I have been working on this week’s article for sometime because it is a topic that is dear to me. You can then imagine my pleasant and somewhat skeptical surprise in June 12 listening to the president’s speech and hearing him acknowledge the gap between the rich and the poor in the nation. It was very gratifying to note that Mr. President and I were thinking alike. It must be because of our age bracket that affords the luxury of knowing by experience that there was a time when the gap wasn’t so wide. He made this clear when he talked about having the privilege of free education from primary school to staff college and war college. He also received some of his education in England, India and the United States.
By addressing the gap, he simply identified the presence of a large population of Nigerians living in poverty and promised to lift the 100 million of them from poverty in 10 years. I should add here that he only has four more years constitutionally because, if his plan will take 10, 15 years, what’s the guarantee that subsequent governments will follow through? Nigeria is a country where successors do not continue the good work of their predecessors.
I am eager to see the working plan and the implementation details of this plausible goal, with the hope that it will not go down the drain as yet another of those pronouncements we’ve had in the past with little or no execution road map.
I would like to call on Mr. President to give us a clear road map of where we are, where he is planning to take us and how to get there: one that does not only include the social intervention programmes that he claims are a model for other nations. It is certainly a good idea to provide million of school children with free meals in primary school, I can’t say the same for the conditional cash support programme that gives N5,000 to the poor. That will only give them daily bread for the moment but no one is leaving the poverty bracket that way.
Mr. President will have to do more, starting with looking back a little bit to why the six steel rolling mills, the six assembly plants, the refineries and paper mills that consumed billions of naira were never fully utilised. If we can find an answer to these questions, maybe half of the 100 million would be lifted out of poverty. The secondary industries and the value chain from those industries were meant to give Nigeria the industrial take-off at that time and provide millions with employment.
You see, I had high expectations on the day listening to the President as I felt he had had enough time to prepare a speech scant on rhetoric and rich in policy and programme specifics, seeing as he kept the May 29 inauguration ceremony short by saying nothing.
I should add that today’s article was not supposed to be about the President, well not specifically. It was to address the fact that Nigeria has become a country of a few haves and many have-nots. According to Oxfam, the international aid agency, Nigeria came in last or first, depending on how you view it, among countries fuelling the gap between the super-rich and the poor. This was explained to be due to a “shamefully low” social spending, poor tax collection and rising labour rights violation, among other things.
Taking a quick trip down memory lane, I recall that in the past Nigeria and, over the years, those that didn’t have looked up to those that had as mentors. Those that had in return showed the way and extended knowledge and wealth to the have-nots who then slowly grew because the system allowed for such growth. The haves (mentors) in those days were the Dantatas in the North, who specialised in trade and commerce, the Ojukwus in the East, through transportation, and the Odutolas, through manufacturing in the West. Among those that had were the top-level workers in the private sector, executives. We also had men of the customs and police, but the general opinion then was that their source of wealth was questionable and not to be respected.
With the Nigerian Civil War ending in the 1970s came the cheap money syndrome in the form of politicians in uniform and agbada, with a winner-takes-all mentality. At that stage, the gap between the haves and the have-nots started to grow. I recall something that happened at a social event, where a retired schoolteacher was introduced and invited to the high table because, way back then, he taught those that had risen to become professors and generals. Today, teachers are on the bottom line of poverty.
As the gap widened, the haves started removing themselves and seeking special protection from the have-nots. They sought the protection of the security agencies, the judiciary and even the executive arm of government. The average Nigerian could not afford to be protected and so became easy prey to mischief-makers. They also were unable to get justice because the lawmakers no longer followed the law. Equity was replaced with quota and then came marginalisation. It became very easy for those wanting to destabilise our country to find willing and able volunteers.
I could take you back to the origin of militancy in the South South, the Boko Haram insurgency, the Oduduwa, IPOB and more, but I’ll spare you the details in this article. I will, however, state that, if the present situation continues, there is no way our security organisations can cope, after all, 80 per cent of them are too busy protecting the haves, day and night. A hallmark of a successful nation is one that offers protection to all, the good, the bad, the rich and the poor.
Let us take a moment to simply take in the number that now protects the Presidency, almost all the legislators, the judiciary, the local government chairmen and counsellors, the state government and almost all the government functionaries, heads of parastatals, private sector heads, the traditional heads, many former this and that. We have not been able to stop and think, why are we protecting all these men and women? Who are we protecting them from and why?
The truth is until the haves no longer fear the have-nots, society remains unsafe. However, the only way this can happen is if the have-nots no longer feel marginalised by the haves. Like a town crier, I am sounding the gong. If the gap isn’t addressed swiftly with more than free food and N5,000, a time is coming when the have-nots will have nothing else to eat but the haves. This is a stage worse than war because it will consume all of us, the haves, the rich, the poor and the custodians of law and justice.