The councillor and his wraps of tuwo
By Dan Agbese
Email: [email protected]
Here is a piece of news you might have missed in the social media. An unnamed councillor in Jigawa State is responding in a unique way to the challenges of hunger faced by his constituents. He is handing out wraps of tuwo to them. He does not provide soup because he is not running a soup kitchen. But he meets his lucky constituents halfway. With a wrap of precious tuwo in hand, a constituent can manage to provide himself with soup with which to eat it.
The story did not say for how long this has been going on. It may be recent. If the latter, we do not know for how long he intends to sustain it. What is important is that he is using the little he earns as his people’s representative in the local government council to demonstrate his humanity and his sense of responsibility. What he earns in a year cannot fuel a senator’s state of the art SUV for one week. It is no small personal sacrifice. He appreciates the agony of his people in these parlous times in the nation and decides to show them that he cares and, as President Bola Tinubu likes to say, he feels their pain, hunger pains. E don try.
It is easy to ignore a humanitarian gesture such as this because it seems so little. But a humanitarian heart is not a collective. It beats on the left side of only one person. When the person gives effect to it, it becomes an example worth emulating by others. And humanity is the better for it. We fondly remember Mother Theresa and what she did for the Indian poor. There has been none like her before her and since.
The action of the councillor, a lowly figure in our scale of political hierarchy and importance, is not likely to cause a ripple on the placid waters of our national politics that has degenerated from public service to me-first personal service and self-aggrandisement. Still, it raises a fundamental issue, to wit, how our political leaders officially respond to poverty and the poor.
To begin with, every pronouncement about tackling poverty has followed the beaten path of official reaction to and the cynical response to the poverty rapidly enveloping the nation. Our political leaders believe they can end poverty and save the poor by throwing crumbs at them. Our country has never had a credible or practicable policy on how to deal with poverty but all presidents and state governors past and present walked and walk the same path of empty commitment to poverty eradication.
Contrast what the councillor is doing with his wraps of tuwo with what the members of the national assembly are doing with our common financial resources: their expensive personal comfort at these hard times with hunger in pursuit of households save those of our political leaders. They ignore the groans of the hungry and they ignore the trauma of the poor and the pauperised. The councillor is making a personal sacrifice in line with his sense of personal and public responsibility. In contrast our national legislators choose to give no thoughts to making personal sacrifices to demonstrate that they too feel the hunger and the pain of the people whose votes, freely given, purchased, or stolen, put them where they are today. They do not need me to tell them that the poor are not breathing.
If it is any consolation, poverty is not a Nigerian problem. It is a global problem. Every nation, no matter how rich, contends with it to make the poor breathe. Each country wages a silent war on poverty. Here, our political leaders wage a war of words from rooftop on poverty, as witness these: President Buhari promised to take 100 million people out of poverty in ten years. His constitutional limit was eight years. If he had been true to his promise, our poverty level should have been down by 80 million in eight years. He promised but could not deliver. When he assumed office in 2015, we had 83 million people eking a living below the poverty line and trying quite mightily to survive on less than $1.50 a day. By the time he left office in May this year, that number had risen to 158 million.
President Obasanjo enacted two anti-poverty programmes. The first was the poverty eradication programme. When that made no impression on the growing poverty in this land of plenty, he replaced it with poverty alleviation programme. The first programme failed to eradicate poverty and the second failed to alleviate poverty.
Both men failed to tackle poverty because neither of them had an articulated anti-poverty policy spelt out in a series of long-term programmes. They were cosmetic political approaches that went down the drain of airy political nothings. By the way, each man’s failed policy was anchored on handouts to a selected number of people. World history has no record of a country that was able to contain poverty with cosmetic approaches.
Our country has never shown the kind of determination it takes to confront poverty to make the poor breathe. We do not have a long-term policy on tackling poverty. The best we have had so far from the instances cited above are cynical and cosmetics approaches that only aggravated and worsened our national poverty and increasingly made it difficult for the poor to have a fair chance of pulling themselves from the rot into which government policies have confined them.
India has shown that poverty is not a curse on any nation. It is a man-made problem that can be solved by man. It does not take magic or prayers or faux religiosity; it takes effective and focused planning, commitment, and implementation. In 2017, India passed the sash to our country as the poverty capital of the world. Our country has worn it long enough to pass it on to another country more deserving than this rich but poor, struggling nation at the mercy of nations less endowed than it is in human and natural resources.
The Tinubu administration is embroiled in the messy business of throwing crumbs to the poor through the failed and corrupt palliative system it inherited from the Buhari administration. Its payment of five billion Naira to each state government to help mollify the rumbling empty stomach among those on the lower rungs of our national demographics has joined the lengthening list of scandals in the country. It does the image of the Tinubu administration not much good. Our big men and women take food from the mouths of infants and swell their personal bank accounts. God dey.
The administration cannot ignore the poverty challenge in the land. Like corruption, it is now a challenge that faces every federal administration and one that none cannot refuse to take up as a political statement. Our country is caught up in the poverty trap. This is a complicated problem because it deals with the mindset in our economic management. Under Buhari, it justified the easy resort to foreign and domestic loans by his administration.
The Tinubu administration is negotiating more foreign loans, evidence that it too cannot free itself from the poverty trap. It is about to pile it on, even as the nation groans from the N77 trillion debt it now bears, courtesy of the magical management of the economy by Buhari. The poverty trap drove us into the debt trap. We are thus contending with two vicious traps in the management of the national economy. Let no one think this is something that will yield to the cosmetics of strident words and watery actions.
Perhaps, we need to pause and ask ourselves if, given our resources, this country is truly the poverty capital of the world. Nigeria earns in a month what some other African and third world countries do not earn in one year. Can a country this rich and this richly endowed be classified as poor? We are not officially classified as poor because we lack; we are poor because our wealth is is misapplied, abused, and misused. The problem is the c-word: corruption. Our financial resources are stolen by those entrusted with their safe keeping. Governance in our country is more expensive than in any other third world country because we spend a disproportionate per centage of our financial resources to elevate and maintain the shameless lavish lifestyle of our public officers who, in turn rob us and deny us our individual right and ambition to climb out of the hell hole.
Think of what the Jigawa councillor gives and think of what our legislators in the national take. And then spare a thought for a nation caught in the poverty trap and the debt trap. Thank you.