There is so much politics being played in the land, yet there is not enough policy debate. With the presidential election still three years away you would expect that this is the time for those in power to be busy with policy articulation while those wishing to defeat them in future elections should be offering alternative strategies. It should be the business of all political parties that governance should take place between now and the next election.
From a clear ideological standpoint, each political party ought to be presenting to the public its definition of the problem and the proposed solution. After all, parties should not come alive only on the eve of elections. Political mobilsation and policy education of the people should be a continous task to be performed by all political parties. In the Second Republic, Chief Obafemi Awolowo's Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) was the first to alert the public of imminent economic crisis based on its policy engagement.
President Shehu Shagari's National Party of Nigeria (NPN) first denied that the health of the nation's economy was impaired. Few months later, Shagari sent a bill to the National Assembly which was passed as the Economic Stabilsation Act. Since then the story of Nigeria's economy has been that of one mutation of adjustment or another. The point at issue here is that an opposition party was so efficient in policy engagement that it could see danger in the economy even before the party in power.
In other other words, this is the time for a vigorous debate on the path to be taken to development. Unfortunately, such a debate is not conspicous in the national horizon today. The quality of what passes for discussion of policy is suspect, the discussion itself is hardly enlightening. The discussion generates more heat than light. The focus is where the president should come from and not what strategy of development does he prefer to adopt. Little surprise, therefore, that 2015 is more of headline news than poverty indices.
Yet those making the geo-political permutations claim they want power in the name of the people who get pooer with every election. An offcial statement is never complete without phrase-monging about "poverty eradication", "poverty reduction" or "poverty alleviation". Many policies have been named after poverty and several acronyms feature in tons of reports on poverty and what to do about it. There are agencies and departments with poverty reduction as a central item of their briefs.
Indeed, if official pronouncements alone could solve a problem, poverty would be history by now as many genuine anti-poverty actvists have advocated. The slogans have not been sufficiently translated into policies. There is no sufficient evidence of anti-poverty politics in Nigeria today. And that should worry the politicians as well the people in whose name every policy is proclaimed.
Earlier in the year the National Bureau of Statistics released a wake-up call that about 112 million Nigerians (almost 70%) are poor. With the report, the paradox of an economy recording impressive growth rates while more of the people get poorer was, once again, brought into a sharp focus.Of course, the figures have been disputed. The World Bank, for instance, noted subsequently that reliable data are lacking to measure poverty rate in this country. Recently on this page, former governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, Professor Chukwuma Soludo, observed that the nation generally lacks credible statistics for policy formulation. The importance of accurate data cannot be over-emphasised.
However, beyond the queries raised about the precision of the poverty figures, there has hardly been a qualitative appreciation of the problem. While experts are preoccupied with actual poverty rate, the evidence of mass poverty abounds in the Nigeria envionment of hunger, disease and ignorance. It is vividy illustrated in the over 10 miillion children (official estimates) of school age who are out of school. Further illustration is to be found in the poor quality of the education available those who are lucky to be in school.
The proof can be found in the scandalous infant and maternal morality rates due to lack of decent healthcare. While the accurate figures are being computed decent housing and sanitaion are not within the reach of the majority of the people. No matter the accurate figures that the experts may agree upon those who lack these and other basic needs are indisputably in the category of the poor.
Take education as an example of how much policies are tailored towards genuine poverty alleviation in that sector. It should be acknowledged that some states are investing productively in building of standard schools with equipment. Some others are embarking on massive refurbishment of dilapitated classrrooms. This trend should be encouraged and shown as examples to other states that are yet to see the wisdom in the productive investment in education. In the states where fantastic infrastructure has been provided, the challenge is how to ensure that quality teaching and curriculum are in place. Hence teachers should be paid decently and the schools should be efficiently managed.
It is only an informed and honest discussion of the problem that could bring into the fore the relative progress recorded in that sector and the huge challenge that lies ahead in country with a huge youth population. Incidentally, education has the highest allocation in the budget being processed by the National Assembly. In a clime of informed policy debates a lot of issues would be interrogated about the allocation to that key sector and what steps to take in order to achieve the budget objective. Not so here.
The issue is yet to generate a spirited discussion even when the experts and laymen alike acknowledge that the education sector is in a serious crisis. Many other sectors are also in crisis, you would probably say. As the National Assembly scrutinises the budget, it is important to have public discussions on how much improvement can the proposals make in the lives of the people if efficiently executed.
Now, Senate President David Mark rightly said the other day that what the President has laid before the National Assembly "are mere estimates" for the legislators to examine. But it is another case of playing politics to the detriment of policy that the contoversies that arose after the President Goodluck Jonathan made the budget proposals is not about the anti-poverty content of the budget.
The controversy is about the working relationship between the executive and the legislature even when both arms of government are firmly controlled by the Peoples Democratic Party. Mark is certainly right in his assertion, otherwise the President would not be constitutionally obliged to make the proposals to the National Assembly in the first place. But the discussion should move beyond ego trips.
The National Assembly should get down to the business of considering the estimates with its eyes on how policies in every sector could reduce poverty. After all, the President and the legislators alike invoked the name of the poor people when they were seeking power. So if there will be disputes let it be based on divergent prespectives on how a diligent implementation of this budget can at least reduce the scourge of poverty in this land.