Government could do more to contain the prevailing poverty in the land, writes Monday Philips Ekpe

I can’t say for sure what sentiments I have for statistics. Maybe respect, disdain, awe or suspicion. I remember, though, that mathematics and I have never been the best of friends; so, anything that has too much to do with figures has the capacity to offer me some discomfiture. That’s my confession. Everyone should be able to identify his or her own limits – a form of strength itself, I hope. But since life is designed in such a way that one cannot always avoid unfamiliar and seemingly impossible things, it is better to be prepared to, at least, encounter them with some grace. This explains why I find it difficult to ignore the revelation made last month that Nigeria had overtaken India as host to the largest poorest population on the planet.

The data are indeed sobering and scary. There are approximately 1.3 billion people in the Asian country as against Nigeria’s less than 200 million. By the end of May this year, the African country had within its borders 87 million financially and materially despondent people while India recorded 73 million. According to the Brookings Institution report, between six and seven persons descend into extreme poverty every minute in Nigeria. Not surprisingly, Africa accounts for two-thirds of people in this despicable bracket, and Nigeria accounts for the bulk of the pack, followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sadly, if this sorry trend goes on unchallenged, by the time the next decade ends, nine out of every 10 totally poor people on earth will come from this continent. It is this nation’s share of the ignominious profile that should be disturbing to any patriot. Our population grows astronomically, faster than the economy. Between 1990 and 2013 alone, the populace increased by a whopping 80 per cent. It is projected that by 2050, Nigeria will become the third most populated country in the world, after China and India. Even in the face of this worsening socio-economic status, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has put the rise of Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at only 0.8 per cent this year. With an economy that is ever dependent on oil and a budget running on deficit, funded in part via borrowing, the chances of coming out of this distress gets increasingly slimmer.

However, since there is only one life to live, the class of unfortunate people must not continue on the present wretched path. The society would be doing itself a lot of good if concerted efforts take the place of nonchalance, selfishness and insensitivity. Let us now be guided by the words of great men of history. According to Mahatma Ghandi, “Poverty is the worst form of violence… There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” Issues of the stomach have since the beginning of time been top priorities for humans. Existence is directly related to food. Without sustenance, nothing worthwhile can be achieved. For many Nigerians, three-square meals are simply out of reach, luxuries they see only in their dreams. It is much easier for such people to convert their bellies to gods. And when someone spends too much time worrying about the quantity and quality of what goes into him, what other space is left to contemplate nobler, loftier matters? Perennial lack constantly brutalises his very soul. And actualising his full potential as a bona fide human being is pushed beyond his reach.

Nelson Mandela has a word for privileged persons who do not pursue common good, who are only preoccupied with amassing wealth. Hear him: “As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality exist in our world, none of us can truly rest.” That throws up the need for communality in seeking ways to combat the onslaught of intense poverty. John F. Kennedy put it this way: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” The truth is one cannot genuinely feel safe in the midst of numerous poor, angry people. In this country, as the gap widens between the rich and the deprived, resentment towards the “happening” group increases.

In this delicate situation, everyone should be concerned about everybody’s welfare. Life should not be about building castles on islands, far removed from the realities outside. Franklin Roosevelt captured this essence thus: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” The logic here is simple and should be received accordingly. I believe that the haves and haves-not are separated largely by what the Bible calls “time and chance.” When and how people utilise the opportunities that come their way often determine what they end up with. Besides, we will always need one another. Therefore, the task of eradicating this evil should not be too hard to embrace as a common project. Well-meaning individuals and organisations need to sacrifice their resources to de-populate the tribe of the dejected.

The government of President Muhammadu Buhari should accept leadership in this regard. Luckily, it presides over one of the most endowed countries in the world. Arguing about the authenticity of the Brookings pronouncement will not help. It must take charge of this devastating pain and disgrace. The accuracy of the poverty digits may be queried but proofs of pauperism and ennui all across Nigeria today are too pronounced to be discountenanced. Just heed Kofi Annan’s counsel before it becomes late: “Let us recognise that extreme poverty anywhere is a threat to human security anywhere. Let us recall that poverty is a denial of human rights. For the first time in history, in this age of unprecedented wealth and technical prowess, we have the power to save humanity from this shameful scourge. Let us summon the will to do so.”