The National Bureau of Statistics in January 2012 released its ‘Nigeria Poverty Profile 2010’ report which contained data covering the previous 30 years. It showed that 17.1 million Nigerians were in poverty in 1980; 34.7 million in 1985; 39.2 million in 1996; 67.7 million in 2004 and 112 million in 2010. The same NBS a few days ago (November 17, 2022) launched the results of its 2022 Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) Survey. It returned a figure of 132.9 million poor people in Nigeria. That figure represents 63 percent of people living in Nigeria. In 1999 when we retrieved Nigeria from the jaws of the military, we danced and rejoiced. We were sure that with the breath of fresh air had come prosperity, safety of self, family and property. The Yoruba among us hit the street and sang ‘bye bye to jatijati.’ Now, look at the figures and the depth of a people’s misfortune: Democracy grows in years, poverty and insecurity grow in leaps and bounds; the Nigerian elite stay firm; they count their blessings. They continue to grow big and powerful and exponentially rich; their giant cocks muffle the crow of the poor and they give no damn.
This democracy is filthy water; it cannot be washed. Democracy is supposed to give freedom and prosperity and security. Nigerians have gained none with this experiment. What they have is evil hen that lays poverty – the Somali definition of slavery. The difference between what we want and what we get is leadership. Our ancestors always desired good leaders because they wanted to live good life. They knew that choosing a leader is like choosing a spouse; it has consequences for the wellbeing of the parties. And so, people of the past travelled from ocean to ocean in search of good governance. They paid attention to the details in the leadership selection process; wealth and its corrosive properties had no influence in the conclave where kings were chosen. A former vice chancellor of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Ile Ife, Professor Wande Abimbola, offered an insight in an interview published by Saturday Tribune two days ago. He told us that: “In ancient times, there was a vacancy in the stool of the Alaafin. In those days, Ifá would choose from among the princes. So they had the list of all the princes; they presented all to Ifá and Ifá rejected all of them. After exhausting the names of all the princes, the kingmakers were worried about what to do next. One of them said: ‘there is one person who lives in a village faraway. He carries his load of firewood to the town once a week. He goes to the bush, cuts firewood, takes it to the town every week to sell. After selling, he would go back to the village. His name is Otonpooro. Why don’t we try him?’ So they consulted Ifá if Otonpooro would be fit for the throne, and if the Oyo Empire would be prosperous under his reign. Ifá said yes. At that time if Ifá had chosen you as the new Alaafin, the kingmakers would meet you in the house wherever you were. Otonpooro had just put his heavy load of firewood on his head, coming to the town. They met him as he was leaving his abode in the forest. They shouted: ‘Otonpooro, da’gi nùn; ire ti dé’lé kokoko’ (meaning ‘Otonpooro, throw away your firewood; great fortune is awaiting you in the city.’) He ruled for a long time. He was a successful king….” You see how all princes failed the test and no one in the metropolis merited the throne. It was a poor villager with a promise of good governance that got the crown. The professor’s story fits into my thoughts as I reflect on Nigeria’s poverty of governance and the billionaires campaigning and abusing one another because they want to inherit us next year. The present line-up should tell us why the poor sinks deeper in want and why Nigeria gropes in this dank alley of ineffectual democracy.
The 2022 NBS poverty report says that 83.5 percent of Nigerian children under five years are poor “due to lack of intellectual stimulation needed for childhood development.” The report adds that “school attendance is particularly problematic in the North-East and the North-West.” And these are zones with a cumulative 65.96 million poor people, about half of the national total of 132.92 million. Ironically, these two zones, with very huge voter populations, will determine the next leader and the direction the nation faces, going forward. How do you help such a country? Educating the children of today secures the future for the community. The Zulu say a tree is bent before it gets dry. The Yoruba say no wise person bends a dry fish and complains that it breaks. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2020 (two years ago) said there were 10.5 million out-of-school children in Nigeria; the most recent figure from UNESCO is 20 million. These are not just numbers; they are human beings wasting away like millions of others before them. I don’t think those kids want to grow up as limbless cripples, useless to themselves and to their clan. The truth is that their dog does not prefer bones to meat; it is just that no one ever gives it meat.
Unless Nigeria’s jungle of demons is deforested, its foliage will continue to kill the soil. There is an instructive quote credited to Chief Obafemi Awolowo in Kole Omotoso’s ‘Just Before Dawn’: “Look at it this way. All over the country, you have farmers and peasants, fishermen and labourers barely earning a living. They have millions of children who cannot go to school because their parents cannot afford the fees. If somebody does not do something about it, there is going to be trouble in this country in another decade or so (page 220).” Omotoso did not put a date to that quote, but the understanding in it apparently informed Awo’s free education programme. It is tragically ironic that the sage’s Western Nigeria today suffers literacy poverty almost as much as the other parts that paid scant attention to education. It is a catastrophic failure of the present. The ancestors did not create ragged, unschooled children in search of hope. That is why we proudly parrot our father’s saying that it takes a village to train a child.
Amidst its crisis of mass poverty and ignorance, Northern Nigeria last week celebrated mining of crude oil in the desert. How is that wealth (if it is true wealth) going to wean the bandit of his banditry and educate the uneducable millions? A Cameroonian tribe says knowledge is better than riches. Grand old Yoruba musician, Haruna Ishola, lyrically celebrates education as the “chord of wealth that endures forever (okùn olà tí kìí já láíláí).” Somewhere else in Nigeria, the people tell themselves that wealth diminishes with usage; learning increases with use. My own people say it is sweet to be wise, educated and knowledgeable (Ogbón dùn ún gbón; ìmòn dùn ún mòn). Yet, if there is an age that despises, deprecates and devalues wisdom, learning and schooling, it is this age of dirty, unwashed leaders. Yet, we complain that nothing works. Were you not told that what you give you get ten times over? The untrained child won’t ever escape poverty and the society will not escape the consequences of that abandonment. There is an apt proverb here: The child who is not embraced by the village will soon burn down the village to get warm. You cannot nurse millions of children with the waters of poverty, illiteracy and hopelessness and dream of peace and prosperity. North to south, the road to the farm and the pathway to the stream are strewn with terror and terrorism. Who is not afraid to venture out anywhere today? People can’t work; the poverty queue lengthens; the odious cycle remains unbroken – because of the choices we made yesterday. We are set for another round of mischance.
Greek philosopher, Plato, wrote about his ‘cave’ and the people’s fascination with darkness. Before Plato, there was his teacher, Socrates with his profound analysis of power and politics. Socrates’ dialogue interrogates the eternal contest between good and bad; between what is just and what appears to be just. We see a world in perpetual competition “between the perfectly just man who shall appear to others (because of their ignorance) as supremely unjust and the perfectly unjust man who is absolutely ruthless, observing no moral constraints in attaining what he wants, and who possesses a magical ability never to get caught but always appears to others as supremely just.” A brilliant writer once described Nigeria as an unusual country of destructive intrigues; a nation where what one person wants is negated by what another person wants and what eventually prevails is what no one wants. In 1998/99, we were eager to replace the military with just anything, and we did. In 2014/2015, we were proud to insist that what we wanted was “anything but Jonathan.” And we did just that. Today, we can’t wait to see the back of bleak Buhari and his aura and we are toeing exactly the same path that led to today’s ruination. What is coming is what no one wants.
In Plato’s ‘The Republic’, Socrates states why democracies fail and leaders without sense rule. He asks us to imagine a ship in which there is a captain who is stronger than any of the crew, but is deaf, dumb, blind and drunk and is disastrously incompetent in navigation. In addition to the tragic combination, the crew members are quarreling with one another about the steering and about who holds the wheel. I have a feeling that Socrates had Nigeria in mind when he constructed that ship of confusion and entitlement where “everyone is of the opinion that it is his turn to lead and that he has a right to steer the ship though he has never learnt the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learnt.”
A chattering bird builds no nest. We have a slumbering government that is very eloquent in speaking about what is good but knows not how to do it. Day and night, the regime sleep-talks and dreams of doing good. In August 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari was quoted in a statement as saying, “If India can lift 271 million people out of poverty between 2006 and 2016, Nigeria can surely lift 100 million out of poverty in 10 years.” That was three years ago. Every slothful beggar longs to ride a horse. Three years after that presidential wish, the poor have not stopped getting poorer; what is bad has continued to give birth to what is worse. The ship of state will not stop floundering unless the right structure replaces today’s Nigeria and a competent captain and crew are in charge. Poverty figures won’t go down; there won’t be an end to what no one wants until the forge is restructured and the right bellows are hired to fire the furnace.
* Dr. Olagunju writes for The Nigerian Tribune on Mondays.