“Government has had to introduce a few measures in this budget which would compel all of us to tighten our belts a little…Some of the measures we have taken are bound to cause hardship but nothing worthwhile is achieved or endures that does not entail sacrifice.” (Excerpts from Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo's 1978 budget speech)
The measures taken since then have meant drastic cuts in social spending; cuts in education, in healthcare, in basic social services. The human cost of this policy has been staggering. For approximately three decades, human misery and degradation have accompanied widespread economic collapse. For approximately three decades too little worthwhile has been achieved. For approximately three decades, successive regimes have denied the Nigeria people a meaningful existence on the basis of a dubious promissory note to be cleared in a not-too-certain future.
In one episode of 'Presidential Chat' Obasanjo had denied the existence in Nigeria of families who cannot afford the “next meal.” The implication of this denial is obvious. Here is a large and ever-growing number of hungry Nigerians and yet it takes an effort of presidential will to see them. What it means is that in presidential circles the poor have become invisible.
Decades of 'structural adjustment' have managed to push down life expectancy. Literacy rates are declining and, as a direct result of hospitals being more expensive, infant mortality has increased. Access to clean water is declining and at least 70% of the population live on less than $1 a day.
The UN's Human Development Index places Nigeria among the world's poorest countries. Millions of Nigerians in the world's 154th poorest country face a life of poverty, unemployment, hunger, and early death. About 50% are illiterate and some 40 million go hungry or are living a hand-to-mouth existence. Nearly one-third of the population will not live beyond the age of 45.
And yet the government of Obasanjo denies the existence of these people! The reason is obvious. To admit the existence of these hungry Nigerians is to admit the failure of a regime whose stated goal was to eradicate poverty, which continues to walk tall in a country that is an oil-producing nation.
However, statistics never tell the whole story. The government's Poverty Alleviation Programme has the stated goal of bringing food to hungry, poor Nigerians. So far, they have failed to do that. In the past five years government officials have lined their pockets and swelled their bank accounts with money that could have been used to feed hungry Nigerians. This year, the government had a budget running into trillions, more money than ever before. But not a dime will find its way into the pockets of the poor toiling masses.
Yet these people are not invisible. If you have the political will, signs of growing poverty are not hard to come by on the streets of 21st century Nigeria. They strike you in the face. One must possess, however, the will to look beyond the deceptive patina of modern sky-rise buildings that lines the highways of the Federal Capital Territory to the shanties and dirt roads that are the inevitable consequences of decaying capitalism. Thousands of peoples face a life of hunger and misery in the sinkhole of the world's second most corrupt country. Lagos, the commercial heart of Nigeria, contains some of the most shocking testimony of poverty existing alongside reckless affluence.
The major streets of this city - as indeed most Nigerian cities - are littered with broken dreams and destroyed lives. A short drive from the wealthy few the highway begins to cede place to the dirt road. The sprawling shanty towns are a world apart from the neon lights and glass and marble houses where the rich are ensconced, hidden from the sight of those the 'affluent society' left behind.
More and more, a growing number of Nigerians are condemned to line the major highways, to beg for alms, to live and die in quiet desperation. Everyday existence weaves into the tapestry of the mind images that haunt; ragged child beggars co-existing alongside, and seeking alms from, expensively dressed businessmen; homeless men and women passing their lives on street sides and sidewalks, walking the streets on empty stomachs in search of jobs that do not exist.
Quite apart from the growing poverty and immiserisation of the mass is an overwhelming sense of decay one encounters in the streets, the dwelling places, the looks and habits of people. Conditions in these communities, where the poor are tightly trapped, have rapidly deteriorated - worse than anytime in the past. Crime, violence, hunger and social instability of all sorts racks theses communities. Family life, too, has been shaken. Unemployment, bad housing, prostitution and ill health are endemic. The inevitable results are despair, hopelessness and anger.
Thousands of people are driven by hunger to sell their bodies and souls to live; thousands of people, wretched and living in misery and appalling squalor, struggle to earn just enough to keep themselves alive; willing to work and begging for a chance, yet starving. Condemned to hunger, dirt and disease. This is Obasanjo's Nigeria!
This is a world far-removed from that of rich, government officials who live in luxury and extravagance; who spend the country's GDP for a pair of shoes, for expensive cars and parties - turban ceremonies, and outrageous mansions in Europe and America, as if vying with each other in ostentation - and recklessness. These are the people “fighting corruption” and advocating “reforms.”
As if this were not enough, the government is gearing up for major attacks on education, hiking tuition fees, privatising hostels, etc. “…We must all embark with the greatest care of economy in expenditure by all public institutions, of a return to sanity in the interest of national economy. The nation must cut its coat according to its cloths…” The times change and they do not change. Again the person at the head of these reforms that will usher in the Golden Era is Obasanjo and, as if tragedy intends a farce, his previous education henchman, Ahmadu Ali, is onboard.
Of course, these measures will further price education beyond the reach of the poor. These measures follow the need to make public schools more accountable to the needs of big business by introducing the principle of free market into the school system. The aim is not to improve education one bit, but to facilitate further attacks on the education sector. This follows a pattern already set in the public sector, of privatisation of public utilities, in the guise of fighting mismanagement.
Not having access to education would mean not having access to decent well-paying jobs for the majority of poor working-class people. Not having a decent job means living in a poor neighbourhood. Living in a poor neighbourhood means not having access to adequate social services and replicating poverty.
Thus, for millions of children born of poor parents, it would mean 'eating' suffering from the moment of their birth to when they lie dead in a poorly maintained cemetery. It would also mean being indebted from birth to the Bretton Woods institutions, to the IMF and World Bank, with a colossal amount which they can never hope to repay in a dozen lifetimes.
If the goal of the regime is to wage an undeclared war on the poor masses and increase their misery then the policies of the government have been an unqualified success. For at least half a decade, human misery has accompanied economic collapse. Even members of the ruling class have been forced to admit the obvious.
If, however, as the regime claims, through its spokespersons and apologists, the goal of the regime is aimed at poverty alleviation, then its failure is easily demonstrated. Still, in the face of recent claims about 'debt relief', we must consider not just the deeper roots of this failure, but also, the price paid by the Nigerian workers for this forgiveness.
The Debt Burden
“there is no developing country in the world that has accepted the World Bank policies and survived. Nigerian government is following the blueprint of the World Bank and IMF. As long as we are doing that, Nigeria's economy will never, never make progress. It will be growing from poverty to poverty…” (Chief Richard Akinjide, Justice Minister of the 2nd Republic; Saturday Punch, March 13, 2004)
The debt crisis originated from the deliberate policies promoted in “third-world” countries like Nigeria by imperialism through its financial institutions. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, borrowing financed expensive, capital-intensive, white-elephant projects favourable only to transnational corporations and their local stooge “third-world” elites, at the expense of the majority of the poor masses who could not even hope to partake in this spurious “economic development.”
And then, in the 1980s, interest rates took a jump. The result was the debt crisis. This crisis, in turn provided the official debt managers of imperialism with a perfect lever, immediately utilized, to entrench the very economic policies, which made the crisis inevitable in the first place. Confronted by this crisis third-world regimes were forced to impose, in the unbridled fashion advocated by the “experts”, typical austerity measures, “export-led” growth, cutting spending on health, education, imposing price rises on vital commodities like oil; in short, cutting their coats “according to their cloth.”
As Noam Chomsky observed about Indonesia, 96% of Nigeria's foreign debt of $32 billion was owed by a few individuals, not the millions of Nigerians who bear the brunt of the sacrifices needed to service the debt and meet the conditions of the “relief”.
But while millions of Nigerians continue to face life in the grip of poverty and debt, the ruling elite has nothing to complain about. They weathered the “lost decades of the 1980s” with relative ease, and indeed profited handsomely from it. They had benefited from plummeting wages and, since their money is in foreign banks, from currency devaluations. Even though public services have collapsed as a direct result of these policies, they could still afford them abroad.
Thus, the Nigerian debt crisis is not a national one. It is a crisis for the poorest segment of the population, the working class, and not those who owed the money. It is those in the towns and villages, who work and try to scratch out a bare existence from barren lands and urban jungles that will suffer.
It is not the economic and military elite who enriched themselves, while transferring wealth abroad and taking over the country's resources, who will pay this price but the poorest of the poor, the workers, students, slum dwellers who gained nothing from this borrowing, indeed who suffered grievously through it, who will bear this burden. We are talking about millions of Nigerians.
Clearly, the economic policies imposed on the country by imperialism and adopted by the Obasanjo regime under the dubious label of “reforms” have solved nothing. Rather they have caused untold hardship, economic dislocation, job losses, destroyed homes, stimulated crime, etc. This situation is even more scandalous given that the current Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was, or still is, a vice-president of the World Bank, whose policies have made human and economic recovery in Nigeria - of course, except under a socialist regime - impossible.
What we are facing if we do not act now is a bleak future, mass unemployment, incessant fuel price hikes, high tuition fees, homelessness, a drastic worsening of living standards very bleak one, indeed. This crisis is not invisible. Neither are those who suffer from it. Those Nigerians, whom the president denies, who do not know where the next meal will come from - and sometimes, indeed, it does not come - are not unique; they are typical Nigerian families. Hunger can be found lurking in many places in Nigeria; too many places. Mr. President, millions of Nigerians exist who do not know where the next meal will come from.
We have reached the point where we must decide the shape of our future, by the choices we make, through our own concerted actions, mass actions, as human beings and citizens. That future, to be meaningful, can only be a socialist one.