The annual Nigeria economic summit opened on Monday in the capital city of Abuja. It is the 24th occasion the group of patriots, under the aegis of the Nigeria Economic Summit Group, a non-profit started in 1999, is calling out Nigerians to “come let’s talk about our country”. Well, some people say they are tired of talking and are quick to tell you that talk is cheap but action is pricy. By this they mean that we can talk all the way from Jerusalem to Jericho; without someone taking action the talk is wasted. They have a point. Many well-researched papers on some of the most debilitating problems of Nigeria are fast gathering dust in many executive offices and there is no plan to even read them again. Implementation is a national challenge but the society is evolving. It is not static and the Philistines we see today may not be there tomorrow. So let’s talk. Someday, somebody may implement.
It is therefore with hope that someone is going to value the ideas that would come out of the summit that many of us welcome the theme of the summit–“Poverty to prosperity: Making governance and institutions work”. I must say that the brains behind the theme are very good. To be that apt in these days when limited intellectual exertion is the hallmark of leadership means some people put some thought into the theme. It captures the core phenomena that are central to the present pass into which we are. These core phenomena are poverty, prosperity, governance and institutions. If Nigeria could find answers to just any two of the four, I believe our economic transformation agenda will be fulfilled. Indeed, the theme of the conference captures Nigeria’s elusive search for economic transformation.
Poverty, however defined, is a scourge. It is worse than a plague. Poverty is lack at the superlative degree. It manifests in hopelessness, ignorance, disease and powerlessness. It dehumanises and reduces a man to a pawn in the hands of his masters – the rich. Although poverty is a global phenomenon, it has made a home in Africa. When I was growing up, the nations that came to mind when poverty was mentioned were not African countries. Our minds used to go to Asia and some parts of South America. Today poverty has become a medal (one of dishonour) that Africa is wearing. More pathetically, this medal of dishonour is worn unrepentantly, if not unashamedly, by the Giant of Africa, Nigeria the land of my birth. It hurts so badly because I know my honour as a person has something to do with, and is impacted by the honour of my country. Think of that!
When you are being listed as a Forbes top rich person in the world, be aware that your own listing, coming from Nigeria, is read with pinches of several chemicals including salt. The world is aware that Nigerians are very had working and many have made money going from grass to grace. However, they also know that most of the rich people in Nigeria neither have inventions nor factories churning out highly demanded goods and services. They are mostly people who won the contest for patronage and national betrayal. And there is no need to complain about these terms as to whether they are charitable or not. Just rewrite history and let the world think highly of us.
Nigeria is now home to the largest number of poor people in the world. Bad news but not as bad as it ought to be, given what we have been doing. There are 87million very poor people among the nearly 200 million of us; ahead of India with a population of 1.4 billion. If we realize that more than half of us are unemployed, all technicalities considered, then that number may be low. I look at my own town and the villages around it, in the South East of Nigeria, where there are no industries, no employment and kidnapping is flourishing, and wonder how true it is that only 87 million of us are abjectly poor. What goes on in localities like mine is that “God raises” one rich man and he becomes the Jesus Christ of the place, carrying the troubles of the rest. The extended family system has helped to mask the massive unemployment there. But our people are tired of handouts.
I think eighty-seven million may be small, if we take account of the number of farmers who can no longer farm, and villages burnt down and the people transferred to IDP camps. There are some villages in the Middle Belt where nobody sleeps at night. They spend more time waiting for terror than tilling the land. The point here is that you don’t plant cassava and harvest cocoa yam. These may therefore be early days for poverty in Nigeria and there is no need to think of dooms dayers. When you continue to do the same wrong thing over and over again while waiting for a different result, you soon get mired in confusion.
Being the home for the largest concentration of poor people in the world should worry any country. Especially if we realize that the country is not among the poorest in the world. So why does Nigeria have the largest number of the poor? That brings me to the nest element of the summit theme, prosperity. Nigeria has been a prosperous country, even at the height of its troubles, including the recession. What has eluded Nigeria is not prosperity but equity in the distribution of prosperity. The summit must have identified the reasons why Nigerians have no access to their country’s prosperity. I have no doubt that failure of Governance must be in the list.