Focus on the scourge of poverty

Nigeria is potentially Africa’s richest country. As the world’s sixth largest producer of crude oil, with huge reserves of mineral and agricultural riches and manpower, it should be enjoying some of the highest global living standards.

But available indicators point, ironically, to some of the lowest living standards in Africa, for a large majority of Nigeria's 120 million people. And the latest signs are that the situation may be getting worse.

Surveys conducted by Nigeria’s Federal Office of Statistics show that in a 16 year period that began in 1980 (the year the oil boom years of the 1970s began to go burst), the percentage of Nigerians living in poverty rose from 28 percent to 66 percent. Numerically, while 17.7 million people lived in poverty in 1980, the population living on less than US $1.40 a day, rose to 67.1 million by 1996.

Within the same period the percentage of the rural poor increased from 29 percent to 70 percent, while the share of the poor in the urban areas rose from 18 to 55 percent. Those classified as the core poor (the poorest of the poor - living on about US $0.70 a day), increased from six percent to 29 percent of the population.

Equally telling was the geographical distribution of poverty within the country. While the percentage of the poor ranged between 55-60 percent in the south, in the north they ranged between 70-78 percent of the population.

World Bank figures for Nigeria’s gross national product per capita also confirm this trend. From a peak of US $780 in 1981, GDP fell to an all time low of US $220 in 1994 before inching upwards to US $310 in 1998. Inflationary pressures since then imply a further decline.

Nigeria's pervasive poverty occurred in spite of the fact that between 1970 and 1999, the country earned an estimated US $320 billion from the export of crude oil.

“Despite its oil wealth, Nigeria has performed worse, in terms of basic social indicators, than sub-Saharan Africa as a whole and much worse than other regions of the developing world, such as Asia and Latin America,” says a Situation Assessment Analysis published in 2001 by Nigeria’s National Planning Commission and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

“At the heart of the problem,” the assessment adds, “has been a crisis of governance and public management, which has its roots in the competition among rival elites and their ethno-regional constituencies for control of the huge rents that accrue to the state from the operations of the petroleum industry.”

With a population comprising more than 250 ethnic groups, of mainly Christian and Islamic persuasions, Nigeria was beset with ethno-religious rivalry right from the early days of independence from Britain in 1960. This degenerated into three years of civil war when the southeast attempted to secede as Biafra. The end of the civil war in 1970 coincided with the oil boom years and the country’s emergence as a major oil exporter.

But in the following years dominated by military and civilian rulers from the mainly Muslim north, the oil wealth was largely mismanaged. Most of it was dispensed as political patronage through fraudulent contracts awarded by those in government to cronies.

“Most of the country’s oil wealth was frittered away and nothing was saved for the rainy day,” Tunde Alao, an economist, told IRIN. “The result was that once the oil boom years ended in the early 1980s the country was beset with a monumental economic crisis. The worst hit were the poor, who got no benefits from the upswing of national income during the boom years.”

Faced with severe balance of payments problems in the mid 1980s, the then military ruler, General Ibrahim Babangida, adopted International Monetary Fund- and World Bank- advised structural adjustment programs (SAP). The key objective of SAP was to ensure Nigeria serviced its external debt of US $28 billion and maintained macro-economic stability, while cutting back on social spending.

While a growth rate of 5.4 percent a year was achieved between 1987-92 (against 1.8 percent a year between 1981-86), the proportion of the core poor rose from 12 to 14 percent within the period. It continued to grow in the subsequent years.

Starved of funds, social service institutions began to decay and service delivery in schools and hospitals sharply declined. (The World Bank
estimates that public spending per capita on health is less than $5 and as low as $2 in some parts of Nigeria, contrary to $34 recommended for low-income countries by the World Health Organization.) Infrastructure and utilities, under the weight of mismanagement for years, also began to collapse.

At present, about one in five Nigerian children die before the age of five. The implication being that a baby born in the country is 30 times more likely to die than one born in an industrialised country. Similarly the risk of maternal death in Nigeria is 100 times higher than in an average industrial country. More than half of all adults in the country are illiterate. In 1998 Nigeria ranked 151, near the bottom of 174 countries assessed under the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index.

“The vicious circle set in motion by widespread poverty accounts for the bourgeoning rate of crime in Nigeria,” said Alao. “Crime was not only domiciled in the country, it was also exported as thousands of desperate young Nigerians moved abroad, becoming involved in various criminals rings engaged in fraud, drug and human trafficking.”

Among the economic migrants, he said, are also thousands of professionals who left Nigeria to work in different parts of the world. “Many of them were trained at government expense, but they have been lost to other countries where some have distinguished themselves in their professions,” Alao added.

On his election to end more than 15 years of military rule in 1999, President Olusegun Obasanjo acknowledged that fighting poverty was one of the most daunting tasks facing his government. Nevertheless, he set a goal to reduce the population of Nigerians in poverty by half by 2015.

Achieving such a target would require an economic growth rate of 7-8 percent a year for 15 years. In his first three years in office, he has recorded an average growth rate of 2.8 percent yearly. Perhaps, realising that no dent has been made on poverty, Obasanjo’s government has developed an Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy.

Under this plan, he is seeking the assistance of donors to work on four key areas, identified as youth empowerment, development of rural infrastructure, social welfare services, as well as natural resource development and conservation. Overseen by the National Poverty Eradication Programme, chaired by the president himself, it has set a target of ending absolute poverty in 10 years.