Ahead of her August 29, 2018 visit to Nigeria, British Prime Minister, Theresa May, remarked that 87 million Nigerians live on less than $1.90 a day, making Nigeria “home to more very poor people than any other nation in the world.” It is interesting how the statement attracted public attention almost as if it is a new discovery. The truth is that Ms. May could have made the statement to justify why her visit to Nigeria was a priority for the UK government. Whether such a justification is validated with reference to details of bilateral relations between UK and Nigeria is a different matter entirely.
No doubt the UK government should be concerned about developments in Nigeria for its own strategic interest. Considering the population of Nigerian or Nigerian students, medical doctors and other professionals resident in the UK, both Ms. May and UK government cannot afford to be indifferent to developments in Nigeria. A major underlying concern is the challenge that “increasing wealth has brought rising inequality, both between and within nations”. This is a paradox, which the late historian, Walter Rodney, in his classic work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, remarked “Many parts of the world that are naturally rich are actually poor and parts that are not so well off in wealth of soil and sub-soil are enjoying the highest standards of living. When the … developed parts of the world try to explain this paradox, they often make it sound as though there is something “God given” about the situation.”
Part of the critique of Rodney’s work and that of other underdevelopment and dependency scholars is that of romanticizing Africa. To the extent of that romanticization, we could over-generalize and erroneously make wrong deductions that could make us dismiss Ms. May’s concern about poverty in Nigeria. One thing that should be very clear to everyone is that the statement by Ms. May is only indicative of the UK’s policy direction in the coming years. This could mean some bilateral corporation with Nigerian government on issues of poverty reduction.
Somehow, the temptation to interpret Ms. May’s statement based on political assessment of performance of Nigerian government tend to be the dominant consideration. Be that as it may, it is however important that we remind ourselves that since 1999, national poverty headcount has never gone below 54%. The most recent was the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) report of findings of 2010 Harmonised National Living Standard Survey (HNLSS) released on February 13, 2012, which indicated that poverty in Nigeria increased from 54.4% in 2004 to 69% or 112,518,507 in 2010. With estimated population of about 200 million now, poverty headcount of 87 million as highlighted by Ms. May would mean significant reduction in the number of people living below the poverty line in Nigeria to 43.5% from 69%. This would represent estimated decrease of 25.5% or using the 2012 numeric value of 112.5 million, a reference that more than 25 million Nigerians escape from poverty between 2012 and now. This could as well be the revelation. How true would such a revelation be?
Somehow, Ms. May’s remarks have been politicised completely out of context and the dominant interpretation is suggestive of the failure of the current government. Interestingly, such disposition was also the official response of the Nigerian government under President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan when the NBS report of February 2012 was released, which made the then government to reject the NBS 2012 report on the grounds that $1.00 per day measure used by NBS overstated the nation’s poverty profile. In its place, the government argued for the use of purchasing power parity measure of $1.15 per day, based on which the headcount measure was said to be lower than the 69% or 112,518,507.
Perhaps, the $1.90 per day measure used to arrive at 43.5% or 87 million Nigerians living in poverty as reported by Ms. May is based on revised purchasing power parity measure. What could be the advantage of the purchasing power parity measure? Does it really produce a more objective poverty estimate such that reduced poverty profile become worthy of celebration? To the extent that it only represents hypothetical currency conversion measure for basket of goods used for poverty computations, it is only a function of how much emphasis we want to place on poverty incidence.
Whether with reference to absolute measure of $1.00 per day or purchasing power parity measure, computed at $1,15, $1.90 or any value, poverty headcount of 69% or 43.5% is very worrisome. The challenge is, what is it that should be done to eradicate poverty. Politicising these issues would not address the problems in anyway. As citizens, we need to relate to this information with high degree of moderation and commitment to push our governments at all levels to take initiatives towards reduced poverty.
It is perhaps more upsetting when we take into account that poverty measure based on purchasing power parity present only a comparative analysis of poverty incidence, which tends to undermine the severity of poverty. In some instances, it also takes us farther away from the causes of poverty and how to eradicate it. In the Nigerian situation, what is also very clear is that high incidence of poverty is considerably the result of poor management of resources at all levels. Perhaps on account of issues of poor management of resources at all levels, the temptation to narrow poverty discussions to political considerations could be high.
It is important to acknowledge that notwithstanding whatever political assessment we may want to pass, there is today some structured responsive anti-poverty programme under the office of the Vice President. Designated as National Social Investment, it ensures credible method of targeting the poor and vulnerable for the reduction of poverty, effective monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, among others. Predicated on the need for a more sustained and inclusive economic growth, reduced poverty rates and closing the wide inequality gap between the rich and the poor, it is anchored on four pillars, namely, N-Power, Cash Transfer, Home Grown School Feeding and Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme (GEEP).
Removing the toga of politics out of the discussion of poverty in Nigeria would reveal that the National Social Investment initiative of the current government is one of its landmark successes. It is partly a recognition of this that facilitated the return of Abacha loot with the condition that they are invested in the poor through conditional cash transfers. This is besides the considerable budgetary provisions of N500 billion for the four pillars of Social Investment, N40 billion for SDGs, N65 billion for reintegration of transformed ex-militants under the Presidential Amnesty Programme and N45 billion for Federal Initiative for North-East under the 2018 Federal Government budget, among others.
Depending also on our political dispositions, we are likely to emphasise or dismiss all these. No doubt, there would be limitations, just as there are good scorecards. A lot more would be required to improve it. However, it is to the credit of current administration that the management of the Federal Government Social Investment Programme is insulted from partisan considerations, unlike in the past. Citizens’ engagement would be needed to boost capacity of delivery to achieve reduced poverty.