By Douglas Anele
When Maryam Babangida, the late spouse of former military dictator, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, launched the programme called Better Life for Rural Women in the 1980s, many naïve Nigerians, particularly women, thought that the scheme would bring a new lease of life to rural women who were usually neglected by the three tiers of government.
Moreover, several sycophants of the government, including ‘respected’ Nigerians with pompous, highfalutin, academic and professional titles, hailed the initiative as a game-changer that can radically transform and empower women in the villages. But more discerning Nigerians saw the programme as another scam by the ruling class to further despoil the people.
It turned out the critics were right, because the scheme was highjacked by the wives and mistresses of prominent membersof the ruling and business elite for their narrow selfish interests.
An initiative allegedly motivated by “humane motherly considerations for the rural poor” from the former first lady turned into an avenue for satiating the bulimic appetite of prominent Nigerians, because the hundreds of millions of naira purportedly spent on the scheme enriched a select few whereas rural women who ought to benefit from it were ignored.
This point can be generalised: till date virtually all federal government initiatives targeted at improving the lives of rural dwellers have failed due to poor planning, corruption and avarice by government officials and their collaborators. Therefore, it is not surprising that the countryside nationwide has remained rustic and undeveloped all these years inspite of rural development programmes launched with fanfare by different administrations in the country.
Now, the Yuletide holidays which I spent in the village made me acutely awareof some important but often neglected issues which deserve serious attention from government. Generally, the level of government presence in rural areas is abysmally low, creating the erroneous impression that rural dwellers are second class citizens who do not deserve modern amenities that make life more comfortable.
For example, epileptic electricity supply which is a general problem in Nigeria is worse in the villages. Typically, in a month, electricity may be available only for twenty four hours cumulatively, a situation that makes life in the rural areas difficult and unattractive to the youths.Most rural dwellers are so poor that they cannot afford even the cheapest generating sets to illuminate their homes at night. Lack of motorable roads and portable water supply is a serious problem in the rural areas. Because of inadequate road network, many farmers go through hell to evacuate their farm produce from the farms.
In my hometown and most villages in Imo State, people still fetch water from streams for their domestic use. Little wonder, then, that water-borne diseases are still causing premature deaths in the countryside.
Another point is the near-total absence of industries – small, medium or large scale. Absence of industries and lack of social amenities are the main reasonswhy young men and women abandon the villages in search of livelihood in the urban centres.
Clearly, the lopsided demographic configuration of our villages is a serious matter. In a typical Nigerian village, majority of the population comprises old people who are mostly economically unproductive and actually depend on their children and relationsfor survival. Due to physical and mental infirmities brought about by ageing and ill health, such people cannot contribute much to the development of their villages.
And since the youths, especially in Igboland,that could have done so have gone to the towns in search of employment and better life and return to their bases after Christmas celebrations, the rural areas sink into a condition of existential hibernation by middle of January until the Yuletide comes again.
Farming, which is the linchpin of rural economy, has been neglected by local governments. Even in areas where agricultural productivity has improved through modern farming methods, the bulk of what is produced is sold in the towns, giving rise to the awkward situation in which prices of foodstuffs are generally higher in the rural areas than in the urban centres.
Again, chronic lack of modern storage and food processing facilities and efficient transportation leads to wastage of a significant percentage of farm produce. Clearly, the local government system was created, as the cliché says, “to bring government closer to the people.”
However, due to corruption and structural anomalies in local government administration and finance, the third tier of government cannot effectively tackle the problems of poverty and underdevelopment in the rural areas. Besides, subordination of local governments to state governments in the 1999 constitution constitutes a formidable stumbling block preventing authorities at the grassroots level from actualising the mandate for which local governments are created in the first instance.
That life in the rural areas is hard, rustic and sometimes inhuman cannot be overemphasised. Many rural dwellers are traumatised by poverty, starvation and diseases. The major problem is that political office holders are alienated from the grassroots, from the people they are supposed to serve. As a result, they do not really understand the enormity of thesufferings experienced by rural dwellers on a daily basis. Ideally, democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people.
But our own version of democracy is light years away from the ideal, because what we have now is kakistocracy. But no matter how bad the system is, particularly with the rising tide of insecurity and insularity of the ruling class to the sufferings of our people, Nigerians should not give up hope. They should continue to work hard for an egalitarians society that pays serious attention to the problems of human beings no matter where they are domiciled.
On a more personal level, I call on Rochas Okorocha, governor of Imo State, to pay close attention to the villages and do more than his predecessors to alleviate the problems of rural dwellers. When I was in the village, virtually everyone I spoke withpraised him for his performance, despite the lean financial resources of the state and distraction from the Peoples Democratic Party in Imo challenging his election. The best way for Okorocha to create an enduring legacy for himself is by massive development of the rural areas.