On Wednesday, 20th November 2019, Governor David Umahi emerged BusinessDay Governor of the year for the 2019 States Competitiveness and Good Governance Awards in an elaborate event held in Abuja about 520km away from Abakaliki – the capital territory of Ebonyi State. A year before, he had won the Governor of the Year Award (Achievement in Agriculture) by New Telegraph. Both BusinessDay and New Telegraph are national news platforms. In spite of these fantabulous recognitions, we should not be carried away with their euphoria. The reason is not far-fetched: Ebonyi is the poorest territory in the whole of the southern protectorate – a label for all the southern states before the amalgamation policy of 1914.
Earlier this month, Ebonyi State had emerged as a breeding ground for poverty, inequality and destitution according to a report by the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (NBS). In the report: Poverty and Inequality in Nigeria, Ebonyi was implicated as the 4th poorest or most wretched state in the federation and number one in the whole of the southern region. As the central planning institution and the apex statistical agency, the NBS is striving to live up to its mandate.
Of a truth, the National Living Standard Survey (NLSS) used in conducting the assessment is not a multidimensional measure that looks at poverty with the lens of multidimensionality. Unlike monetary poverty measures (MPM), multidimensional measure (the most encompassing and preferred methodology) reflects the multiple and overlapping dimensions that characterize poverty in a given context, for instance, food, insecurity, unemployment, dilapidated housing, lack of healthcare, low educational levels and so on. However, MPM which assesses income or consumption (expenditure) is not only an accepted methodology but a quick and cost-effective probe into what is happening to poverty in a given environment (please refer to NBS for the full report).
That said, poverty reduction has been unanimously endorsed as the overarching goal of development and good governance although what constitutes poverty, how it is measured and how it is tackled remain a subject of contention among policymakers. Whichever the conceptualization, method of measurement or determination, the consensus is that the threshold below which a person is defined as poor is undesirable and debasing. And as argued by Prof Pat Utomi on his University of Calabar 2014 Convocation Guest Lecture: Nigeria’s Political Economy and the Pursuit of Poverty, “No sane person or government would make poverty, which assaults (diminishes) the dignity of man, an object of a policy… But if a person or government consistently makes choices that can only make them poor, surely, it must be logical to suggest that poverty is the object of choice”.
Debates on poverty and inequality constitutes some of the most interesting topics among policymakers and scholars. But for the purpose of this article, I will excuse all that and move straight to propose measures that Ebonyi State Government might find useful for its redemption, salvation and poverty reduction agenda. I am going to propose five (5) transformation pathways that could lift millions out of poverty [in the shortest possible time] if adopted and/or adapted by the authorities. These transformations take into cognizance the current stage of development of Ebonyi and its socio-economic disposition or peculiarities. For those who are not so familiar with the terrain, Ebonyi is largely an agrarian economy with major operations still at the subsistence level.
The first transformation pathway is education. A critical part of this transformation (that should be the preoccupation of all civil and public servants in Ebonyi) is to ensure that all children have access to quality education, that no child is left behind. It is evident that schooling needs to begin early enough, earlier than the traditional elementary school enrolment age. Early child development (3-5 years) marks a critical period of neurological development. This must then continue through secondary education to the tertiary level to enable young “Ebonyians” to acquire rudimentary and advanced skill needs for a prosperous life. Education is an approach that opens up the road to the capability approach to poverty reduction as espoused by the Nobel Prize winner, Amartya Sen. For Sen, poverty is the lack of prerequisites for a self-determined life, “lack of capabilities” to manage one’s life. With quality and accessible education, capabilities – means for achieving a good life to avoid or escape from deprivations and to realise one’s potential – are acquired and meaningfully expanded.
In Ebonyi, the current school completion rate is abysmal and indicting. This is evident by the number of Ebonyians on the street of major cities and state capitals across the country operating as hawkers, child labourers, beggars, prostitutes and the destitute. It is strong factors such as these that interact to earn Ebonyi her position among the poorest, wretched and dejected. Without proper education (as a window of escape), the majority of Ebonyians will remain trapped and cobwebbed.
Truly, for Ebonyi to bind the fangs of pervasive lack and hardship within its bounds, the second transformation that must happen is affordable healthcare for all, especially at the grassroots. This entails reducing the present level of disease burden in the state. Recently, a journalist uncovered hundreds of deaths associated with the Lassa Fever outbreak that went unreported for months and years. Look at the general hospitals in the state, the buildings are standing there (renovated or rather painted) but nothing more except for the booming mortuary units due to high patronages.
On transforming the health sector, there is an abundance of expert knowledge and wonderful templates like Universal Health Coverage (UHC) and Integrated Health Systems. That Eboyians are dying in their numbers in rural settlements is an indicator of poor health outcomes. In rural health posts (the few where you can find doctors and nurses), poor households are required to make out of pocket payments beyond what they can afford. This is a stark reality that further pushes residents away from formal health systems and its attendant consequences on health outcomes cannot be overemphasized.
The third transformation that would force-down poverty rates in Ebonyi is sustainable jobs and livelihood strategies. All said and done, Ebonyians should have purchasing powers that would shoot-up consumption of essential goods and services. Currently, the underemployment rate in Ebonyi is 19.9 percent (the highest in the geopolitical zone) while the unemployment rate is 21.1 percent (a high figure but not the highest in the region). The reference period is 2018 and things could have gone worse. Let me tell a short story to illustrate the welfare of civil servants in Ebonyi.
To celebrate his retirement (what could have been a colourful passing out parade if it were to be in the armed forces), an uncle sent me this short message service, “I am 35 years today in Ebonyi State Civil Service. On the account of that, I am retiring as a Director with effect from today. I thank God for His caring in this long and Tortuous journey”. The emphasis or lesson is on the tortuous component of the message which tells so much on the satisfaction and fulfilment of civil servants in the state. When promotions are earned, emoluments of workers should reflect accordingly (there are reports that this does not happen) and salaries should even be adjusted upwards where necessary in line with prevailing economic realities. Indeed, enough cannot be said on this particular issue – the welfare of workers – in this article but there should be appropriate redress where infringements had been perpetrated.
In another development, the establishment of a vocational centre and institute is a highly commendable development. The institute would help bridge the school-to-work gap and midwife a successful apprenticeship programme for the state where young people are bred on instantly employable skills to play in the local economy. Nothing grows an economy like jobs and sustainable livelihoods. It is wages, salaries and profits that eventually translate to consumption expenditures. The state must either increase the momentum on job creation or review all her employment and empowerment programmes to reflect political neutrality, meritocracy and credibility.
The fourth transformation is trade in agricultural commodities and produce. As the 6th highest producer of paddy rice – over 405,000MT – and highest rice processor in Nigeria – over 2,080,000MT/annum (installed capacity), hunger should not be a common phenomenon among many Ebonyians. In a report by the Institute of African Intelligence (IAI) published in January 2020, it is rather bizarre that Ebonyi was ranked the state with the most expensive beans retail price/Kg. As a matter of fact, beans sold for NGN576/Kg – the costliest in the country.
The livelihoods of the majority of Ebonyians depend on revenues from agricultural produce (rice, yam, cassava, etc.). Therefore, the future of the state is both domestic and international trade in agricultural commodities (where comparative advantage exists) while it must strive to beat the odds in agro-processing and cottage industries. In theory, the trajectory of economic development starts with agricultural production, moves to manufacturing sector, then services, ending up with high-value-added research and development. Ebonyi State Government must be bullish in pursuing trade policies because this will create more jobs, eradicate hunger by normalising the price of staples (like beans) and turn in foreign exchange from exports to neighbouring countries.
Very importantly, standardisation and expansion of trade in commodities would court huge revenues to the state government through income tax. It is this income tax that would be deployed to fund investments in agricultural credit facilities, farm machinery, training and capacity development and all other transformations earlier outlined. The state must be serious about domestic trade on commodities and produce because it is about survival – survival of millions of Eboyians either wallowing or neck-deep in poverty.
The last but not least of the transformations borders on defending our democracy and expansion of political liberty in the state. A recent case on the front burner is a disgusting video where state officials tortured a young man in Afikpo (purportedly a pastor) for criticizing the State Government on Facebook. Tabay – the torture style employed – is about the most dehumanizing way to abuse a human being. But it happened in Ebonyi. I am happy that an investigation by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has been launched by the Executive Secretary. May the final report be made public and those culpable duly prosecuted!
Put simply, building a resilient economy that would lift millions out of poverty in Ebonyi requires the free flow of information, public accountability and open dialogue between citizens and elected or appointed officials. That these important relationships or processes are strained at best, or altogether absent, means that Ebonyi is much less likely to expand the frontiers of economic freedom, political liberty and human right protection. Where these elements are absent, welfare and wellbeing are bound to fall behind and deteriorate. It is good to learn that the Governor has lifted “Life Ban” on two journalists who were banished from the state for being critical of the government’s policies and projects. Notwithstanding, rightful criticisms suggest that democratic governments are best positioned to manage the scarce resources of the state and deliver prosperity to citizens with much greater transparency. It is only in a democracy that the public can ensure that leaders ultimately do the right thing and design policy solutions that best deliver economic development.
As I conclude, let me go back to the very beginning where I started. Extreme poverty and wide inequality are an object of policy (choice) whether advertently or inadvertently. Consequently, poverty, inequality and social exclusion are harbingers for insecurity, social disorder, criminal resistance and insurgency – a rough and dangerous road for any centralised government, especially with limited resources. I have outlined five transformations that would deliver prosperity and lift millions out of poverty in Ebonyi: access to quality education; availability and affordability of healthcare services; sustainable jobs and livelihoods strategies, trade policy in agricultural produce/commodities and advancement or protection of democratic ethos.
It is my earnest belief and expectation that this article would offer Ebonyi State Government the opportunity to evaluate her programmes, policies, projects and priorities in order to ensure that households and residents are not further alienated from the government and subsequently abandoned. The state of poverty is an undignifying and tortuous arena. The Governor, Engr David Umahi must do everything possible to fundamentally lift millions of Eboyians out of poverty and wretchedness. The buck stops at his table.
Agwu is a Doctoral Candidate and Policy Advisor at the Institute for Development Studies, University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus