It will pay the country better if the returned Abacha loot is invested in worthy projects, argues Monday Philips Ekpe

One does not have to be very educated in economic matters to know the import of Nigeria being declared the land with the world’s largest poor population by the respected Brookings Institution. Ordinarily, that classification should send government at various levels after their thinking caps. They should now be preoccupied with strategies on how to lead other relevant stakeholders to wage war against the scourge that easily brings humanity to its knees. The rest of the planet is watching to see how Nigerians would deal with this shameful circumstance. Other Africans wait eagerly to find out the methods the Big Brother would adopt to subdue the major ill that has defined the continent for too long. If it succeeds that could signal not only the beginning of a healthy, enviable dispensation, but also the substantial redemption of our racial pride.

However and sadly, I am at this point not too optimistic about our move in the proper direction. It is either the authorities are too overwhelmed or their sense of perception of the severity of this condition is too impaired to be bothered about any meaningful battles against the widespread lack that threatens our very social fabric. The plan by the federal government to distribute the recovered General Sani Abacha loot to the so-called extremely poor households is a standing testimony to our deficient capacity to frontally confront this monstrous national problem. As expected, arguments are on about the correctness of Abuja in spending the money without the consent of the state and local governments. We even have enough reasons to fear that few individuals could seize the moment, swallow the largess on behalf of the target beneficiaries, and become millionaires or multi- millionaires overnight. But the morality, legality and politics of the decision, for me, are not the real issues.

I am worried that we keep portraying ourselves as people who deliberately do not learn from history. The repatriated money is seen as windfall that does not require prudence. Flashback 1974. The Civil War had ended four years earlier. Oil revenue was super-abundant. The government of General Yakubu Gowon accepted the report of the Jerome Oputa Udoji Panel on Public Service Organisation, Management and Remuneration. In January 1975, it started implementing the salary increase aspect of that submission, something that became popularly known as “Udoji Award”. Gowon later explained that his administration felt civil servants deserved to be rewarded for their sacrifices during that most trying period in the nation’s history. That time recorded Gowon’s infamous boast that Nigeria had no problem with cash, only how to spend it. Nigeria’s economic historians point to that era as when the country chose the culture of consumption above investment as a national pastime.

Over four decades after, we now also have “free” money. And, worse still, yet another chance to demonstrate a bout of short-sightedness. In a country with daunting standard of living issues, how sensible is it to share $322 million among some 300,000 families in 19 states and hope that justice, equity and good economic sense have been served? If the government has run out of ideas or steam, it should ask for help. What makes this situation even more disturbing is that there are existing layers of relevant bureaucracies whose responsibility it is to tackle poverty. And in case they have lost their credibility or competency, there are individuals and organisations that have spent years minding the affairs of the poor and seeking lasting solutions to their peculiar challenges. Such should be engaged, if the goal is optimum utilisation of this rare capital geared towards lifting the populace out of penury. For instance, with the Abacha monies, mega projects should be sited around the country to generate employment. Nothing solves indigence like good jobs. This truism has gone unchallenged for generations.

We now have an opportunity to stop the poverty of the mind that has been the main cause of the nation’s socio-economic woes. It is not rude to compare the perennially poor with someone drowning. It requires a special skill to rescue him. Dr. Dennis Labayen was in charge of the field operations of Outreach International in Asia and Africa for decades. Since 1973, he has worked with teams to change the status of impoverished communities. His counsel: “Create an organised group within the community to help many people rather than working with a few individuals. Rather than working with individual persons, it is more effective to facilitate collective and organised actions to help strengthen and empower people in poverty through an organisation. This means that it is not enough to provide assistance to individually affected persons alone but through a collective organisation each individual is developed and steps are taken to address their problems and other problems in the future.

“The people affected need to identify the issues. It is more effective when issues and problems are identified by the people. They then begin to gain self-confidence and acquire capabilities in working together on simple issues and problems. This means that their initial efforts and experience can be used towards addressing more complex problems and issues. It is in identifying and acting on their initial simple issues or problems that the affected people gain their self-confidence and capability to identify other issues or problems which need to be addressed. Though externally, well thought introduced projects can help fight poverty, without the people’s active involvement and linking these projects with their own situation, identified issues and problems, such projects will most likely not be sustained.”

Collaborative efforts with reputable, tested bodies are clearly needed to kick destitution out. Many of them are in Nigeria, fortunately. The process may be complex and long-termed but the end results could have transforming effects. The government should consider poverty alleviation beyond monetary gains for recipients. One collateral consequence of neediness is the loss of self-worth, the feeling of incapacitation and hopelessness. Let’s go for something holistic to bring succour to our traumatised citizenry.