Musings on the world’s capital of poverty
Nigeria is a large country where everything—good or bad—tends to be in excess. Our writers, athletes and sportsmen and women once wowed the world, even our politicians and leaders too. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, though, we became known as the corruption capital of the world. Today, we are more well known as the poverty capital of the world. And who knows, if anyone cared to put the statistics together, we might well already be the insurgency capital of the world.
But back to our position as the world’s capital of poverty. Data by the World Poverty Clock shows that Nigeria still leads with nearly 87 million people living in extreme poverty, ahead of India (84 million) which used to occupy the top spot. The database defines “extreme poverty” as living on less than $1.9 (about N1000) per day. Some 64 per cent of this figure (about 73.5 million Nigerians) are in the rural areas, while 14 per cent (13.2 million) live in urban areas. Poverty in the country is almost evenly divided among men and women, with a slight age for women, a rarity in the distribution of poverty across the poorer nations of the world.
Many things are remarkable about the nature and lived experience of poverty in Nigeria. The sheer numbers tell their own story. Over 41 per cent of our total population is officially declared as living in extreme poverty. Taken as a separate country, these 87 million people will still be the third most populous in Africa. That is a lot of weight for one country to carry. The dashed hopes, frustrations and quiet sufferings of such a huge number of people in the same society partly explain why Nigeria remains so politically and socially unstable, always lurching from one conflict to another.
It is similarly remarkable that despite a frightening statistic you would struggle to find the subject as an issue in our politics or policy. Politicians hardly talk about it, except when and where they want to win elections. Policymakers worry even less about it, except where they can feather their own nests in the name of eradicating it. And the media? When last did our media focus sustained attention on a bread and butter subject like poverty, which affects nearly half our population every day? Perhaps they would someday, but for now, their attention is more on abstract issues like restructuring, power shift or Biafra.
Any strategies for removing Nigerian from the list of the poorest nations must require the serious attention of politicians, policymakers and the media to work. But since politicians don’t talk about it, the policymakers couldn’t care less and the media are too busy with more abstract things, issues of poverty and its reduction in the country disappear from the public glare, leaving the poor to suffer on their own. Or perhaps things are not exactly like that.
Perhaps the quantitative figure is unreal because qualitative experience tells a different story. It can be difficult to actually say who is poor and who is not in Nigeria. Because of the binary divisions between ‘poor’ and ‘rich’, and the cultural
Hundreds of thousands of young men and women, possibly millions, roam about the country without any identifiable jobs, income, or well off parents. Yet, in their pockets are Apple and Samsung phones which they must spend money to keep. Are they poor too?
connotations associated with them, most Nigerians would not admit to being ‘not poor’. Most would class themselves, in both senses of the term, as ‘poor’, or as one of the ‘masses’, or as ‘talaka’, if you are located up north. Even Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man by a wide margin, had to make a withdrawal of $10 million in cash just to feel assured that he’s rich after all. So it is difficult to tell who isn’t poor and by implication, who actually is.
In Nigeria, it can also be difficult to tell the poor apart by their standards of living, employment, incomes or residence, regardless of what the official statistics say. You might find households where the children are not in school, apparently on the excuse that there is no money to pay. Or you might find families where the children attend only public schools, since that itself is now a marker of poverty of sorts. And yet, if you closely follow these families to the day a son is getting married, or a daughter is being married off, or when a dead parent is being buried, or when the patriarch is adding another wife, you would be surprised how much resources they burn through.
Hundreds of thousands of young men and women, possibly millions, roam about the country without any identifiable jobs, income, or well off parents. Yet, in their pockets are Apple and Samsung phones which they must spend money to keep. Are they poor too? You might think that those are few, but I strongly believe that millions of Nigerians receive some income by extracting it one way or another from other people around them, including by the mere supposition that because they are “poorer”, they deserve it more.
I often wonder if a detailed analysis of the cash transfers by banks in Nigeria wouldn’t tell us more about who is poor and who isn’t in this country than all those self-reinforcing methodologies used by the familiar institutions. Since some transfers go through two or more middle men before reaching the end beneficiaries, who are often even in rural areas, we can track those who may not have any jobs but still receive incomes from multiple sources and may, therefore, not really be poor.
The urban-rural distribution of poverty is also problematics. The assumption is that Nigerians in the major cities are better off than those in the rural areas. This is generally true. But it can also depend on how one defines rural and urban and what living standards might mean in this specific sense. There are millions of Nigerians in the cities whose living conditions are just as dire as those in the rural areas, if not worse. Many city neighbourhoods across the country have little electricity or roads that are actually not worth the name and in the face of growing overcrowding.
And while there are jobs in the cities, this could also be easily offset by an equally high rate of unemployment, poor pay and higher costs of living. A good percentage of those who work in cities like Lagos and Abuja spend the night in places that would otherwise be regarded as rural. The challenge of housing may in fact be higher in the cities than in the villages. Of course, there are far better schools and hospitals in the cities than in the rural areas, but there is an equally high number of Nigerians in the cities who cannot afford these things for themselves or their children.
In short, poverty in Nigeria may lie deeply buried in the cities as in the rural areas, among men as women and among those in jobs as for those out of it. In other words, the whole country is the capital.