Poverty on the prowl

By Abdul Mahmud

Our economy has gone south. Poverty is on the prowl. Millions of our people, at least, going by the 2018 Report of the World Data Lab’s Poverty Clock which puts the number of people living in extreme poverty in our country at 90.8m, a staggering 46.4% of the estimated 196m Nigerian population, living in extreme poverty have become like the character, Bob, in the British children’s animated television show, ‘Bob the Builder’, trying to fix their broken lives and livelihoods.

It is a hard job fixing their lives, and if not doubly hard staying afloat and overcoming privation, amid the rising tide of poverty. In other words, while millions try hard to fix their lives by adapting Bob’s catchphrase, “can we fix our lives?”, to their daily struggles, millions more run with the “yes we can” attitude of Bob and his gang to pull themselves from utter abyss.

There are others  harried to death by angry mobs for stealing food. Remember that child who was caught last year in a supermarket in Badagry trying to steal food. He was set upon by a mob, savagedly beaten, necklaced with a tyre full of flammable liquid, and set alight. His plea for life and cry for mercy didn’t soften the hearts of the killers. And there are some who simply do the unthinkable: succumb to the pressures of life by surrendering to death.

Many who cannot contemplate suicide devise ways to survive, while hoping that morning comes. Here’s the news headline of a national daily: “couple sell their one-day-old baby for N250, 000 to escape poverty”.

Let us take the summary of the news. A housewife, successfully delivered of a baby boy, sold her newborn child, immediately the umbilical cord was cut by the midwife to beat poverty.

Hear her: “we wanted to leave the village because we were living in poverty… we believed that if we sell the baby, we would have enough money to come to a town in Umuahia or Port Harcourt”.

Let’s take that a step further. Picture the major streets of our country turned redlight districts. Picture young female undergraduate students lining the streets in the dead of night offering to engage in sex for money. It is an exchange fraught with danger. Picture valets who provide sexual services for sex-starved housewives. If anything connects the scarlet ladies and valets it is that they consider what they do as means of escaping poverty, while envisioning their hustle as the new reality of a generation whose members wait endlessly for jobs; and who, tired of waiting, simply reach deep inside their gut levels to get on with life, without being prude. For them, to break out of the ghetto of poverty, anything goes.

Poverty is ubiquitous. Yet, it finds a place in the homes of the poor and dwells there, registering its dark presence in its own way, like the hammer does to the nail, and the nail to the room of a wall to drive itself in, so it can hang either its ugly portrait on the wall or enclose spaces with its black canvas to overwhelm any bright thing in sight. Whatever poverty does, it is with delight as the poet, Wiliams Carlos Williams, sarcastically described in the opening line of his famous poem, ‘The Poor’: “it’s the anarchy of poverty delights”.

No matter how sarcastic Williams’ line appears, poverty doesn’t lend itself out as a delight to the poor of the poor without roofs over their heads, neither does it delight those for whom the bell of hunger tolls, nor those it stretches its calloused and invisible hands toward, like hard knocks on the door of reality. Note, ubiquitous poverty isn’t the only problem. The legs officialdom lends to poverty to prowl everywhere are also a problem, as is the oxygen poor policies give to it to breathe a new lease of life. One example suffices here: high cost of governance. Last week, the Guardian Newspaper reported that the cost of governance leapt from N2.593 trillion in 2015 to N3.516 trillion in 2018. Trillions of naira that should expand social sectors like education, health, and infrastructure are being wasted on public servants who are not fit for purpose.

As poverty prowls, the success sequence that inspires citizens to get ahead in life by securing good education, good jobs, affordable homes and family life has now been supplanted by a deliberate failure sequence: drop out of school, stay jobless, become homeless and unmarried. As if the failure sequence isn’t sufficient, citizens must either swear to the oath of poverty or show proof that they are living within their means- a euphemism for living below the breadline. The idea that one can get ahead with life is constrained by the culture of exploitation that shackles citizens, kills their aspirations and makes their progress impossible. Poverty prowls where opportunities don’t exist. Poverty prowls where citizens’ rights and agency are stripped, where citizens are turned into foolish subjects and locked out of the wealth of their country, like the five foolish virgins in the parable of the ten virgins. They aren’t foolish in truth, though stripped of agency by sadistic and exploitative leaders, they are plagued by powerlessness with devastating effects on how they appear. But, the sadistic leaders who set poverty on the prowl “see in poverty nothing but poverty, without seeing in it the revolutionary subversive side, which will overthrow the old society”, to borrow from Marx. They forget that poverty has its discontents. They forget that the revolutions of the poor have never been televised. Ask Toussaint L’Ouverture.

I am not Marx. So, let me stay with President Buhari, lest I am charged for treasonable felony for using the word, revolution: “is the naira in your bank account of greater value than it was four years ago?”. This question already has an answer here: our economy has gone south. The naira is worthless today. Poverty is on the prowl. More Nigerians are living in extreme poverty than they were four years ago when he was first elected president. In the last six months of 2018, the number of people living in extreme poverty jumped from 86.4m to 90.8m people- in six months under his watch, nearly four million more people joined the extreme poverty list. That. Is. In. Just. Six. Months.

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