Another Focus on Inequality



In a recent lecture in honour of Professor Muyiwa Awe in Ibadan, people’s lawyer Femi Falana drew a vital link between the physical and social dimensions of security.
The topic of the forum put together in memory of the celebrated physicist at the University of Ibadan was actually the “Legal Framework of Policing in Nigeria”.

Falana said inter alia:
“Even though Amotekun and similar security initiatives are a positive development in the area of internal security, they will not fundamentally solve the problem of insecurity in the country. It is submitted that a socio-economic system that denies the majority of people their means of livelihood is bound to generate instability. In other words, a system which alienates millions of young people from society produces its own contradictions as the instinct to survive brings about a desperation, an alienation from society. Young people who feel alienated from society are bound to react by devising ways to protest including joining criminal gangs to fight the society”.

In different tones and tenors, faith leaders have made similar observations in churches and mosques.
Even officially, the reviewed National Security Strategy which President Muhammadu Buhari inaugurated two months ago has as its nucleus “human security.”

Incorporated in the strategy are job-creation, food security and other basic elements of people’s welfare.
So, it may not be correct to say that no one is talking about the burgeoning inequality that is fast defining national life.
It should, therefore, not be a surprise if the response in some quarters to the World Bank report on social protection in Nigeria is that it’s no news. Some pundits may even say that you don’t need the World Bank to draw the nation’s attention to the parlous state of social protection.
The grim story is a familiar one: Nigeria is home to more of the extreme poor today than any other country and the country has the highest number of children out of school.

The prognoses are even scarier, according to the sober report. It is projected that just in a decade from now 120 million people may be living in extreme poverty while the population may rise to 400 million in two decades.
The picture of the Nigerian political economy painted in the report is that of a nation in which poverty is already high and it is still rising. It is the story of a country in which more people are becoming socially and economically vulnerable and are, therefore, falling into the poverty trap.

The report punctures the position of those celebrating jobless growth as it points out frankly that the increase in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has not translated into appreciable poverty reduction. If anything, economic growth has benefitted the rich and not the poor. The consequence of this negative trend has been worsening inequality, according to the report.

And widening inequality is the corollary of the lack of social protection.
The World Bank Report entitled “Advancing Social Protection in a Dynamic Nigeria,” duly acknowledges the social protection programmes of the Buhari administration.

However, the verdict is damning: Nigeria is adjudged to be spending less on social protection compared to any of its regional peers. Nigeria is reportedly spending only 2.6% of its GDP on the three social sectors combined. Hence the coverage of the safety net programs remains extremely low despite recent programmes rolled out by the government.
Worse still, there are no linkages to productive opportunities for those who fall into the segment of working population.

There are, of course, ample suggestions in the report to government on how to improve on social protection and tackle inequality. Notable among these is the need for a synergy of purpose on social protection among federal, state and local governments with a lead agency coordinating.

This again throws up the question of planning. A scandalously unequal nation like Nigeria must deliberately make anti-poverty programmes the bedrock of its economic plans.
The report also highlights the importance of the protection of those in the informal sector while suggesting that government should ensure better targeting of social protection programmes especially in conflict zones.

Another aspect of the report that can hardly be missed by the reader is the regional character of Nigerian poverty. The report estimates that 87% of the extremely poor people are located in the north with about 50% in the northwest alone. Being a World Bank document the report, of course, falls short of putting it that it is in the nature of capitalism to have regional inequality just as the system promotes inherent inequality among social classes.
The thing to do about the report is neither to dismiss it as the work of some prophets of doom nor take it as a gospel truth.
But the report should not be ignored.

This report on social protection is especially instructive because it is from a rather unlikely quarter, the World Bank. It is another chilling reminder that the state has to intervene decisively to tackle poverty and inequality plaguing the land. This is not a job to be left to some phantom market forces.
Anywhere in the world, it is governments that make economic development plans, not market forces. The Nigerian government should muster the sufficient capacity to perform this role.

The present Nigerian condition of gross inequality is the consequence of decades of a policy direction in which the welfare of the people is left to market forces to determine while the rich help themselves in the skewed system.
It is not just happenstance that even among the western capitalist countries crime rate is lowest in the Scandinavian nations where the primacy of social security is an article of faith.

Nigeria has come to this socio-economic debacle of soul-depressing indicators because of the path of development chosen. Nigeria’s condition today is the cumulative result of the anti-people socio-economic policies of at least the last 40 years in which the common good has been virtually taken out of the national agenda.
Insecurity is a symptom of this condition.

Advancing social protection is a structural question. So, this report is also a timely reminder that the problem of Nigeria is not only with the structure sustaining the distorted federalism.
There is hardly any formulation of how restructuring Nigeria should be done that has clearly incorporated this huge gap of social protection.

Making mass poverty history is not part of the battle cry of our ethnic, regional and religious champions. All faiths, ethnic groups and regions are represented in the classes of the rich and the poor alike. The proportion may differ as the report indicates. But then, that is part of the contradictions of capitalist development as pointed out in the foregoing. The poor don’t all speak the same language; neither do the rich all practise the same religion. There is no region where poverty is yet eradicated.

Beyond the issues with the vertical structure of the federation, there is a more fundamental problematic about the horizontal social structure of the country. The class question is not as stale as the right-wing ideologues proclaim in their usual hubris.
The import of the foregoing is that those in charge of policy should make planning against mass poverty, misery and inequality a priority.

Social protection is a veritable instrument in this direction.
Only a selfish society makes inequality a virtue. Hence in their cold economic reasoning our free marketeers would lecture you about how ‘”nothing of value is free” and how capitalism is all about the self-interest of the individual.
The right-wing elements are very smart at rationalising inequality.
They often quote Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in dismissing as “emotional” and “sentimental” calls for compassion and humaneness in the running of the country. Yet, a more philosophical work of Adam Smith preceded the Wealth of Nations; it is entitled The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Upholding a more positive perspective on humanity in this less celebrated work, Smith said, “…how disagreeable does he appear to be, whose hard and obdurate heart feels for himself only, but is altogether insensible to the happiness or misery of others!”

Still talking about sentiments in public policy, Smith said: “Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did and never can carry us beyond our own persons, and it is by the imagination only that we form any conception of what are his sensations… His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have this adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels.”

If Adam Smith is considered too distant in history, some contemporary liberal economists are already warning against the dangers of the societal divide caused by inequality and the negative effects it has on GDP and even growth rates.
So, inequality doesn’t even make liberal economic sense.

Inequality, as some interpreters of the Nigerian situation now agree, fuels insecurity.
Above all, any government whose policy thrusts result in worsening inequality is actually violating Section 16 (2c) of the constitution which is clearly a provision for equity and social justice.

According to this section in the very important Chapter II of the Constitution, the state shall ensure that “that the economic system is not operated in such a manner as to permit the concentration of wealth or the means of production and exchange in the hands of few individuals or of a group”.