Nigeria’s War against the poor

By Emmanuel Onwubiko
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Mummy Auduson, is a teenage mother who according to my findings is married to a Police Corporal in his early twenties who was amongst the recently recruited operatives.

The salary of the husband is not up to one hundred thousand naira just as this paltry sum is hardly enough to pay up their daily obligations of feedings, rents and for the education of the three year-old pre-nursery school pupil.

This couple stay in the remotest part of Mpape, a settlement deemed illegal going by Abuja masterplan. Mpape under Abuja master plan falls under the Maitama new extension which by all accounts is a place for the very rich of the society. The poor populace staying there are in a race against time.

This young couple currently supplements the family incomes through the daily petty trading that this young wife does and this trading entails hawking fresh fruits such as banana and groundnuts along the Ibrahim Babangida way in the upscale area of Maitama, Abuja.

Mummy Auduson who is always seen smiling and neatly dressed, told me that her daily business starts as early as 10am and ends as late as 8pm even as her husband who is on permanent night shift assists her with caring for their baby during those times that she struggles to make ends meet and assist her husband to try to settle some critical needs of her home. As is notorious, hundreds or thousands of police operatives have no access to housing in barracks meaning that they are forced to just find accommodations wherever they can. Mummy Auduson told me that many of her colleagues are married to low level police operatives.

One day, I drove to her point of business to buy some fresh fruits but was shocked beyond belief to have met her and dozen other ladies wailing uncontrollably and upon my investigation, I was told that all their wares were confiscated by task force operatives sent by the department of environmental protection agency/board under the control of the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory.

She narrated their ordeals for almost an hour and from what I gathered, it seems that these government officials simply arrived menacingly and their arrival necessitated the scampering to different directions by these poor and struggling traders who left their wares in a bid to escape been arrested.

As soon as the armed operatives and the other Abuja environmental protection board officials arrived, they carted away the entire wares and commercial items of these women and zoomed off to their office.

This kind of story has become almost a daily occurrence in Abuja and it has even assumed a dimension of cruelty to such an extent that many of these petty hawkers who are unlucky to be arrested are detained in several derelict cells run by the environmental board which generate incomes by forcing the detainees to cough out some money to buy their freedoms. These bail bonds are not receipted.

I will return to dwell much more extensively on the Abuja scenarios.

But let me state here that the war against the poor is replicated in almost all parts of Nigeria.

In Lagos state, Street traders are harassed, arrested and jailed.

In Anambra state, the government recently outlawed the business of commercial motorcycles thereby creating spectacular joblessness amongst a large army of Anambra youth.

In Imo state, Rochas Okorocha who had used the commercial motorcycle operators to do his political campaigns, introduced an edict banning both the use of motorcycle and even tricycles thereby not only creating major unemployment situation and encouraging a spike in social crimes, but the transportation sector within Owerri has collapsed, forcing commuters to trek long distances to and from work. Poor students attending public schools in Owerri metropolis are the most affected.

In Abia state and particularly in Aba, known as Enyimba city, a place known for its bustling commercial activities of the residents, these traders face daily harassment from a range of touts, thugs and armed operatives purportedly sent by the government to extort varying amounts of cash as daily taxation thereby frustrating the business climate of this hitherto commercial capital of the South East.

Some states in Northern Nigeria deliberately arrest street urchins and waybill them like parcels in big vehicles and often drive them to far flung states like Abia, Rivers, Cross Rivers and Lagos states whereby these boys are simply abandoned to their own device pending the next campaign season when they will be in high demand to be deployed as armed political thugs to manipulate the electoral process.

Again, looking at the current administration, there seems to be an absence of any sustainable effort to set up standardized schemes to work out policies, programmes and projects to lift the millions of poor people out of their absolute poverty. That is not to say that some rogue government officials have not come up with several names of purported pro-poor programmes which are at best used for scams and stealing public fund.

What the current federal government has put in place is at best cosmetic and open to corruption and abuses by the officials assigned to do these tasks.

In the last three years, the federal government has made some unsubstantiated claims of feeding millions of poor school children. These children attend classes in derelict school buildings facing imminent collapse. Millions of public school pupils sit on bare floors to take lessons from the teachers who hardly get regular payments of their emoluments.

However, there is no transparency and accountability regarding how this programmed is been undertaken.

Vice President Professor Yemi Osibanjo who is a professor of law of evidence, was quoted as stating that 7.4 million pupils are currently benefitting from the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme (NHGSFP).

He (Professor Osinbanjo) showed no believable evidence to back up this sensational claims.

The current administration has also established what it called National social investment office which is domiciled in the presidency and runs a multibillion annual budget.

“The programme provides a social safety net that improves the health and education of the poorest and the most vulnerable children. NHSGFP is among our efforts to combat poverty; it is anchored on ensuring nutrition, for our children", says the Vice President.

"It is our attempt to reach the family unit in very real times; we have some good work in this regard; it is currently operating in 22 states in Nigeria with 7,487,441 pupils as beneficiaries, Osinbanjo boasted.”

There is also what the government calls National Cash Transfer Programme (NCTP); N-power, Government enterprises and empowerment programmed.

Six months ago, the office of the vice president announced that government has cash backed a budget of N110 billion for social investment programme.

The government said N110 billion of the total of N900 billion approved in 2016 and 2017 budgets to fund its social investment programme has been released.

On the face value, these programmes of the current government can best be described as meeting the threshold set by section 16 (1) of the 1999 constitution which provides thus: “The state shall, within the context of the ideals and objectives for which provisions are made in this Constitution:- harness the resources of the nation and promote national prosperity and an efficient, a dynamic and self-reliant economy every citizen of the basis of social justice and equality of status and opportunity; control the national economy in such manner as to secure the maximum welfare, freedom and happiness of every citizen on the basis of social justice and equality of status and opportunity; without prejudice to its right to operate or participate in areas of the economy, other than the major sectors of the economy, manage and operate the major sectors of the economy; without prejudice to the right of any person to participate in areas of the economy within the major sector of the economy, protect the right of every citizen to engage in any economic activities outside the major sectors of the economy.”

Salutary as these supposed pro-poor programmes are on paper, the opposite is the case in practice because only a few days ago, the report emerged that Nigeria has overtaken India as the nation with the largest poor population.

The report was anchored by a credible United States based Brookings institution. According to the report, the number of of Nigerians in extreme poverty increased by 6 people every minute. The report has it that in May 2018, 87 million Nigerians were extremely poor compared to India's 73 million.

Before the bad news, India used to hold the position of the poor capital of the world with a population of 1.324 billion people as against Nigeria’s approximately 200 million people.

This sad tale completely rubbishes any claims by government that it is spending public fund judiciously to fund pro-poor programmes. Where then are these N110 Billion?

Another evidence of the falsehood in the government claim is the fact that there is an ongoing war by government against the poor as shown by the experiences of street traders whose wares are seized and stolen by government task forces.

As human rights practitioners with our office in Abuja, we were compelled to write the Abuja minister to protest this day light robbery against the poor been undertaken by her officials.

So far, the minister of the Federal Capital Territory has yet to reply to this letter dated 5th/Oct/2016.

We had told the minister that we are writing to bring to your attention the rampant cases of grave violations of the fundamental and constitutionally guaranteed rights of struggling and financially challenged members of the public in the Federal Capital Territory and especially those of them that have chosen to pursue one petty and small business or the other to survive the hard economic downturns that have bedeviled the nation.

We directed his attention to the provisions of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) which speak directly to the need for government to allow the citizens to engage in meaningful economic and sustainable means of livelihood especially from the Chapter two and chapter four of the constitution.

Section 16(2) provides thus: “The State shall direct its policy towards ensuring: (c) 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”

We asked him to note also that Section 34 (1) of the Constitution specifically condemns the practice of horse whipping poor petty traders as are done on routine basis by armed security forces accompanying the Abuja environmental agents sent from your office. We have watched with amazement the brazen display of brutality and animality by these task force officials against civilian traders only because these citizens were carrying out legitimate economic activities to ensure that their RIGHT TO LIFE IS ASSURED.

That Constitutional provision aforementioned says directly that: “Every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person, and accordingly -(a) no person shall be subject to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment; (b) no person shall he held in slavery or servitude; and (c) no person shall be required to perform forced of compulsory Labour.”

We note however with considerable trepidation that officials of the FCT environmental agency have constantly subjected poor/petty traders to horrendous physical torture even as their only means of livelihood are usually confiscated, stolen and they are locked up under dehumanizing conditions pending a monetary induced bail.

We brought to his notice that from experiences we have generated over the years from numerous foreign trips, we have seen that in other jurisdictions, the authorities do not violate the fundamental rights of their petty/small business because of the empirical evidence that small businesses holds the key to national economic advancement.

Interestingly, the current Senate Committee Chairman on FCT Mr. Dino Melaye has recently posted photos whereby he mimicked these small business operators even as he used his social media page to canvass for small businesses to be supported.

We then wonder why petty traders are humiliated and disgraced on daily basis in the FCT and their wares seized. We want to state that Small businesses are key to the economic revival of Nigeria and we will give you detailed research findings on this claim.

Those who know defined small businesses as companies that each employs less than 100 people. Researchers that work with .

For instance experts who are of the knowledgeable position states that that small businesses in the United States is key to job creation and indeed are credited for creating nearly fifty percent or more of the entire jobs in the United States economy.

According to them, in the USA, small business employs over half of the nation's workforce.

Writing further on the importance of small business to the United States of America's economy, these group of thoroughbred researchers affirmed that though many people still think that new industrial giants are the most important factor in driving the economy, but the truth is that small businesses are actually the 'top dog'. "Where would half of the nation's actively working population find gainful employment opportunities without the formidable presence of the small businesses?"

Other researchers as well as the ones being referred above are of the opinion that entrepreneurs are the backbone of creativity and production because of the undeniable and scientifically verifiable fact that over 60% of all private sectors, non-farm jobs comes from small businesses and this salient fact informed the claim by experts that small businesses are critical to the United States economy.

Back home in Nigeria, small scale or small medium enterprises are common means by which many are making a living in the country.

Known as the most populous country in Africa with about 162.47 million people, Nigeria churns out graduates from tertiary institutions with little or no job waiting for them in the Labour market.

The National Bureau of Statistics said that over 50% of youth in Nigeria are jobless even as the World Bank by some estimates says 56% of Nigerian youth are jobless.

The MO IBRAHIM Foundation established by the Sudanese-born but United Kingdom-based investor- Dr. MO Ibrahim has in the 2012 report on the future of the African youth painted graphic and grim picture that the educational system in much of the African countries including Nigeria are not structured in such a model as to produce graduates who are comprehensively groomed with the twenty first century compliant skills to become creative and imaginative entrepreneurs.

MO Ibrahim canvassed urgent measures in the area of providing good governance models that are workable so that quality education, health and opportunities for gainful employments are created for the youth to enable them compete with their counterparts around the globe.

According to MO Ibrahim foundation, most youth in Africa including Nigeria with the highest population of black people in the World, are endangered by realities not unconnected to governance.

This report revealed that the median age of African leaders is three times the median age of African population; Africa's current educational levels are lower than China's and India's; Secondary school achievement has regressed, as nearly nine million primary school age Children are out of school in Nigeria with only2/3 of students progressing from primary to secondary education.

MO Ibrahim Foundation also found out that job readiness is lacking in Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt while sectors that drive Gross Domestic Products growth do not create the most jobs.

To cap up these pathetic statistics, MO Ibrahim Foundation uncovered that Africa has the lowest share of Engineering graduates in the World and that West and Central Africa lags behind literally when compared to East, Southern and Northern Africa.

These factors grossly discourages the growth of small businesses among Nigerian youth who in their millions roam the streets of Nigeria searching for the elusive white collar jobs rather than being encouraged and empowered to become investors and small business operators.

Even with the constraints of lack of finance to start up successful small business enterprises, many Nigerian youth still turn to the establishment of small and medium enterprise to sustain themselves.

However, many who do not have formal education but are business minded are finding their way into the small scale or small and medium enterprise.

The Government and other policy makers must find ways of educationally and financially empowering the millions of Nigerian youth who are already involved in small businesses and also encourage others to join this noble enterprise of running small businesses.

A small scale or small or medium enterprises in Nigeria could range from manufacturing plastic sealed water, popularly known as “Pure water”, to leasing or renting an office space for wholesale, retail or social or consultancy services.

Indeed, small and medium scale business/Enterprises (SMEs) anywhere in the world serve as a very potent force for job creation, poverty alleviation and overall healthy economic growth, and in the case of Nigeria, a thriving small business sector holds the key to ending the vicious cycle of violence, terrorism and youth restiveness.

The concerted and vicious war by government targeting the low income earners must stop. It is an unjust war because the people are the owners of the sovereignty.

*Emmanuel Onwubiko heads the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) and blogs @ ; ; .

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