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Why Poverty Grows in Nigeria

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Muktar Balewa, national co-ordinator, National Agency for Poverty Alleviation, NAPEP, speaks to Tobs Agbaegbu, senior associate editor, and Elaigwu Sule, reporter-researcher, on the level of poverty in the country and how to fight it. Excerpts:

Newswatch: How do you find your office, and what progress have you made so far in the battle against poverty in the country since you assumed duty as the co-ordinator of NAPEP?

Balewa: This job is not an easy one, considering the number of  poor people in Nigeria. It is a big burden to save over 100 million Nigerians from the jaws of poverty. The president wanted somebody from the Northern part of the country where poverty is on the rampage, who would understand better, the economy and the degree of the scourge. So, he put me here to address the situation. It’s not easy, but it’s a national task.

Each part of the country has its own different problems. There are those who rely on agricultural produce and others on industrial produce. Issues like lack of electricity and others have halted economic growth of many industrial states. Onitsha is an example of some of the places facing the challenges of lack of electricity. Some people who could employ others can no longer do that. That increases poverty, when you think of what becomes of the families of the victims.

If you go to the rural areas, almost everywhere in Nigeria, you will find the core poor people: the indigent and miserable Nigerians. There you find widows, children and extreme poverty hitting on them. So, government has to address it through NAPEP. But then, the challenge is that we are not creating jobs only for women, children or old people. It’s for everybody. So, the solution should be to get a common denominator that can take charge of everything.

When I came, I found NAPEP had been doing programmes which addressed certain areas like youth unemployment and other poverty related issues, brought to us by other organisations like the MDGs. Some of those programmes were adopted internationally. However, recently, Nigeria has changed the policy on that. With that slight change of policy, there are more people to be catered for, and that means a bigger organisational responsibility.

The core mandate of NAPEP is to co-ordinate the activities of governments at all levels; federal, state and local governments, to ensure a meaningful policy for generating jobs, creating wealth and alleviating poverty. These three things go together. If you create jobs, certainly people will have something to do. The MDG which is a collection of a number of goals, made reduction of poverty by half in the year 2015, the number one goal. This and food security are part of the cocktail of things causing human suffering in the world generally, including child mortality. Poverty cuts across all of these. If you don’t have schools, you are bound to be poor. If you don’t have good drinking water, you will be miserably poor. Without good health facilities, the people will be sick and will not be able to go to work. Their productivity will decline and they will become poor. But it’s worse when the whole factors come together to attack Nigeria.

The first challenge in this job is how to co-ordinate the activities of all the agencies and parastatals that have to do with poverty eradication for NAPEP to bring about the expected momentous changes. The more institutions we have to co-ordinate, the more likelihood of solving the problem. The Ministries of Education, Agriculture, Health, Women Affairs, Water Resources and other relevant ones would ostensibly make a strong break on poverty. What is required of us is the ability to co-ordinate the various activities. It is a knowledge-based organisation we are looking for in NAPEP. For example, if we go to a state, we must be able to identify what needs to be done, and we collaborate to do it irrespective of party affiliations. The president appointed me to alleviate poverty in entirety, not with any political consideration.

As such, we call on everybody to see this as a challenge to all of us, irrespective of economic status. You will not know the problems of your next door neighbour until you visit him/her. We visit these people at their homes, but the average Nigerian who is in the urban area has no idea of how poor people are in the country. We have people who make less than N200 per day, who may be old and with children of school age. And except God, these people have no helper. This is in every village in Nigeria. You may go to your village and ask for poor people.

We are targeting these people and we will continue to identify them. The solution is not in one man’s efforts. We are to make catalytic interventions. On our own, we have programmes to deliver to the communities to address poverty alleviation.


Newswatch: In the interventional role you are going to play while collaborating, will you emphasise more on poorer areas like the North?

Balewa: In a country with 160 million people, with 100 million poor people spread all over Nigeria, you will be looking for trouble if you consider that factor. It’s everywhere. What government should do is to see that it addresses the issue fairly. And there is a limit to what can be done with the limited resources. But everybody must feel the impact. Proportionately, if you say there are more poor people in one area, then what do you do for them. When you give them more money or attention, there will be problem. There are states where poverty is in high degree. Those state governments should make an impact.


Newswatch: Why have past efforts at alleviating poverty in the country failed?

Balewa: NAPEP’s problem is economical and not a political one. It’s about people suffering in a location. Each of the segments of the society has its own kind of poverty, caused by different things.

It is for us to use our skill to turning about programmes to make an impact. By putting our strength together, we will be able to achieve phenomenal goals every one year or six months.


Newswatch: What does NAPEP see as the root cause of poverty? Some people attribute it to poor leadership, and corruption and that through corruption, a lot of funds are being misappropriated.

Balewa:  I don’t agree with that. Where we went wrong was when we abandoned everything and went for oil. For the past 50 years, Nigeria has been gravitating away from its real sector to the oil sector. About 90 percent of our income depends on oil but assuming the oil wells dry up now, what would people do? They will starve.

We are not producing enough food because we don’t give enough to agriculture. How do you transport your farm produce from the farms because you have not developed the roads and have no vehicles to ply the roads?

We have left agriculture for the peasant farmers alone. We left for oil and were the sixth or fifth largest producer and in those days of oil, we could afford to buy brand new cars, but now “Tokumbo” cars rule the roads. 

We have to go back to agriculture which is the mainstay of the economy. We got it wrong when we abandoned agriculture for oil. It’s called the oil doom. That is, from oil boom to oil doom. So, that’s the cause of the problem.


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