Self Defeating Fiction ,By Dan Agbese



Dan-Agbese 600A couple of weeks ago, President Goodluck Jonathan made a grand claim that, on the face of it, should make us all rush to clap for him. He said that he had reduced poverty in the country by fifty per cent. That must have surely come as a huge surprise to many like yours sincerely. I know of no country that has achieved such a dramatic feat and put poverty to flight, even without a fight against the scourge. It beggars belief.
The president provided no facts or statistical evidence to support his claim. My guess is that he was probably misled by two factors to make the claim. One, the rebasing of the national economy took it to the dizzying height of $509 billion and gave our country a new berth among the rich as the 26th largest economy in the world. It is tempting to entertain the pious hope that if the economy made that magical leap, all other things must naturally follow – poverty would be pushed down and many of the poor would become the formerly poor.
Two, the president knows only too well that Nigeria is a country of two superlative nations – an extremely rich nation and an extremely wretched nation. It would be difficult for anyone who sees the dazzling array of private jets at our airports not to agree that poverty is in rapid retreat. This, perhaps, must have also led the president to conclude that with the jet set out of poverty, poverty must have been reduced by fifty per cent. Fifty per cent made the great leap.
So far, no one has interrogated the president’s claim. Our problem is compounded by intellectual laziness. Whatever our leaders at all level say, we shrug in helpless resignation. It leads to this unhelpful cynical conclusion: if they say it is so, then it must be so. Kings and rulers do not lie. Or, if they do, never let them know that their silk gown is a birthday suit.
It is important that we interrogate such claims as this for two good reasons. One, if the claim that poverty is in flight in our country is truly supported by empirical and statistical evidence, it should be a source of national pride. Two, and more importantly, the tendency by politicians to peddle and believe in fiction fed them by their acolytes is always strong. When a president is hooked on such fiction, it soon morphs into fantasy in a propaganda war that in turn leads to a rapid descent into megalomania, the onset of an expanded vision of personal capacity and capability.
J have looked to the World Bank for some help here. From what I can gather, the truth about the level of poverty in our country is less fanciful than the president appears to believe. The bank keeps an eagle eye over economic performances throughout the world. In its 2014 projections for the Nigerian economy, the bank asserts that “national per capita poverty rate remains very high at more than 60% of the population.” It also shows that poverty is not in flight.
Here is some evidence: in 2013, the poverty rate was 62.6%. This year, it is 64.2%. An increase, not a decrease. The difference between urban poverty and rural poverty is both stark and harrowing. Whereas urban poverty in the country, 2013-2014 was 52.2%; it is a whopping 73% in the same period in the rural areas. According to the bank, the last time national poverty rate was marginally reduced in the country was between 2004 and 2010.
Here is more evidence that makes nonsense of claims that poverty is down by 50% in the country Last year, the country experienced dwindling oil revenue. It lost $10 billion in external reserves and dipped its hands into the excess crude account to shore up its revenue. Many state governments still experience drastic reductions in their share from the federation account. Many of them are unable to pay their civil servants and pensioners. It is not just possible to reduce poverty when civil servants and pensioners are being pauperized.
Unemployment hobbles social and economic progress. Our leaders may pretend but they cannot bury the fact that the unemployment rate has passed from the frightening to the alarming. It is impossible to reduce poverty when millions of young and able-bodied Nigerians cannot find gainful employment. It is difficult to disagree with the World Bank view that our “GDP growth has not been sufficient to support levels of poverty reduction and job creation necessary to prevent a growing number of poor and unemployed Nigerians.”
Poverty reduction cannot be achieved by wishful thinking on the part of the president. A thousand Pentecostal pastors raining Holy Ghost fire on poverty would only be making a fool of themselves. They would not shake poverty.
President Obasanjo tried his hands on poverty eradication and later poverty reduction with no visible results between 2000 and 20003. The reason was that his ad hoc war, if that, was anchored on nothing. In the end he merely threw money at the problem. Poverty laughed and grew fatter and many a Nigerian cheek grew leaner.
So far as I know, Jonathan has at no time taken on the reduction or the eradication of poverty as a policy objective. If you do not tackle a problem, how does not get tackled? By prayer warriors? Oh God.
The first world leader to wage war on poverty was President Lyndon Johnson of the United States. Fifty years ago this last January, he told his fellow Americans in his State of the Union Address: “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure and, above all, to prevent it.”
He initiated a series of laws intended to tackle poverty from various angles and levels. They included The Social Security Amendments of 1965 that created Medicare and Medicaid and extended social security benefits to retirees, widows and the disabled; The Food Stamp Act of 1864 that birthed the food stamp programme; the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 that created the Job Corps and the Office of Economic Opportunity located in the White House to supervise the prosecution of the war on poverty.
At the time the president launched his war on poverty, the poverty rate was 19% of the population in his country. Fifty years later, the war has not been won. More than 42 million Americans still live below the official poverty line. But it could have been worse. Point is, he showed passion, leadership and initiative in taking on a problem he knew could only be worse if left alone. The poor, of course, will always have with us. Who else would draw the water and hew wood. Still, it should be possible for the 26th largest economy in the world to have more of its citizens live on say two dollars a day.
So, if with all those legislative initiatives, all of which survived Johnson, the richest and most powerful nation in the world still experiences the pangs of poverty among its population, how was it possible for Jonathan who has shown no initiatives whatever in tackling poverty to reduce it by 50%?
I don’t know.

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