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Poverty is a universal phenomenon that exists in all economies including the developing, developed, undeveloped, emerging and frontier. Poverty is a class and those who belong here, known and labeled as ‘the poor’, have varied definitions depending on place and circumstance.
Whereas the Holy Book called the Bible celebrates the poor, especially the poor in heart, as people who are meek, gentle, honest, pure in their thinking, reasoning and dealing with fellow human beings, man looks at the poor from a variegated prism as the have-nots, humiliated, vilified and deprived.
The poor who populate these new faith centres are assured of prosperity on the condition that they sow so that they can reap and so, from tithe to seed faith, covenant seed, self-denial, contacting the pastor’s anointing with special but substantial offering directly proportional to expected wealth, the poor is stripped bare, and clothed with great expectations.
The poor are, indeed, a pitiable lot and, in the Nigerian society, given the way it is configured and run today, they are not only deprived, but also criminialsed. They are deprived of basic needs of life including food and good shelter for reasons of affordability. They are also deprived of the freedom and right to even suffer, as they do, to remain alife.
Here is a country where government has no provision whatsoever that caters for the poor, yet is always out hounding and criminalizing many of them who have decided to live, in spite government, by hawking, riding commercial motorcycles (okada), and doing sundry things to keep going with life.
Nigeria is also a country where the poor are confirmed criminals, always hounded and oppressed by the government, for peccadilloes or minor offences including even being able to afford to seek refuge in the slums, which the government have already marked out for demolition and allocation to the rich who are, unfortunately, in the minority.
It is common knowledge that it is the honest poor that get arrested by overzealous police officers on patrol on the mere suspicion that their haggard, hungry look suggests they might be criminals, or even for such trivial offences as wandering and loitering. And from there, they are dumped and forgotten in detention camps for being unable to buy their freedom.
Arguably, Nigeria is a very difficult country to live in. Economic hardship, made worse by hyper inflation, unemployment and low purchasing power, is making life and living unbearable in the country and the poor are at the receiving end of it all. Many of them have been tempted to, against their conscience, commit minor offences for survival.
But, unlike their rich counterparts, the government and its ‘law’ usually frown upon such offences and punish them heavily while looking the other way in the case of the rich and mighty who empty national treasury or keep for themselves and their families money meant to execute public projects.
Cases abound of people who are languishing in prison or detention camps today for minor offences such as wandering, loitering, hawking, pilfering, stealing food items, livestock, etc as in the case of one Audu Mustapha who was reported to have been sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment for stealing a cow belonging to one Julie Idi.
According to the report, the estimated cost of the cow was N60, 000. The police had accused Mustapha of selling the cow and using the proceeds to purchase a small truck with which he conveyed ‘liberated’ cows to either where he sold them or hid them.
Though nothing can justify Mustapha’s despicable action because even people poorer than he have resisted the temptation to steal, it is easy to see that his action as a mere peccadillo and the following punishment as a case of killing an ant with a sledge hammer, more so as nobody talks about the huge criminal offences committed by the rich and mighty.
So many of the ‘big people’ in Nigeria today rose to where they are through stealing government money. Everybody, including the government, knows this but nothing is done to them. In this country, a giant generator meant to power a national stadium was once stolen, but till today, nobody has been arrested in connection with that national crime.
A couple of years ago, a large sum of money estimated at $13 million was discovered in an apartment in Ikoyi area of Lagos. Till date, the ownership of that huge amount of stolen government money is yet to be established. No arrests have been made and not much is even being said about it.
It follows, therefore, that there is something wrong with a country like ours that severely punishes small thieves and celebrates bigger criminals which lends credence to the argument that, in this country, someone is a criminal, or treated as one, not because of his offence against the state, but because of his status in the society.
This explains why, despite several factual and verifiable allegations of graft levelled against serving and former public officers, the government’s anti-graft dog, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and other security agents do not even bother to investigate them unless such persons find themselves on the wrong side of power.
It is a sad story that some state governments make life very uncomfortable for the poor in their domain. Lagos, Abia, Anambra and some other states places where the poor who struggle to feed with their okada and wheel barrow businesses are harassed and extorted mindlessly by agencies of government who, most times, even impound those ‘machines’ and force the owners to pay heavily to get them back.
In many other states, especially in those ones where there are insurgent activities, the poor who are major victims of frequent attacks are suffering. The population of the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps is swelling by the day with increasing insecurity in the land and the governments that provide the ‘safe haven’ for them have practically abandoned them to their fate.
Government makes no provision for housing the poor yet ‘punish’ them for living in squatter houses, shanties, swamps, slum areas and other sub-human habitations where there are no basic facilities such as water, electricity, good roads, etc. Even at that, they are frequently sacked from their ‘homes’ when government’s bulldozers come with their angry prongs destroying, demolishing and taking over the land.
Nigeria, unlike Brazil, has neither plan nor clue on how to build for the poor. The country has a yawning housing demand-supply gap with a conservative estimate of 17 million units. An analysis of that deficit shows a strong leaning towards the low income class. It is a bottom-heavy pyramid with a tapering top.
Like Nigeria, before now, mortgages barely existed in Brazil because interest rates were too high and evicting defaulters was almost impossible. The poor built on their own land without title, often in precarious spots on riverbanks or steep hills. A 2010 census found 11.4 million Brazilians living in slums. Millions more squeezed in with relatives or lived in formal but substandard housing which is a common feature of most Nigerian cities, especially Lagos, today.
A little over a decade ago, Nigeria was classed along with Brazil as frontier economies, but today the story is different. Whereas Brazil has moved on to become an emerging economy, Nigeria is still struggling at the spot where Brazil left off.
The Economist magazine once told a story of an Adriana Palugan, a Brazilin native, which is similar to that of Johnson Onyebuchi who has lived in a rented apartment in Ajegunle, a sprawling slum in Lagos, for over 18 years. But unlike Palugan, there is no government scheme anywhere for Onyebuchi that guarantees home ownership for him.
Palugan, a mother of two, rented a home in Balneário Camboriú, a seaside town in southern Brazil. Now she has bought her own house from Colina do Cedro, a new development on a hill overlooking the town.
She extols her new home’s wonders in its bright and spacious rooms with a pool, gym and multi-games court, 24-hour security, and altitude. Her old place was flooded in 2008, and she lost much of what she owned just as it happened to Onyebuchi following the 2012 nationwide flooding in Nigeria.
Without Minha Casa Minha Vida (MCMV—My House My Life), a federal government programme started in 2009 to fund housing for Brazil’s poor and middle classes, Palugan, who works for a car dealership, would have struggled to buy such a home which, perhaps, she couldn’t have.
The price was 100,000 reais (about $51,000). Caixa Econômica Federal, a state-owned bank, gave her a subsidised mortgage; the repayments are less than her rent used to be. Caixa has also granted the developers, Abramar, cheap financing for the project’s second phase, two apartment blocks. The funding comes from a workers’ compensation scheme and the federal budget. The lowest earners get the biggest subsidies.
MCMV is shifting home-builders’ interest away from the rich minority to the poor. This is the kind of thing that Nigerian government can also do to house the poor and close the housing demand-supply gap in the country.
Big private developers like the UACN Property Development Company (UPDC) should be encouraged, through government schemes such as Brazil’s MCMV, to shift interest from building for the rich to building for the poor.
To say that Nigeria is, today, on the brink and that the poor are living on the fringes is simply to emphasise the obvious. The country is under siege by armed bandits, Boko Haram terrorists, militants, ethnic irredentists seeking self determination with separatist agenda, kidnappers, killer-herdsmen, etc.
All these are reflections of poverty in the land. The clan of the poor is growing by the day and it is feared that if this continues unchecked through a viable government policy that will create jobs to absorb the large army of the unemployed, the country will only be postponing the doomsday.