Recently Oxfam revealed that about 70% of the Nigerian population live below the poverty line. Based on that data, it is reasonable to conclude that about 40% of Nigerians go to bed without food. We have always known this tragic fact but need to stand it on some statistics. For instance, how can a family of six on a salary income of N45,000 that is unarguably 50% higher than the minimum wage lives above poverty? It is impossible. But more than 60% of our population earns less than that package. Poor people are not able to properly feed themselves, properly care for their health, shelter and even the education of their children. Not being able to do these things is a trap which perpetuates them in poverty. For the poor in this trap, a popular escape route is a usual resort to criminal and other societally unacceptable behaviours which also hurtfully rebounds on the society. The Boko Haram insurgency is a good case at hand. The decades-long neglect of the education of millions of young northerners which would have probably enabled their exit from the miry clay of poverty is perhaps one of the root causes of the current spate of insurgency.
Without a doubt, children and under-aged constitute the most significant number of Nigerians going to bed without food. This regrettable situation has led many children to usurp the roles of their parents. Therefore, rather than being cared for as children, they fend for themselves. This misnomer is indeed tragic with devastating consequences. Several under-aged children suffer consistent sexual abuses while struggling to eke out a living. Some even outrightly prostitute at an unacceptably tender age to make some money to meet basic needs. It is also the same factor that explains the migration of many children to the streets. Hunger and the absence of good or even no shelter have made many kids live on the streets. The false freedom and the lure of vices that usually defined the street environment also make many of them get addicted to it. Ultimately, it is the society that loses. It is also the society that will bear the eventual brunt of this ugly situation. In Lagos state alone, there are no fewer than eighty slums that are filled up with such poor people. Most of these people live in houses without toilets and running water. Slums such as the ones that exist in Lagos abound in all the cities in Nigeria. It is from these slums that most of these kids that live in the streets emerge. Most of these slums are also nurturing soils for hardened criminals, prostitutes and those involved in many of the societally unacceptable activities. Yet, these slums exist side-by-side the luxurious neighbourhoods of the rich.
It is also quite hurting when we see children that are tenderly subjected to varieties of labour because their parents fail them, and yet they must survive. Lots of children bear the responsibility of taking care of fellow children. Many women abuse some of these hungry kids who are in their care by making them work as adults. Some make these kids generate the economic resources equivalent or above the attention of the shelter, food and sometimes cheap clothing provided to them. For instance, many women subject children between the ages of nine and eleven to carry their babies whose ages are close. Eyesores of this nature are commonplace in churches and other social functions. Again, the enormity of child hawking and other forms of child labour, including child begging, children carrying heavy loads are all pointers to the efforts of many children to escape the tragic circumstances of hunger and starvation that they face. These are all familiar scenes in Lagos and many other cities of Nigeria, including the federal capital territory where the president himself and other legislators reside. Children that are supposed to be in school find themselves – for no fault of theirs – carrying loads for other people in the markets. Several of them hawk varieties of wares in the streets. Sometimes, the entire value of the wares hawked does not add up to N500. Some among them become victims of vehicle accidents as well as other mishaps.
It is well-established truth that poverty and the lack of proper food account for the many deaths among the sick in the country. That is why a lot of therapeutics go with the warning that a meal should accompany their intakes. In some instances, they even go further to specify the nutritional expectations of the meal. There was a distant cousin of my father who was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis and was seriously warned to desist from taking foods with a lot of oil. Unfortunately, the dominant snack in my area is a meal made of ground peas and delicious locally refined red palm oil. And because this meal was highly affordable and available, the man would hide to consume it.
Somehow, my father stumbled on this suicidal act and reported him to our kin had summoned him and cautioned him. But not much help came his way even from the same kin and because of poverty, the man had no option but to continue consuming the forbidden meal.
Eventually, he died within a couple of months from the time the meeting held. Incidentally, this is also the kind of situation that many of our fellow countrymen go through. Now imagine what happens to children who face similar conditions.
The early end to this heartrending situation is not close. Imagine what a starving child will do when he gets home to a family whose other members are equally suffering from food shortages. The natural reaction is the perpetuation of the child’s life outside of a home and in the streets. But with high rates of unemployment and underemployment in the country, this situation will persist. Consider the lots of several families where, for instance, the husband does not have any meaningful job and the wife hawks ‘pure water’ and other soft drinks in the streets. That is the typical family arrangement in the country. The results on the side of the children are well known. They grow up with an unlimited array of deprivations. They will suffer the deprivations of good play toys, good nursery schools, proper clothing, without education, good food, pleasant environment, quality social network, and so on. With such upbringing, some of them develop a natural bitterness against the society whom they believe deliberately excluded them. Those who nurture such resentment and anger go underground into crime and other socially unacceptable behaviours.
In the same way that prosperity creates new prosperity, poverty, in turn, replicates and mutates poverty unless there is a drastic intervention that either halts or reverses the process. What is the future of more than 50% of the children in Boko haram controlled states that are starving and have no hope of good education in the next couple of years? Although the government claims that it intends to pull millions of Nigerians out of poverty in the next ten years, no policy on the ground points to the possibility of such a proposal. Many of the interventions that we see today paint an entirely different picture, which is more like the exacerbation of poverty rather than the minimisation. It is not debatable that no fewer than 40% of Nigerians today are already in a severe poverty trap. The implication is that they run the risks of never being able to improve their living standards in any significant way. They and perhaps their children are locked in the cycle of poverty except an intervention sets them free.
Again, it is difficult to see how the status quo of poverty and children sleeping without food is going to be a thing of the past, considering how most policies weigh against low-income earners. Not with the impunity with which government’s plans are changed without notice as if we are in the military regime. We have been witnesses to how some of our state Governors have promulgated and expressly executed orders on the demolition of markets without any prior notice which also led to the immediate loss of the means of livelihood for thousands of ordinary people. For instance, allegedly in October 2019, three women in Enugu state lost their lives within three days of demolishing their roadside grocery shops without prior notice. The ban-without-notice of the Okada motorcycle business in many States of the Federation left hundreds of thousands without jobs. As commendable as these policies may be, there is need for proper communication, some rehabilitation, some support that would enable ordinary people that it may negatively affect to survive them.
Finally, it is a curse that at this age and time when the world seems to have conquered hunger in many countries, our children go to bed on an empty stomach. The school feeding programme of the federal government which seems to achieve two objectives namely the attraction of children to school as well as the management of the perceived high level of starvation faced by kids is not a sustainable solution. It is nevertheless one good step if it does not serve as a conduit pipe for the siphoning of public funds. A much more enduring condition is the combination of a minimum of 65% drop in the current unemployment rate plus the intensification of efforts in expansion of commercial agriculture and food production. It is only highly expansive private sector entrepreneurial activities that will effectively bring about sustainable reductions in poverty levels which partially guarantees that more of our children will not sleep without food.