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Bridging the gap between the rich and the poor: Priority for candidates

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By Afe Babalola

It is written that man cannot live by bread alone. In 1789, a sudden rise in the cost of bread from Eight (8) Sous to Twelve (12) Sous was enough to propel a large percentage of the citizenry of France, who before then had endured the pains of a harsh economy, worsened by enormous war spending, towards a revolution which ultimately resulted in the historic Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The French Revolution was therefore not only a means of bringing about political change but also a mechanism by the poor of the French society for improved living conditions and a change in general economic fortune.

Ideals of economic survival

The ideals of economic survival and the feelings of joy and accomplishment which accompany its attainment were not entirely new. Indeed, the second sentence of the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 had earlier ranked the right to a pursuit of happiness on the same level as the rights to life and liberty. The said sentence reads as follows:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The history of Nigeria is different from those of the countries mentioned above. Despite these differences, our shared humanity demands that all men or group of people adopt and live as far as may be practicable, within the ideals and principles upon which these countries were founded. It is perhaps in recognition of this that the drafters of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (As Amended) considered it fit to include what is termed as The Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy as contained in Chapter II of the Constitution. Section 16 provides as follows:

  1. (1) The State shall, within the context of the ideals and objectives for which provisions are made in this Constitution.

(a)   harness the resources of the nation and promote national prosperity and an efficient, a dynamic and self-reliant economy every citizen on the basis of social justice and equality of status and opportunity;

(b)     control the national economy in such manner as to secure the maximum welfare, freedom and happiness of every citizen on the basis of social justice and equality of status and opportunity.

(c)              xxxxx;

(d)             xxxxx.

(2)              The State shall direct its policy towards ensuring

(a)              the promotion of a planned and balanced economic development;

(b)              that the material resources of the nation are harnessed and distributed as best as possible to serve the common good;

(c)              that the economic system is not operated in such a manner as to permit the concentration of wealth or the means of production and exchange in the hands of few individuals or of a group; and. . .

Guide to government

Whilst the provisions of Chapter two of the 1999 Constitution have been held not to be justiciable in a court of law, their inclusion in the Constitution is proof that they are nonetheless meant to serve as a guide to government at every level. This indeed is the purport of Section 13 of the Constitution by which it is expressly stated that it shall be the duty and responsibility of all organs of government to apply the provisions of the Chapter.

The questions I ask myself are to what extent have successive governments in Nigeria complied with the provisions of Chapter two of the constitution? What steps have we taken to ensure that there is balanced economy? Why is it that a country blessed with numerous and valuable minerals and fertile land relies on 90% oil revenue? What infrastructure have we put in place with the huge oil money earned in fifty years? Why do over 50% of Nigerians live below poverty line?

Concentration of wealth in few individuals

The clear intention of Section 16(2)(c) of the Constitution is that the wealth of the country, the means of production and exchange should not be concentrated in the hands of a few individuals or a group. This is to avoid a situation where a class would be strikingly wealthy while the other class would be terribly poor. Before self government, the gap between the rich and the poor was negligible if, at all, it existed. Indeed during the self government era, the gap was virtually not noticeable. It was not until the late 70s that the class of very poor and tycoons emerged. The middle class was however seriously affected.

In the process of acquiring massive wealth by the tycoons, the middle class which in civilized countries is both the engine of development and employer of majority of workers was gradually weakened.

Life in Pre-Independence Nigeria  and the years after it

In order to fully appreciate the extent of the down turn in the affairs of the country, it is imperative to firstly examine what life in Nigeria was in its pre-independence days and thereafter make a comparison with what our realities now. Before the fifties, the economy, although agrarian was stable. There were only two classes of people namely the white men, the Obas and Chiefs in the upper class, while the others were in the lower class. Between 1952 and early 70s, three classes of people had emerged namely: the Politicians and the Obas in the upper class; the middle class consisting of professionals and businessmen; and the working class. Since the 80s new classes of people had emerged namely:

  1. The politicians
  2. The tycoons
  3. The middle class consisting of civil servants and professionals.
  4. The workers
  5. The poor
  6. The very poor

In 2012, the British Broadcasting Corporation, relying on a report by the National Bureau of Statistics stated that 60.9% of Nigerians were living in poverty, compared to 54.7% recorded in 2004. This was worrying news as it indicated that the figure would rise. This rise was confirmed in January of this year by the Special Advisor to the President on Social Protection, Mrs. Maryam Uwais, who revealed that about 67 per cent of Nigerians now live below poverty line.

New classes of tycoons

The emergence of the new classes of tycoons, the poor and the very poor and the annihilation of the middle class was brought about by many factors including the discovery of oil, reliance on oil as the almighty revenue earner, the policy of government to export crude oil and import refined oil, instead of refining enough oil for local consumption, the neglect or abandonment of agriculture, the lucrativeness of politics, the indiscriminate issuance of licenses and waivers for tycoons for importation of sugar, flour, cement, corn, wheat and other basic essential commodities.

Other factors which inflicted hardship and poverty on the citizenry include failure to provide steady and reasonably cheap electricity, abandonment of rail transportation, poor road transportation system, poor education and poor health service.

Therefore as political parties and politicians begin activities towards the general elections of 2019, they must focus on the development of programs which will bring about a reduction in the rate of poverty. The era of seeing occupation of public office as the ultimate end not the means to an end of service to the people should be left behind in the past. The populace, must learn to ask questions of politicians who come to seek their votes. Voting based on ethnic, religious or tribal considerations must be consigned into the dustbins of history.

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