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Dele Sobowale: Perpetual Curse Of Poverty In Nigeria

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“The poverty level of the North is 80 percent; while in the South, the percentage is 20 percent, simply because of the culture of marrying many wives and producing many children who, in the end, are left on the streets to beg for what to eat.” The Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II. PUNCH, January 27, 2020.

 I feel sorry for Emir Sanusi. That would appear to some as funny. How can a poor pen-pusher feel sorry for a billionaire? The reason is simple. One of the founding fathers of Economics, Alfred Marshall, 1842-1924, enjoined us that: “The economist, like anyone else, must concern himself with the ultimate aims of man.” (VBQ p 45). Sad and frightening as it is to say, the fate of Nigeria is inextricably tied with how we address the grave matter of deepening poverty – especially in the North.

Sanusi has my sympathy because like the only half-blind man in the country of the totally blind and those with 20-20 vision, he is an odd individual. He had spoken on many of the problems of the North which are tied to traditions which unfortunately the politicians and the people themselves are reluctant to relinquish. As someone who lived in the North for ten years and who had been touring the region since 1974, I have had opportunity to be directly involved in some efforts to eradicate poverty in the area. It has invariably turned out to be like pouring water into a basket. You return to the “basket” after discharging a bucket full of water only to find nothing in it. It is frustrating.

 From 1980 to 1990, I worked and lived mostly in Kano – with frequent trips to all the Northern States as required by my position as the Marketing Manager, MM, of a brewery – the largest employer of labour in Kano. Later in my final years, when General Buhari’s regime insisted that food and beverage companies must compulsorily go into farming, I found myself in Karu, then part of Plateau, but now part of Nasarawa state. North Brewery and Norbru Farms exposed me to the problems Sanusi talks about and how they combine to make eradication of poverty a mission almost impossible – without a revolutionary change in traditions and culture.

“Poverty of goods is easily cured; poverty of soul impossible.”

Michael De Montaigne, 1533-1592, VBQ, p 194.

 Eradication of poverty will remain an impossible task I Nigeria as long as there is poverty of soul defined by French essayist Montaigne as “continuing to engage in the activities which will lead to poverty.” Most Nigerians, and especially Northerners, exhibit this tendency as one real story will illustrate. I made three personal pledges when the job was offered to me in 1980. First, I will remain in the region until my retirement. Second, given the relative comfort which employment in brewery conferred, I would not concentrate on the “rat race” – for which young executives were known at the time. I was by far the youngest of the three Marketing Managers of the three largest breweries. I was well ahead of my generation of managers. Third, I was going to tackle poverty privately by taking under my wings families living in poverty and bring them up.

 The chance came to start my private poverty alleviation programme about three months after my resumption in Kano. The man who gave me hope and later dashed it was one late Yinusa Idi. He had already been engaged as the Supervisor in charge of loading and off-loading cartons of beer. Heading a labour staff 300-man strong, he was the heart and soul of the business despite his low education – he had gone as far as primary two and spoke very little English. But, with none of the others ever going to school, he was the link man between managers and the crowd. He was conscious of his power and frequently was guilty of insubordination.

His confrontation with his direct boss – the Distribution Manager, DM, who reported to me — brought us face to face for the first time. It was literally “love at first sight”. Having been briefed about him by the DM, I was prepared for the worst. Instead what followed was almost miraculous. He was ushered in by my Secretary with a strong warning not to be rude to Oga – otherwise he would get sacked. He entered the office; took one look at me and went back to my Secretary saying in Hausa “but he is a small boy!!!” He was pushed back in. I offered him a seat. But, he declined saying he can never seat in his Oga’s office – even if he is Yaro (small boy). I insisted. I had been told he smoked. So, I offered him a cigarette from the packs we kept for visitors and lit it for him. In less than ten minutes, the DM was called in and Yinusa did what he never did before – he sincerely apologised.

The news was all over the yard within hours. More important, Yinusa and I had an appointment after closing hours. We talked. He informed me he was living in a community near Gezawa – about 25 kilometres from Kano with two wives and seven children – six girls and one boy. We were going into business as Cattle Breeders and Owners – I was going to provide the capital and he was in charge of recruiting the herdsmen and negotiating the remuneration packages as well as other conditions of service. The business was literarily a gold mine – except the reserves in gold mine get diminished but a well managed cattle business increases its reserves.

Yinusa was an exceptional manager of our resources – while I, as an economist, provided the mental as well as financial capital. We were already making money in two years. So, in addition to his income from the brewery, he was also receiving monthly stipends from me. It was eventually agreed that he would send his son to school. He adamantly refused to send any of the girls – two of who were nine and eight when we met. I paid for the boy’s education; he eventually became a teacher when last I saw him in Kano.

 While all these good developments were unfolding and I was tactfully advising Yinusa about limiting the number of children he had, other forces – the poverties of the soul – were at work. The two wives were in hot competition with regard to having more kids. Furthermore, with his new status as a “Cattle Owner”, friends and neighbours were after him with young girls. My friend, he really was a friend, had two weaknesses – smoking and women. Although he worked in a brewery, he never touched alcohol. The combination of all these pressures led to a great tragedy in the fourth year.

 I was seconded to one of our sister breweries in Lagos for five months. I returned to receive the good/bad news — depending on whether you are an economist or traditionalist. Yinusa’s two wives had delivered babies, one of them twins; and he had married a new wife who was in the family way. One other girl of thirteen claimed that Yinusa was responsible for her pregnancy and Yinusa was getting ready to accept responsibilities. To everyone in his community, especially his friends, this was good news. I could not hold back the tears – for the same reason why I know that Buhari can never lead us out of poverty – given his own mindset and those closest to him – unlike those of the Emir of Kano.

 Per capita income, or income per person, is the basic metric economists use to measure financial welfare or poverty. Countries which enjoy increasing income invariably have adopted strong birth control measures. The nation’s or community’s or family’s income must grow faster that the number of people sharing it. China’s population had been growing at less than one per cent while its Gross Domestic Product, GDP, grew at over nine per cent for two decades. That was how China got over 100 million out of poverty in ten years. Nigeria, as a whole, is like Yinusa. We still cling to the notion that parents can have five or six kids and still prosper. The poverty of soul hinders us always.

LAST LINE: Yinusa died in a car accident about seven months after leaving behind all the rest. His first wife became a great-grandmother at 40.

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