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Towards a casual understanding of poverty

By John Amoda
OCHEREOME Nnanna in his piece on ‘Why The North May Remain Poor’ provides an answer to his implied question- ‘Why Is The North Poor?’

“Because of its system the North may never come out of the cycle of poverty. The system not only impoverishes but also makes poverty a self-perpetuating tool to keep the privilege class in their idle opulence, fully assured of easy money rolling in from the wealth of the Niger Delta. The North may also never get out of its “rising violence”. These two twin evils have always been before the oil.

You never hear of them in nearby Sahelian countries where the oligarchy does not exist. The North does not need more money from the oil wealth of Niger Delta. What Nigeria needs is to go back to the 1963 arrangement where federating units derive 50 percent from resources in their environments. That way, Nigeria will start working again.”

The above conclusion is suggested by facts of revenue allocation and generation. Similar facts can explain the growing inequality in wealth and income distribution in the South; they can explain the growth in the numbers of the poor in the South.

Although Ochereome’s analysis is an answer to the thesis of the Governor of the Central Bank, it is not the less problem fraught because where in the history of the Nigerian people we begin the analysis of poverty and the distribution of poverty matters a lot. Poverty cannot be treated without the history of the differentiation of society into the wealthy and the poor.

The differentiation of society into male and female, Black and White poor and the wealthy are functions of power and this fact the lexical definition of the terms: poor, poverty and wealth help to explain. Just as night cannot be defined without day, neither can the poor be defined without the wealthy; to know what shortness of height means we must assume knowledge of “tallness of height” because one implies the other negatively and as contrast.

The dictionary defines the poor thusly:

Those lacking material possession; having little or no means of support; those needy, those lacking abundance.

The dictionary defines poverty as:

The condition or quality of being poor; of being in the condition of indigence, lacking means of subsistence. The dictionary provides the explanation of how poverty is initiated; it describes that process as one of impoverishment. To impoverish, according to a standard dictionary is to make groups not poor, poor, to reduce such groups or person to poverty or indigence. To begin an analysis of the conditions or circumstances of the poor as if poverty is a natural condition of existence is to deal with effects and not the causes of the condition of poverty.

This is also true for the description of wealth and the wealthy. The dictionary defines wealth as much money or property, great abundance of worldly goods, affluence or opulence; it defines the wealthy as those in condition of wealth and wealthiness, the contrast to poverty as being in the state of being wealthy.

Thus described, we immediately see that the wealthy can be transformed into the poor by the process of impoverishment. Just as the poor were made poor by the process of impoverishment so too can the wealthy be made poor by the same process.

Thus the impoverisher, the entity that can make the wealthy poor, and the poor poorer still is the independent variable, is the causal factor in the economic differentiation of society. Kidnappers that demand billions as ransom are impoverishers. Accidents of fire or flood are agents of impoverishment. Civil wars that create displaced persons and refugees are impoverishers.

The African Union calculated the annual cost of wars and violence in Africa as about $30 billion per year. The current scourge of Boko Haram has features of impoverishment as settled peoples are driven into conditions of nomadism.

Slavery and colonisation were agents of impoverishment for the victim societies and of development for the slavers and colonisers Eric Williams’ Slavery and Capitalism and Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa provide historical account of how Europe and the United States became regions of development and Africa became a region of impoverishment.

Development and impoverishment imply one another, for the impoverisher adopting impoverishment as a policy of development achieves development at the expense of the impoverished.

THE issue that is, therefore, significant for us is to determine the periods where peoples that now constitute Nigeria existed t from the West, and what were the consequences of contact between the peoples of Europe and the people of Nigeria in particular and Africa in general: Thus the pre-contact period must, therefore, be differentiated from the contact periods. And the pre-impoverishment contact periods in the same must be differentiated from the impoverishment contact periods.

The impoverishment contact periods are those of slavery and colonisation. The challenge of development for ex-colonised societies is that of adopting development strategy as means of overcoming the historic damages of impoverishment. Specifically, for Africa’s ex-colonised society, there is need to understand the difference between feudal and capitalist impoverishment. Feudal impoverishers take spoils and exact tributes from societies they subjugate.

They do not alter the economy of tributary societies; they impose tributes and levies on the rulers of a conquered society. The impact of feudal impoverishment is the siphoning of some of the economic surplus as tributes to the overlords.

It does not reduce the tribute paying society into indigence but it does slow down the rate of socio-economic development. Not so, capitalist impoverishers. They conquer and reconstitute their victims into provinces of their empires.

In that reconstitution the propertied as well as the non-propertied are reduced into economic functionaries of the empire for the development of the empire. At independence, the colonised begin their pursuit of the same  development Europe acquired through the empire with the economy of the colony.

There are, therefore, two aspects of poverty to be considered:

*The international dimension, where countries developed through empires are involved in competition for economic development with countries impoverished by their capitalist incorporation into the empire.

*The international dimension where proprietary control of the economics of the new post-colonial societies is the singular political issue. Intra-nationally, the issue of social equity boils down to choice of policy. What will power be used for? Will it be for impoverishment of the powerless or for the egalitarian upliftment of the citizenry? Nigerian politicians have opted for the former. Thus, power is used to create a class of the wealthy and a class of the poor. The effect of this choice is that Nigerian politicians, in particular and African politicians, in general, have not been able to address the international aspect of poverty.

Thus construed, there is not a categorical difference between Southern politicians and Northern politicians; both believe in the use of power to create classes of the wealthy and classes of the poor.

This is indeed the context of realizing that corruption is Janus-headed, the international and the intra-national. The West likes to focus on the intra-national and down plays the international, as evident in the present face-off between Nigeria and the UK on the disparity in fares charged Nigeria and charged Ghana.



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