TWENTY years ago, the British government pledged to end child poverty within a generation, choosing to centre its domestic policy on achieving equal opportunity for all its citizens. With 1.1 million children lifted out of poverty by 2010, the UK was on track towards achieving this goal although a change of government (with its budget cuts and austerity measures) has jeopardised these aims. Nonetheless, in 2010, all political parties in the United Kingdom renewed their promise to British children through the Child Poverty Act, a national pledge to sustainably impact generations of present and future citizens.
Imagine if 20 years ago in Nigeria, on the strength of our return to democracy, then President Olusegun Obasanjo had committed significant resources towards improving early education or if the National Assembly had made “the law the public conscience”, to quote a philosopher, Hobbes, wouldn’t the fates of the army of young people recruited by Boko Haram or the Niger Delta Avengers have been different?
Marginalisation of millions
Rather than supervise the de-funding and privatisation of Nigerian education (and many other national assets), and, therefore, the marginalisation of millions of Nigerians who cannot afford the fees of private universities and secondary schools operated by then members of government, our democracy could have been built on a surer foundation by refusing to see poverty as inevitable and by showing real commitment to eliminating a social situation which contributes in no small measure towards ethno-religious conflict.
The same could be said of many African nations grappling with insecurity and xenophobia. The poor blame foreigners for deprivation, ignoring the real issue: globally, democratisation came with political rights but not with the concomitant economic opportunities which assure national stability and cohesion. Nigeria must show leadership in Africa: besides actively condemning xenophobia (and recalling our long history of supporting anti-apartheid regimes in southern Africa), we must develop a state whose moral principles of solidarity and equality are translated into law. Nigeria, with its many people and ethnic groups, is a potential template for managing plurality in the modern world, if lawmaking in our society adheres to the principles of nation-building.
Our National Assembly must imbibe positive change into the fabric of our society, assist democratic ideals to veritably take root in government and governance by passing bills that fix pressing social concerns and entrench them, so they become a part of the public mindset, not to be challenged or undone by ill-meaning politics or politicians in the future. After the Second World War, the welfare state in Europe was legislated into being, creating the inalienable right to certain free or subsidised government services.
Ironically, although these policies, by investing in citizens, helped create the stability and democratic politics of the West in the 20th century, in Africa, the IMF and World Bank advocated drastically cutting public services, the effects of which we are just realising today, nearly 30 years later, when advanced economies which continued to invest in their people have been able to maintain countries invested in the same largely progressive goals.
We must realise the consequences of deregulation (which is already being challenged around the world) and the withdrawal of the state, the consequences of the defective provision of national services by incompetent private entities (e.g. in our power sector), a model that has made a handful of people rich, leaving the majority without access to much needed facilities or public assistance.
This is what the masses in South Africa should be angry at, not the presence of equally poor Nigerians etching out a living. But elites around the world have mastered the eternal art of divide and conquer. The rise of populism in the US, the UK and Brazil where the poor of these countries are pitted against immigrants and minorities is an electoral strategy. Can the parliaments of the world, the people’s true representatives, arise to this century’s challenge, confronting the dangerous absurdity and immorality of poverty in a world of plenty?
Only parliament can ensure that we start to spend on healthcare and education again, through their approval of laws and budgets which steer policy implementation in a pro-people direction, creating an inclusive economy, without which the lofty goals of peace and cohesiveness will remain a distant dream. Imagine if members of the National Assembly from the North, for example, passed bills to assist poor farmers in insuring their crops against desertification and climate change, the effects would have been felt across the Sahel.
Support to farmers through laws to promote access to fertilizer and other agricultural necessities would impact food security. With food security, combined with a legislative agenda to combat climate change, would Boko Haram have found it so easy to recruit?
We must legislate on lasting social protection mechanisms coupled with rural and urban community regeneration programmes. Unless National Assemblies take legislative action to tackle poverty and make our socio-economic systems fairer and more inclusive, the African continent and indeed the world, will continue to be defined by class conflict masquerading as racist or xenophobic, ethno-religious strife.
The Nigerian National Assembly can show leadership in Africa by setting a national (and why not regional) pro-poor agenda and dialoguing with people, involving them in law-making. What we need at this time is increased cooperation between the people and governments of Africa and the global South, to learn from each other’s successes and challenges. NASS should provide the platform for ordinary people, constituents, to translate their wishes to government, making sure their demands are considered through budget oversight and ensuring resource allocation meets people’s needs.
Finally, in a country which struggles to fund its budgets while many of the wealthiest companies and people get away with paying little to nothing in taxes, where financial impropriety continues to jeopardise government’s ability to deliver services for its people, the National Assembly must urgently propose bills to provide financial justice, rather than what Nigerians have always known, which is exploitation of the majority, in an environment that neither rewards nor promotes justice or common human decency.
THE Israeli televangelist has renounced the prosperity gospel which he helped popularise around the world. In a live broadcast and to the shock of many, he said: “It’s an offense to the Lord, it’s an offense to say give $1,000. I think it’s an offense to the Holy Spirit to place a price on the Gospel”.
He also called tithing extortion, a “gimmick” to “squeeze” money out from a congregation.
Much damage has been done to the psyche of developing countries through the commercialisation of religion, where one buys forgiveness for misdeeds, like in medieval times, on the strength of one’s offering. The damage done to the rule of law and to public ethics and values cannot be quantified.
THE sixth House of Representatives probed the Olusegun Obasanjo administration’s spending $16 billion on power.
In 2008, the Ndudi Elumelu-led House and ad hoc committee on power investigated and revealed, on live television, what was alleged to be the practice at the time: contractors without any proven ability or capacity surprisingly received multi-billion Naira contracts which they were unable to execute, thus resulting in work being abandoned around the country.
Following this, another probe was announced involving the ninth Assembly which should pick up where its predecessors left off.
Without resolving the allegations of large-scale misuse of government funds, we cannot get to the bottom of the frustrations and resentments of Nigerians (and Africans at large) who see a small, affluent section of society continuously access riches and opportunity through its connection to government, while the majority stagnates or falls deeper into poverty.
This mystery of poverty for the masses, in a global context of plenty, where we are able to produce more goods and wealth than at any other time in human history, will either be the crisis that prompted true democratic reform or the reason for our demise accelerated by climate change, itself a result of exploitation and unsustainable, unjust economic relations.
Tabia Princewill is a strategic communications consultant and public policy analyst. She is also the co-host and executive producer of a talk show, WALK THE TALK which airs on Channels TV.