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Nigeria at crossroad – What do we do about our poorest?

As I drove out of my office last Friday, I noticed a slight commotion on the opposite side of the express road. I sighted a…

As I drove out of my office last Friday, I noticed a slight commotion on the opposite side of the express road. I sighted a truck belonging to the Abuja Environmental Protection Board, and soon enough, I saw this poor woman, begging on her knees as agents of the (AEPB) seized her wares and were about to empty same into the back of their wagon.

Instinctively, I just knew I had to plead for this woman. I had seen so many heartbreaking situations such as this and not been able to do anything about them, but this time I drove across the road and blocked the truck. I came down to intervene and asked the AEPB team what they had to gain by giving this middle-aged poor woman grief this afternoon. The team lead was a stern-looking rough guy and he made to challenge me. I told him I came in peace but there was no way I was going to watch them take the wares that may not have been worth more than N2,000 from this woman.

The guy barked at me; “Oga Senator! Na una make the law. If you want to challenge me…!”. Stop there my brother, I answered. People are suffering in this country and we cannot make their lives worse, I intoned.  He piped down, told me “Na you go pay her fine o!”, and told the truck driver “Collect N5,000 for fuel from Oga make we go”. I peeped into the back of the truck and saw loads of oranges and other knick-knacks they had seized from poor hawkers for the day. Many souls had been distraught that Friday afternoon; a lot of people had lost at least some of the hope they had. Say, how many of us – educated and fortunate – can take such trauma; going out on a day and having your hope dashed, being set back, maybe even resulting in defaulting on some high-interest loan we had obtained as leverage? I started thinking of how many people had been disappointed down the food chain, branded as liars, never trusted again as a result of their tiny survival wares being seized and destroyed?  These were poor enforcers further damaging the poor. Of course, amid laughter and brickbats, I gave them N2,000 for their fuel, gave the lady N1,000 for her trauma and asked her to take her wares (like some kpof-kpof and drinks), into the street corner. There was a construction site there that she tried to service. The AEPB guys have been in overdrive lately; Christmas is coming. I do support keeping the streets clean and devoid of street hawkers and all, but that strategy seems to have broken down in Nigeria. You cannot keep seizing, wasting and burning the livelihoods of these extremely poor people without coming out with some really revolutionary approach to taking them out of poverty once and for all. Our poor people are not being led out of their poverty. They are only being traumatized instead. And that is a big cause for concern, especially since Nigeria’s unacceptable poverty has become a global issue of discourse.

The next day I made a dash to Lagos, and as part of my itinerary I had to make a dash to Ogba, Ikeja; a suburb. I had lived near there before relocating to Abuja and my idea was that Ogba is not particularly one of the poorest areas of Lagos. But when I got to the place, opposite Excellence Hotel, my heart sank. Since I stopped living in Lagos in 2001, things have only gone worse for this area and the people. I saw very deprived people, many with broken limbs. Others with obvious drug problems. The majority of people living in this area had stress written all over their faces. I saw broken dreams.  I was reminded of why most Nigerians have given up on themselves and the prospects of living in a good country. The plaza I visited itself was dirty and run down. Yet there were Nigerians trying to make ends meet as entrepreneurs there. A gift shop here, a lawyer’s chambers there. Grime everywhere. This urban area is not renewing itself. Ok, there was a six-storey building by the junction, the best effort perhaps at urban renewal. I imagined the six-storey rather being swallowed up by the rundown surroundings. Beyond the dilapidation of infrastructure really, is the dilapidation and devaluation of the people. Our people.

On the upside, my Uber driver was this interesting chap from Adamawa (you could mistake him for an Igbo man from his accent even though he says because he is dark most people say he is a Ghanaian). He told me the interesting story of how he managed to purchase the Toyota Corolla from Ecobank for a mere N84,000, just weeks after he had almost given up on life. He said he borrowed N10,000 and laid it down on the altar of a church and told God it was all over if he wasn’t fixed. Then the miracle happened such that upon disengagement from Ecobank as a driver, the N84,000 was deducted from his entitlement and he had some change. He has been managing his life ever since. I asked him what university he attended – as I have met so many well-educated Nigerians in that circuit. He said he had only a secondary school certificate, but he believes if he meets the Queen of England he will hold his own. For someone who used a word like ‘apathy’ in the normal cause of conversation and spoke impeccably, you can imagine how intelligent this guy, Jerry, was. When I prodded why he still will not continue his education given the availability of all sorts of online learning, he answered very responsibly that he believed his junior ones whom he is supporting, now need the education more than he does. He seemed to have accepted his estate as a successful Uber driver. At least I met one person who luckily hadn’t been broken.

Back to the issue. Nigerian youths fired a very effective salvo recently by way of the #EndSARS protest. The pros and cons of that effort have been well-discussed but like our people say, for as long as you have lice on your scalp you will always have blood in your fingernails when you scratch. The problems of this country have not been adequately and honestly dissected. The kind of people who were at the forefront of #EndSARS were very privileged compared to the tens of millions who have been rammed down into despair by our dishonesty and laziness of thought. All the strategies our governments have been applying have not made a dent, yet the population of the abjectly poor – the woman selling N2,000 worth of oranges for her and her children’s survival, the drug-addled area boy, the runaway bus conductor whose parents cannot tell where he is, the mentally-challenged plodding the streets of our urban areas with no place to sleep, the excluded, the forgotten, the non-existent – keeps ballooning in geometric proportion.  Nigeria’s brand of capitalism has since collapsed. I must admit though, reading a communication from Femi Adeshina recently, that the Buhari’s Administration has been a bit more activist in pushing out some of the palliatives, especially those encouraging youths to go into entrepreneurship. One could argue that the times have forced the government’s hands – COVID19 came and the world is in a recession, with every country borrowing and trying to spend their ways out.

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