sources of livelihood without alternatives? It remains a mystery of the current government’s glib commitment to treating poverty.

Despite barely passable regulations to facilitate the ease of doing business in Nigeria, ranking the country at a pitiful 131 of 190 economies, the country has become a terribly hostile place to do business in. As usual, expectations do not always meet reality. Regulations are in place, but a deep-rooted malaise of corruption and insecurity, carelessly nurtured over years of avarice unchecked by a succession of lethargic, biased and soporific governments, has taken its toll on the country’s socio-economic fabric. At almost every level of government and private practice, analysts and commentators say corruption and a base absence of ethics reign supreme. Both the government and the populace, they say, are neck deep in corrupt practices. If the presidency were altruistic about combating corruption, it would have realised that the anti-graft war is only one small part of a larger equation. It is illusory to think that making scapegoats of certain individuals will do the trick. The National Orientation Agency (NOA) has an understated but important role to play in stemming ingrained, nationwide corruption. The anti-graft war, after being initially labelled a witch-hunt, has been described as directionless and lacking steam. With the right people in the agency, adequate funding and excellent policy formulation, the agency can slowly but surely reorient the collective mindset of the country to eschew corruption. But how can a government that has been accused of selectiveness in its war against corruption combat that same corruption? This is a paradox; but corruption remains a leading factor contributing systematically to the impoverishment of Nigerians. If the government retains its perceived glacial approach to national issues, corruption will plunge more people into poverty than ambitious social investment schemes can extricate the scrouge.

Nothing, however, that the NOA can do will cheat Nigerians into misunderstanding their reality. To lift people out of poverty, there must be enabling environment for business. The government has identified, among others, technology as a crucial component of economic diversification; but technology, as with every other business avenue in the modern world, requires uninterrupted power supply. This is another illusion. Federal Minister of Power, Saleh Mamman, displayed uncommonly low understanding of the power situation in Nigeria when he appeared on the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) last June to state that: “We have improved our services. Before this government, they gave light for less than 10 hours a day, but today I can tell you that we give light from 18 to 24 hours in a day.” He will never be able to explain that statement, as several parts of the country experience no power supply for days and sometimes even weeks. Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State, one year into his first term in office, promised 24-hr power supply in Edo State. Ekpoma residents will disagree strongly with him on that point if he so much as repeats it to their hearing. In Lagos, the economic hub of the country, power generating sets continue to drone all day and night. Even 18-hr power supply daily remains a myth in many areas.

To combat poverty decisively, the government needs to successfully defeat the Cerberus of insecurity, abysmal low quality of education and unequal distribution of wealth. No government can crusade against poverty when businesses and food production are not safe; when bandits can kidnap wantonly in their search for money while flat-footed government and their security agencies fail to pay necessary attention, and even pamper them; when governors finger one another as terrorists; and when the sanctity of human life means less than that of cattle. A government that struggles to implement N30,000 minimum wage for the populace, where some in power earn N30,000,000 monthly, lies without compulsion when it says it will lift 100m Nigerians out of poverty in two years. The truth is not in a government that promises to combat poverty but cannot stem the trend of students getting kidnapped by the hundreds. In short, Nigerians will not be too wrong to feel that the Buhari-led administration’s symptomatic policies and empty, placebo vocalisations either toy with the national intelligence, or wage an illusory crusade against poverty. Pragmatic economic policies, such as the government’s economic teams have outlined often, will not automatically translate to reality if the right environment is not created for it. Numbers, figures and policies are good ways to formulate a plan for the economic growth and development of the country. But Nigerians are not too illiterate to understand their reality. No one, perhaps not even the government itself, expects 100m people to miraculously exit poverty in two years, especially when impoverishing factors remain in place. Fertilisers are good for growing crops, but if weeds and pests are not removed, if the weather remains harsh, and if parasites attack the plantation, the harvest will not be bountiful. It is not rocket science.