Upholding sustainable justice in Nigeria

When citizens of a country have no opportunities and no choices, they remain poor. To be poor means not having enough food to eat. It means not being educated at school. It means inability to have proper and affordable medical attention. It means not having land on which to farm or a job from which one can earn a living. It means not being adequately sheltered. It means a denial of access to credit facilities. It means to lack the basic capacity to participate effectively in the fundamental activities of one's society. It is the excruciating experience of deprivation in the midst of great wealth. All these are violations of human dignity. This is why the war against poverty in Nigeria and the commitment of government to uphold sustainable justice in that country's system must always remain the cornerstone of their leaders' development agenda.

In the last decade or so, millions of people in Nigeria have survived extreme poverty and have had access to better healthcare and education among other poverty-alleviation measures. This means that extreme poverty should have been on the decrease in most parts of the country. Unfortunately, that is not the reality of the situation on the ground. Today, it is true that more children are in school because there is free and compulsory education in some states, and access to clean drinking water and medical clinics has improved significantly. Despite these commendable strides, much remains to be achieved to stem the rising tide of armed insurgency which has found its expression in these violations of human dignity.

During the Millennium Summit, Nigerian leaders, in consonance with other World leaders, pledged that by 2015 they would cut the percentage of people living in extreme poverty by half. These poor people consist of families where individuals live on less than N300 (about £1. 20p) a day. 2015 is just around the corner. And whether these leaders are still committed to their pledge during the Summit or they simply wanted to score some cheap political goals is a matter of anyone's guess. What is certain is that Nigerian leaders have not fared differently.

Today, many people see Nigeria as a paradox. The country is very rich in crude oil. Yet most of its citizens are very poor. Nigeria is enormously endowed with mineral and manpower resources, yet so many of its people are deprived. Nigeria earns more money than many other African countries put together. Yet, somehow, it is the world's 20th poorest country. About 92% of its citizens live below the poverty line defined by the UN. They live on less than N300 a day. 41% of the population is malnourished. Unemployed Nigerians number more than 35 million, most of them university graduates. Nigerian children who are not in school are over eight million. Infant mortality rate is 8.5%. Life expectancy at birth is 48 years. With kidnappers, armed robbers and the menace of Boko Haram and other armed insurgencies springing up daily from all nooks and crannies of the country and hovering everywhere in the atmosphere, the level of insecurity is simply astonishing.

Yet, given its potentials, Nigeria was recently ranked 13th among the world's top 20 economies by 2050. According to a report published by PwC's macroeconomics team and titled "The World in 2050," Nigeria and other emerging economies – China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Vietnam – are set to grow much faster than the G7 countries – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States – over the next four decades. With a projected Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of nearly $4 trillion by 2050 and an annual average GDP growth rate of about 6%; a youthful and growing working population, Nigeria is projected to rank among the world's most robust economies by 2050 if it can realise its full potential. The country's growing, prime-working age population, coupled with rising rates in education and technology, are the factors that are likely to enhance Nigeria's growth-prospects. The projections of the report were based on the country using its oil wealth to develop a broader-based economy with better infrastructure and institutions which will support long term growth in productivity.

For Nigeria to realise these potentials, government at the federal, state and local council levels must play visible roles in creating enabling environments for stakeholders. Government must improve in its practice of the rule of law. It must institute transparency in public offices. It must strengthen the health and education sectors. It must enable the development of key sectors, a constant supply of electricity being the most crucial.

Despite visible efforts of past Nigerian governments to alleviate poverty in their country, the scourge is steadily on the rise. In 1960, the population of Nigerians who were poor was about 15%. This went up to 28% by 1980. By 1985, it stood at 46%. It dropped to 43% in 1992. By 1996 it catapulted to 66% and currently stands at a whopping 92%. This rise in poverty rate grossly underscores Nigeria's much touted petroleum wealth. Indices show that the more money Nigeria makes as a country, the more the greater number of its citizens gets poorer. In other words, the richer the country is, the poorer the citizens.

Nigeria's inability to rise above the poverty level despite its much touted oil wealth has been principally traced to its chronic official corruption. Funds are voted annually to address certain needs of the citizens. The money is diverted into private bank accounts by state officials in charge of projects. The funds are hardly channelled to the intended projects. Between 1999 and 2007, for instance, a whopping sum of N1.6 trillion (about $10 billion) was voted for the improvement of electricity supply. The bulk of that money was not used accordingly. That was not an isolated case. The Oil subsidy scam, the Pension Fraud, inflation of contracts and payment of ghost workers are some of the recent cases the government of Nigeria has had to contend with. The result is that while a handful of contractors and public officers get stupendously mega- rich, the vast majority of the citizens are disconnected from the economic flow. The stinking richness of a few corrupt citizens becomes responsible for the excruciating poverty of the majority.

The present state of affairs in Nigeria has led some observers to insinuate that the country, with eyes wide open, might be sliding into absolute poverty in no distant future– a condition of severe deprivation of basic human needs such as food, clean drinking water, healthcare, shelter and education. The citizens could be thrown into a situation where they will not only lack access to essential services, but are also condemned to low income brackets which would restrain their ability to pay bills and live normal lives.

Every so often, good minded people in Nigeria and outside of it express their concern that despite the much talked-about Nigerian oil and other mineral wealth, the rich families in the country continue to get richer while the poor get poorer. There is a general feeling that rich Nigerian families are unjust because the poor in the land are the ones who keep suffering. For instance, child labour seems to have become the special preoccupation of poor families. The rape of children from poor families is increasingly becoming a familiar occurrence. Extortion of land and money from the poor has practically become the life-style of the rich. The poor in Nigeria never seem to have the justice system on their side. The name of the game appears to be 'no money, no justice!'

Ironically, Nigeria is a country that considerably prides itself on the number of religious devotees it has, both Christians and Muslims. The Holy Book teaches its adherents that God never despises a broken and contrite heart. This means that if a man who is truly suffering injustice, whose heart is pure, cries unto God, God will decidedly hear his cry. God always hears the prayers of good and humble people. The question is: as of today, how many Nigeria's poor people's cries can God hear? How many so-called poor people in Nigeria can even identify the true face God or His desire for humanity? I have a strong feeling that a lot of the so-called injustice in Nigeria today is the result of the poor families abandoning good behaviour, honesty, decent family lives and morality in preference for the worship of the wealth of the rich and mighty in their society, money they scarcely know how it was made.

In my days, poor people had a lot of respect in the society. Even the rich families respected them because their level of honesty gave them an impetus that insulated them from the snobbish attitudes of the rich. They could look a rich man straight in the eyes and tell him how he made his stinking money because the poor towered head and shoulder above dirty money. While the rich could do anything to become rich, while they could indulge in rituals, murder, robbery and similar atrocities to make money, the poor were contented with their poverty and the level of respect their families enjoyed because of their honesty and incorruptibility.

But as the saying goes: “civilisations come and go, and streams that were once mighty dry away.” Today, the poor families in Nigeria are as corrupt, if not more corrupt, than the rich ones. Give a poor man £100 and he will be ready to kill for the amount. Just the other day, two eminent Nigerian legislators were murdered in cold blood as they emerged from a funeral ceremony in Northern Nigeria. Their assassins were paid just N100, 000 – the equivalent of £400. When that is the case, what sort of justice would the poor expect?

If justice must return to Nigeria, the so-called poor families must plant and water its seed. They must learn again to walk tall, with their heads high. They must regain those virtues that made it impossible for the filthy rich to look down on them or treat them with disdain or disrespect. They must come again to enthrone honesty, transparency and Godly virtues in their lives.

Until they do this, the rich and mighty will continue to hide under their shadow to commit more atrocities on the land and to rape the national treasury with a level of impunity, assured by the readiness of the poor families who can easily be bought over, that nothing can happen to them. If justice must return to the land, the poor families have to take the initiative by rising above corruption themselves. It is the only way to uphold sustainable justice in Nigeria.

* Sir Asinugo is the editor of London-based Trumpet Newspaper

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Articles by Emeka Asinugo