In 2004, John Taylor, as U.S. under-secretary for International Affairs, presented a report to the Joint Economic Committee, titled “Grants and Debt Restructuring”. In that report, Taylor made some recommendations and prescriptions for poverty alleviation in developing countries. While admitting that “there is much poverty in many poor countries”, he also said that “productivity growth is far below its potential, but higher productivity can reduce poverty to sizeable degree”.
John Taylor’s statement can hardly be faulted, both as at the time it was made and now. Rather, what may elicit some argument or controversy is the issue of productivity. If we go strictly by the stereotype belief that poverty is the result of laziness, then that would be a wrong and faulty presumption. Poverty in Nigeria is a self-inflicted condition which cannot be attributed to laziness. There is more to the plight of poverty in developing countries than what an average person knows. No conspiracy theory may be involved.
In a chat with journalists at the National Assembly complex in Abuja, shortly after John Taylor’s prescriptions for poverty reduction, Senator Idris Kuta warned that the federal government may go bankrupt. According to Kuta, the total income for the country in February 2004 was N843.24 billion, while the expenditure was N1,161.64 trillion, with a shortfall of N308,084 billion. The shortfall resulted from withdrawal from the nation’s foreign reserve in order to meet the expenditure profile. Senator Kuta placed emphasis on “financial profligacy” which needed to be halted immediately.
In the words of Senator Kuta, “the same poor financial extravagance repeated itself in March, April and May, all this year”. He added that the Federal Government gave a total of 23 million dollars to Ghana and Sierra Leone while 800 million dollars was paid to Russia for the purchase of old World War II ammunition. Another imprudent spending by the Federal Government cited by the Senator, was the payment of 77,871,177 dollars for the purchase of one 335 MW gas turbine power plant to a Chinese company.
Senator Idris Kuta enjoined former President Olusegun Obasanjo to either correct the drain of the foreign reserves or curtail the excessive spending, to save the nation from going bankrupt. Idris Kuta did not make his statement without facts, rather, he used Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) income and expenditure profile as basis for his predictions and warning. It was the same way that late Chief Obafemi Awolowo warned the administration of Alhaji Shehu Shagari, that the nation may go bankrupt if the habit of financial profligacy continued.
The poverty issue in Nigeria springs largely from an unmerciful squandering of the nation’s wealth, which discourages those whose productive labour provide the wealth. There is a strong need to plead with those in the corridors of power as well as those who have access to the nation’s wealth to exercise prudence rather than spend like a drunken sailor. The Nigerian political elite are a clever class of “patriots” who can pontificate a great deal, but would not tell Nigerians how and what they earn.
Nigerian Senators would be quick to tell Professor Itse Sagay that the salary of top political office holders is not fixed by senators, but they would not tell Nigerians about the magic of budget padding. How would they ever disclose their allowances? Has the National Assembly not become a cult? What justifies any human activity or expenditure is primarily its capacity to enhance and improve the well-being of the majority of humans. What the labour and productive capacity of the majority provide for the comfort and greed of a minority parasites, then poverty would be a part of the result. Nothing would work effectively in such a society.
Poverty does not consist only in the absence of material possessions, but it includes the absence of empathy or a deep feeling of what happens to others as a result of the activities of an individual. Such obtuse insensitivity results in the absence of peace, stability and mutual harmony in a society. Similarly, any government whose activities and spending pattern do not translate into the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens is a government that fosters poverty and low productivity. The “dividends of democracy” should go round!
John Taylor’s prescription for the poverty crisis in developing nations included the ban on loans which are often misappropriated by those who manage such loans. Grants tied to specific performance should replace loans. Effective performance of any government cannot include profligate spending or threatening citizens with penalty for “hate speech.”
Dr. Amirize is a retired lecturer at the Rivers State University, Port Harcourt.