Some political promises are difficult to keep. The nature of politics induces political leaders to make promises they know they can only keep with soundbites and indifferent public applause.
You are not about to hear it from me that President Muhammadu Buhari has clearly failed in one of his core promises dear to the people: wrestling down poverty. He promised to take 100 million people out of poverty in ten years. To show that he meant business, sometime last year he appointed some experts to help him work out a formula for keeping his promise to the people. He does not have ten years, of course, but he has enough time to devise a mechanism or a formula that could be working in his name long after he leaves Aso Rock.
He claimed later that he took 15.5 million people out of poverty in six years; 10.5 million of whom left poverty behind in the last two years. The president must have called in the experts to validate his formula for crushing poverty and saving the people. Winning the anti-poverty war is critical to human progress. Eric Meade rightly calls poverty “humanity’s greatest challenge.”
On June 12 last year, Buhari painted an alluring picture of a country emerging from poverty. In his broadcast to the nation, the president said that the various intervention programmes of his administration had made Nigeria a new, self-sufficient nation – a nation now able to produce enough food to feed itself. The immediate effect on agriculture, he said, was that the country now imports less food and produces more food. As he put it, the ABP has “resulted in a sharp decline in the nation’s major food import bill.” Before his initiatives came into effect rice importation alone consumed $1 billion; currently, we spend only $18.5 million on rice importation annually.
Whatever might be the successes of the aforementioned initiatives, they are not entirely responsible for the low food import bill. The credit goes more or less to the shuttered borders. More importantly, at least two things have defied the success of these initiatives. One, local food production is low because insecurity has kept farmers at home, not on the farms. It works out at less food at a higher cost to the consumers.
Two, the crash in the food import bill is welcome but we must not forget that hunger results from lack of food. If we do not have enough food or if the available food is priced beyond the reach of the majority of the people, the low food import bill itself would avail us nothing. Given the situation in which we now find ourselves, some adjustments need to be made quickly to ensure a reasonable balance between the need to save money and the need to feed the people and prevent the country from sliding down the dangerous slopes into famine. The World Bank has even warned of famine in sub-Saharan Africa. We must resolve not to add famine to the portfolio of our horrendous national challenges.
The president’s grand claims actually amount to plausible fiction. From all indications, the poverty in our country is clearly deepening and thus worsening in the face of our insecurity challenges and a national economy somewhat sustained with unsustainable loans. The wanton destruction of lives and property, the uprooting of perhaps millions of people from their homes and the loss of their means of livelihood and who now live in the internally displaced persons’ camps deprived of economic activities, the desertion of farms by our peasant farmers for fear of killers and kidnappers with the obvious result that we produce less food locally, the disruption of commercial and social interactions because killers, bandits and kidnappers are the lords of our roads – all these point to the fact that the president sees the realities with blinkers on. A few days after the president made his claims, the World Bank spoilt the good news. In a report released on June 16 the bank said that a high inflation rate led to the high cost of goods and services and made seven million additional Nigerians poor. “As of April 2021,” the bank noted, “the inflation rate was the highest in four years. Food prices accounted for over 60% of the total increase in inflation. Rising prices have pushed an estimated 7 million Nigerians below the poverty line in 2020 alone.” We have an estimated national population of either 207 million or 230 million. Of this number some 100 million people live below the poverty line. Tells you why our country is the poverty capital of the world. It won that crown under Buhari’s watch, hence his promise to change the poverty narrative and give the crown to a country more deserving of the honour we have enjoyed since 2017. The poor, like the rich, have grades. Experts classify them into the poor, the vulnerable and the extremely poor. We have all the grades of the poor in our country.
Last year Buhari assured that: “My vision of pulling 100 million poor Nigerians out of poverty in 10 years has been put into action and can be seen in the National Social Investment Programme, a first in Africa and one of the largest in the world where over 31.6 million beneficiaries are taking part. We now have a National Social register of poor and vulnerable households, identified across 708 local government areas, 8,723 wards and 86,610 communities in the 36 states and Abuja.”
Fighting poverty is a circular challenge. It is a human problem. When a government pulls some people above the poverty line, circumstances push new people below the poverty line. It is a win-lose-win-lose situation. Whereas Buhari pulled 15.5 million people out of poverty in the last two years, seven million new people sank below the poverty line in 2020 alone. The president finds it frustrating. He confessed that his efforts to bring solutions we can believe in are being undermined by “scarce resources and galloping population growth rate that consistently outstrips our capacity to provide jobs for our populace.”
Our stellar performance in the maternity wards is ruining our economy. Our “galloping population growth rate” imposes on the Nigerian state more mouths to feed, more young people to educate and more young people to provide for in terms of job opportunities. Our galloping population makes the president look like someone who has problems with keeping promises to the people.
About a month ago, the National Bureau of Statistics told the president that the nation under his watch has sunk deeper into greater poverty than at any time in our national history. Despite his glorified initiatives, 133 million Nigerians are now officially classified as poor by the NBS.
That must be shocking news to the president. The man who believed he took on poverty and won, now confronts the bitter truth that he took on poverty and lost the battle rather woefully. His much-touted initiatives must have collectively induced greater poverty than tackled it.
Buhari is set to leave office without keeping this promise to the people. He has taken no one out of poverty, let alone 15.5 million people. When he made the promise, he believed he had the capacity to achieve the tremendous feat to which no Nigerian leader, military or civilian, has so far come even close.
Well, not to worry, Napoleon famously said that promises are made to be broken. We cannot hold Buhari’s string of broken promises against him. Politics makes promises the staple of diet of the game. The politician who will not make unrealistic promises he knows he cannot fulfil, is not yet born.
Agbese can be reached via Email: [email protected]