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If government were clean...

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WEEKEND with Ibraheem Sulaiman

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Poverty distorts the very nature of society, it distorts the very nature of human being. To that extent poverty poses an existential threat to any society, to any nation. Nations which are aware of the mortal danger of poverty to their wellbeing and even their very existence do their utmost not merely to alleviate poverty but eliminate it altogether.

They know that poverty is not essential to society, rather it is a disease and it has a remedy. The phenomenal advances in science and technology has made it a lot easier for nations to eliminate poverty provided there is the political will to do so. Where poverty persists, a major reason might be that not enough efforts have been made by governments and people to fight it. No nation needs to be poor, no people are destined to be poor, and there exists not a single reason for any people to tolerate poverty even for a single moment. Where poverty not only persists but keeps on rising and escalating, even thought there are examples to draw from of successful wars on poverty, and there are effective tools and mechanisms to keep it at bay, then obviously what you have is a failed society, a failed nation.

Nigeria does not fight poverty, rather, it fosters it, throwing millions of its citizens into poverty every year. Today some one hundred and twelve million Nigerians are, by official reckoning, poor. If you add those who are not captured by the statistics but who acknowledge themselves to be poor because they truly are poor, then the number rises even higher. So possibly in every ten Nigerians, at least seven are poor. The meaning of poverty is simply that hunger is endemic, children don't have enough nutrition for their bodies to resist many diseases and enjoy healthy optimal growth, and for their brains to enjoy perfect, uninhibited development. So the nation does not get the full measure of of the human resources it desires, and can not, therefore, attain its developmental goals. Poverty means that a large number of children from poor families would not receive the level and quality of education necessary to transport them from the bottom of social ladder to where the lucky others are, who may by no means be superior either in intellect or ability to them. For no fault of theirs, millions of these young mean and women are left below and behind, denied every available chance to reach a position of wellbeing and respectability in life.

Poverty means that some people will never realize their full potential, however brilliant, however resourceful, however determined they may be, just because they are not born in the right places, to the right families. Poverty means the society is unable to adequately educate its young over a long period of time and as a result it can not generate the quality of human resources it must possess to perform optimally, competitively. So it lags behind. Poverty means you have two societies living together in the same environment, one has, one hasn't. The disparity and divergence between the two - which may not necessarily mean that one side perpetually works harder than the other, or is intrinsically made of a superior fabric but is perhaps only luckier or more ruthless - can so often reach such a level of intolerance and unacceptability that it may cause an irreparable social disharmony, even social implosion.

In Nigeria, the region most primed for prosperity and abundance is ironically the most deprived. Why? In one word: Education. This is the only part of the country where one part of the children wake up in the morning to go to school, and the other part to goes out to beg; where one gender is allowed education, however grudgingly, the other furiously denied; where education is not pursued as an absolute priority but only as a necessary evil; where education is not dispensed as an organic whole but is bifurcated into spiritual and mundane, one for this world, one for the other. The simple truth is that economic and social development in Northern Nigeria can only go as far as the quality of its education. If generation after generation from the North are raised without the requisite knowledge and skills to shoulder the great and complex tasks of building and managing a society imbued with the finest human qualities, how then can the power for good, which in all fairness the region represents, be asserted effectively and decisively?  Similarly, it may be said that the position of Nigeria at least in the economic sphere does not at all reflect its size or endowments. Nigeria is the seventh largest nation in the world in terms of population, that translates into the seventh in the world in terms of human resources. But Nigeria spends only 0.9 percent of its GDP on education, ranking one hundred and eightieth in the world. And a whole range of situations arise from this single factor: for example, Nigeria is one of the twenty poorest nations on earth, it is two hundred and eleventh in life expectancy, one hundred and seventeenth in health expenditure. In several critical factors of human development Nigeria languishes at the very bottom.

Nigeria's poverty is self-inflicted, the country needs not be poor, and it is not poor. Poverty arises partly from the nation's politics, which is characterized by an inordinate, brutal quest for power. Recently the Group Managing Director of Nigerian National Petroleum Company, Mr Austin Oniwon, perhaps alarmed by the scale and intensity at which Nigeria's oil is being stolen through vandalism and terror, issued a very unusual warning. 'Nigeria will wake up one day to discover that pipeline thieves have taken over the country,' he said during an interactive session with board members and commissioners of the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission in Abuja. 'If we fail to curb this trend, we are inadvertently empowering these criminals to take over our local government areas; and by the time they do that, they will move on to take charge of the states since they now have the resources to decide who gets to power; and one day, we may as well wake up to discover that they have taken over the entire country.' [Punch 9/3/12] Nigeria, Oniwon warned further, could descend into social chaos similar to the situation in Mexico or Columbia where drug barons, for several decades now, call the shots, because they are empowered, thanks to under-world operations. The cost of containing them, in blood and money, has proved exceedingly high, well beyond the power of these nations to bear on their own. Mr. Austin Oniwon, however, seems to have overlooked the more tangible facts on the ground. Nigeria's Democracy is being hijacked, imposed and sustained by the mightier oil thieves. They empower themselves from Nigeria's oil wealth as a result of which they are able to take over the machinery of state at every level, in every corner.

The truth is this: there will be no forward movement for the nation until there is a decent political process and a clean government. This truth is continuously being reinforced by political and social transformations taking place all around the world. The Economist [17/3/11] makes the point clearly: 'On a personal level, the state matters because it has a big impact on people's lives. The quality of the state you live in will do more to determine your well-being than natural resources, culture or religion. In the surveys that measure people's happiness, decent government is as important as education, income and health (all of which are themselves dependent on government). To business, government can make an enormous difference. Most obviously, if the state accounts for half the economy then improving any part of that will create better conditions for growth. Even if government were to cost the same but produce more (better-educated workers, decent health care, roads without holes, simpler regulation), the effect on private-sector productivity would be electric.'

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