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Laughter in a time of extreme poverty

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Scene of illegal shanties and structures demolished by the Lagos State government at the Oko-Oba abattoir and Lairage Complex, Agege.

In a world where newspaper columnists are accused by the people in government and their avowed supporters as biased and sensationalist, empirical indicators continue to underscore the fact that the Nigerian leadership is either unaware of the urgency required of them in facing today’s challenges, or it simply does not care.

This past week, the Brookings Institution, a century-old think-tank based in Washington DC, published findings suggesting that Nigeria has overtaken India as the country with the highest number of people in extreme poverty (i.e. living on less than $1.25 a day). According to the report, as at the end of May 2018 Nigeria had about 87 million people living in extreme poverty, compared to India’s estimated 73 million. So, this is not a per capita comparison but one of actual numbers. In terms of actual numbers, India’s population is put at 1.3 billion, while Nigeria’s is at 180 million. In other words, while nearly half of Nigeria’s population is living in extreme poverty, India’s number comes to only about 6% of its population.

If this is not alarming enough, the Brookings Institution estimates that extreme poverty in Nigeria is growing by 6 people every minute. In India, the number continues to fall. The highest drop in numbers in India took place between 2008 and 2011, when an estimated 140 million people were lifted out of extreme poverty. The Nigerian government will no doubt sneer at yet another independent global report pointing out that in spite of the fact that our politicians are always photographed laughing heartily, life in this country is not a joking matter.

Sticking with India, are there any lessons that today’s government can learn? Well, most analysts trace the reversal of India’s fortunes to the economic growth of the early 1990s to the 2000s, brought about by the reforms that took place in 1991. The government decided to move to a markets-driven and service-based economy. Prior to the reforms of 1991, investment was hampered by excessive bureaucracy and the thrust of the government was protectionism, state intervention at the micro level in all spheres and a strong emphasis on import substitution industrialisation. Does any, or indeed, all, of this sound familiar?

And at the time our President interfered with the Central Bank’s responsibilities, declaring that he would not permit “the murder of the naira” at the height of our forex crisis, Egypt floated its currency, together with other reforms. Today, inflation in Egypt is a third of what it was this time last year and its GDP projections are strong.

The Vice-President jets from one tech-circle event to the other and posts trite observations on his social media accounts about the power of technology to unleash wealth, like Facebook, Uber and Twitter. Nigerians online have promptly reminded him that he is the 2ic in a country where police, under the auspices of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) harass young people for being in Uber taxis and owning iPhones – and the government is doing nothing about it. Like many other sectors, tech is where it is in spite of the government, not because of it.

The larger reforms question is one that Nigerians must demand of the candidates, as we descend into another election cycle. Interventionism is clearly not working. Smart investment money does not seem to follow it at any rate. It is not making rice, tomatoes or cement cheaper. What is worse is that the government itself cannot even afford the interventions it says it will make. How do we know this? My budget-watching friends online have pointed out that in the 2017 budget, the government anticipated N5.08trn in revenue but received only N2.71trn (i.e. 53% of the amount) – for the 2018 budget, anticipated revenue has been put even further up at N7.2trn! Unless there is a whole lot more Abacha loot being repatriated in the coming months, how does the government intend to make up the difference?

Eventually, and hopefully sooner rather than later, the government is going to have to confront the evidence that relaxing its stranglehold on the economy and reforming to a markets-based system is probably the quickest route to sustainable growth.

Of course, it goes without saying that the lingering low-grade civil war being fought in the Middle Belt and what it portends for security in the country generally, is only going to make the situation that much harder to resolve, with security being one of the few things the government ought to have complete control over.

The clock is ticking. If it took you 5 minutes to read this, another 30 Nigerians regressed into extreme poverty during your perusal.


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